« ForrigeFortsett »
clothes and provisions, encamping under the open sky, pelted by the rains, fording the streams, and wearily dragging their cannon after them, they marched slowly on, while insubordination and complaints swelled the evils that encompassed the young commander. On the 25th another message was received from the Half-King, saying, “Be on your guard; the French army intend to strike the first English whom they shall see.” The same day a second messenger entered the camp, reporting that the French were but eighteen miles distant. Ignorant of their number, or from what point they would attack, he hastened to the Great Meadows, an open plain between two ridges, covered with grass and low bushes. Near the centre, where it was about three hundred yards wide, and beside a rivulet that flowed through it, he hastily threw up an intrenchment, and prepared to meet the enemy. As he looked around and saw what a broad interval lay between his rude works and the covering forest, he felt satisfied with the spot he had selected, declaring it was a "charming field for an encounter.” In the mean time he sent out some men on the wagon-horses to reconnoitre, and all eyes were directed toward the forest, in constant expectation of seeing them burst into the opening, bringing the enemy with them. But they returned without having seen any traces of the invaders. In the night, however, the sentries became alarmed, and fired their pieces. In a moment the little camp was in commotion, and the troops stood to their arms till morning. Soon after daylight a single man was seen moving across the plain toward the fort. This was Gist, who reported the French near by. The day wore on without further cause of alarm; but at nine o'clock at night the camp was again thrown into a state of excitement, by the arrival of a messenger from the Half-King, who lay with his warriors about six miles distant, reporting that the French detachment was close by him. It was pitch-dark, and the rain fell in torrents, but young Washington, as he stood by the fire listening to the statement of the swarthy messenger, forgot both, and instantly selecting forty of his best men, started for the camp of the Half-King. Utter blackness filled the forest, and it was impossible to keep the right direction. Stumbling over the rocks and fallen trees, the little band staggered about in the darkness, the pattering of the rain-drops above and their constant dripping on the foliage below the only sounds that broke the surrounding stillness, save when the musket-barrel of some poor fellow, tripping in the gloom, rung against a tree or rock, or the low words of command fell from their intrepid leader, as he felt his way toward his first battle. They wandered about in the woods all night, and did not reach the camp of the Half-King till sunrise. A short council was then held, in which it was resolved to send forward two Indian scouts to ascertain the precise locality of the French. Following up the trail, these soon discovered the enemy concealed among the rocks. Streaming along in Indian file, Washington, with his savage allies, at length came in sight of the party. The latter, immediately on discovering the hostile approach, seized their arms and prepared to resist. “ Fire !” cried Washington, and at the same moment discharged his musket. A rapid volley followed, and for fifteen minutes it was sharp work. Jumonville, the French commander, and ten of his men were killed, and twentytwo taken prisoners. The remainder fled. Washington had but one man killed and three wounded. It was his first battle, and the excitement was naturally great. In speaking of it afterward, he said, “I heard the bullets whistling, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” In this first trial he showed the metal he was made of, and although the speech smacks of bravado it reveals the ardor and enthusiasm, without which the soldier never excels in his profession.
Probably there never before turned such vast consequences on a single musket-shot as on that fired by Washington in the commencement of this skirmish. Its echo went round the globe; it was the signal-gun breaking up the councils and diplomatic meetings of Europe, and summoning the two greatest powers of the world to arms to struggle for a continent. It began the long war which drove France out of America, and made a warlike people of the colonists, who were jealous of their rights. When the revolutionary struggle afterward commenced France was but too glad to help despoil England of the rich possessions of which the latter had robbed her, and saw with undisguised pleasure an independent government rise on these shores. But the French army, in helping republicanism, became republican, and scattered the doctrine of human rights throughout France. Her bloody revolution was the result. Met by the feudalism of Europe, it went rolling over the French borders, deluging the continent in its rash flow. The shout of the oppressed masses was heard rising amid the din of battle, and the low and threatening undertone of their mutterings makes monarchs at this day turn pale on their thrones, while the end is not yet.
What a long and frightful train of events that single shot set in motion. When the news reached France, it threw both government and people into a state of high excitement. War had begun, and the name of Washington was heard for the first time in the saloons of Paris, and loaded with opprobrium. His attack was declared base and wicked, and Jumonville was regarded as the victim of assassination. A poem was written to commemorate his sad fate, and Washington was looked upon as no better than a robber. It was asserted that Jumonville was on a peaceful mission, and had begun to read the summons he bore, when Washington fired upon him. This was false, and expressly declared so by the latter. The fact that Jumonville was intrusted with a
summons commanding the English to evacuate the territory, does not make his mission a peaceful one. Besides, he did not advance like one on a friendly errand, but lay skulking about with an armed force. Washington, when sent by Dinwiddie to the French, took only necessary guides. If, with a body of troops, he had lain for days about the fort, and when assailed had made no effort at explanation, but continued to fight till overpowered, it would have been perfectly absurd to pretend that he was on a peaceful mission. Still, French writers denounced Washington unsparingly, and to this day pronounce his attack unlawful and wicked. But the blame, whether much or little, rested on Governor Dinwiddie, not on himself, for the former had directed him to drive the French from the English territory, and he had been sent out with an armed force for that express purpose. He could not have done otherwise than obey the orders of the government. The fact that war had not been declared could make no difference, for the French had already commenced hostilities, by investing an English fort and forcing the garrison to capitulate. To expect Washington to sit still and see a second taken without striking a blow, would be absurd.
The latter, knowing that as soon as the news of his attack on Jumonville should reach Fort Du Quesne, a heavier force would be sent against him, retired at once to his little fort, which he named Fort Necessity.
But while compelled to prepare for the exigencies growing out of a superior force in his front, he had also to contend with the insubordination of his troops, especially the officers, whose pay had been reduced so low, that it would not meet their necessary expenses, and who, indignant at the meanness of the government, declared they would go home and leave the army to take care of itself. Washington, in this dilemma, put on the “hypocrite as far as he could," and endeavored to convince them it was better and more honorable to remain where they were, while at the same time he wrote to Governor Dinwiddie, stating the feelings of the officers, and remonstrating boldly against the insane policy which made them inferior to the king's officers. He declared that, so far as he was concerned, it was not the smallness of the pay that made him indignant, but the injustice and dishonor of this invidious distinction, while in fact the services he and his fellow officers were required to perform, were enormous and hazardous in the extreme. “For my own part," said he," it is a matter almost indifferent whether I serve for full pay, or as a generous volunteer. Indeed, did my circumstances correspond with ту
inclinations, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter; for the motives that have led me here are pure and noble.” Here, in the midst of the forest, liable at any moment to be struck down, by an act of executive authority, he nevertheless kindles into stern indignation against the wrong committed by that authority, and demands a recognition of those claims of his officers and men, which he deems to be just and honorable.
While thus surrounded by a murmuring army-threatened by a superior enemy, and destitute of the necessary provisions for his detachment, he received word of the death of his senior in rank, Colonel Fry, at Will’s Creek. He was now commander-in-chief. But soon after, an independent company from South Carolina arrived, commanded by Captain Mackay, who, having a royal commission, ranked Washington. Here a new difficulty arose, and had not Mackay been a thorough gentleman, it would have been a serious one.
The latter, however, contented himself with a mild refusal to obey the colonel's orders, and with his one hundred men encamped by himself, Washington, foreseeing the embarrassment in which this divided command would place the entire force, wrote to Governor Dinwiddie to settle the difficulty by a direct explicit order. The latter