AMONG the multitude who in different lands and times have won fame in varying degrees, a few stand out so distinct, so far above the rest, that they mark the eras of the world's progress. By them we measure our growth; by them we test our advance or decline. We no longer judge them, but rather judge ourselves by them, by the extent to which we can appreciate and understand them. An age in which they are honored is glorious; a generation by which they are not esteemed is contemptible. Among the few thus truly great is WASHINGTON. A thousand times has the story of his noble life been told; yet never were men so eager to hear it as now. His character has endured every test; his fame is secure. "It will be the duty of the historian in all ages," says Lord Brougham, "to omit no occasion of commemorating this illustrious man; . . . and until time shall be no more will a test of the progress which our race has made in wisdom and virtue be derived from the veneration paid to the immortal name of Washington."
Two centuries ago Virginia was almost an unexplored wilderness; but the climate, the soil, the rivers, bays, mountains, valleys, all combined to render it one of the most attractive spots upon our globe. Two young brothers, Lawrence and John Washington, were lured by these attractions to abandon their home in England, and seek their fortunes in this new world. They were both gentlemen. Lawrence was a fine scholar, a graduate of Oxford; John was an accomplished man of business.
The two brothers had purchased a large tract of land about fifty miles above the mouth of the Potomac, and on its western banks. John built him a house, and married Anne Pope. Augustine, his second son, inherited the paternal homestead. Augustine's first wife, Jane Butler, as lovely in character as she was beautiful in person, died, leaving three little motherless children. The disconsolate father, in the course of years, found another mother for his bereaved household.
He was singularly fortunate in his choice. Mary Ball was everything that husband or child could desire. She was beautiful in person, intelligent, accomplished, energetic and prudent, and a warm hearted Christian. Augustine and Mary were married on the 6th of March, 1730. On the 22d of February, 1732, they received into their arms their first-born child. Little did they dream, as they bore their babe to the baptismal font and called him George Washington, that that name was to become one of the most memorable in the annals of time.
From earliest childhood George developed a very noble character. He had a vigorous constitution, a fine form, and great bodily strength. In childhood he was noted for frankness, fearlessness, and moral courage; and yet far removed from manifesting a quarrelsome spirit. He never tyrannized over others; and none were found to attempt to tyrannize over him.
After twelve happy years of union with Mary Ball, when George was but ten years of age, Augustine Washington died, leaving George and five other children fatherless. The mother was equal to the task thus imposed upon her. The confidence of her husband in her judgment and maternal love is indicated by the fact that he left the income of the entire property to her until her children should respectively come of age. Nobly she discharged the task. A nation's homage gathers around the memory of the mother of Washington. Life's severe discipline developed a character simple, sincere, grave, cheered with earnest and unostentatious piety. Her well-balanced mind gave her great influence over her son, which she retained until the hour of her death.
Mrs. Alexander Hamilton tells the story that, when George Washington was in the meridian of his fame, a brilliant party was given in his honor at Fredericksburg, Va. When the church-bell rang the hour of nine, his mother rose and said, "Come, George, it is nine o'clock: it is time for us to go home." George, like a dutiful son, offered her his arm, and they retired. Mrs. Hamilton admits, however, that after Washington had seen his mother safely home he returned to the party.
At sixteen years of age George, then a man in character, and almost a man in stature, left school. He excelled in mathematical studies, and had become familiar with the principles of geometry and trigonometry and of practical surveying. It was then his intention to become a civil engineer. At that time, in this new and rapidly-growing country, there was great demand for such services, and the employment was very lucrative. He had formed his character upon the right model. Everything he did he did well. If he wrote a letter, every word was as plain as print, with spelling, capitals, punctuation, all correct. His diagrams and tables were never scribbled off, but all executed with great beauty. These excellent habits, thus early formed, were retained through life.
Upon leaving school George went to spend a little time with his elder brother, Lawrence, at Mount Vernon. Then, as now, that was an enchanting spot. The house, situated upon a swell of land, commanded an extensive view of the Potomac and of the surrounding country. It was nearly one hundred miles above the home of George. Lord Fairfax, a man of large fortune and romantic tastes, had been lured by the charms of this delightful region to purchase a vast territory, which extended far away, over the Blue Mountains. It was a property embracing rivers and mountains, forests and prairies, and wealth unexplored. Lord Fairfax was charmed with young Washington, his frankness, his intelligence, his manliness, his gentlemanly bearing, a boy in years, a man in maturity of wisdom and character; and he engaged this lad, then but one month over sixteen years of age, to explore and survey these pathless wilds, a large portion of which was then ranged only by wild beasts and savage men. It may be doubted whether a lad of his age ever before undertook a task so arduous. With a few attendants, the boy entered the wilderness. We have some extracts from the journal which he kept, which give us a vivid idea of the life he then led.
