Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Young Surveyor

"Turn your guns around on them! Stop them!"

The command was given in peremptory tones to a demoralized group of soldiers. Not waiting for them to carry out his orders, the young officer who gave them leaped from his horse, and with his own hands turned one of the guns upon the advancing foe.

Had it been the Argonne Forest, and the year 1918, it would have been a machine gun that the officer manned. But the time was over a century and a half earlier than this—and the weapon a light brass field-piece, which after being fired once, must be painfully reloaded.

Meanwhile, the redskins came on.

The young officer, whose name has come down to history as George Washington, was trying to stem the tide of defeat. It was the fateful day when old General Braddock of the British army received his first and fatal lesson in Indian warfare. Says an old Pennsylvania ranger who was also in the fray:

"I saw Col. Washington spring from his panting horse, and seize a brass field-piece as if it had been a stick. His look was terrible. He put his right hand on the muzzle, his left hand on the breach; he pulled with this, he pushed with that, and wheeled it round, as if it had been a plaything. It furrowed the ground like a ploughshare. He tore the sheet-lead from the touch-hole; then the powder-monkey rushed up with the fire, when the cannon went off, making the bark fly from the trees, and many an Indian send up his last yell and bite the dust."

Yet this resourceful officer, fighting almost single-handed against certain defeat, was then only a young man a few months past twenty-one. He was displaying the same qualities which were later to make him the commander-in-chief of a Revolution.

George Washington was a typical example of the born leader. He had received no set military training save that which the stern necessity of frontier life forced upon him. Yet at nineteen we find him no less courageous and active when facing the enemy. He had been reared as a farmer boy, with no other intention at first than the successful management of his father's estates in Virginia. But boys in those days had to learn to handle the rifle as readily as the plow, and Washington was no exception to this rule.

Born in 1732 (every schoolboy knows the month and day) at Bridges Creek, Virginia, his first home was a plain wooden farmhouse of somewhat primitive pattern, with four rooms on the ground floor, and a roomy attic covered by a long, sloping roof. But before he was more than able to walk this house burned down, and the family removed to another farm in what was later Stafford County—an attractive knoll across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.

When George was eleven years old he lost his father, which threw him to a great extent upon his own resources, so far as outdoor life was concerned, although his education was still the care of his mother, who is pictured as a gentlewoman of the old school—one born to command. To her Washington owed many traits, among them his courtliness. In those days, the gentle-bred boys always used very formal language when addressing their elders. And so we find Washington writing to his mother, even after he became of age, beginning his letter with, "Honored Madam," and ending "Your dutiful son."

After his father's death, George Washington made his home for four or five years with his brother Augustine, who lived at the old homestead, now rebuilt, at Bridges Creek; and near there he attended school. It was in no sense a remarkable school, being kept by a Mr. Williams, but it was thorough in the fundamentals, the "Three R's," without going in much for the frills. Some of Washington's exercise books are still preserved, showing in a good round hand a series of "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."

Such things sound somewhat priggish today; but in those days they were a necessary part of one's education. Washington was probably neither better nor worse than the run of Virginia boys, of gentle stock, in those days—just a good-natured, fun-loving youngster, not especially bright as a scholar, but known as a plodder. One of his early playmates was Richard Henry Lee, who also grew up to be a famous Virginian; and between the two some droll schoolboy letters passed.

Washington was to be, like his father, a Virginia planter; and this may have had something to do with the sort of education he received, which was not very extensive. But along with his early training for farm life there were many echoes of the military, which must have had a lasting influence on the growing lad. His brother, Lawrence, had been a soldier in His Majesty's service, and his stories of campaign life so fired George's imagination that he was for throwing his books away, at fifteen, and going into the navy. He was too young for the army, but Lawrence, who rather encouraged him, told him that he could get him a berth as midshipman.

It is related that the young middy's luggage was actually on board a British man-of-war anchored in the Potomac, when Madam Washington, who all along had been reluctant to give her Consent, now withdrew it altogether; and the "dutiful son" was saved from the navy for a larger arena.

The boy was then just turned fifteen, and seems to have rebelled from the humdrum life of the plantation. He was at the restless age, and his naturally adventurous disposition sought a more active outlet. This proved to be surveying—a profession then greatly in demand. There were great tracts of wilderness in Virginia still inhabited by Indians and infested by wild animals, which had never heard the sound of the woodman's axe. These tracts had been included in grants from the King, but their boundaries had never been exactly determined. To make such surveys was a task requiring both skill and courage.

