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Chapter 21

FOUNDING OF FORT LOUDOUN--WASHINGTON'S TOUR OF INSPECTION--INEFFICIENCY OF THE MILITIA SYSTEM--GENTLEMEN SOLDIERS--CROSS-PURPOSES WITH DINWIDDIE-- MILITARY AFFAIRS IN THE NORTH--DELAYS OF LORD LOUDOUN--ACTIVITY OF MONTCALM--LOUDOUN IN WINTER QUARTERS.


Throughout the summer of 1756, Washington exerted himself diligently in carrying out measures determined upon for frontier security. The great fortress at Winchester was commenced, and the work urged forward as expeditiously as the delays and perplexities incident to a badly organized service would permit. It received the name of Fort Loudoun, in honor of the commander-in-chief, whose arrival in Virginia was hopefully anticipated.

As to the sites of the frontier posts, they were decided upon by Washington and his officers, after frequent and long consultations; parties were sent out to work on them, and men recruited, and militia drafted, to garrison them. Washington visited occasionally such as were in progress, and near at hand. It was a service of some peril, for the mountains and forests were still infested by prowling savages, especially in the neighborhood of these new forts. At one time when he was reconnoitering a wild part of the country, attended merely by a servant and a guide, two men were murdered by the Indians in a solitary defile shortly after he had passed through it.

In the autumn, he made a tour of inspection along the whole line, accompanied by his friend, Captain Hugh Mercer, who had recovered from his recent wounds. This tour furnished repeated proofs of the inefficiency of the militia system. In one place he attempted to raise a force with which to scour a region infested by roving bands of savages. After waiting several days, but five men answered to his summons. In another place, where three companies had been ordered to the relief of a fort, attacked by the Indians, all that could be mustered were a captain, a lieutenant, and seven or eight men.

When the militia were drafted, and appeared under arms, the case was not much better. It was now late in the autumn; their term of service, by the act of the Legislature, expired in December,--half of the time, therefore, was lost in marching out and home. Their waste of provisions was enormous. To be put on allowance, like other soldiers, they considered an indignity. They would sooner starve than carry a few days' provisions on their backs. On the march, when breakfast was wanted, they would knock down the first beeves they met with, and, after regaling themselves, march on till dinner, when they would take the same method; and so for supper, to the great oppression of the people. For the want of proper military laws, they were obstinate, self-willed, and perverse. Every individual had his own crude notion of things, and would undertake to direct. If his advice were neglected, he would think himself slighted, abused, and injured, and, to redress himself, would depart for his home.

The garrisons were weak for want of men, but more so from indolence and irregularity. None were in a posture of defence; few but might be surprised with the greatest ease. At one fort, the Indians rushed from their lurking-place, pounced upon several children playing under the walls, and bore them off before they were discovered. Another fort was surprised, and many of the people massacred in the same manner. In the course of his tour, as he and his party approached a fort, he heard a quick firing for several minutes; concluding that it was attacked, they hastened to its relief, but found the garrison were merely amusing themselves firing at a mark, or for wagers. In this way they would waste their ammunition as freely as they did their provisions. In the mean time, the inhabitants of the country were in a wretched situation, feeling the little dependence to be put on militia, who were slow in coming to their assistance, indifferent about their preservation, unwilling to continue, and regardless of every thing but of their own ease. In short, they were so apprehensive of approaching ruin, that the whole back country was in a general motion towards the southern colonies.

From the Catawba, he was escorted along a range of forts by a colonel, and about thirty men, chiefly officers. "With this small company of irregulars," says he, "with whom order, regularity, circumspection, and vigilance were matters of derision and contempt, we set out, and, by the protection of Providence, reached Augusta court-house in seven days, without meeting the enemy; otherwise, we must have fallen a sacrifice, through the indiscretion of these whooping, hallooing, gentlemen soldiers!"

How lively a picture does this give of the militia system at all times, when not subjected to strict military law.

What rendered this year's service peculiarly irksome and embarrassing to Washington, was the nature of his correspondence with Governor Dinwiddie. That gentleman, either from the natural hurry and confusion of his mind, or from a real disposition to perplex, was extremely ambiguous and unsatisfactory in most of his orders and replies. "So much am I kept in the dark," says Washington, in one of his letters, "that I do not know whether to prepare for the offensive or defensive. What would be absolutely necessary for the one, would be quite useless for the other." And again: "The orders I receive are full of ambiguity. I am left like a wanderer in the wilderness, to proceed at hazard. I am answerable for consequences, and blamed, without the privilege of defence."

In nothing was this disposition to perplex more apparent than in the governor's replies respecting Fort Cumberland. Washington had repeatedly urged the abandonment of this fort as a place of frontier deposit, being within the bounds of another province, and out of the track of Indian incursion; so that often the alarm would not reach there until after the mischief had been effected. He applied, at length, for particular and positive directions from the governor on this head. "The following," says he, "is an exact copy of his answer:--'Fort Cumberland is a king's fort, and built chiefly at the charge of the colony, therefore properly under our direction until a new governor is appointed.' Now, whether I am to understand this aye or no to the plain simple question asked, Is the fort to be continued or removed? I know not. But in all important matters I am directed in this ambiguous and uncertain way."