Under date of March 15, 1748, he writes: "Worked hard till night, and then returned. After supper, we were lighted into a room; and I, not being so good a woodman as the rest, stripped myself very orderly, and went into the bed, as they call it, when, to my surprise, I found It to be nothing but a little straw matted together, without sheet or anything else, but only one threadbare blanket, with double its weight of vermin. I was glad to get up and put on my clothes, and lie as my companions did. Had we not been very tired, I am sure we should not have slept much that night. I made a promise to sleep so no more in a bed, choosing rather to sleep in the open air before a fire."
On the 2nd of April he writes, "A blowing, rainy night. Our straw, upon which we were lying, took fire; but I was luckily preserved by one of our men awaking when it was in a flame. We have run off four lots this day."
George returned from this tramp with all his energies consolidated by toil peril, and hardship. Though but seventeen years of age, he was a responsible, self-reliant man. The State of Virginia now employed him as public surveyor.
For three years he was engaged in these laborious duties, which introduced him to scenes of romance and adventure. Though he often, during these three years, visited his mother, his headquarters were with his brother at Mount Vernon, as this was much nearer. Lord Fairfax, who, it is said, was the victim of a love disappointment, had built him a substantial stone mansion in the valley beyond the Blue Ridge, where he was living in a sort of baronial splendor, and where George was an ever welcome guest.
Mission to the French Commander
Having performed his duty as surveyor so well, he was chosen adjutant general, with the rank of major, over a portion of the militia whose duty it was to repel the encroachments of the French and Indians. In the meantime, however, he was absent four months in Barbadoes with a sick brother. The next year, being then twenty-one years of age, he was sent as commissioner by Governor Dinwiddie to demand of the French commander why he had invaded the king's colonies. For seven hundred and fifty miles, more than half of the distance through an unbroken wilderness, he made his way, accompanied by only seven persons; and after forty-one days of toil, in the middle of December he reached his destination. Having concluded his mission, he set out in the dead of winter to retrace his dreary route. The horses after a while gave out, and the drivers were left to take care of them, while he and one companion pushed on alone, on foot, through the wilderness. Traveling in this manner, they came upon an Indian, who, under the pretence of acting as guide, led them off their route, and then shot at them. Sparing his life, contrary to the wishes of his friend, Washington soon got rid of him, and walked all night to escape pursuit. Coming to the Alleghany river, they found it only partly frozen over, and here the two friends lay down upon the bank in the cold snow, with nothing but their blankets over them, and thus, weary and hungry, passed the dreary night. The next morning they set to work with a single hatchet to build a raft. They worked all day long on the frail thing, and just after sunset succeeded in launching it on the turbulent stream. When nearly half across, huge fragments of floating ice came driving down the current, and, jamming against the crazy fabric, jerked them overboard, into ten feet of water. The two adventurers swam and waded to an island, where, amid frost and snow, wet to the skin, without a blanket to cover them or a spark of fire, with their clothes frozen stiff upon their backs, they passed the long, wintry night. They were now without the means of reaching either shore: but the biting cold that benumbed their limbs froze also the river, so that when morning dawned it was bridged over with ice between them and the shore. Escaping the shot of the Indian, the dangers of the forest, and death by cold, they at length, after an absence of eleven weeks, arrived safely at home.
Washington's journal of this tour was published in London, and attracted much attention, as it contained conclusive proof that the French would resist any attempts of the English to establish their settlements upon the Ohio. The Legislature of Virginia was in session at Williamsburg when Washington returned. Modestly, and unconscious that he would attract any attention, he went into the gallery to observe the proceedings. The Speaker chanced to see him, and, rising, proposed that, "The thanks of this house be given to Major Washington, who now sits in the gallery, for the gallant manner in which he has executed the important trust lately reposed in him by his excellency the governor."
Every member of the house rose to his feet; and Washington was greeted with a simultaneous and enthusiastic burst of applause. Embarrassed by the unexpected honor, and unaccustomed to public speaking, the young hero endeavored in vain to give utterance to his thanks. Out of this painful dilemma the eloquent Speaker helped him as generously as he had helped him into it. "Sit down, Mr. Washington," said he, in his most courteous manner, "your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess." Nothing could be more elegant or skilful than this double stroke, which not only relieved Washington, but paid him at the same time the highest compliment that could be bestowed.