Washington was naturally an exact and pains-taking boy. He now applied himself to geometry and trigonometry; and at the ripe age of sixteen was ready to sling his somewhat crude surveyor's instruments across his shoulder and subdue the wilderness. It promised excitement and adventure—and the work was well paid.

Washington was even then a strapping big fellow, tall and muscular, and nearly six feet in height. He afterwards exceeded this height, but at sixteen there were naturally some hollows which remained to be filled out. He is described as having a well-shaped, active figure, symmetrical except for the unusual length of his arms, indicating great strength. His light brown hair was drawn back from a broad forehead, and grayish-blue eyes looked happily and perhaps soberly on the pleasant Virginia hills and valleys. His face was open and manly, set off by a square, massive jaw, and a general expression of calmness and strength. "Fair and florid, big and strong, he was, take him for all in all, as fine a specimen of his race as could be found in the English colonies."

It was at this turning point in his career that Washington was fortunate in finding a friend and protector in Lord Fairfax, whose daughter was the wife of Lawrence Washington. This distinguished old veteran, a long-time friend of the Washington family, took a particular fancy to the young man. They hunted the fox together, and hunted him hard. In those days fox-hunting was no kid glove and pink tea affair. It was one of many perilous outdoor sports that frontier Virginia could afford; and as they hunted, the old English nobleman had opportunity to learn what sort of stuff this young. Virginian was made of. He saw that here was a union of sturdy qualities upon which he could rely.

Lord Fairfax then owned, by kingly grant, a vast estate stretching across the, Blue Ridge into the untrodden wilderness. Until the estate was properly surveyed, it would be subject to endless lawsuits. We can imagine the following conversation on one of their helter-skelter rides together:

"What are you studying now, George?"

"Mathematics, sir."

"Humph! Like it?"

"In part—but some of it is stiff."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Well, sir," hesitated George, "since my mother objects to my going into the navy, I thought I would turn my hand at surveying. There's lots to be done around here."

"The very thing! I think I could use you, myself. When you are ready let me know, and I'll send you over the hill yonder to mark out where Fairfax starts, and where he ends. My cousin George will go with you."

So, in some such fashion it was arranged, and in the spring of 1748, George Fairfax and George Washington set forth on their adventures. The Virginia mountains were just budding forth in the freshness of spring when they started out by way of Ashby's Gap, in the Blue Ridge, entering the valley of Virginia. Thence they worked through the Shenandoah region, crossing the swollen Potomac and surveying the hilly. country of what is now Frederick County.

It was a rough and hazardous trip lasting over a month, but one that left them fit and seasoned woodsmen. They had learned what it was to shift for themselves; to defend themselves against prowling beasts in an untrodden wilderness; to swim swollen currents; to be wet and cold and hungry; to come suddenly upon a war party of Indians, who would not have scrupled to kill them, had the savages known that these two youths were plotting and dividing up the hunting grounds which they claimed as their own.

That all these things were a part of their experience we note from jottings made briefly but methodically by Washington in his diary of the trip. As to the survey itself, a Virginia title attorney remarked, many years afterward, that in clearing up old titles the lines surveyed by Washington were more reliable than any others of their day.

Lord Fairfax was so pleased with its results at he procured for his protégé an appointment as public surveyor. It was his induction into three years of hard frontier life, which was the finest possible schooling to him, for his later career as soldier. We find him writing to a friend:

"Since you received my letter of October last, I have not slept above three or four nights in a bed, but after walking a good deal all the day, I have lain down before the fire upon a little hay, straw, fodder, or a bearskin, whichever was to be had, with man, wife, and children, like dogs and cats; and happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire. Nothing would make it pass off tolerably but a good reward. A doubloon is my constant gain every day that the weather will permit of my going out, and sometimes six pistols."

This would indicate that he was a thrifty lad, honestly pleased with honest earnings—and no mere adventurer.

About this time, a company was formed, called the Ohio Company, for the purpose of opening a trade route through northern Virginia and Maryland. George Washington's two elder brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, were interested in the enterprise; and they naturally called in their young surveyor brother to consultation. The project sounded fascinating, but presented many elements of danger. The French were becoming more and more active, and making warlike preparations to seize and hold all the western frontier. In order to develop and hold this land against the French and their Indian allies, it was necessary to place the work in the hands of a military leader.

George Washington was at this time only nineteen years old, but fully grown—a man of powerful physique, hardened and seasoned by his outdoor life. Despite his youth and lack of military experience, the Ohio Company secured for him the appointment of adjutant general of this district. Washington at once placed himself under several military officers of his acquaintance, among them a Major Muse, and soon acquired at least the rudiments of warfare, the manual of arms. The broader school of tactics he was to acquire for himself in the field of experience.

