Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

George Washington, Commander and President


Just back from the road in New Kent County, Virginia, stood the little church of St. Peter. It was the 6th of January, 1759, and the usual quiet of the countryside was broken. One after another great colonial coaches rumbled along the road and stopped before the church to set down the colonial dames in their richest London gowns. British officers in scarlet and provincial officers in buff and blue rode up, dismounted, and went into the little church. Planters from far and near, and even the new Governor himself, came to do honor to Colonel Washington and Martha Custis on their wedding day.

Martha Washington


Washington took his wife to Mount Vernon. To the best of his knowledge, his military duties were at an end and before him stretched only peaceful years of plantation life. These years held no prospect of idleness, however; for, with Mrs. Washington's lands added to his own, Washington was now one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, and it would be no small matter to manage so great a property.

Each morning he got up early. After breakfast he rode out to inspect the work that was going on; and it was no unusual sight to see him throw off his coat and go to work with the laborers, putting up a fence or some sort of building on the new lands he was continually buying.

By a little after nine at night all were in bed, and the house was still. On Sundays, regularly, a ride of seven miles brought the family to church, excepting when the weather was unendurable or the roads impassable.

The Virginia plantations were too far apart for neighbors to make formal calls. When a planter wanted to see a friend he went to his home, often taking with him his entire family, and stayed a week if he liked. The many friends who came to Mount Vernon always received a cordial welcome.

Fishing in the summer months, card playing in the winter, and hunting all the year round were the favorite amusements for the gentlemen of the countryside. Deer stalking and duck shooting were good sport, but not to be compared with a ride to hounds.

The ladies of the party entertained themselves with drives, walks in the garden, and knitting.

Late on summer afternoons tea was served to all on the broad veranda. At the usual early hour the party broke up for the night. Candles were lighted, and the guests went upstairs to stow themselves away in the great canopied four-post bedsteads. Some of these were so high that to get into them one had to climb the little carpeted steps kept for the purpose.

Such was the home life of George Washington during the years that saw the Stamp Act passed and repealed; the duties on glass, paper, and paints imposed and removed; and the trouble over the tea tax, which resulted in the Boston Tea Party.

When, in 1774, England planned to punish Boston by closing her port, it was the Virginia House of Burgesses which proposed that a congress of all the colonies be called to consider the plight of Massachusetts and the best course open to her sister colonies.

While serving as a member of the House of Burgesses, Washington was chosen one of Virginia's representatives to this congress, which was to be known as the First Continental Congress. It met at Philadelphia on the 5th of September, 1774.

Before the colonial delegates left Philadelphia, they agreed to meet again the following spring if their petition to the King and their declaration of rights were still unheeded. Both petition and declaration were ignored; so in May, 1775, the Second Continental Congress was held.

By the time the members reached Philadelphia, word of Lexington and Concord had thundered throughout the land. The effect was remarkable. Fighting with the mother country had actually begun. Was there then no other way for the colonies to maintain their rights than by taking up arms in defense? It began to look so; and even while sending one last petition to their King, begging that their wrongs be righted, the Second Continental Congress was voting to raise an army.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Already thousands of colonial soldiers had gathered to the siege of Boston. They must be recognized as acting not only for New England, but for the whole thirteen colonies. They must be organized as the Continental Army. They must have a commander, and this at once. George Washington was unanimously chosen for the position. It was a great honor, but an even greater responsibility.

"I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in this room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with," said Washington.

However, he accepted on condition that he should receive no salary, merely being repaid for his actual expense. His commission was signed on the 19th of June, and the 21st saw him already on the road to Boston.


It was the 2nd day of July when Washington reached Cambridge, the headquarters of the colonial army. And, as he rode within the lines, the English shut up in Boston knew, by the soldiers' shouts of welcome that he had come.

Next day, while the colonial troops were drawn up on the Cambridge common, Washington rode out on horseback under the now famous elm and took command of the army.

There were fifteen or sixteen thousand soldiers, men who knew little about fighting and less about military discipline; and Washington had work ahead of him to get them into shape and enforce the necessary obedience. Moreover the supply of arms and powder was so small that an attack on the English was out of the question for months. Messengers were sent flying over the country to beg powder from every town and village, and fifty cannon were dragged all the way from Ticonderoga to Cambridge on ox sleds.

At last when March, 1776, came, Washington felt that all was ready to try what the colonial army could do. One evening he moved troops, artillery, and all that would be needed in building fortifications, to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.

