Fort Necessity

I was excited to head to Fort Necessity today (8/1/17) because this is where it all began:  The French Indian War which gave rise to the American Revolution.  So much of Washington is tied up in this area–his worst defeat, his biggest betrayal, his deepest humiliation, and the loss of a surrogate father figure.  Standing on the ground here, I felt, would give me the greatest insight for my book.  It is a truly incredible place.

I hadn’t realized that Washington and his men had spent almost two months clearing land for a road to attack Fort Duquesne.  One thing that has always stood out to me in this area is just how many trees there are–everywhere.  I can’t imagine trying to carve a path through them, much less fighting in them.  When he happened upon the Great Meadows, it must have seemed an oasis in the desert.  He termed it, “A charming field for an engagement.”  For a man who desperately wanted a British commission and who had been trained in the shoulder to shoulder British style of fighting, this spot was perfect.  Still, he hadn’t intended it for military service, but merely a supply station for troops attacking Fort Duquesne.

Another view of the fort

That all changed when three days later, Washington’s ally Tanacharison (the Half King) informed Washington there were French in the area (about 7 miles away).  His actions later make me wonder if this was a set-up, and he was simply using Washington.   Washington and 40 men set out to the Half King’s camp.  When they arrive, his scouts lead them to a ravine where the French are encamped.  From this point, two different versions of the story come into place.  Like typical siblings, both the French and the British claim the other one started it.  The French claim the British surprised them, and they fired back.  The British claim the French saw them approaching and fired first, with the British return fire being self defense.  Whatever actually happened, at the end of the day, the French commander Joseph Coulon de Villiers (Sieur de Jumonville) and 9 others were killed, one wounded, 21 prisoners, and one man who escaped to carry the news to Fort Duquesne.  British casualties were one killed, two wounded.  This would lead me to believe the British fired first, though they did have the high ground, so the disparity in casualties could come from that.  The interesting thing is that Coulon de Villiers was actually only wounded and was possibly trying to surrender–until the Half King got ahold of him–literally.  With a tomahawk.

Diorama of the Fort

When British Colonel Fry falls off his horse and dies of his injuries two days later, Washington is promoted to Colonel.  With the weight of leadership on his shoulders and the expectation of French retaliation from Fort Duqesne, Washington begins to try to make the area a fort, while still trying to do work on the road.  He has men guard those working on the road, but even with reinforcements still only has about 400 men.  His Indian allies meet with him, but when they realize Washington’s supplies haven’t come through as promised, and he has barely enough provisions for his men, they decide the British are a lost cause and refuse to fight.  Thus, Washington will face the 700 approaching Frenchmen and Indians with no allies.  I’m sure this was a huge betrayal by those he thought would stand with him–especially the man who was actually to blame for the incident.  But, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Artillery demonstration

It’s a horrible, rainy day on July 3, making fighting sporadic, as both sides are dealing with wet gunpowder, and Washington’s men are standing in trenches, which are slowly filling up.  The commander of the French Army is none other than the Louis, brother of Joseph Coulon de Villiers.  But, Providence will both save Washington and humiliate him.  The Indians with the French prefer the element of surprise and the spoils of war.  Seeing that there is neither at this time, they tell Louis Coulon De Villiers that they will leave in the morning.  He has a choice to make.

He requests a truce to parlay, offering Washington the chance to surrender.  But, when the terms are sent to Washington, they are smudged because of the rain.  Washington’s normal translator had been killed, and the man who was translating was Dutch, but could understand most of what was said.  Most being the key word.  He informs Washington that the terms are generous, allowing Washington and his men to leave with honors of war, taking their baggage and weapons (but no swivel guns–like little cannons) and return immediately to Virginia.  They had to leave two men as hostages (who would volunteer, then provide valuable intelligence as spies.)  Unfortunately, the translator left out the part where, by signing, Washington is admitting to the assassination of Joseph Coulon de Villiers, whom the French claim was acting as an ambassador, in the same role as Washington himself–though papers in his effects give the possibility he was spying as well (as the British would claim).  This report makes it all over Europe and the colonies, and Washington is humiliated.  Though Governor Dinwiddie doesn’t blame Washington when he reaches Virginia, he will disband the Virginia regiments into garrison companies, and will offer Washington the demoted rank of Captain.  When Washington is unable to negotiate a higher rank, he will leave military service less than three months after the Fort Necessity debacle and return to Mount Vernon.