An interruption to his military career came in the illness of his brother Lawrence. A voyage to the West Indies was determined upon, for the invalid, and George accompanied him—on the young man's first sea voyage, and of which he has left us entertaining glimpses in his ever-faithful diary. But after a winter in the South Seas, Lawrence grew worse and was brought home to die. George, though only twenty, was made one of the executors to the estate, Mount Vernon, which became henceforth his home.

Shortly afterward, we find George Washington given still higher office, but one which entailed heavy responsibilities. The newly appointed governor of the state, Robert Dinwiddie, growing uneasy at the constant reports of alliances between the French and Indians, determined to send a commissioner to the French commander, to ask by what right he was building forts in English dominions; and also to treat with the Indians, in the way of counter proposals against the French.

It was a hazardous mission, and one which also involved tact, diplomacy, and a first-hand knowledge of the wilderness. But we are not much surprised to find Washington, at twenty-one, given the commission of major and sent on this undertaking.

Leaving Williamsburg with a little company of six, he set out on a cross-country trip by horseback, of more than a thousand miles. The 'details of this adventurous journey make interesting reading, but cannot find place in this necessarily brief story. They reached an Indian village near where the city of Pittsburgh now stands, then turned south to the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where dwelt a friendly tribe of Indians. Thence they went to Fort le Boeuf, where the French commander received the Virginia major politely, entertained him, but tried at the same time to win his Indian friends away from him.

The return journey was terrible. The horses had become so weak that they were useless except as light pack animals. The little party struggled along on foot. Washington with one companion went on ahead. It was the dead of winter, but when they reached the Ohio River, they found that instead of its being frozen solid, as they had hoped, it was a turbulent mass of tossing cakes of ice.

"There was no way of getting over," writes Washington in his journal, "but on a raft, which we set about, with but one poor hatchet, and finished just after sun-setting. This was a whole day's work; we next got it launched, then went on board of it, and set off; but before we were half-way over, we were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every moment our raft to sink and ourselves to perish. I put out my setting-pole to try to stop the raft, that the ice might pass by, when the rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence against the pole, that it jerked me out into ten feet of water; but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the raft-logs. Notwithstanding all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but were obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make to it. The cold was so extremely severe that Mr. Gist had all his fingers and some of his toes frozen, and the water was shut up so hard that we found no difficulty in getting off the island on the ice in the morning, and went to Mr. Frazier's."

Here they succeeded in procuring horses, and in a few days more, Major Washington handed in his report to the Governor at Williamsburg.

This report stirred the Virginia House of Burgesses to action. It showed that the whole western frontier was imperilled. One of Washington's recommendations, that a fort be built at the fork of the Ohio, was put into effect at once; and a Captain Trent was sent out with some woodsmen to begin its construction. But before the fort was completed a force of French descended upon it and captured it. Near its site, they themselves built a larger one, which they called Fort Duquesne—the site of the later city of Pittsburgh.

This action on the part of the French was equivalent to a declaration of war. It was really the beginning of the Seven Years' War between England and France, for the control of America—a drama in which Washington was to have no little part.

When news of the French move reached the Governor, he sent Washington, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and a small armed force against the invaders. The men were mostly half-trained militia whom Washington had been drilling for some such emergency. They were raw soldiers, but hardy fellows, who thoroughly believed in their young commander. He himself, although but twenty-two, was a seasoned campaigner of the wilderness. Now he was essaying his first trial as a soldier.

His men marched to a point about half-way to Fort Duquesne, blazing a road for other troops to follow, and constructing a fort to serve as a base of supplies. There he sent out scouts to reconnoitre. They reported an advancing party of French who were ready to attack any English whom they might encounter. Washington did not wait for them to attack. He decided to attack first. Taking a force of about forty men he made a night march in the pelting rain, to surprise the enemy. It reminds us of his later famous exploit at Trenton.

"The path," he wrote, "was hardly wide enough for one man. We often lost it, and could not find it again for fifteen or twenty minutes, and we often tumbled over each other in the dark."

However, at daybreak on this May day of 1754, they reached the camp of their Indian allies; who in turn took them with stealthy tread to the hollow where lay the French—waiting to ambush the colonists. But it was their turn to be surprised, and they quickly sprang to their feet and grasped their weapons.

Washington gave his men the order to fire—the first of many such orders that were to come in the stormy days of two successive wars—and in a sense this was the opening gun. A lively but brief skirmish followed. The French lost their commander, Jumonville, and nine others. The English lost only one man, killed, and two or three wounded. The remainder of the French, twenty-two in number, were taken prisoners.