Early in the spring of 1755 General Braddock, a self-conceited, stubborn man, landed in Virginia with two regiments of regular troops from Great Britain. Arrogant in the pride of his technical military education, he despised alike Frenchmen, Indians, and colonists. With his force, Braddock started on a march through the wilderness for the reduction of Fort Duquesne. Washington accompanied him as volunteer aid. In a straggling line four miles in length, this army of two thousand men, totally unacquainted with Indian warfare, and thoroughly despising such barbaric foes, commenced its march, with ponderous artillery and a cumbrous baggage-train, through the forest, for the distant junction of the Alleghany and the Monongahela. Washington, who well knew the foe they were to encounter, was alarmed at this recklessness, and urged greater caution. The regular British general was not to be taught the art of war by a provincial colonel, who had never even seen the inside of a military school. Successfully they had threaded the wilderness, and on a beautiful summer's day they were exultingly marching along the banks of the Monongahela, when they entered a defile of picturesque beauty.
Suddenly, like the burst of thunder from the cloudless heavens, came the crash of musketry, and a tempest of lead swept through their ranks. Crash followed crash in quick succession, before, behind, on the right, on the left. No foe was to be seen; yet every bullet accomplished its mission. The ground was soon covered with the dead and wounded. Amazement and consternation ran through the ranks. An unseen foe was assailing them. Braddock stood his ground with bull-dog courage, until he fell, pierced by a bullet. When nearly half of the army were slain, the remnant broke in wild disorder and fled. The ambush was entirely successful. Six hundred of these unseen assailants were Indians. They made the forest ring with their derision in scorn of the folly of Braddock.
Washington, through this awful scene, which he had been constantly anticipating, was perfectly collected, and, with the coolest courage, did everything which human sagacity could do to retrieve the disaster. Two horses were shot beneath him, and four bullets passed through his coat. Eight hundred of Braddock's army, including most of the officers, were either dead or wounded. Washington rallied around him the few provincials, upon whom Braddock had looked with contempt. Each man instantly placed himself behind a tree, according to the necessities of forest warfare. As the Indians burst from their ambush, the unerring fire of the provincials checked them and drove them back. But for this the army would have been utterly destroyed. All Washington's endeavors to rally the British regulars were unavailing. Indignantly he writes, "They ran like sheep before the hounds." Panic-stricken, abandoning artillery and baggage, they continued their tumultuous retreat to the Atlantic coast. The provincials, in orderly march, protected them from pursuit. Braddock's defeat rang through the land as Washington's victory. The provincials, who, submitting to military authority, had allowed themselves to be led into this valley of death, proclaimed far and wide the precautions which Washington had urged, and the heroism with which he had rescued the remnant of the army.
The French made no attempt to pursue their advantage, but quietly retired to Fort Duquesne, there to await another assault, should the English decide to make one. A force of about seven hundred men was raised, and placed under the command of Washington, to protect the scattered villages and dwellings of this vast frontier. For three years Washington gave all his energies to this arduous enterprise. It would require a volume to record the awful scenes through which he passed during these three years.
In November, 1758, Fort Duquesne was wrested from the French, and the valley of the Ohio passed from their control forever. The Canadas soon after surrendered to Wolfe, and English supremacy was established upon this continent without a rival.
APRIL 30, 1789, AT THE SITE OF THE PRESENT TREASURY BUILDING, WALL STREET, NEW YORK CITY.
Virginia gave us this imperial man,
Cut in the massive mould
Of those high-statured ages old
Which into grander forms our mortal metal ran;
Mother of States and undiminished men,
Thou gavest us a Country, giving him.
-James Russell Lowell.
Washington was now twenty-six years of age. The beautiful estate of Mount Vernon had descended to him by inheritance. On the 6th of January, 1759, he married Mrs. Martha Custis, a lady of great worth and beauty. Washington was already wealthy; and his wife brought with her, as her dower, a fortune of one hundred thousand dollars. After the tumultuous scenes of his youth, he retired with his bride and her two children to the lovely retreat of Mount Vernon, where he spent fifteen years of almost unalloyed happiness. He enlarged the mansion, embellished the grounds, and by purchase made very considerable additions to his large estate.
Outbreak of the Revolution
During these serene years of peace and prosperity an appalling storm was gathering, which soon burst with fearful desolation over all the colonies. The British ministry, denying the colonists the rights of British subjects, insisted upon exercising the despotic power of imposing taxes upon the colonists, while withholding the right of representation. All American remonstrances were thrown back with scorn. Troops were sent to enforce obedience to the mandates of the British Crown. The Americans sprang to arms, called a Congress, and chose George Washington commander-in-chief.
To the Congress which elected him he replied: "I beg leave to assure the Congress that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those, I doubt not, they will discharge. That is all I desire."
