On May 28, 1754, the colonial militia surrounded a party of French-Canadian soldiers. With 15 minutes of rifle fire, the colonists slaughtered the French, then allowed Indian guides to take the corpses’ scalps. Observing this grisly scene was a towering young major named George Washington. In the aftermath of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, Washington retreated to Fort Necessity, where he was soon forced to surrender, signing a document claiming responsibility for the assassination of French troops. The result would be the Seven Years’ War—the greatest international conflict the globe had ever seen. It would also be the making of a statesman.
In this rousing historical novel, Michael Kilian reconstructs the events in Washington’s life that led to that pivotal day at Jumonville Glen and molded the man who would create a country.
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By Michael Kilian
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1998 Michael Kilian
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George Washington a murderer?
I was there at his side that most consequential morning in 1754 — great heavens, now twenty-four years ago — as I was so often in that dangerous and calamitous time. The two of us were then quite newly come to manhood and the soldier's art, I the more newly than he. For all our adventures in the wilderness, neither of us had killed a man before that day, white or Indian, though I had often thought and talked upon the prospect, liking it not. What happened at what is now called Jumonville Glen that morning perhaps came as surprise to us both.
I was standing as close as breath to Washington at the top of that well-forested little cliff as the early sun pierced the gloom and lighted the stage below for slaughter. Lighted it eerily, for it had rained heavily throughout the preceding night and the glen was filled with mist. I don't suppose those poor Frenchmen bundled and huddled beneath us had any notion at all of our presence — save for those few whom the fates had cursed with wakefulness.
Crouched behind the wet shrubs, we could not have been visible to any of those below. But standing, one must have looked a spectral fiend, most particularly towering George. One poor French wretch's hand went madly for his musket upon that sighting, as would have my own, but never reached it. At the sudden movement, gunfire from all 'round the rim slashed downward into the glen's foggy depth.
I saw the rising bodies fall — saw three or four who never again stirred from the spot where they'd been sleeping. I remember clearly Ensign Jumonville lying afterward wounded and helpless but in soldierly calm as our friend the Indian Tanacharison, whom we also called Half King, came and knelt to work war club on skull and scalping knife upon trophy hair. I had reached the rocky floor of the glen by then and was hurrying toward the wounded man. Coming close, I heard Tanacharison say, "You are not dead yet, my father."
But then he was, and there, I suppose, is where the war began. Soon all the world was rattling with cannon and musket fire. It was Horace Walpole who wrote: "The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire."
I did not discharge my own pistol that bloody morning, happy I am to state, though I've loosed ball and shot enough on subsequent violent occasions. My forbearance that morning has been a solace on troubled nights years after, when those long-ago shouts and screams disturb my slumber — and that of my wife, for I sometimes rise and walk about the bedchamber, which vexes her sorely.
All told, ten of those mischievous if officially innocent Frenchmen perished in that rocky entrapment where Jumonville had made his camp. It need not have happened. I do know that.
But George Washington an assassin?
That old dog of a question hounds me still, two decades and more after the awful fact, even as that once-esteemed and now-outlawed Virginia gentleman skulks in the wintry wastes outside this city like some cur kicked away from the hearth. At last report, he was huddled with his ragged band of insurrectionists in hilltop hovels near Valley Forge, while I sit a fat spaniel here in Philadelphia in all the comfort of Tory plenty.
Pray forgive my overindulgence in canine metaphor. I have a fondness for the beasts, as I do for metaphor, though in all my years at sea, I kept only a cat in quarters.
Never a wench, mind. Do you know that the only women to have ever graced a ship's cabin of mine have been my wife and, of course, of great moment to this accounting, Mrs. Sally Fairfax, now residing permanently in Britain, far from the still-glowing embers of Mr. Washington's passion, as must be her intent.
Forgive me also my discursiveness. My sharp-tongued wife has observed that if I sailed a ship in the manner I bring forth words, I should never have completed any voyage but coursed instead 'round and 'round my every harbor. She finds my discourse so elliptical she calls me "Fielding without the sauce." Her own sauce, I fear, has soured from what was once the flirtatious stuff of coquetry to something far more astringent, though I do still love her madly. But, as she would now remind, this is to digress.
This question of Washington's criminality abides in a wide assortment of memories and minds — not to speak of mouths. It was asked of me not a fortnight ago by General Howe, no less, His Lordship raising the question at my own table, idly, as though the matter were supper chat or London gossip. Good God, base or noble, Washington's deed unleashed the forces that settled the affairs of an entire continent. All history begins in the grub, does it not? What are the grand designs of ministers and kings compared to the well-placed mischief of a few men with guns?