Braddock’s memorial

But, Washington doesn’t get too comfortable in the quiet life as a farmer.  When General Braddock is named Commander in chief of the British forces and arrives in America with two Irish regiments, Washington sends him a note of congratulations–a great way to get noticed.  Because of the way British commissions worked, Washington would be subordinate to even his British inferiors, so he makes the decision to accept the offer to join as Braddock’s Aide de Camp–a volunteer position in which he only answered to Braddock, and he could pave the way to a commissioned rank.

I can’t imagine what he must have felt when his path led him back to Fort Necessity, where the bones of his men were still visible against the landscape (the French had burned Fort Necessity to the ground.)  But, he had another chance to assault Fort Duquesne.  Unfortunately, it would be another devastating loss.

View of Braddock’s original burial site (right) and monument (left)

Braddock has mostly heeded Washington’s advice on the advance.  He has men scouting and protecting the flanks and rear as the army crosses the Monongahela River.  When he doesn’t get ambushed, however, Braddock assumes the French are holed up in the fort and pulls the scouts in, lining his men up, unfurling the banners, and striking up the band.  There’s not a chance the French can miss their arrival.  Unfortunately.  Unbeknownst to him, the French know Braddock’s coming and had made the decision to surprise attack–they just didn’t make it to the river in time.  The two armies slam into each other.  And though the British have over twice the numbers, the French and Indians are fighting ambush style, hitting the flanks from the treeline, and the British lines literally collapse into each other, forming a mass of red coated men–a horribly easy target.  Washington and Braddock, both on horseback, are trying to return order to the situation.  Both have horses shot from under them.  Both have bullet holes in their clothing.  Both are unhit–until Braddock is struck with a bullet to the shoulder which passes into his chest.  Washington is able to get him into a wagon and off the field, then assemble the men and cover the retreat.

The original spot where Braddock was buried.

Unfortunately, Braddock, who had been a sort of father figure to 24 year old George who had lost his own father at 11, would die three days later.  Washington himself will preside over the burial, choosing to bury him in the road he had built where soldiers will march over his grave, obscuring the site from those who would seek to desecrate the body.  He will remain there until 1804 when men repairing this section of the road will stumble upon the remains and move them to the hill.

Ironically, this site of so much pain will be bought by Washington who visited after the war.  For the surveyor, it is indeed a beautiful piece of land, but I can’t imagine being able to see past all the memories he would have had.  But, knowing that he also revisited Valley Forge, I believe Washington didn’t shy away from the hard places.  Perhaps that’s another thing that makes him great.

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Pitt Museum…and the very familiar bridge

When I set off today (7/31/17) for Pittsburgh, I had plans to visit Fort Pitt and explore some of the surrounding areas.  I had forgotten (blocked?) just how much I hate cities.  Don’t get me wrong–some of the coolest things to see are inside cities, but the hassle of getting there always has me frustrated before I arrive wherever I’m going.  Fort Pitt was my normal annoyance on steroids.

To the best of my memory, I haven’t been to Pittsburgh before, and the internet analysis of traffic was truthful, but not positive.  I was relying on my GPS to locate Fort Pitt (having identified its location on a map), and it didn’t steer me wrong–sort of.  It did, in fact, identify Fort Pitt.  While I was on a bridge.  And the building was about 20 feet below me.  With no indication of a road down.  Consequently, I spent an hour and a half driving back and forth over the bridge and surrounding areas trying to figure out where to actually park to approach Fort Pitt.  I had googled Parking Garages in the vicinity, but they seemed miles from the actual building. I strongly considered calling it a day and driving back home.  I’m glad I didn’t.