Fortifying a hill


It was like another Bunker Hill surprise. The next morning there were the Americans in a position to fire right into the British camp. It was apparent that the English General had his choice of leaving the town or of being destroyed with it. He chose to leave, and sailed away on March 17, 1776.

On the 18th, Washington marched into Boston in triumph, after his bloodless victory. In their retreat the English had been obliged to leave behind them two hundred cannon and more muskets, powder, and balls than Washington's army had ever owned before.

It seemed likely that New York would be the next place to be attacked by the English. Therefore Washington left part of his troops in Boston and with the rest hurried to New York. Here raw recruits joined his force until it numbered eighteen thousand.

Let us leave the army at work building defenses for New York and go back to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. You will remember that last petition which the Continental Congress sent to England. As usual it was received with contempt. The King would do nothing for his disobedient colonists. And what was more, to end their rebellion, he had hired German troops to go to America and do this work for him in short order.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania

The colonists were outraged. All thoughts of peace were at an end. Daily the break between England and her American colonies grew wider, until finally, on the 4th of July, 1776, a Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress, and the thirteen English colonies became the United States of America.

When this glorious news reached Washington and his men, they had barely time to celebrate before British ships entered New York Harbor, and a British army, far larger than Washington's, took possession of Staten Island.

One half of Washington's force was stationed on Long Island, on Brooklyn Heights just opposite New York. It seemed a simple thing to the English commander, General Howe, to defeat these nine thousand men. And with Brooklyn Heights once in his hands, he could take New York from Washington as surely and as easily as Washington had taken Boston from him.

However, it was late in August before he put his plan to the proof. Twenty thousand trained soldiers were landed on Long Island and began the advance on the Americans. On the 27th, they attacked and defeated the troops sent out from the Heights to meet them. This force was made up of half the soldiers sent by Washington to defend Brooklyn Heights.

If General Howe had persevered in his undertaking, the Heights would certainly have fallen into his possession. But after the battle his men were tired, night had come, and it seemed easier to wait for his final victory. His troops encamped at the foot of the Heights and took their needed rest.

While the British troops rested, Washington and more soldiers came by boat from New York, until ten thousand Americans were ready for the attack which they expected at any time.

But no attack came. Instead, General Howe had decided to lay siege to the Heights and starve out this handful of the enemy.

Before many hours Washington learned of this decision. Here indeed was danger. If once the British ships got between New York and the Heights, all hope of escape would be at an end. Soon trusted messengers were on their way to New York to collect all the boats, large or small, which were to be found.

The night of the 29th was foggy, and under cover of the darkness the boats were brought to the Brooklyn shore. There they were quickly and quietly filled with men, small arms, ammunition, supplies, and even cannon, all of which were safely landed in New York. Washington himself was the last to leave the now deserted fortifications.

Can you imagine General Howe's amazement the next morning? Washington was proving himself a veritable will-o'-the-wisp to the British. Where they least expected him, there he was; and when they counted him in their grasp, he faded away.


With English troops on Brooklyn Heights and English vessels in New York Harbor, Washington felt that it would be asking the impossible to expect his small force to keep the English out of New York City. However, he did not mean to give up more ground than was absolutely necessary. Although obliged to retreat, he yielded each step only when forced on by the British, who were constantly at his heels.

He crossed to the west bank of the Hudson, and was gradually crowded back into New Jersey. His men, disheartened, discouraged, poorly fed, and worn out, deserted by the score.

And all the while the English relentlessly kept up their hot pursuit. By breaking down bridges, when once his army had crossed them, Washington did what he could to delay his enemy. All to no avail. Before their superior numbers he had no choice but retreat. At last he reached the Delaware River.

Here he saw a chance of stopping the English for a while at least. Seizing every boat for miles up and down the river, the Americans crossed the Delaware to the Pennsylvania side. The English would have followed; but there was no means of doing so, and they were obliged to camp along the shore until the December weather should freeze the river hard and fast.



While they were waiting, Christmas day came and Christmas night. And on Christmas night something happened of which the English had not dreamed.

During that December night of 1776, Washington, at great peril, recrossed the Delaware. The next morning he fell upon the British encampment at Trenton and captured a thousand of the King's hired soldiers.

Such was the battle of Trenton, and great was the rejoicing it caused.

But though the discouraged soldiers now took heart, Washington was sorely troubled. The year was nearly over; and with the first days of 1777, the term of enlistment of many of his men would end. They had suffered much during their service, and so had their wives and children at home with no one to earn their living. Money was necessary to buy what they needed, and money Washington must have if he hoped to induce his soldiers to reenlist.

