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Chapter 13

FOUNDING OF PORT CUMBERLAND--SECRET LETTER OF STOBO--THE INDIAN MESSENGER-- PROJECT OF DINWIDDIE--HIS PERPLEXITIES--A TAINT OF REPUBLICANISM IN THE COLONIAL ASSEMBLIES--DINWIDDIE'S MILITARY MEASURES--WASHINGTON QUITS THE SERVICE--OVERTURES OF GOVERNOR SHARPE, OF MARYLAND--WASHINGTON'S DIGNIFIED REPLY--QUESTIONS OF RANK BETWEEN ROYAL AND PROVINCIAL TROOPS--TREATMENT OF THE FRENCH PRISONERS--FATE OF LA FORCE--ANECDOTES OF STOBO AND VAN BRAAM.


Early in August Washington rejoined his regiment, which had arrived at Alexandria by the way of Winchester. Letters from Governor Dinwiddie urged him to recruit it to the former number of three hundred men, and join Colonel Innes at Wills' Creek, where that officer was stationed with Mackay's independent company of South Carolinians, and two independent companies from New York; and had been employed in erecting a work to serve as a frontier post and rallying point; which work received the name of Fort Cumberland, in honor of the Duke of Cumberland, captain-general of the British army.

In the mean time the French, elated by their recent triumph, and thinking no danger at hand, relaxed their vigilance at Fort Duquesne. Stobo, who was a kind of prisoner at large there, found means to send a letter secretly by an Indian, dated July 28, and directed to the commander of the English troops. It was accompanied by a plan of the fort. "There are two hundred men here," writes he, "and two hundred expected; the rest have gone off in detachments to the amount of one thousand, besides Indians. None lodge in the fort but Contrecoeur and the guard, consisting of forty men and five officers; the rest lodge in bark cabins around the fort. The Indians have access day and night, and come and go when they please. If one hundred trusty Shawnees, Mingoes, and Delawares were picked out, they might surprise the fort, lodging themselves under the palisades by day, and at night secure the guard with their tomahawks, shut the sally-gate, and the fort is ours."

One part of Stobo's letter breathes a loyal and generous spirit of self-devotion. Alluding to the danger in which he and Van Braam, his fellow-hostage, might be involved, he says, "Consider the good of the expedition without regard to us. When we engaged to serve the country it was expected we were to do it with our lives. For my part, I would die a hundred deaths to have the pleasure of possessing this fort but one day. They are so vain of their success at the Meadows it is worse than death to hear them. Haste to strike."

[Footnote: Hazard's Register of Penn., iv., 329.]

The Indian messenger carried the letter to Aughquick and delivered it into the hands of George Croghan. The Indian chiefs who were with him insisted upon his opening it. He did so, but on finding the tenor of it, transmitted it to the Governor of Pennsylvania. The secret information communicated by Stobo, may have been the cause of a project suddenly conceived by Governor Dinwiddie, of a detachment which, by a forced march across the mountains, might descend upon the French and take Fort Duquesne at a single blow; or, failing that, might build a rival fort in its vicinity. He accordingly wrote to Washington to march forthwith for Wills' Creek, with such companies as were complete, leaving orders with the officers to follow as soon as they should have enlisted men sufficient to make up their companies. "The season of the year," added he, "calls for despatch. I depend upon your usual diligence and spirit to encourage your people to be active on this occasion."

The ignorance of Dinwiddie in military affairs, and his want of forecast, led him perpetually into blunders. Washington saw the rashness of an attempt to dispossess the French with a force so inferior that it could be harassed and driven from place to place at their pleasure. Before the troops could be collected, and munitions of war provided, the season would be too far advanced. There would be no forage for the horses; the streams would be swollen and unfordable; the mountains rendered impassable by snow, and frost, and slippery roads. The men, too, unused to campaigning on the frontier, would not be able to endure a winter in the wilderness, with no better shelter than a tent; especially in their present condition, destitute of almost every thing. Such are a few of the cogent reasons urged by Washington in a letter to his friend William Fairfax, then in the House of Burgesses, which no doubt was shown to Governor Dinwiddie, and probably had an effect in causing the rash project to be abandoned.

The governor, in truth, was sorely perplexed about this time by contradictions and cross-purposes, both in military and civil affairs. A body of three hundred and fifty North Carolinian troops had been enlisted at high pay, and were to form the chief reinforcement of Colonel Innes at Wills' Creek. By the time they reached Winchester, however, the provincial military chest was exhausted, and future pay seemed uncertain; whereupon they refused to serve any longer, disbanded themselves tumultuously, and set off for their homes without taking leave.

The governor found the House of Burgesses equally unmanageable. His demands for supplies were resisted on what he considered presumptuous pretexts; or granted sparingly, under mortifying restrictions. His high Tory notions were outraged by such republican conduct. "There appears to me," said he, "an infatuation in all the assemblies in this part of the world." In a letter to the Board of Trade he declared that the only way effectually to check the progress of the French, would be an act of parliament requiring the colonies to contribute to the common cause, independently of assemblies; and in another, to the Secretary of State, he urged the policy of compelling the colonies to their duty to the king by a general poll-tax of two and sixpence a head. The worthy governor would have made a fitting counsellor for the Stuart dynasty. Subsequent events have shown how little his policy was suited to compete with the dawning republicanism of America.

In the month of October the House of Burgesses made a grant of twenty thousand pounds for the public service; and ten thousand more were sent out from England, beside a supply of firearms. The governor now applied himself to military matters with renewed spirit; increased the actual force to ten companies; and, as there had been difficulties among the different kinds of troops with regard to precedence, he reduced them all to independent companies; so that there would be no officer in a Virginia regiment above the rank of captain.