To his wife, the object of his most tender affection, he wrote that it was his greatest affliction to be separated from her, but that duty called, "and he must obey. He said that he could not decline the appointment without dishonoring his name, and sinking himself even in her esteem.
On the 2d of July Washington arrived in Cambridge and took command of the army. The ceremony took place under the elm-tree which still stands immortalized by the event. General Gage was commander of the British forces.
Twelve thousand British regulars were intrenched on Bunker's Hill and in the streets of Boston. About fifteen thousand provincial militia, wretchedly armed and without any discipline, occupied a line nearly twelve miles in extent, encircling, on the land side, Charlestown and Boston. The British warships held undisputed possession of the harbor.
At length, in March, 1776, after months of toil and surmounting difficulties more than can be enumerated, Washington was prepared for decisive action. In a dark and stormy night he opened upon the foe in the city, from his encircling lines, as fierce a bombardment as his means would allow. Under cover of this roar of the batteries and the midnight storm, he dispatched a large force of picked troops, with the utmost secrecy, to take possession of the Heights of Dorchester. There, during the hours of the night, the soldiers worked with the utmost diligence in throwing up breastworks which would protect them from the broadsides of the English fleet. Having established his batteries upon those heights, he commanded the harbor. In the early dawn of the morning, the British Admiral saw, to his consternation, that a fort bristling with cannon had sprung up during the night almost over his head. He immediately opened upon the works the broadsides of all his ships; but the Americans, defiant of the storm of iron which fell around them, continued to pile their sand-bags and to ply their shovels, until they had thrown up ramparts so strong that no cannonade could injure them.
The British fleet was now at the mercy of Washington's batteries. In a spirit almost of desperation, the Admiral ordered three thousand men in boats to land and take the heights at every hazard. But a great storm came to the aid of the colonists. The gale increased to such fury that not a boat could be launched. Before another day and night had passed the redoubt was made so strong that it could defy any attack.
It was the morning of the 17th of March, I 776. The storm had passed away. The blue sky overarched the beleaguered city and the encamping armies. Washington sat upon his horse, serene and majestic, and contemplated in silent triumph, from the Heights of Dorchester, the evacuation of Boston. The whole British army was crowded on board the ships. A fresh breeze from the west filled their sails; and the hostile armament, before the sun went down, had disappeared beyond the distant horizon. It was a glorious victory. Such another case, perhaps, history does not record. Washington, without ammunition, had maintained his post for six months within musket-shot of a powerful British army. During this time he had disbanded the small force of raw militia he at first had with him, and had recruited another army; and had then driven the enemy into his ships, and out into the sea.
The latter part of June, just before the Declaration of Independence, two large British fleets, one from Halifax and the other direct from England, met at the mouth of the Bay of New York, and, disembarking a powerful army, took possession of Staten Island. Washington had assembled all his available military force to resist their advances. The British Government regarded the leaders of the armies, and their supporters in Congress, as felons, doomed to the scaffold. They refused, consequently, to recognize any titles conferred by Congress.
By the middle of August the British had assembled, on Staten Island and at the mouth of the Hudson River, a force of nearly thirty thousand soldiers, with a numerous and well-equipped fleet. To oppose them Washington had about twelve thousand men, poorly armed, and quite unaccustomed to military discipline and the hardships of the camp. A few regiments of American troops, about five thousand in number, were gathered near Brooklyn. A few thousand more were stationed at other points on Long Island. The English landed without opposition, fifteen thousand strong, and made a combined assault upon the Americans. The battle was short, but bloody. The Americans, overpowered, sullenly retired, leaving fifteen hundred of their number either dead or in the hands of the English. A vastly superior force of well-trained British troops, flushed with victory, pressed upon the rear of the dispirited colonists. Their situation seemed desperate.
Again Providence came to our aid. The wind died away to a perfect calm, so that the British fleet could not move. A dense fog was rolled in from the ocean. The Americans, familiar with every foot of the ground, improved the propitious moments. Boats were rapidly collected; and, in the few hours of that black night, nine thousand men, with nearly all their artillery and military stores, were safely landed in New York. The transportation was conducted so secretly that, though the Americans could hear the English at work with their pickaxes, the last boat had left the Long Island shore ere the retreat was suspected.
The American army was now in a deplorable condition. It had neither arms, ammunition, nor food. The soldiers were unpaid, almost mutinous, and in rags. There were thousands in the vicinity of New York who were in sympathy with the British. Nearly all the Government officials and their friends were on that side. A conspiracy was formed, in which a part of Washington's own guard was implicated, to seize him, and deliver him to that ignominious death to which the British Crown had doomed him.