I cannot convincingly demur in this matter when the question is asked. My past friendship with Mr. Washington — as some King's regulars now sneeringly refer to the American commander, countenancing no military address for Damned Rebels — is well known, as familiar a fact in this city as the extent of my fortune and the beauty of my wife and daughters. Quite considerable, that, in all regards, incidentally; despite my wife's years, which are near in number to my own, and I am almost as old as Washington.
Certainly I would not deny the smallest aspect of that long-ago comradeship, however much it has lapsed in recent years and now complicates my life. Politics and the current troubles aside, I still much admire General Washington. I've known none greater in the tumultuous chronicles of this country, if country it ever should prove to be.
What I said to General Howe was this: "General Braddock did not believe it assassination, sir, nor did Governor Dinwiddie. The confession was obtained through guile. Washington was and is a soldier, sir, and it was a soldierly encounter."
A more honest answer on my part would have been that I do not yet know within my soul of souls what Washington should be called in this regard. If the real truth of it must be plucked from my own moral sense, I've not found it there, despite much searching.
What I can say in certain fact is that Washington was surely the most ambitious man I ever met, his eye ever on the most glorious part of any deed or action, and it was ambition that took him to that glen, not simply the counsel of Half King or the orders of Crown and Governor Dinwiddie.
I can say a great deal more about Washington, most of it good. He was and is among the very bravest I have known, never shrinking from mortal hazard or the most wretched trial and discomfort, though he never could abide the lice and bedding beasties of frontier ordinaries, and shares with me and Dr. Benjamin Franklin small tolerance for uncleanliness.
Some have thought Washington dull, though no lady has ever spoken thus. Unless angered, or embarked on the passionate poesy of amour — he showed me several of his letters to Mrs. Fairfax, and blushing works they were — he was a man otherwise clumsy with words, and is so today. He had paltry education, and was no reader. But he was thoughtful — his mind a great wrestler, ever in struggle. He was a man who honestly tried to do what was right, whatever the cost — many thousands paying the price sometimes, now as then.
He was in no infamous way mean or cruel, merely strict, if damned strict. He ordered numberless hangings and shootings of deserters in that conflict with the French, as in this with the British Crown, and he freely set the lash the prescribed hundred or more strokes to the backs of drunken soldiery. But in every instance, to my mind, his severity was owing to the desperation of the military situation. Given his difficulty with tactics, desperation was a frequent companion, though he was ever the man for it.
I've seen him act most mercifully, mind, sparing the life of at least one villain — an Indian at that — who in the most treacherous fashion had sought his.
It's a fair criticism to call him aloof — except with the ladies — and no real democrat. Though he has evidenced no unseemly care for noble title, he is ever mindful of rank and social class, and will frostily assure you of his own should you give evidence of harboring any doubt. But I have found him a singularly fair man in all the dealings of which I had acquaintance, and often kind. No one ever had a more useful friend.
If not gifted in the wisest military exercise of that power, he was a man born to command. His estimable physical presence embodied authority. In rage, he quivered with it. His bearing under fire was extraordinary, showing no more care for bullets than mosquitoes. It inspired us all, sometimes to great foolishness. We would have braved cannon and facefuls of canister for the man, as some did. It was small wonder no hesitation followed his order to wake those unsuspecting French with musketry. Small wonder indeed that those ragged wretches of the Continental Army now so willingly suffer the cold with him on that hilltop at Valley Forge.CHAPTER 2
At this point, I daresay I owe you an introduction. My name is Thomas Morley. For most of my life I've been addressed as Captain Morley, though I'm now more concerned with the owning of ships than the sailing of them.
I was born in Bermuda, the second son of a middlingly prosperous factor for London-based merchants in Hamilton Town. My pa never married the fetching tavern wench who was my mother, but she lived with him as wife, when he was not off on his travels, which were frequent. She bore him seven children, five of whom died early on, leaving me and my older brother Richard as survivors. My mother herself died in giving birth to the last of her babies, a daughter who lived but two days longer.
In quick time, my father took up with a quite handsome mulatto woman, who subsequently bore him three children, all daughters. The two who survived to adulthood were eventually taken into servitude, and I was in later years ultimately to expend considerable energies and sums tracking down these dark half-sisters and securing their freedom. One has since been successful as a courtesan of New Orleans and the other is married to a good man in Boston. They both correspond, usually when in need of money. I am considered a fair and generous man — both qualities I found conspicuous and admirable in Washington. I seldom ignore their implorations.
