American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

A Hero of Valley Forge

It was winter at Valley Forge. Indeed, it was that famous and dreadful winter when Washington and his little army of patriots were encamped there. Half-clad, half-fed, chilled by the raw, cold winds, is it not a wonder that these brave men did not lose all hope and disperse to their homes? Every one of them performed a golden deed when he kept up his courage and stuck to his post and thus did his part towards keeping the American army together. But the hero of whom I shall tell you was not a soldier; he did not even believe it right to fight.

One day a Tory, who was well known in the neighborhood, was captured and brought into the camp. His name was Michael Wittman, and he was accused of having carried aid and information to the British in Philadelphia. He was taken to West Chester and there tried by court-martial. It was proved that he was a very dangerous man and that he had more than once attempted to do great harm to the American army. He was pronounced guilty of being a spy and sentenced to be hanged.

One the evening of the day before that set for the execution, a strange old man appeared in Valle Forge. He was a small man with long, snow-white hair falling over his shoulders. His face, although full of kindliness, was sad-looking and thoughtful. His eyes, which were bright and sharp, were upon the ground and lifted only when he was speaking.

Many of the soldiers seemed to know him, for they greeted him kindly as he passed.

"Who is that old fellow?" asked a young sergeant from Virginia.

"Why, he is one of our best friends," was the answer. "He lives at the Dunker settlement, over near Lancaster, and many are the wounded soldiers that he has nursed and brought to life. He has a hospital there of his own, and if I were hurt or sick I shouldn't want any better place to go. He doesn't believe in fighting, but he surely believes in helping the fighters."

"Yes," said another soldier, "but the worst of it is that he would just as lieve nurse a sick Britisher as a sick American. All are the same to him."

Then, one after another, the soldiers began to give the old man's history.

His name was Peter Miller.

He was the finest scholar in the thirteen colonies. He had translated the Declaration of Independence into seven European languages, and the Continental Congress had sent copies of these translations into every country where they could be read.

He had charge of a printing press in the Dunker settlement.

He had translated into English a wonderful German book and had printed it upon his own press. The book was a huge thing, so large and heavy that a man would not wish to carry more than one volume at a time. And what do you think it was about?

It was entitled "The Martyrs' Mirror," and was mostly about the cruelties of war. Its object was to show that all fightings are wrong and unnecessary.

To translate it and print it was the work of three years, and it is said that during all that time Peter Miller never slept more than four hours a night.

"I think I have seen that wonderful book," said a soldier. "I think I rammed a part of it down my musket when I loaded it yesterday."

"That is very likely," said another. "About a week ago, six of us drove over to the settlement in two wagons, and brought back all the "Martyrs' Mirrors" we could find. The paper makes fine wads for the muskets, and you know that we have almost nothing else that can be used."

In the meanwhile, Peter Miller, with bowed head, had made his way to the door of Washington's headquarters.

His name was announced.

"Peter Miller?" said Washington. "Certainly. Show him in, at once."

The old man went in, scarcely raising his eyes to meet the welcoming and inquiring look of the general.

"General Washington, I have come to ask a great favor of you," he said, in his usual kindly tones.

"I shall be glad to grant you almost anything," said Washington; "for we surely are indebted to you for many favors. Tell me what it is."

"I hear," said Peter, "that Michael Wittman has been found guilty of treason and that he is to be hanged at Turk's Head to-morrow. I have come to ask you to pardon him."

Washington started back, and a cloud came over his face. "That is impossible," he said. "Wittman is a bad man. He has done all in his power to betray us. He has even offered to join the British and aid them in destroying us. In these times we date not be lenient with traitors; and for that reason, I am sorry that I cannot pardon your friend."

"Friend!" cried Peter. "Why, he is no friend of mine. He is my bitterest enemy. He has persecuted me for years. He has even beaten my and spit in my face, knowing full well that I would not strike back. Michael Wittman is no friend of mine."

Washington was puzzled. "And still you wish me to pardon him?" he asked.

"I do," answered Peter. "I ask it of you as a great personal favor."

"Tell me," said Washington, with hesitating voice, "why is it that you thus ask the pardon of your worst enemy?"

"I ask it because Jesus did as much for me," was the old man's brief answer.

Washington turned away and went into another room. Soon he returned with a paper on which was written the pardon of Michael Wittman.

"My dear friend," he said, as he placed it in the old man's hands, "I thank you for this example of Christian charity."

It was a matter of fifteen miles, by the shortest road, from Valley Forge to West Chester which was then known as Turk's Head; and the road at that time was almost impassable. The evening was already far gone, and Michael Wittman was to be hanged at sunrise in the morning. How was the pardon to reach him in time to save his life?

The matter was so important that Peter would not intrust its management to any other person. With the pardon safely folded in his pocket he set out on foot for Turk's Head. All night long, through snow and slush and along unbeaten paths, he toiled. In the darkness he lost his way, and wandered far from the road. When day broke, he was not yet at the end of his journey.

Old and feeble though he was, he began to run. From the top of a little hill a welcome sight appeared. The straggling village of Turk's Head was just before him, and the sun had not yet risen. He saw a commotion in the street; men were hurrying toward the village green; a body of soldiers was already there, drawn up in order beneath a tree.

Summoning all his strength, Peter ran on and soon entered the village. Close to the tree stood Michael Wittman with his hands tied behind him. A strong rope was dangling from one of the branches.

In another minute the sun would begin to peep over the snow-clad hills. An officer had already given orders to place the rope around the traitor's neck. Peter Miller, still running, shouted with all his might.

The officer heard and paused. The crowd looked around and wondered. Panting and out of breath, Peter came up, waving the paper in his hand.

"A pardon! A pardon!" he cried. "A pardon from General Washington!"

The officer took the paper and read it aloud.

"Unbind the prisoner and let him go," he commanded.

Peter Miller had saved the life of his enemy, perhaps of his only enemy. Michael Wittman, with his head bowed upon his breast, went forth a free man and a changed man. The power of Christian charity had rescued him from a shameful death, and the cause of patriotism need have no further fears of being harmed by him.