The affair made a great stir, and was the forerunner of extended hostilities. Washington foresaw the results immediately, and set his men to constructing a fort which was called Fort Necessity. He had won his first battle and it greatly inspired his troops. Writing afterwards to his brother, Lawrence, he said: "I heard the bullets whistle; and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."

Their fort, however, was well-named. For presently the French and Indians marched down upon them, nine hundred strong, and as Washington had, all told, but three hundred poorly equipped men, they were compelled to surrender. The terms of surrender were liberal enough, permitting the English to return home with their light arms.

Thus did Washington's first campaign come to a somewhat inglorious close. He tendered his resignation, and may have felt humiliated over his defeat; although the House of Burgesses passed a vote of thanks to him and his staff, "for their bravery and gallant defense of their country." But later when Governor Dinwiddie requested him to head another regiment against Fort Duquesne, Washington politely declined. He had not received sufficient support in the first venture to warrant another such attempt.

The next stage in the French and Indian War—and likewise in Washington's military development—was the arrival of General Braddock with two regiments of seasoned troops from England. Braddock was an old campaigner of forty years' experience, who had long since learned all that was to be taught about the art of warfare.

"He'd teach those French a lesson—and as for the Indians—stuff and nonsense!"

Braddock's arrival made a great 'stir in the colonies. It was the first sign of real help from the Mother Country. The governors of four or five of the colonies met him at Alexandria. It was near Mount Vernon, and the young retired officer watched the preparations with keenest interest. He could not help contrasting this splendid equipment with the scanty packs which his own men had carried.

Much to his delight, he was invited by General Braddock to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, a post which Washington joyfully accepted. Braddock had heard something of the Virginia colonel even before leaving England; and was not so much honoring this colonial officer, as immeasurably strengthening his own good right arm—if he had only had the discernment to know it. As results showed, Braddock did not need his heavy cannon nearly so much as he needed an insight into wilderness ways.

Just before Braddock started west on his ill-fated expedition, he conferred at Fredericktown, Maryland, with the Postmaster General of Pennsylvania, a strong, practical man, who was to obtain some greatly-needed horses and wagons for his artillery and supplies. This man, a middle-aged and rather plain sort of fellow—and the youthful Virginia colonel whom he may have met then for the first time—possibly attracted very little attention in the gaudy military array. But American history could ill have spared either Benjamin Franklin or George Washington.

We will not narrate again in detail here the oft-told story of Braddock's Defeat—how he insisted on marching across the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania, as though on parade—with banners flying, fifes shrilling, and drums beating. It was a brave display, and such as the old General was accustomed to, in Europe. It would undoubtedly put the French and their skulking allies to instant flight!

Against such a method of warfare Washington raised his voice of counsel, but in vain. The grizzled veteran brushed him aside. Washington was for rapid marching, with scouting troops deployed on ahead.

"But this prospect," he writes, "was soon clouded, and my hopes brought very low indeed, when I found that, instead of pushing on with vigor, without regarding a little rough road, they were halting to level every molehill, and to erect bridges over every brook, by which means we were four days in getting twelve miles."

A few days before Braddock reached the vicinity of Fort Duquesne, Washington had fallen sick of a fever, and had barely recovered strength enough to rejoin the command. But the slow progress to which he refers, enabled him to do so before the attack—though he was still far from well.

As he rode up to meet the general, he could not help but admire the beauty of the scene. The troops had crossed a ford on the Monongahela, about fifteen miles from the fort, and now marched in close formation along its winding bank, as though on dress parade. But his admiration of the display only intensified his sense of danger—the sixth sense of every woods-man. He begged his general to scatter his forces somewhat, or at least send scouts ahead. But Braddock rebuked him angrily for presuming to teach English regulars how to fight.

Suddenly the sound of firing was heard at the front, although no attacking party could be seen. The soldiers had marched straight into an ambush, as Washington had feared. With whoops and yells the Indians commanded by a few French were firing from behind every rock and tree. The regulars were thrown into confusion. This type of warfare was new to them. They did not know how to answer it. The front ranks recoiled upon the others, throwing all into wild turmoil.

Washington at once threw himself into the fight—counselling, persuading, commanding. A company of Virginians, previously sneered at as "raw militia," spread themselves out as a protecting party of skirmishers. The English officers, also, be it said, displayed the utmost bravery in trying to rally their men. The general, as though to atone for his headstrong folly, seemed everywhere at once. He had two horses shot from under him, before receiving wounds in his own body, which were to prove mortal.