Blockhouse model

To save you the hassle, I will share my wisdom, so you can do better (or at least faster) if you visit.  I chose a parking garage at the corner of Fort Duquesne and Stanwix.  It costs $20 for the day (Advertised $6.00–but after 4.  Read the fine print.)  There is another garage for $13 a day at Fort Duquesne and Sixth Street (which I was headed to when I found this one.)  It’s a better deal, but 2+ blocks farther away.   After you park, walk down Fort Duquesne until you can turn left on Commonwealth Place.  As you turn, you’ll see a park area in front of you with a circling walkway that goes under the bridge (and over a little bridge of its own).  Take the pathway, and you come out at the Fort Pitt Museum.

Barracks scene

Once I actually arrived, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the museum.  The first floor contains a model of Fort Pitt and vicinity, a gallery of paintings about the French Indian War, and many free standing scenes including traders, barracks, Native American scenes, and the model of the inside of the block house.  There is a lot of reading on panels here, but they explain a great deal about the war.

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Depiction of the British articles of war

The main exhibits, however, are on the second floor.  One thing I especially appreciated was the separation of French, British, and American.  Each topic, whether it was uniforms and weapons, reasons for fighting, or responses to various circumstances, contained the views of each side.  I was struck once again with how complex war often is.  I have always presented the Civil War as a many layered event with people fighting for a variety of reasons, but it seems the French Indian War was the same.  I suppose that’s true in every conflict–people have different reasons why they do what they do.  I was also struck with how many times people made stupid and hurtful choices trying to get revenge–Like the whole congregation (96+ people) of Moravian Christian Indians who were slaughtered (after being told they’d be executed and spending the night singing hymns) simply because the soldiers wanted revenge against an entirely different group of Native Americans.  There’s also the time two soldiers decided to kill White Eyes–the spokesman of the Delaware who was known as “The Peacemaker” for his work negotiating treaties.  Of all the people you’d think to kill, the leader who was on your side shouldn’t be at the top of that list!

I also read about the commander who chose tho deliver two smallpox infested blankets and a handkerchief to the Native Americans even before his commanding officer commanded him to do just that.  It was an intentional biological attack.  The museum sites case after case where the Native Americans are stuck in the middle, trying to decide who to trust:  the British or the French, then the British or the Americans.  The choices are not great.

Exterior Blockhouse

I finished up at the Museum, getting a detailed book on the campaign during which my book is set, and headed outside.  There is a remaining block house outside of the museum, but it’s only open Wednesdays through Sunday April through October and weekends the rest of the year, so I didn’t get to go inside.  This blockhouse is one of the original 5 redoubts placed on the perimeter of Fort Pitt for added security.  It is the only remaining part of the Fort.  There is also an outline of the location where Fort Duquesne stood.

All in all, it was a very informative day, but I’m looking forward to the forts that are a little more easily accessible–and a bit more off the beaten path!

 

The Culpepper Library

I spent today (7/10/17) at two different libraries, again looking for primary source information on Washington.  I started out at the Culpepper Library, which I was surprised to find located in a shopping center!  But despite its unusual appearances, I received a lot of helpful information.  First, the librarian pointed me to another library I will have to check out tomorrow (it was an hour and a half away…), but she also helped me find a few accounts I hadn’t seen before.

View of Ferry Farm

First, I was interested to read an account of Ferry Farm and discover the house looks very different from the way they’re reconstructing it, so I’m sending the information I found over to them.  I’m sure they have done extensive research, it was just interesting to me.  Additionally, I found out that in the trial of the two indentured servants who had stolen George’s clothes while he was swimming, it was, in fact, two Women!  You have to wonder what they were thinking.  Apparently, from the records I’d found, one of them gave evidence that it was the other’s fault, and that girl got 15 lashes on a bare back.  Still, I think it’s hilarious and wonder how old these two ladies actually were.