Washington was equal to the crisis. He saw that the only hope was to be found in avoiding an engagement, and in wearing out the resources of the enemy in protracted campaigns. He slowly retired from New York to the Heights of Harlem, with sleepless vigilance watching every movement of the foe, that he might take advantage of the slightest indiscretion. Here he threw up breastworks, which the enemy did not venture to attack. The British troops ascended the Hudson and East River to assail Washington in his rear. A weary campaign of marches and counter-marches ensued, in which Washington, with scarcely a shadow of an army, sustained, in the midst of a constant succession of disasters, the apparently hopeless fortunes of his country. At one time General Reed in anguish exclaimed, "My God! General Washington, how long shall we fly?" Serenely Washington replied, "We shall retreat, if necessary, over every river of our country, and then over the mountains, where I will make a last stand against our enemies."
The New Jersey Campaign
Washington crossed the Hudson into the Jerseys. The British pursued him. With consummate skill, he baffled all the efforts of the foe. With an army reduced to a freezing, starving band of but three thousand men, he retreated to Trenton. The British pressed exultantly on, deeming the conflict ended and the Revolution crushed. It was December. The foe tracked the patriots by the blood of their lacerated feet on the frozen ground. With great difficulty Washington succeeded in crossing the Delaware in boats, just as the British army arrived upon the banks of the stream. They needed but to cross the river to take possession of Philadelphia. The ice was so rapidly forming that they would soon be able to pass at any point without obstruction. The enemy, with apparently nothing to fear, relaxed his vigilance.
The night of December 25, 1776, was very dark and intensely cold. A storm of wind and snow raged violently. The British, considering the patriots utterly dispersed, and that a broad, icy river flowed between them and the retreating American bands, gathered around the firesides. In the darkness of that wintry night, and amidst the conflict of its elements, Washington re-embarked his troops to recross the Delaware. Forcing his boats through the floating blocks of ice, he succeeded, before daylight the next morning, in landing upon the opposite shore twenty-four hundred men and twenty pieces of cannon. The British were carelessly dispersed, not dreaming of danger. The Americans sprang upon the first body of the foe they met, and, after a short but bloody strife, scattered them, capturing a thousand prisoners and six cannon.
The British retreated to Princeton, and Washington took possession of Trenton. Soon Lord Cornwallis, having received large reinforcements, marched upon Trenton, confident that General Washington could no longer escape them. At the close of a bleak winter day his army appeared before the lines which Washington had thrown up around Trenton. "To-morrow," he said, "at the break of day, I will attack them. The rising sun shall see the end of the rebellion."
The sun rose the next morning, cold but cloudless. In the night the American army had vanished. Replenishing his campfires to deceive the enemy, at midnight, with the utmost precaution and precipitation, he evacuated his camp, and, by a circuitous route, fell upon the rear of the English at Princeton. A hundred and sixty of the British were shot down, and three hundred were taken prisoners.
Cheered by this success, Washington led his handful of troops to the Heights of Morristown. There he intrenched them for winter-quarters. He, however, sent out frequent detachments, which so harassed the enemy that, in a short time, New Jersey was delivered from their presence. The country was animated by these achievements, and Congress roused itself to new energies.
During the remainder of the winter vigorous efforts were made in preparation for the opening of the spring campaign. The different States sent troops to join the army at Morristown. The people of France, in sympathy with our cause, sent two vessels. The Marquis de Lafayette left his mansion of opulence, and his youthful bride, to peril his life in the cause of American independence.
The British, harassed by Washington's sleepless vigilance, yet unable to compel him or to lure him into a general engagement, left New York in a fleet, with eighteen thousand soldiers, to capture Philadelphia. They landed near Elkton at the head of Chesapeake Bay. Washington, with but eleven thousand men, marched to encounter them. The two armies met on the banks of the Brandywine.
A bloody battle ensued. Lafayette was wounded. The Americans, overpowered, were compelled to retreat. Washington, after a short but severe "engagement at Germantown, retired, and the British took possession of Philadelphia. Congress precipitately adjourned to Lancaster, and thence to York. Winter again came. The British were comfortably housed in Philadelphia.
Washington selected Valley Forge, about twenty miles from Philadelphia, as his winter-quarters. Eleven thousand men here passed the winter of 1777 and 1778. It was a period of great discouragement and suffering. The army was in a state of destitution, which Washington did not dare to proclaim abroad, lest the foe should rush upon him in his helplessness.