This shrewd measure, upon which Dinwiddie secretly prided himself as calculated to put an end to the difficulties in question, immediately drove Washington out of the service; considering it derogatory to his character to accept a lower commission than that under which his conduct had gained him a vote of thanks from the Legislature.

Governor Sharpe, of Maryland, appointed by the king commander-in-chief of all the forces engaged against the French, sought to secure his valuable services, and authorized Colonel Fitzhugh, whom he had placed in temporary command of the army, to write to him to that effect. The reply of Washington (15th Nov.) is full of dignity and spirit, and shows how deeply he felt his military degradation.

"You make mention," says he, "of my continuing in the service and retaining my colonel's commission. This idea has filled me with surprise; for if you think me capable of holding a commission that has neither rank nor emolument annexed to it, you must maintain a very contemptible opinion of my weakness, and believe me more empty than the commission itself." After intimating a suspicion that the project of reducing the regiment into independent companies, and thereby throwing out the higher officers, was "generated and hatched at Wills' Creek,"--in other words, was an expedient of Governor Dinwiddie, instead of being a peremptory order from England, he adds, "Ingenuous treatment and plain dealing I at least expected. It is to be hoped the project will answer; it shall meet with my acquiescence in every thing except personal services. I herewith inclose Governor Sharpe's letter, which I beg you will return to him with my acknowledgments for the favor he intended me. Assure him, sir, as you truly may, of my reluctance to quit the service, and the pleasure I should have received in attending his fortunes. Inform him, also, that it was to obey the call of honor and the advice of my friends that I declined it, and not to gratify any desire I had to leave the military line. My feelings are strongly bent to arms."

Even had Washington hesitated to take this step, it would have been forced upon him by a further regulation of government, in the course of the ensuing winter, settling the rank of officers of his majesty's forces when joined or serving with the provincial forces in North America, "which directed that all such as were commissioned by the king, or by his general commander-in-chief in North America, should take rank of all officers commissioned by the governors of the respective provinces. And further, that the general and field officers of the provincial troops should have no rank when serving with the general and field officers commissioned by the crown; but that all captains and other inferior officers of the royal troops should take rank over provincial officers of the same grade, having older commissions."

These regulations, originating in that supercilious assumption of superiority which sometimes overruns and degrades true British pride, would have been spurned by Washington, as insulting to the character and conduct of his high-minded brethren of the colonies. How much did this open disparagement of colonial honor and understanding, contribute to wean from England the affection of her American subjects, and prepare the way for their ultimate assertion of independence.

Another cause of vexation to Washington was the refusal of Governor Dinwiddie to give up the French prisoners, taken in the affair of De Jumonville, in fulfilment of the articles of capitulation. His plea was, that since the capitulation, the French had taken several British subjects, and sent them prisoners to Canada he considered himself justifiable in detaining those Frenchmen which he had in his custody. He sent a flag of truce, however, offering to return the officer Drouillon, and the two cadets, in exchange for Captains Stobo and Van Braam, whom the French held as hostages; but his offer was treated with merited disregard. Washington felt deeply mortified by this obtuseness of the governor on a point of military punctilio and honorable faith, but his remonstrances were unavailing.

The French prisoners were clothed and maintained at the public expense, and Drouillon and the cadets were allowed to go at large; the private soldiers were kept in confinement. La Force, also, not having acted in a military capacity, and having offended against the peace and security of the frontier, by his intrigues among the Indians, was kept in close durance. Washington, who knew nothing of this, was shocked on visiting Williamsburg, to learn that La Force was in prison. He expostulated with the governor on the subject, but without effect; Dinwiddie was at all times pertinacious, but particularly so when he felt himself to be a little in the wrong.

As we shall have no further occasion to mention La Force, in connection with the subject of this work, we will anticipate a page of his fortunes. After remaining two years in confinement he succeeded in breaking out of prison, and escaping into the country. An alarm was given, and circulated far and wide, for such was the opinion of his personal strength, desperate courage, wily cunning, and great influence over the Indians, that the most mischievous results were apprehended should he regain the frontier. In the mean time he was wandering about the country ignorant of the roads, and fearing to make inquiries, lest his foreign tongue should betray him. He reached King and Queen Court House, about thirty miles from Williamsburg, when a countryman was struck with his foreign air and aspect. La Force ventured to put a question as to the distance and direction of Fort Duquesne, and his broken English convinced the countryman of his being the French prisoner, whose escape had been noised about the country. Watching an opportunity he seized him, and regardless of offers of great bribes, conducted him back to the prison of Williamsburg, where he was secured with double irons, and chained to the floor of his dungeon.

The refusal of Governor Dinwiddie to fulfil the article of the capitulation respecting the prisoners, and the rigorous treatment of La Force, operated hardly upon the hostages, Stobo and Van Braam, who, in retaliation, were confined in prison in Quebec, though otherwise treated with kindness. They, also, by extraordinary efforts, succeeded in breaking prison, but found it more difficult to evade the sentries of a fortified place. Stobo managed to escape into the country; but the luckless Van Braam sought concealment under an arch of a causeway leading from the fortress. Here he remained until nearly exhausted by hunger. Seeing the Governor of Canada passing by, and despairing of being able to effect his escape, he came forth from his hiding place, and surrendered himself, invoking his clemency. He was remanded to prison, but experienced no additional severity. He was subsequently shipped by the governor from Quebec to England, and never returned to Virginia. It is this treatment of Van Braam, more than any thing else, which convinces us that the suspicion of his being in collusion with the French in regard to the misinterpretation of the articles of capitulation, was groundless. He was simply a blunderer.


Washington Irving