Where was he to get it? That he could not tell, unless his friend Robert Morris would come to his aid.

This Robert Morris was a wealthy merchant and banker in Philadelphia. In an imploring letter Washington begged him to send $50,000 in cash as soon as possible, as case was all that would now hold his army together.

Robert Morris had already given large sums to aid the Revolution, and it was out of the question for him to produce $50,000 more at a moment's notice. Still he could not fail Washington now; the sum must be raised. And it was raised. Going from house to house, Morris laid the case before man after man and got from each all that he could or would give. Nor did he stop until the entire amount was collected and ready to send to Washington.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Meanwhile in New York the English general, Cornwallis, was celebrating Christmas and preparing to sail back to England. In his opinion, the revolt was about over. With the British troops so closely pursuing, this upstart American commander must surely give up in a very short time.

Then came news of the battle of Trenton with its thousand prisoners taken. Cornwallis was amazed. Perhaps after all it did need a master hand to end this war once and for all. So, putting off his sailing, Cornwallis himself hurried to Trenton with eight thousand soldiers to conquer Washington.

It was late in the day when he reached Trenton. By that time, Washington had withdrawn his army across a small river, along whose banks he had placed his batteries.

Tired out from their day's march, the British put off their attack overnight. Cornwallis, sure of success, was in the best of spirits. "At last we have run down the old fox and will bag him in the morning," was his confident assertion.

But, foxlike, Washington was not to be run to earth quite so easily. All through the night the English sentries pacing back and forth watched the gleam of Washington's camp fires and listened to the thud, thud of falling earth as the Americans worked on their intrenchments. Little did they suppose that only a few men were making all that noise and tending all those fires. Such was the case, nevertheless. While the camp fires blazed and the digging went on, Washington and his army were slipping away toward Princeton.

Washington had reasoned that in Princeton he would find so small an English force left to guard the stores that his army could defeat it and capture the supplies.

About sunrise Princeton was reached, and the battle was on. In less than half an hour it was over, and Washington had once more come off victorious. This was on January 3, 1777.

From Princeton, Washington took his soldiers to the Heights of Morristown, where the English dared not attack him. Here he spent the rest of the winter, raising new troops and doing what he could to strengthen his army. As for Cornwallis, he returned empty-handed to New York.


During the early summer of 1777, General Howe made an attempt to reach Philadelphia by an overland march from New York. Washington's force was still too small to risk meeting the English thousands in open battle. However, he so annoyed and worried their commander by keeping just out of reach and yet in the way, that General Howe gave up and went back.

Next, General Howe put his troops aboard ship, sailed them up Chesapeake Bay to its head, and set out for Philadelphia from that point. At Brandywine Creek there was Washington again. He had marched south in the hope of once more turning the English away from Philadelphia. On September 11th, the armies met in battle, and Washington was defeated.

Soon after, the English entered Philadelphia and took possession of the capital of the United States. Nothing daunted, Washington decided to try another attack; and on the morning of October 4th he appeared at Germantown, where part of the English were encamped. At first, success seemed sure. But a heavy mist soon caused confusion and misunderstanding, and the Americans were once more repulsed.

Another winter was at hand. It was evident that General Howe meant to spend it in Philadelphia. Therefore Washington went into camp at Valley Forge, where he could keep an eye on his foe.

This winter at Valley Forge was terrible for both the American army and its General. The cold was intense and persistent. The men were poorly clothed and half starved. Shoes were a luxury. The soldiers walking barefoot over the ice left bloody tracks behind. Money was scarce, and the army unpaid. All night men sat huddled around the camp fires. They had even no blankets in which to roll themselves.

Washington and Lafayette


Washington did all he could to provide for his troops and earned their loyal love and devotion by his constant sympathy and his willingness to share in their privations. His courage encouraged them.

In his turn Washington found help and comfort in the companionship of certain of his brave officers. His friend and right hand man, General Nathanael Greene, was with him through all this long, hard winter. And there were two other men at Valley Forge who earned not only Washington's thanks, but the thanks of all Americans. These were the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben. Lafayette was a young Frenchman; Steuben, a Prussian. Lafayette not only gave his services to our country, but generously used his private fortune to supply with clothes and arms the soldiers under his command. Steuben, trained soldier that he was, drilled Washington's troops and taught even their commander the meaning of true military discipline.