In this dark hour France came forward to our aid; recognizing our independence, entering into a friendly alliance with us, and sending both a fleet and an army to our support. The British army in New York and Philadelphia amounted to thirty thousand men. The whole American army did not exceed fifteen thousand. But the British, apprehensive that a French fleet might soon appear, and thus endanger the troops in Philadelphia, evacuated the city, and the troops commenced their march through New Jersey. The cold of winter had given place to the heat of summer.
Washington followed close in the rear of the foe, watching for a chance to strike. The 28th of June, 1778, was a day of intense heat. Not a breath of air was stirring, while an unclouded sun poured down its blistering rays upon pursuers and pursued.
The British troops were at Monmouth. The march of one more day would so unite them with the army in New York that they would be safe from attack. General Lee, with five thousand men, was in the advance. Washington sent orders to him immediately to commence the onset, with the assurance that he would hasten to his support. As Washington was pressing eagerly forward, to his inexpressible chagrin he met General Lee at the head of his troops, in full retreat. It is said that Washington, with great vehemence of manner and utterance, cried out, "General Lee, what means this ill-timed prudence?" The retreating General threw back an angry retort. But it was no time for altercation.
Washington turned to the men. They greeted him with cheers. At his command they wheeled about and charged the enemy. A sanguinary battle ensued, and the English were driven from the field. The colonists slept upon their arms, prepared to renew the battle in the morning. When the morning dawned, no foe was to be seen. The British had retreated in the night, leaving three hundred of their dead behind them. The Americans lost but sixty-nine.
Dark Days of the War
Another cold and cheerless winter came. The British remained within their lines at New York. They sent agents, however, to the Six Nations of Indians, to arm them against our defenseless frontier. These fierce savages, accompanied by Tory bands, perpetrated horrors too dreadful for recital. The massacres of Cherry Valley and of Wyoming were among the most awful tragedies ever witnessed on this globe. The narrative of these fiendish deeds sent a thrill of horror through England as well as America. Four thousand men were sent by Washington into the wilderness, to arrest, if possible, these massacres.
The savages and their allies were driven to Niagara, where they were received into all English fortress. General Clinton commenced a vigorous prosecution of a system of violence and plunder upon defenseless towns and farm-houses. The sky was reddened with wanton conflagration. Women and children were driven houseless into the fields. The flourishing towns of Fairfield and Norwalk, in Connecticut, were reduced to ashes.
While the enemy was thus ravaging that defenseless State, Washington planned an expedition against Stony Point, on the Hudson, which was held by the British. General Wayne conducted the enterprise, on the night of the 15th of July, with great gallantry and success. Sixty-three of the British were killed, five hundred and forty-three were taken prisoners, and all the military stores of the fortress captured. During this summer campaign the American army was never sufficiently strong to take the offensive. It was, however, incessantly employed striking blows upon the English wherever the eagle eye of Washington could discern an exposed spot.
The winter of 1779 set in early, and with unusual severity. The American army was in such a starving condition that Washington was compelled to make the utmost exertions to save his wasting band from annihilation. These long years of war and woe filled many even of the most sanguine hearts with despair.
Not a few patriots deemed it gladness for the colonies, impoverished as they were, any longer to contend against the richest and most powerful nation upon the globe. General Arnold, who was at this time in command at West Point, saw no hope for his country.
Believing the ship to be sinking, he turned traitor, and offered to sell his fortress to the English. The treason was detected, but the traitor escaped; and the lamented Andre, who had been lured into the position of a spy, became the necessary victim of Arnold's crime.
Lord Cornwallis was now, with a well-provided army and an assisting navy, overrunning the two Carolinas. General Greene was sent, with all the force which Washington could spare, to watch and harass the invaders, and to furnish the inhabitants with all the protection in his power. Lafayette was in the vicinity of New York, with his eagle eye fixed upon the foe, ready to pounce upon any detachment which presented the slightest exposure. Washington was everywhere, with patriotism, which never flagged, with hope which never failed, cheering the army, animating the inhabitants, rousing Congress, and guiding with his well-balanced mind both military and civil legislation. Thus the dreary year of 1780 lingered away.
As the spring of 1781 opened, the war was renewed. The British directed their chief attention to the South, which was far weaker than the North. Richmond, in Virginia, was laid in ashes; and a general system of devastation and plunder prevailed. The enemy ascended the Chesapeake and the Potomac with armed vessels. They landed at Mount Vernon. The manager of the estate, to save the mansion from pillage and flames, furnished them with abundant supplies. Washington was much displeased. He wrote to his agent: "It would have been a less painful circumstance to me to have heard that, in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burned my house and laid the plantation in ruins. You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them, with a view to prevent a conflagration."