My brother and I came in for scant charity from our dusky stepmother. When my father died — depending on accounts, either lost at sea or killed in a dockside brawl in Barbados — she claimed lawful marriage and bribed a local justice to declare the union so. Richard and I were disinherited in the process, prompting my resolute brother first to a drinking binge and then to bold and vengeful action. Binding and gagging our stepmother one night when she had invited him to her bed, he took possession of our father's money box, and with it and me in tow, secured passage on a ship bound for Charleston. From there we made our way north, finding eventual haven in Annapolis in Maryland colony. Using our "inheritance" to make partial payment on a small, much-weathered but still-seaworthy sloop, which Richard named the Hannah after our own mother, my brother and I went into the coastal trade and prospered. Richard, as senior partner and master of the vessel, prospered particularly. Eventually, he generously repaid that "inheritence" we wrested from our get-penny stepmother. Merchants everywhere came to esteem Richard for his honesty, though not many gave him reason to return the compliment. If he could keep rein on his lusty drinking, which was at times prodigious, much was expected of him.
He was nineteen when we arrived in America, and I five years younger. In Bermuda, I had sometimes been called "Leech" for the tenacity with which I had kept my brother's close company. In more woodsy America, this became "Tick," for I displayed the same dependency, serving as Richard's mate on the Hannah and hurrying along at his heels or side wherever he went, when he'd have me. Washington was later pleased to call me "Tick" as well — for much the same reason. Once we became friends, I was much in his presence — oft to my discomfort when Sally Fairfax was about.
Fortune smiled so kindly and so swiftly on my brother that he was in short time able to go into partnership with an Annapolis ship's chandler on the purchase of a three-masted merchantman, which he sailed as master on voyages to the West Indies, leaving me with the Hannah to continue our coastal trade, principally in the waters of Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.
It was as great an honor as it was a terrifying responsibility to command a twenty-five-ton sailing vessel and ten-man crew at my few years. But I was saddened to be separated from Richard and missed him. I suppose it only natural that I would turn to Mr. Washington as a substitute, especially after Richard, despondent over a lady's death and driven by unnamed demons, turned still more increasingly to spirits. For Washington's part, I think he came to find me a tolerable companion. Death had recently taken his own older half-brother Lawrence, and he suffered the sibling lack as much as I.
There is little more to say about myself. By the time I met Washington, I had attained the height of six feet, but no great breadth or strength. Our father, figuring on our apprenticeship in the merchant trade, had had us both schooled in reading, writing, and ciphering, and I developed a strong fondness for books as boon companions at sea. Whenever possible, Richard took crated books aboard as cargo so I might have them for the borrowing. I was also amiably disposed toward sketching from a very early age, and had some skill at it, but Richard disapproved. Art was a proficiency of little practicality, he said — certainly in the American colonies.
I had sailed small boats in Bermuda's Great Sound from the age of six, and came early to a mariner's skills, if not full confidence. I already had a fair authority with the pistol and could train a deck gun with usually successful result. I inherited the better part of our parents' good looks, but this attribute was tempered for much of my youth by an acute shyness and awkwardness with women, until Dr. Franklin's wise tutelage took hold. If quick of mind, as my brother always boasted of me, I am careful how I speak it. My wife does not always give me the chance, at all events.
I came to manhood with one eccentricity I have maintained unto this day — a fondness for bathing. Growing up on Bermuda, I was constantly swimming, fishing, capsizing, or for some other reason immersed in that island's clear, warm waters, and developed an affection for having my skin thus refreshed and consequently free of its otherwise natural covering of sweat and dirt. I am told by physicians that this penchant of mine is dangerously unhealthy, but I persist in it nevertheless — bathing once a week even in winter. I had one of those new shower baths installed at our Philadelphia house, but my wife is disinclined to use it. As she wrote to her sister, "I still find the experience of being wet all over inside a house most disagreeable, and one I hope not to repeat again."
I fear I am rambling overmuch in this account, as my wife would again remind. Allow me to return to a warm day in the late spring of 1753 — an election day of some sort, with all the public places crowded and boisterous — when I was preparing to weigh anchor from the half-moon harbor of Alexandria, Virginia, with the sloop's hold loaded full with wheat and whiskey bound for Philadelphia.
It was to be my third voyage as temporary master of the Hannah, the previous two having been completed without any great misadventure and at some profit. I was by then all of eighteen years. Washington, a little-propertied but fully fledged member of the Northern Neck Virginia aristocracy, was twenty-one, residing at his recently deceased half-brother's house on Hunting Creek, a then relatively modest dwelling place called Mount Vernon, after Admiral Vernon, under whom his brother Lawrence had served in the military expedition against the Spanish at Cartegena.
Excerpted from Major Washington by Michael Kilian. Copyright © 1998 Michael Kilian. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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