Being George Washington: The Indispensable Man, as You’ve Never Seen Him

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IF YOU THINK YOU KNOW GEORGE WASHINGTON, THINK AGAIN.

Enjoy an exclusive preview from the introduction of Glenn's new book, Being George Washington. This scene takes place during the Battle of Monongahela and is the first time we are introduced to then-colonel George Washington.

INTRODUCTION: Had I Not Been Witness

Our rifles were levelled, rifles which, but for him, knew not how to miss-'t was all in vain, a power mightier far than we, shielded him from harm.  He can not die in battle.  I am old, and soon shall be gathered to the great council-fire of my fathers, in the land of shades, but ere I go, there is a something, bids me speak, in the voice of prophecy.  Listen!  The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies-he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn, will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire!

-Unnamed Indian Chief on the Ohio Frontier, Fall of 1770

July 9, 1755

10:45 A.M.

Banks of the Monongahela River

Ten miles upstream of Fort Duquesne

(Current location of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

The colonel’s horse was terrified. And how could she not be. There was no way to have prepared her for the chaos, no way to inoculate her from the frantic movements and the smoke, the sound of gunfire spinning over her head or the hysterical cries of battle.

The air was thick with smoke, billows of gray and white that made it nearly impossible to see. The horse pinned her ears back; her eyes were wild, her shoulders quivering underneath the leather saddle.

How similar her reaction is to that of these men! the colonel thought.

He had no way of knowing, but it wasn’t the chaos that terrified the mare, it was the smell. Human bowels spilt upon the ground, exposed muscle and bone. The mud bloodied beneath her hooves. These were the things that caused her to want to run.

She was a good horse, but she was not his, and so she was nervous beneath his unfamiliar hand. Still, he had no choice but to take her. His original horse, a hulking mare capable of carrying a large man such as he, had already been shot out from underneath him, her chest blown away in a hail of fire. Then his second horse had been taken, again shot out from underneath him. Two horses! In the same battle! It was the kind of thing he would ordinarily consider deeply. But not now. Any contemplation about why he was spared would have to wait.

He spurred his new mare, which he’d taken from a dead soldier, toward the tree line where there was a little cover. Even there, the acidic smoke was so thick that it burned his eyes, causing a trail of tears down his dirty cheeks. The shots from the trees kept coming like a constant crack of thunder that seemed to have no end.

His army was falling all around him now, their bodies scattering among the trees. The afternoon sun pressed against him like a blanket, humid and wet and oppressive with stench. Leaving the cover of the trees, he spurred the horse again, riding up and down the battlefield, trying desperately to rally his men. He shouted at them. Some who were running, he cut off, sending them back into the battle. Riding before them, he waved his gun, lifting it high into the air while crying out directions to reposition the troops. He pointed as he shouted, giving his commands. But it was too late. Far too late! It pained him as much as any ball to the chest, but there was no more denying what he was watching take place: an awful, demoralizing battlefield defeat.

      ***

1:15 P.M.

The colonel could see that General Edward Braddock’s soldiers were in complete panic, their gold-trimmed red coats and oversized hats flashing all around him. These English men were trained for regimented battle on Europe’s open fields: straight lines of soldiers set in a solid block formation, a measured march toward the enemy, fire, move aside, let the next man step forward to fire, reload, take position, aim and fire once again. It was a thing of beauty and precision.

European armies had been fighting like that for generations, the procedures ingrained as strongly as the urge to breathe. But, having been so conditioned, the British regulars were not prepared for what they were now facing. The enemy concealed behind deep cover. They had been pre-positioned on all sides. Fighting from the brush without revealing themselves! Half-naked Indians slithered like frightening ghosts among them. It was terrifying. And uncivilized! They would never survive against these kinds of tactics!

The colonel shook his head in shame. He should have pressed General Braddock more than he had. He should have been more urgent in his warnings about how they would fight. He could have made a difference.

But it was too late now. If they didn’t hold their line, if only temporarily, even a respectable retreat would soon be impossible.

The colonel turned his horse toward the enemy. Sitting high atop the saddle, his legs much too long for the short stirrups, his officer’s emblems in plain sight, he willingly drew the enemy’s fire. White-hot balls zipped around him like horizontal rain, a sound that was so surreal it was impossible to forget. Other soldiers seemed to scatter from him, realizing the danger of standing near—but the colonel didn’t hesitate. He called out encouragement, shouting instructions left and right. He felt a violent tug at his jacket but there was no time to stop; he kept yelling, directing, pleading.

After some time the battlefield was filled with smoke. The enemy was no longer visible and the British retreated to the cover of the tree line. From the edge of the battlefield, he watched a scene of carnage such as he had never seen before slowly unfold. He watched the army crumble. He watched his pride, his future, his entire world fall apart.

      ***

3:00 P.M.

Surrounded by thick trees and brush, the British soldiers and Virginia militia fired without aiming, then quickly reloaded and fired again. Occasionally they hit the enemy. More often they shot their own men. Some soldiers, in fact, were completely turned around now, firing toward their own lines! The terrifying cries of Indians cut through the trees, the sun catching an occasional reflection of the knives they were using to scalp the dead or dying, adding more terror to the scene.