Lord Cornwallis was now at Yorktown, in Virginia, but a few miles from Chesapeake Bay. There was no force in his vicinity seriously to annoy him. Washington resolved, in conjunction with our allies from France, to make a bold movement for his capture. An army of six thousand men, under Count Rochambeau, had been sent by France to aid the American cause. This army, with the French fleet, were most important aids to Washington. He succeeded in deceiving the English into the belief that he was making great preparations for the siege of New York. Thus they were prevented from rendering any aid to Yorktown.
By rapid marches from the neighborhood of New York Washington hastened to Virginia. Early in September Lord Cornwallis, as he arose one morning, was amazed to find himself surrounded by the bayonets and batteries of the Americans. At about the same hour the French fleet appeared, in invincible strength, before the harbor. Cornwallis was caught. There was no escape; there was no retreat. Neither by land nor by sea could he obtain any supplies. Shot and shell soon began to fall thickly into his lines. Famine stared him in the face. After a few days of hopeless conflict, on the 19th of October, 1781, he was compelled to surrender. Seven thousand British veterans laid down their arms. One hundred and sixty pieces of cannon, with corresponding military stores, graced the triumph.
When the British soldiers were marching from their intrenchments to lay down their arms, Washington thus addressed his troops: "My brave fellows, let no sensation of satisfaction for the triumphs you have gained induce you to insult your fallen enemy. Let no shouting, no clamorous huzzaing, increase their mortification. Posterity will huzza for us."
This glorious capture roused renewed hope and vigor allover the country. The joyful tidings reached Philadelphia at midnight. A watchman traversed the streets, shouting at intervals, "Past twelve o'clock, and Cornwallis is taken." Candles were lighted; windows thrown up; figures in night-robes and night-caps bent eagerly out to catch the thrilling sound; shouts were raised; citizens rushed into the streets, half clad,-they wept; they laughed. The news flew upon the wings of the wind, nobody can tell how; and the shout of an enfranchised people rose, like a roar of thunder, from our whole land. With such a victory, republican America would never again yield to the aristocratic government of England.
Early in May 1782, the British Cabinet opened negotiations for peace. Hostilities were, by each party, tacitly laid aside. Negotiations were protracted in Paris during the summer and the ensuing winter. Early in the following spring the joyful tidings arrived that a treaty of peace had been signed at Paris. The intelligence was communicated to the American army on the 19th of April, 1783, just eight years from the day when the conflict was commenced on the Common at Lexington.
Late in November the British evacuated New York, entered their ships, and sailed for their distant island. Washington, marching from West Point, entered the city as our vanquished foes departed. America was free and independent. Washington was the savior of his country.
After an affecting farewell to the officers of the army, Washington set out for his Virginia home. At every town and village he was received with love and gratitude. At Annapolis he met the Continental Congress, where he was to resign his commission. It was the 23d of December, 1783. All the members of Congress, and a large concourse of spectators, were present. His address closed with the following words: "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of a nation, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."
The next day he returned to Mount Vernon, where he expected to spend the remainder of his days as a private citizen. This, however, could not be. The wisdom and ability of which he had given such abundant proof was soon required once more in his country's service.
The great problem which now engrossed all minds was the consolidation of the thirteen States into a nation: To this subject Washington, who had suffered so intensely from the inefficiency of the Continental Congress, devoted his most anxious attention. A convention was called in the year 1787. Washington was a delegate from Virginia, and was unanimously chosen to preside over its deliberations. The result was the present Constitution of the United States; which created a nation from the people of all the States, with supreme powers for all the purposes of a general government, and leaving with the States those questions oft local law in which the integrity of the nation was not involved.
The Constitution of the United States is, in the judgment of the millions of the American people, the most sagacious document which has ever emanated from uninspired minds. It has created the strongest government upon this globe. It has made the United States of America what they now are. The world must look at the fruit, and wonder and admire.
First President of the New Nation
Upon the adoption of the Constitution all eyes were turned to Washington as chief magistrate. By the unanimous voice of the Electors he was chosen the first President of the United States. There was probably scarcely a dissentient voice in the nation. New York was then the seat of government. As Washington left Mount Vernon for the metropolis to assume these new duties of toil and care, we find recorded in his journal:-
"About ten o'clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York. with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hopes of answering its expectations."
On his journey to New York Washington was met and escorted by crowds of people, who made his progress a march of triumph. At Trenton a beautiful arch, decorated with flowers, spanned the road, commemorating his victory over the Hessians in 1776. His path was strewn with flowers, and troops of children sang songs of welcome.
