General George Washington
A Military Life
Friday, August 26, 2005
May 1741 - February 1753
At the end of May 1741, a young American officer stood sweltering on the sun-baked deck of a warship off the coast of Jamaica. Transports full of red-coated soldiers surrounded him, clogging the horizon with wooden hulls, masts, and sails that announced the presence of a British expeditionary army. As a captain in the provincial infantry, he occupied only a small corner of that army, and counted for little; but as an American he felt proud to participate in Great Britain's glorious military tradition. Or at least he had at first. Now all reason for pride had gone. The army was dying. It had won no laurels, just a watery shroud. Most of the men had perished in the last four months, and disease stalked every survivor. As the American captain watched, daily burials at sea became feasts for frenzied sharks. He had no reason to think that he would not end the same way. Officers enjoyed no immunity to tropical disease or ignominious burial. Like all soldiers, Captain Lawrence Washington found refuge in thoughts of home. He came from Fredericksburg, Virginia, over a thousand miles away. He had not been there in over a year. Letters took weeks to travel each way, and often never arrived at all. Still, writing to his loved ones could make them seem closer, so retreating from the sun to his cabin or a shady place on deck, he turned from the horrors surrounding him, took up a pen, and wrote a letter to his father.
Lawrence Washington wrote as a recent eyewitness to the most important battle of the War of Jenkins' Ear, and as a participant in its miserable aftermath. Named after the alleged mutilation of English sailor Robert Jenkins, the conflict had started in the summer of 1739 as a minor colonial fray between Great Britain and Spain. The bloodletting centered in the Caribbean, where the British sought to strangle Spain's communications with the gold and silver mines of South America by snatching some of her outposts. Victors of the war's early encounters, the British expected to make short work of the decrepit Spanish empire by capturing the important port of Cartagena off the northeast coast of South America. After this, with the Spanish reeling, they expected to move on to seize the even more important settlement of Havana on the island of Cuba. As plans for its Caribbean offensive jelled in 1739, the British government announced its intention to form an American regiment to serve as part of an amphibious army of six marine regiments and other regular units. Virginia, whose governor was appointed to command the regiment, provided the largest number of volunteers when recruitment began in the spring of 1740. The common Virginians made unimpressive soldiers-a British observer called them "Blacksmiths, Tailors, Barbers, Shoemakers, and all the Banditry the colonies afford"-but their officers were privileged, cultured, and generally intelligent young men, anxious to earn good reputations in battle. Sons of the Old Dominion had besieged colonial officials with requests for commissions, and Lawrence Washington was one of the many who lobbied fiercely for the four captaincies available from his colony. Thanks to his family's influence and his own considerable personal charm, he received the highest-ranking spot.
The newly appointed Captain Washington followed the American Regiment to Jamaica near the end of 1740. At first, his soldiers showed little promise. Like the British redcoats, the American enlisted men came from the scum of society; and the Virginians stood out even in such rough company. Among them were vagrants, loafers, cutpurses, and former convicts. Soldiering did not come naturally to them, as Lawrence and his fellow officers swiftly discovered. They looked bad, too. Only about one in every six of the scrawny, ill-fed men possessed a uniform. British Brigadier General Thomas Wentworth reviewed the Americans on Jamaica in January 1741 and shook his head at the spectacle they presented. Yet there was some innate quality in the common soldiers that he liked. Under proper leadership and discipline, he decided, they might eventually prove useful. For American officers, on the other hand, he expressed complete and unreserved contempt. Branding them na´ve and stupid, and certain that they would falter in combat, he attempted to replace them with British regulars. But by then the scruffy American enlisted soldiers had bonded with their young officers, and they bluntly refused to serve under anyone else. Irritated, Wentworth relented, but he privately resolved to keep all of the Americans on shipboard during the approaching campaign. It was inconceivable to him that the redcoats might need their provincial allies' support. Wentworth commanded the land element of the expeditionary force of 8,000 British regulars and 3,000 Americans that left Jamaica in February 1741. The fleet carrying his troops sailed under Admiral Edward Vernon, a fifty-five-year-old, ill-tempered naval commander known in the fleet as "Grog" because of his grogram cloak. Sailors also applied this nickname to the watered-down rum that he forced upon them. But the ribbing was good-natured. Vernon's capture of Porto Bello on the Panamanian isthmus in November 1739 had made him a popular hero. Capturing Cartagena would add to his reputation and clear the way for other conquests in the Caribbean. The fleet dropped anchor off Cartagena in early March 1741, and the redcoats quickly debarked, eager to fight. Yet their enthusiasm availed little in the ensuing six weeks as the expedition foundered and disintegrated. The British easily invested the port, but instead of storming its fortifications, Vernon and Wentworth quarreled over the plan of attack.