It was all over in a comparatively short time. The troops which had so proudly marched, with arms glittering in the sun, were put to rout by an unseen foe. That they were not almost annihilated was due to the presence of Washington and the Virginians. They fought the enemy in kind, and protected the fugitives until some sort of order could be restored.

Washington it was who collected the troops and rescued the dying general. He it was who led them back to meet the reinforcements under Dunbar. And he it was who laid the remains of Braddock in the grave, four days later, and read the burial service above him.

Again had the young soldier to taste the bitter dregs of defeat—but it was salutary, and a part of the iron discipline which was making him into the future leader.

That he had not lost any prestige by this experience, but rather gained thereby, is shown by the call that came urgently to him, soon after, to take command of all the forces of Virginia. He did not want the command, but felt that after such a vote of confidence he could not decline it. And so for three years more he struggled on, a general without an army, to protect the western frontier of Virginia against invasion. In April, 1757 he wrote:

"I have been posted for more than twenty months past, upon our cold and barren frontiers, to perform, I think I may say, impossibilities; that is, to protect from the cruel incursions of a crafty, savage enemy a line of inhabitants, of more than three hundred and fifty miles in extent, with a force inadequate to the task."

In the winter of 1758 his health broke down completely, and he feared that it was permanently impaired. He resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon for a much-needed rest.

Thus closes the first and formative period of Washington's life—the period with which the present brief sketch is chiefly concerned. As we read of those years of adventure and hardship from an early age, we realize that here was being hammered into shape upon the anvil of circumstance a very special weapon for some great need. Washington was not an accident. He was a fine example of what special training can do for the boy who does his bit with all his might. And because he was better fitted for the task than any other man in America, we find him, a few years later, chosen to lead the colonist forces against mighty England. A pen picture of him at the time, from the diary of James Thacher, a surgeon in the Revolution, deserves repeating:

"The personal appearance of our commander-in-chief is that of a perfect gentleman and accomplished warrior. He is remarkably tall—full six feet—erect and well-proportioned. The strength and proportion of his joints and muscles appear to be commensurate with the pre-eminent powers of his mind. The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur which are peculiar characteristics; and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism. There is a fine symmetry in the features of his face indicative of a benign and dignified spirit. His nose is straight, and his eyes inclined to blue. He wears his hair in a becoming cue, and from his forehead it is turned back, and powdered in a manner which adds to the military air of his appearance. He displays a native gravity, but devoid of all appearance of ostentation. His uniform dress is a blue coat with two brilliant epaulets, buff-colored under-clothes, and a three-cornered hat with a black cockade. He is constantly equipped with an elegant small-sword, boots and spurs, in readiness to mount his noble charger."

In this description, somewhat fulsome in its praise, we can read between the lines the confidence and affection which inspired his troops during all the trying days of the Revolution.

Washington has suffered much at the hands of his biographers. They have over-praised him, with the result that many readers of today have come to regard him as scarcely human—a sort of demi-god. But one or two more recent biographers have had the courage and conviction to tear aside the mask, and we can, if we will, see Washington the man—quick-tempered at times, perhaps profane in the heat of battle, fond of display and good living in his hours of ease—but also a man to be trusted in every crisis, cool, courageous, resourceful—a strategist who made the ablest generals that England could send over against him, suffer by comparison.

And when the great fight was won, and the last of their proud generals, Cornwallis, had grudgingly yielded up his sword—it is pleasant to think of Washington writing about it to—whom do you think?—a white-haired old man now ninety years of age, who had given the young surveyor his first start in life. Lord Fairfax was an old Tory, an unreconstructed English gentleman of the old school, who drank the King's health religiously every day at dinner. It must have been with mixed feelings, therefore, that he heard of Cornwallis's surrender. But pride in his protégé must have conquered. We can imagine him as lifting his glass with trembling fingers to another toast:

"Here's to George Washington!"

And to that toast grateful America will ever respond.

Important Dates in Washington's Life

1732. February 22. George Washington born.
1747. Left school.
1748. Became a surveyor.
1753. Sent by Governor Dinwiddie on a mission to the French.
1754. Appointed lieutenant-colonel and sent against the French and Indians.
1755. Joined General Braddock's staff with rank of colonel.
1757. Resigned his army commission.
1759. Married Martha Dandridge Custis.
1775. Appointed commander-in-chief of American forces, in Revolution.
1781. Receives surrender of Cornwallis.
1788. Became first President of the United States.
1797. Ended second term as President.
1799. December 14. Died at Mt. Vernon.