Washington was inaugurated President of the United States on the 30th of April, 1789. He remained in the presidential chair two terms of four years each. At the close of his administration, in the year 1796, he again retired to the peaceful shades of Mount Vernon. Soon after his return he wrote a letter to a friend, in which he described the manner in which he passed his time. He rose with the sun, and first made preparations for the business of the day.
"By the time I have accomplished these matters," he adds, "breakfast is ready. This being over, I mount my horse, and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss to see strange faces, come, as they say, out of respect to me. And how different is this from having a few friends at the social board! The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea, bring me within the dawn of candle-light; previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve that, as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing-table, and acknowledge the letters I have received. Having given you this history of a day, it will serve for a year."
The following anecdotes have been related, illustrative of President Washington's habits of punctuality. Whenever he assigned to meet Congress at noon, he seldom failed of passing the door of the hall when the clock struck twelve. His dining-hour was at four o'clock, when he always sat down to his table, whether his guests were assembled or not, merely allowing five minutes for the variation of time-pieces. To those who came late, he remarked, "Gentlemen, we are punctual here: my cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has."
Captain Pease had a beautiful span of horses, which he wished to sell to the President. The President appointed five o'clock in the morning to examine them at his stable. The Captain arrived with his span at quarter past five. He was told by the groom that the President was there at five o'clock, but was then gone to attend to other engagements. The President's time was wholly occupied for several days, so that Captain Pease "had to remain a whole week in Philadelphia before he could get another opportunity to exhibit his span. Washington, having inherited a large landed estate in Virginia, was, as a matter of course, a slaveholder. The whole number which he held at the time of his death was one hundred and twenty-four. The system met his strong disapproval. In 1786 he wrote to Robert Morris, saying, "There is no man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery."
Long before this he had recorded his resolve: "I never mean, unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase; if being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law."
Mrs. Washington, immediately after her husband's death, learning from his will that the only obstacle to the immediate emancipation of the slaves was her right of dower, immediately relinquished that right, and the slaves were at once emancipated.
The 12th of December, 1799, was chill and damp. Washington, however, took his usual round on horseback to his farms, and returned late in the afternoon, wet with sleet, and shivering with cold. Though the snow was clinging to his hair behind when he came in, he sat down to dinner without changing his dress. The next day three inches of snow whitened the ground, and the sky was clouded. Washington, feeling that he had taken cold, remained by the fireside during the morning. As it cleared up in the afternoon, he went out to superintend some work upon the lawn. He was then hoarse, and the hoarseness increased as night came on. He, however, took no remedy for it, saying, "I never take anything to carry off a cold. Let it go as it came."
He passed the evening as usual, reading the papers, answering letters, and conversing with his family. About two o'clock the next morning, Saturday, the 14th, he awoke in an ague-chill, and was seriously unwell. At sunrise his physician, Dr. Craig, who resided at Alexandria, was sent for. In the meantime he was bled by one of his overseers, but with no relief, as he rapidly grew worse. Dr. Craig reached Mount Vernon at eleven o'clock, and immediately bled his patient again, but without effect. Two consulting physicians arrived during the day; and, as the difficulty in breathing and swallowing rapidly increased, venesection was again attempted. It is evident that Washington then considered his case doubtful. He examined his will, and destroyed some papers which he did not wish to have preserved.
His sufferings from inflammation of the throat and struggling for breath, as the afternoon wore away, became quite severe. Still, he retained his mental faculties unimpaired, and spoke briefly of his approaching death and burial. About four o'clock in the afternoon he said to Dr. Craig, "I die hard; but I am not afraid to go. I believed, from my first attack, that I should not survive it: my breath cannot last long." About six o'clock, his physician asked him if he would sit up in his bed. He held out his hands, and was raised up on his pillow, when he said, "I feel that I am going. I thank you for your attentions. You had better not take any more trouble about me, but let me go off quietly. I cannot last long."
He then sank back upon his pillow, and made several unavailing attempts to speak intelligibly. About ten o'clock he said, "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault until three days after I am dead. Do you understand me?" To the reply, "Yes, sir," he remarked, "It is well." These were the last words he uttered. Soon after this he gently expired, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.
At the moment of his death Mrs. Washington sat in silent grief at the foot of his bed. "Is he gone?" she asked, in a firm and collected voice. The physician, unable to speak, gave a silent signal of assent. "'Tis well," she added, in the same untremulous utterance. "All is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through." On the 18th his remains were
deposited in the tomb at Mount Vernon, where they still repose; and his name and memory live on immortal, forever enshrined in the hearts of a grateful people.
"How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country's wishes blest!
By fairy hands their knell is rung;
By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
There Honor comes, a pilgrim gray,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell, a weeping hermit, there."