Governor Dinwiddie subsequently made himself explicit on this point. Taking offence at some of Washington's comments on the military affairs of the frontier, he made the stand of a self-willed and obstinate man, in the case of Fort Cumberland; and represented it in such light to Lord Loudoun, as to draw from his lordship an order that it should be kept up: and an implied censure of the conduct of Washington in slighting a post of such paramount importance. "I cannot agree with Colonel Washington," writes his lordship, "in not drawing in the posts from the stockade forts, in order to defend that advanced one; and I should imagine much more of the frontier will be exposed by retiring your advanced posts near Winchester, where I understand he is retired; for, from your letter, I take it for granted he has before this executed his plan, without waiting for any advice. If he leaves any of the great quantity of stores behind, it will be very unfortunate, and he ought to consider that it must lie at his own door."

Thus powerfully supported, Dinwiddie went so far as to order that the garrisons should be withdrawn from the stockades and small frontier forts, and most of the troops from Winchester, to strengthen Fort Cumberland, which was now to become headquarters; thus weakening the most important points and places, to concentrate a force where it was not wanted, and would be out of the way in most cases of alarm. By these meddlesome moves, made by Governor Dinwiddie from a distance, without knowing any thing of the game, all previous arrangements were reversed, every thing was thrown into confusion, and enormous losses and expenses were incurred.

"Whence it arises, or why, I am truly ignorant," writes Washington to Mr. Speaker Robinson, "but my strongest representations of matters relative to the frontiers are disregarded as idle and frivolous; my propositions and measures as partial and selfish; and all my sincerest endeavors for the service of my country are perverted to the worst purposes. My orders are dark and uncertain; to-day approved, to-morrow disapproved."

Whence all this contradiction and embarrassment arose has since been explained, and with apparent reason. Governor Dinwiddie had never recovered from the pique caused by the popular elevation of Washington to the command in preference to his favorite, Colonel Innes. His irritation was kept alive by a little Scottish faction, who were desirous of disgusting Washington with the service, so as to induce him to resign, and make way for his rival. They might have carried their point during the panic at Winchester, had not his patriotism and his sympathy with the public distress been more powerful than his self-love. He determined, he said, to bear up under these embarrassments in the hope of better regulations when Lord Loudoun should arrive; to whom he looked for the future fate of Virginia.

While these events were occurring on the Virginia frontier, military affairs went on tardily and heavily at the north. The campaign against Canada, which was to have opened early in the year, hung fire. The armament coming out for the purpose, under Lord Loudoun, was delayed through the want of energy and union in the British cabinet. General Abercrombie, who was to be next in command to his lordship, and to succeed to General Shirley, set sail in advance for New York with two regiments, but did not reach Albany, the head-quarters of military operation, until the 25th of June. He billeted his soldiers upon the town, much to the disgust of the inhabitants, and talked of ditching and stockading it, but postponed all exterior enterprises until the arrival of Lord Loudoun; then the campaign was to open in earnest.

On the 12th of July, came word that the forts Ontario and Oswego, on each side of the mouth of the Oswego River, were menaced by the Drench. They had been imperfectly constructed by Shirley, and were insufficiently garrisoned, yet contained a great amount of military and naval stores, and protected the vessels which cruised on Lake Ontario.

Major-general Webb was ordered by Abercrombie to hold himself in readiness to march with one regiment to the relief of these forts, but received no further orders. Every thing awaited the arrival at Albany of Lord Loudoun, which at length took place, on the 29th of July. There were now at least ten thousand troops, regulars and provincials, loitering in an idle camp at Albany, yet relief to Oswego was still delayed. Lord Loudoun was in favor of it, but the governments of New York and New England urged the immediate reduction of Crown Point, as necessary for the security of their frontier. After much debate, it was agreed that General Webb should march to the relief of Oswego. He left Albany on the 12th of August, but had scarce reached the carrying-place, between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, when he received news that Oswego was reduced, and its garrison captured. While the British commanders had debated, Field-marshal the Marquis De Montcalm, newly arrived from France, had acted. He was a different kind of soldier from Abercrombie or Loudoun. A capacious mind and enterprising spirit animated a small, but active and untiring frame. Quick in thought, quick in speech, quicker still in action, he comprehended every thing at a glance, and moved from point to point of the province with a celerity and secrecy that completely baffled his slow and pondering antagonists. Crown Point and Ticonderoga were visited, and steps taken to strengthen their works, and provide for their security; then hastening to Montreal, he put himself at the head of a force of regulars, Canadians, and Indians; ascended the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario; blocked up the mouth of the Oswego by his vessels, landed his guns, and besieged the two forts; drove the garrison out of one into the other; killed the commander, Colonel Mercer, and compelled the garrisons to surrender prisoners of war. With the forts was taken an immense amount of military stores, ammunition, and provisions; one hundred and twenty-one cannon, fourteen mortars, six vessels of war, a vast number of batteaux, and three chests of money. His blow achieved, Montcalm returned in triumph to Montreal, and sent the colors of the captured forts to be hung up as trophies in the Canadian churches.

The season was now too far advanced for Lord Loudoun to enter upon any great military enterprise; he postponed, therefore, the great northern campaign, so much talked of and debated, until the following year; and having taken measures for the protection of his frontiers, and for more active operations in the spring, returned to New York, hung up his sword, and went into comfortable winter-quarters.


Washington Irving