I also found some anecdotes from others who knew George as a young man.  One described the fact that George could outrun anyone in the county, though another kid in town who was an excellent runner liked to boast he could “bring George to a tie.  But, I believe he was mistaken;  for I have seen them run together many a time; and George always beat him easy enough. ” Another man talked about how fine a rider George was, and how good a judge of horses.  A final man mentioned that strength ran in the Washington family, as his dad’s gun was so heavy that “not one man in fifty could fire it without a rest.”  He mentions Washington throwing rocks over the Rappahannock (determined to be 115 yards in length–or over a whole football field), so I’m sure this is what gave rise to the Silver dollar over the Potomac myth.  Definitely fascinating reading, though.

Washington’s letter–this original is an amazing part of the special collection at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

From there, I made my way to the Special Collections building at the University of Virginia.  I checked out a box of Washington’s papers.  What an amazing privilege to hold Washington’s own description of the ambush in the French Indian War.  His writing is incredibly small (Picture left shows an eraser for comparison), and there was no transcript, but I got to read his description of the engagement I wanted.  Here’s what he said:

“When we came to this place we were attacked (very unexpectedly, I must own) by about 300 French and Indians….(After accounting their number and that they had 60 killed and wounded officers, including his General who would die three days later)…I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me.  It is supposed we left 300 or more dead in the field.”

Another interesting passage to me was a letter he wrote to a close friend during the American Revolution.  He writes very candidly since this letter is being hand delivered and not going through any post riders.  His purpose is:

“to make you sensible of the real situation of our affairs, and that it is with difficulty, (if I may use the expression) that I can by every means in my favor keep the life and soul of this army together–in short, when they (Congress) are at a distance, they think it is but to say “(unreadable)” and everything is done–as in other words done (unreadable) without considering or seeming to have any conception of the difficulties and perplexities attending those who are to carry these resolves into effect.”  (Mar. 2, 1777 to Robert Morris)

It resonated because I could clearly understand how our current military men must feel when D.C. is making decisions that they have to carry out, having no real concept of what conditions are like or what it costs those men.  A good perspective.

The Statue slated for removal

I ended the day driving by the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) voted to be removed.  It had come to my attention on Twitter that there had been a march protesting the removal of the statue, so I wanted to go see it before it was gone.  I had posted on Facebook about the statue and had a lengthy conversation about how these men are perceived and whether or not there should be statues to them.  Having family in the South and knowing the character of these men, I love that they’re honored.  But, to some of my African American friends, they represent a system of slavery that led to unspeakable horrors for their ancestors.  I was again reminded of the need for good honest dialogue in order to mend the wounds that still run deep!

 

The Governor’s Palace

I began my study of George Washington at my favorite Colonial Williamsburg.  When I received my grant on Robert Bolling, I spent a great deal of time in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, aided by the wonderful people there, so I knew they would be a good place to start today (7/7/17).

I was pleased to find on the Colonial Williamsburg schedule that Lady Washington would be speaking today.  We had fallen in love with the “original” Martha Washington (who started the reenactment program at Colonial Williamsburg and now plays Lady Washington at Mount Vernon.)  And while I know the reenactors at Williamsburg are just that, I also know they spend an extensive time studying the original before taking on the role.  Since I wanted to get a feel for Washington’s personality, I figured the best place to start was with those who “knew him best.”

Lady Washington’s presentation was mostly concerning the role of women in the war, but more specifically her duty to her husband.  When they had married, George had promised her he wouldn’t be involved in battle again.  But, when he is selected by the Continental Congress to hold the position, he feels duty bound to accept.  Martha, also has an amazing sense of duty which will compel her to the winter camps to be with her husband.  Ironically, she receives the final persuasion to go from reading in the newspaper that she is a Tory, estranged from her husband, and not supportive of the cause.  Obviously, this makes her aware of the role she plays in the new nation’s formation.  So, for the next several years, she will spend the winters with her husband in camp, where many of the men will view her as a mother and caretaker to them all.  It definitely gave the audience a lot to think about in regards to our current soldiers and their families.