Finally, after weeks of dithering that left the troops gravely weakened by dysentery and malaria, the British launched a large-scale assault on April 9th. Their officers bungled the advance, and the well-entrenched Spanish refused to budge. Nearly 700 redcoats fell slain without penetrating the enemy entrenchments. The siege then stalled while the British returned to the ships where their American allies had spent the last month languishing in stifling heat. Though spared the horrors of battle, the colonials had not been able to avoid the equally appalling threats of heatstroke, fever, and disease. British surgeons and their assistants-among them a young writer named Tobias Smollett-struggled to care for the sick and wounded, and as soldiers perished in increasing numbers, discipline collapsed. Officers gave up on their duties and avoided their haggard men. The living casually dumped the bodies of dead comrades overboard, strewing the waters of Cartagena with bloated corpses. The trail of bodies led all the way to Jamaica, where the fleet arrived several weeks after abandoning its siege. But that island offered little relief, and the fever epidemic continued unabated. The army's effective strength rapidly fell to fewer than 2,000 British and just over 1,000 Americans. Captain Lawrence Washington, by some miracle still alive and apparently healthy despite the carnage surrounding him, had the Cartagena fiasco fresh in his mind as he wrote to his father from on board the British warship in May 1741. The crisis continued as he wrote, and the expeditionary force still wasted away. Total disintegration was near. Yet he knew the keen anticipation with which his news-starved family would read his letter. His father would seek war news as well as hints on the state of trade and commerce in the Caribbean. His mother would want to know about Lawrence's health, and to hear about the fates of other friends and relations. And nine-year-old George, Lawrence's half brother, would look for descriptions of the roar of the cannon or the sight of infantry boldly charging the Spanish fortifications. None of them would want to hear about a disaster. Lawrence wrote his letter with a mixture of sulkiness and reticence, providing only the briefest summary of the terrible expedition. He did not, or could not, bear to confess that the American Regiment had succumbed to disease without firing a shot. Instead he hid the truth with gentle boasting, including some lines possibly intended for George. "Our Regiment has not recd that treatment we expected," Lawrence wrote, "but I am resolved to persivere in the undertaking. War is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination; We there learn'd to live on ordinary diet, to watch much, & disregard the noise, or shot of Cannon." These words must have impressed themselves on the boy's memory, for he echoed them with his own pen thirteen years later.
Lawrence returned to Fredericksburg in January 1743 after Admiral Vernon discarded his government's grandiose plans for the conquest of the Caribbean and sent the exhausted troops home. No parades greeted the Americans, who had failed to garner any kind of military glory. Most of the young officers who had left Virginia so confidently in 1740 had not fallen nobly in battle but died in squalid ships' holds before being dined upon by sea creatures. Veterans discovered that society had grown used to getting on without them, and the best jobs, honors, and appointments had already been taken by the stay-at-homes. The thought that he had squandered some of the most important years of his life must have lain heavily on Lawrence's mind. Yet a child's love can heal many wounds, as Lawrence learned from his admiring young half brother George. The two came from a large family. Their father, Augustine, born in 1694, was a soft-spoken but energetic and physically powerful man. In 1738 he had settled at Ferry Farm, which stood across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, and he now owned 10,000 acres and fifty slaves. His first wife, Jane Butler, died in 1729 after bearing three children: Lawrence (born around 1717), Augustine Jr., and Jane. Augustine Sr.'s second wife, the orphan Mary Ball, who had been born around 1708, gave birth to five more children. George, born February 22, 1732, according to the new calendar adopted in 1752, was the first. He was followed by Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.
Among all of his siblings, George developed the strongest bond with Lawrence. And who could blame him for that? People liked Lawrence. Physically plain, he earned friends with kindness, affability, and good manners. Several years of schooling in England before the war had taught him graceful deportment and elegant handwriting. He lacked practicality and business sense, but to a child this may have made him all the more appealing. Lawrence was the type of man who set his own work aside in order to answer childish questions that others dismissed as foolish or irrelevant, and George's questions-which doubtless included how an officer drilled his men, what it felt like to stand on the deck of a warship with all guns ablaze, how it looked when landing boats full of British soldiers set out for shore, and how it sounded when the rattle of musketry and cannon announced their attack-always found a friendly ear. The siblings' relationship grew as the Washington family settled down to everyday life in the first months of 1743. Lawrence came and went as he angled to become adjutant general of the Virginia Militia. George's younger brothers and sister grew under the care of Mary Washington, servants, slaves, and tutors. George had a tutor-according to one tradition a convict servant-and he learned quickly. As a reward for his studies, or maybe just to get him out of Lawrence's hair, Augustine decided in the spring of 1743 to send the boy off to visit some cousins living in the Chotank district on the Northern Neck of the Potomac River. George enjoyed the visit, but it did not last long.