The colonel moved his horse forward and she stomped atop a dead man’s chest, forcing a final puff of air from his lungs, his neat British uniform stained with blood and dirt. The colonel tried to guide the horse, but the ground was so thick with bodies now that it was getting hard to ride without desecrating those who had fallen. It made his stomach churn.

Turning a final time, he held his horse in place and stared upon the scene. He felt her shiver through the saddle and he reached down to pat her neck. She moved left and right, ready to bolt, her hooves dancing in anticipation, begging her master to let her go.

He watched in shame as the British soldiers turned and ran, their red coats flashing against the green foliage, making them easy targets as they went. Many held their muskets pressed against their chest, but some didn’t carry anything at all, having lost or abandoned their weapons in the pandemonium that had taken over the battlefield.

He frantically looked around, searching for General Braddock’s bright officer uniform. He found the general lying in a heap atop the bloody ground. The colonel spurred his horse toward him and dismounted feebly. He was so weak that he almost fell, every movement coming with great pain, the result of the bloody flux and fever that had been racking him for weeks.

Seeing that the general was badly wounded, he called out to the closest man. “See that small cart there!” he shouted, bullets whizzing over both of their heads.

The regular ducked before he turned to look. “Aye, I see it, sir!”

“Go to it! Bring it to me! Now!” He shoved the enlisted man toward the cart. Turning to some fellow officers who had taken cover behind a stand of fallen trees, he shouted to them. “Come here and help me! Our commander lies wounded!”

The officers looked at him in desperation, and then ran forward, ducking behind the nearest tree. Under fierce fire, the officers loaded the general into the small cart, being as careful as they could. The colonel looked at their fallen leader, seeing the floor of the cart grow bloody underneath his uniform. The general tried to whisper orders and the colonel leaned toward him so that he could hear. “Yes, sir. I will see to it!” he promised before he motioned to the regulars who had taken the handrails of the cart. “Take it away!” he cried.

Returning to his horse, he moved out of the line of fire. A few brave men stood their ground, fighting to protect the others, but most of the British troops were quickly retreating. He watched in growing disgust. This was no last stand. No orderly retreat! They were running like sheep pursued by dogs. Their cowardice was inconceivable. He cursed them all in rage as he knew they were condemning their brave comrades to certain death, leaving them with no one to cover their own retreat.

These were the best soldiers the kingdom had to offer?

No, these were weak and frightened cowards! What he saw before him, the chaos and disrepair, the weakness and confusion in the midst of battle, this couldn’t represent the greatest army in the world! This couldn’t be the best of the royal regulars. This had to be . . . what? He did not know.

Before leaving the scene of the battle, the colonel and his fellow soldiers made a final effort to sort through all the fallen, gathering up the wounded to take back home. They moved the dead into horrible piles, throwing leaves and branches over them as best as they could. General Braddock still lay in the cart, sometimes speaking, sometimes unconscious, always in great pain. The colonel knew the general would not make it.

      ***

7:45 P.M.

Late that evening, when the sun was nearly set, what remained of the British and Virginian army collected the few provisions and munitions they had left. Turning south, they headed downstream on the Monongahela River, back in the direction from which they’d come, back toward Virginia, leaving the French and Indians behind.

The colonel now stared mournfully into the evening fire. A few officers sat beside him, but none of them spoke. All around him he heard the moans of the wounded, many of whom were doing nothing but the hard work it took to die. The army doctors, such as they were, and few as they were in number, were doing everything that they could to help the wounded, but it proved to be precious little, as the cries of the anguished made very clear.

That morning, nearly 1,500 British and Virginian soldiers had marched proudly toward the French position at Fort Duquesne, intent on planting the British flag there once again. But in the early afternoon, they walked straight into the jaws of disaster. They encountered the enemy just a few miles from the fort.

Some of his fellow officers now claimed the French and Indians numbered in the thousands. The colonel knew that was absurd. His army outnumbered the French and Indians by a great number, he was sure of it. That was what filled him anxiety. They had been massacred--nd by a much smaller force. The British had fought shamefully, then panicked, then finally turned around and ran. Evidence showed that many of his soldiers had died from British muskets, not the French arms, which were smaller.

Had I not been witness, he thought, I would not have believed it.

As he stared into the fire, the colonel took off his coat. Shaking it out, he found two holes, the shells having passed right through the fabric. He stared at them in disbelief, pushing a finger through each hole as if to convince himself that they were real. He slowly shook his head in disbelief.

A small group of officers was watching. One of them, a scrawny Virginian with jet-black hair, leaned forward on his knees, his face a pale yellow in the firelight. “There’s another one in your hat, sir.”

The colonel took his hat off and examined it. Yes, there was another hole.

Two shells through his clothes. Another through his hat. Two horses shot out from underneath him. He shook his head again.

A fellow Virginian officer watched him carefully. “Who are you?” the man wondered aloud, a deep hesitation in his voice.

The colonel turned to look at him, pushing the tattered officer coat aside. It almost seemed he tried to hide it, and he didn’t answer the other man.

“Who are you?” the officer repeated.

The colonel looked his fellow Virginian in the eyes. “I am George Washington,” he said.

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