Lady Washington

After seeing Lady Washington, I wandered around a bit and stumbled upon an auction in progress.  This is a newer addition to Williamsburg and one of the changes I actually like. Daily during the summer and on Saturdays the rest of the year, Colonial Williamsburg conducts a public auction (not requiring an admission pass).  During the auction, bids start usually at half price on items available in gift shops and a few special items unique to the auction.  It was an incredible experience!  It’s also the only auction I’ve seen where the auctioneer will occasionally give you items for less than you were willing to pay.  I had bid up to $10 on a hatpin, and he dropped the bid back to $5!  Definitely a fun addition.

After the auction, I decided to buckle down for the heat of the day, and made my way to John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, where I received my second surprise.  There was a sign on the window that due to the cuts, the library would no longer be open to the public, except by appointment–which I didn’t have.  Another loss from lack of funding.  Thankfully, however, one of the librarians saw me gaping and let me in.  Those who were there were willing to work with me, and I spent the next four hours pouring over Washington’s papers.  One of the managers was also able to email the man who plays Washington, as an artist on the palace green informed me he had been required to do a year of reading before being allowed to play Washington (You see what I mean about these guys knowing their stuff.)  I haven’t heard back from him yet, but I’m excited for the process.

The Auction

There were several cool things I discovered while doing research on the young George Washington. I started with his diary entries as a 15 year old!  These were mostly about his surveying activities and discussions of hard times he had with lodgings (sleeping on scant hay with vermin infested blankets.)  But, he also included a passage about seeing an Indian war dance.  I copied down his description for use in my book.

“They clear a large circle and make a great fire in the middle, then seat themselves around it.  The speaker makes a grand speech telling them in what manner they are to dance.  After he has finished, the best dancer jumps up as one awakened from sleep, runs and jumps around the ring in a most comical manner.  He is followed by the rest.  Then begins their musicians to play a pot half of water with deer skin stretched over it as tight as it can and a gourd with some shot in it to rattle and a piece of horse tail to make it look fine.”

Knowing how much Washington would deal with the Native Americans in the future, I found it interesting to read these early impressions.  Reading Washington’s own thoughts really gave me a sense of his voice.  I especially loved his dealings in the French-Indian War.  Two things particularly stood out. First, Washington even at this time was honing his spy skills.  He evaluated land for its potential defensability. He also used time in the French forts to scout their resources.  His level of observation (telling how many cannons and which types, the number of men, and areas of the fort that were vulnerable) give indication of the strategist he would become.  It also helped me understand the information he requested of the Culpepper ring.

The Capitol Building

The second thing that interested me was his dealings with the Native Americans and the propaganda each side used.  The French seemed to try to bribe the Indians with goods (mostly weapons or alcohol.)  The British, however, protest that they’re fighting this war to preserve the Indians lands, and they offer their protection to the tribes’ old, women, and children.  Another interesting thing I noticed (and Washington seems to take exception to) is the fact that the French call the Indians “children” and the Indians refer to them as “fathers.”  The British (or at least George Washington on their behalf) calls the Indians both brother and friend.  In one letter, he even signs his own Indian name Conotocarious.  Ironically, the name (which Washington inherited from his Great Grandfather John Washington) means “Town Taker” or “Devourer of Villages.”  In light of our later treatment of Native people, I find that extremely interesting and would love to find the back story.  Even more interesting is the fact that when Washington refers to himself by his Indian name, he has just signed his letter “Your friend and brother.”  Just a fascinating dance, these interactions between cultures!

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Escaping a Rainy day at Charlton’s

After studying for the better part of four hours, I decided to head over to Charlton’s Coffee House.  As always, there was amazing chocolate and fun information on the house, and on this particular day, it provided a nice place to wait out the short shower of pouring rain.

I concluded my day by heading over to the William and Mary Campus Library.  The Special Collections researchers had already headed home for the day, but the librarian was able to point me in the direction of Ferry Farm, Washington’s boyhood home.  I was surprised this hadn’t come up in my research–I just had information on his birthplace and assumed he went from there to Mount Vernon.  But, Ferry Farm is on my way (ish) from the birthplace to Culpepper, so I’ll head there on Sunday.  So much to see and do!