In early April, his father, to all appearances healthy and vigorous, rode out in a storm and fell ill. Within a short time, his condition was grave. A messenger called George home, but when he reached Ferry Farm he learned that Augustine had passed away, on April 12th. Augustine's sudden death at age forty-nine left George and the rest of the family shorn of a vital source of strength and stability. Adults and children alike would have to assume more responsibilities. Augustine's will gave Ferry Farm to George, but if his family told him about the inheritance he may have felt more fear than satisfaction at gaining such a valuable tract. At eleven years old he was far too young to manage it, and without careful stewardship the estate could easily fall into ruin-or out of his hands altogether-before he reached his majority. Fortunately, two relatives took control of the farm's affairs and his own. With remarkable energy, Mary Washington managed Ferry Farm while raising George and his younger siblings. Lawrence, who had inherited a plantation on Little Hunting Creek, meanwhile took time out from his own responsibilities to supervise George's education and upbringing. Over time Lawrence rapidly took on the role of substitute father, guiding the development of George's interests and personality as he became a young man.
The teenage George Washington was neither the budding Hercules of his hagiographers nor the vain, ambitious nonentity concocted by some debunking historians. He was neither an intellectual nor a yokel, but a typical, somewhat precocious boy eager to learn about the world and distinguish himself in it. Inherently somewhat reserved, he nevertheless made several close friends, boys his own age for the most part. In their early teens, they probably shared tales of war and adventure; later on they traded boasts on their affairs of the heart. "I might perhaps form some pleasures in the conversations of an agreeable young Lady," George wrote a cousin when he was about seventeen, "as there['s] one now Lives in the same house with me but as thats only nourishment to my former Affair for by often seeing her brings the other into my remembrance." Washington stood about six feet tall by the time he was a young adult, a height that made him tower over most of his contemporaries. A fine posture, acquired under Lawrence's careful tutelage, complemented his height. At twenty-eight a friend called him "as straight as an Indian." Large of bone but well-proportioned, he possessed a fine mop of dark brown hair over a face with regular and firm but pleasant features. His only physical defects were a slight case of amblyopia, or "wandering eye," and increasingly bad teeth. Most imposing was the athletic physique he maintained throughout his youth and early manhood.
David Humphreys, his friend and early biographer, wrote that Washington often claimed that "he never met any man who could throw a stone to so great a distance as himself; and, that when standing in the valley beneath the natural bridge in Virginia, he has thrown one up to that stupendous arch"-a height of about 215 feet. In the social graces-prerequisites for entrance into polite society in eighteenth-century Virginia-Washington also excelled. Lawrence understood the value of good breeding from his own experience and probably played a crucial role in educating George in what Humphreys called "the graceful accomplishments of dancing, fencing, [and] riding." He was an excellent horseman, and spent days riding and hunting in the Virginia countryside. Dancing grew to become one of Washington's favorite pastimes, and his skill in the ballroom, and in pleasant conversation at the table, made him a welcome guest in the homes of politically influential neighbors. Another factor in his favor was the care he took with his clothing, a quality he practiced to a degree exceptional even by contemporary standards.
From the age of sixteen-when he wrote for his own reference an elaborately detailed description of his next suit of clothes-to the end of his life, Washington took great pleasure in dressing well. Some historians have interpreted Washington's emphasis on proper social bearing, appearance, and conduct as vanity. Yet at this time and place, a man had to cultivate a good public image in order to rise in society. A reputation for amiability and probity was especially important for an ambitious youngster like Washington. Although the well-known "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation" that he copied when he was sixteen had originated in a sixteenth-century French work rather than from his own imagination, he tried scrupulously to follow the 110 maxims in his own personal conduct. Throughout his life, and especially as he embarked on public careers in the military and in politics, he jealously guarded his reputation, taking care to allow others no excuse to question his conduct. Washington's fixation eventually reached the point where he would turn savagely on any critics, especially anyone who challenged his rights and prerogatives. As a young man, when Washington had not yet learned to harness his emotions, they militated against the image of politeness and self-control he fought so hard to maintain.