At last the winter broke; and the spring of 1778 came, bringing good news to America. France had recognized the United States of America as a nation, and had agreed to send us aid in our fight against her old enemy.

The English general, Clinton, now succeeding General Howe, decided to abandon Philadelphia and unite his forces in New York.

Hardly had the British march begun when Washington, too, took the road. He fully believed that if a battle were now to take place, his army could and would defeat Clinton's troops. Accordingly, he ordered a detachment to push on and attack the English, while he followed with reinforcements.

Now this detachment was under the command of General Charles Lee; and, but for him, Washington's plan would probably have succeeded. Already Lee had nearly brought ruin upon Washington's forces by direct disobedience; already he had played false to America by secretly giving information to her foe; and now, once more he was to show his treachery.

The American troops advanced on the English forces at Monmouth, and at first everything seemed in their favor. The battle was begun, and the patriots were fighting like tigers, when suddenly Lee ordered a retreat. Naturally his men obeyed. All would have been lost, had not Washington just then ridden up. Dashing straight to Lee, he fiercely demanded "What is the meaning of all this, sir?" Lee began some excuse. To Washington there was no excuse for such cowardly behavior. He ordered Lee to the rear while he himself rallied the soldiers, led them back, and saved the day. Lee was later dismissed from the service in disgrace.

One other of Washington's officers proved himself a traitor. This was Benedict Arnold. During the early part of the Revolution, Arnold gave America brave and valiant service. But later he was made bitter by lack of promotion; and when his conduct raised enemies for him, their attacks so stirred up his anger that he betrayed both his country and his honor, and offered his services to the English.

At the time General Clinton was in New York, he was very anxious to get possession of the Hudson River; but strong fortifications at West Point held him in check. Now, Arnold's offer opened up a possibility. The plan was for Arnold to ask Washington for the command of West Point, and then allow the English to capture it.

Suspecting nothing, Washington gave Arnold the coveted command. The very next month Arnold and Andre, General Clinton's young adjutant general, met one dark night in a thicket on the river's eastern shore. Here Arnold gave Andre maps of the fort, and papers telling just what steps the English should take.

With these papers in his stockings, Andre started back to New York on horseback. But half-way back to the city he was captured, and finally he was hanged as a spy.

As soon as Arnold heard of Andre's capture, he fled down the river and joined the English army. This was in September, 1780. Years after, he died in England, praying God to forgive him for deserting his country. Nothing came of the plot but soreness of heart to Arnold's betrayed commander, and disgrace to the traitor himself.


During the two years following the battle of Monmouth, the war for the most part was carried on in the South, where such men as Daniel Morgan and Francis Marion, "the swamp fox," won lasting fame by their brave and daring deeds.

Although Washington himself stayed in the North, where he could have a watchful eye on the English in New York, he still kept in touch with conditions in the South.

Back and forth through the southern states went Cornwallis and the English troops, until, in the summer of 1781, he followed Lafayette up into Virginia. Then he betook himself and his troops to Yorktown, where he and Clinton could be in communication by sea.

Yorktown is on a cape, three sides of which are surrounded by Chesapeake Bay. At the first word of his enemy's move, Washington was on the alert. Carefully going over in his mind the position of his forces, he realized that the fleet sent us by France could be placed so as to prevent Cornwallis from escaping by sea. And if his own New York troops could possibly be mustered with the French soldiers, and those under Lafayette, so as to shut Cornwallis into this land pocket, a deadly blow could be aimed at England's power.

It must be done and done at once. Misleading Clinton by seeiningly preparing an attack on New York. Washington slipped away south.

After a long forced march the soldiers reached Chesapeake Bay and went by ship to Yorktown. There was the French fleet, and there was Cornwallis ready to be shut in exactly as Washington had foreseen. For days the English held out against Washington's attack. But no help came to them; and at last, on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis was obliged to surrender. To the tune of "The World Turned Upside Down" the British marched out of Yorktown between the two long lines of Washington's victorious army. And the American Revolution was practically at an end.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


A few years later the United States adopted their Constitution and set up their government. Then through loving gratitude and just appreciation of his value, they chose as their first President, the loyal commander of the army which had won their independence.

Washington was President of the United States for two terms. At the close of this service, he went back to Virginia to the happy home life awaiting him. For a little while he gathered up the reins of control on his plantations, but they soon slipped from his fingers forever.

December 14, 1799, was a day of grief for the entire country—grief which spread in every direction with the news that, at Mount Vernon, George Washington lay dead.

George Washington
Martha Washington