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Weems Redux

By (June 1, 2007) No Comment

Blooding at Great Meadows: Young George Washington and the Battle That Shaped the Man

By Alan Axelrod

The narrator of Mark Twain’s short story “Luck” (unaccountably missing from many ‘unabridged’ collections) recounts with mordant incredulity the rise and rise of a dimwitted, unqualified oaf to the highest rank of military authority, recounts how time and again, money, and most of all dumb luck bear the man along, carrying him past all the disasters of his own making, keeping the general public blind to his manifold incompetencies even though these are always and everywhere on full display.Twain had a particular real-life individual in mind when he wrote the story, and it wasn’t George Washington. It surely needn’t have been: real life furnishes such men on a dismayingly regular basis. Every age is well-stocked with them. A large part of the reason for their impossible successes – a large part of why their incompetencies are so widely ignored (except by sharp-tongued partisans like Twain, or except when their luck deserts them) – is that nations require heroes. Nations, especially young or newborn ones, require icons. In all such cases, it would be ideal if genuine icons were available. But the human race isn’t exactly fecund with paragons, so compromises are inevitable.  

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the case of the United States, and this is understandable: nowhere was the need for icons less foreseen, or less foreseeable. The result is a predictably down-rent menagerie of warts-and-all men pressed into the service of becoming great.

Ben Franklin was a lecherous old opportunist who only ‘embraced’ the Revolution when it seemed to him no place else would have him. John Hancock was a popinjay and a privateer whose scruples, such as they were, always sought the highest bidder. Alexander Hamilton took the Revolution’s rude scaffolding of unprecedented freedoms and tried his best to twist them into a tyranny of laws. Thomas Paine was a crackpot. Samuel Adams coldly placed propaganda over the truth (and innocent lives). James Madison had a stammer that gave fit voice to gross political timidity. John Adams was short and fat and bad-tempered, like a flea-market Bonaparte.

And then there’s Washington. John Adams liked to quip that the reason all eyes turned to Washington whenever the need arose for a military commander was simply because he stood the tallest in uniform – but it was Adams himself who vociferously put Washington forward as candidate to lead the fledgling Continental Army against the greatest empire in the world. Adams may have had a particular animus against tall men (and Washington was exceedingly tall), but he knew better than to entrust so much to a dressmaker’s dummy. He knew the value of symbols for a nation with as yet very little reason to believe in itself.

And it worked. Throughout a military career extremely similar to that of Twain’s bumpkin character, Washington managed to avoid disaster long enough to achieve deification.

The price a nation pays for such necessities is, of course, the truth. A Livy comes along with tales of virtuous Vestals, a Parson Weems comes along with tales of cherry trees and lies that cannot be told, and just like that, to the vexation of historians, the nation’s narrative must deal with an alternate – and treacherous – center of gravity.

It would be wrong to refer to Alan Axelrod’s Blooding at Great Meadows: Young George Washington and the Battle that Shaped the Man as an uncritical example of hagiography in the style of Parson Weems – but it would only be a little bit wrong. Axelrod is critical enough – in his mild-mannered, affable fashion – of Washington’s vanity and his military blunders. The problem isn’t his tone, it’s his timing: if ever a subject called for absolutely no affability, that subject was young Lieutenant Colonel Washington’s behavior at Great Meadows.

The scene-setting is familiar. The French and the English are at peace but nervously jockeying for position on the Ohio frontier. Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie is a fairly intelligent and alert jockeyer, and he has a young 22-year-old lieutenant colonel, one George Washington, in his employ.

The year is 1754, and young lieutenant Washington – big, stupid, and eager for cheap glory – is Dinwiddie’s agent to check French activity in the region. To this end, Washington marches his regiment to Wills Creek storehouse, in the wilds of the Alleghenies – a fairly ragged regiment, underpaid (Washington lied to them about that, told them they’d get land grants in addition to their meager pay), poorly supplied, untrained, ill-equipped, and generally substandard.

Washington led them to Red Stone Creek, a fork in the Monongahela minimally fortified by the English. His progress getting there was agonizingly slow – often making no more than two or three miles a day and in the meantime alerting every spy and Indian for miles around to their presence. When word of this movement reached the commander of the French Fort Duquesne, Contrecouer, he dispatched 35 men under the command of ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers du Jumonville to confer with Washington and order him to depart from French lands. Jumonville carried for this purpose a ‘summons’ to be read to the English once he’d encountered them.

Since the 24th of May, Washington and his regiment had been camped at Great Meadows. On the 27th, acting on information from a scout he knew well, Washington sent 75 men north to intercept the French. That same night, his sometime-ally the Seneca leader Tanaghrisson, called the Half-King, sent word that he had discovered the French in an entirely different direction – which prompted Washington to further divide his forces in what can only be termed hostile territory, this time leading a party of 47 men north-west.

He and his men marched all night, joined with the Half-King and his handful of warriors, and commenced studying the camp Jumonville had made in a small glen. Washington decided to attack (though the standing orders he had from Dinwiddie forbid him the use of force except in self-defense), and by all accounts the action that followed – it can hardly be called a battle – was over in about fifteen minutes. Ten of the French were dead, including Jumonville, and all the rest were prisoners. Washington’s first military action had been a complete success.

Never mind that he’d had no authorization to fire upon the French. Never mind that he’d sent a third of his original force off on a false lead. Never mind that he’d left his base protected by only a handful of men while he divided his force again to chase another lead, this one more fruitful. According to Washington’s report to Dinwiddie, the French in the glen had discovered them and fired first, whereupon he ordered his men to fight back. And when the fighting was over, he allowed the Half-King and his warriors to scalp the dead, bowing to native custom.

Even in Washington’s fairly tidy account, it’s a messy encounter, and it becomes far worse once other accounts (Axelrod grudgingly admits their existence) are considered. One of Jumonville’s soldiers, a man named Monceau, managed to hide in the woods during the shooting, and the report he made to Contrecouer changes some of Washington’s details. According to Monceau, Washington’s men fired first, and Jumonville called for a cease-fire so that he could read his summons to the Virginia Regiment and its Indian allies. He’d just started to do that when Monceau slipped away to safety and heard no more.

But the story doesn’t stop there; the narrative is picked up by one of the Half-King’s men, who testified that while Jumonville was reading the summons, he was killed by a musket-shot to the head. This witness adds the somewhat less believable detail that the English would have killed all the French, had it not been for the merciful intervention of the Indians.

And there’s one more account, admittedly not first-hand: a private in the Virginia Regiment testified before the governor of South Carolina about the accounts of the incident related to him by his returning comrades. According to this account, not only was Jumonville killed in the act of attempting to read his summons, but he was killed by the Half-King himself, who clubbed the ensign with a tomahawk and proceeded to wash his hands in the Frenchman’s brains.

Even allowing for the increep of sensationalism, Washington’s first military action begins to look murky. The man Monceau didn’t stay to learn of Jumonville’s fate; he had no dramatic reason to invent the attempt to read the summons, since the attempt is only dramatic if it’s interrupted. Likewise the account of the Half-King’s man, since accusing the English of killing Jumonville in mid-parley only serves to vilify the Half-King’s allies. Even Washington’s own account of having been fired upon first is belied by the fact that he later mentions needing to clothe his French captives (he’s complaining about the expense, naturally), a detail that only makes sense if the French were startled awake by an ambush.

Axelrod is at pains to point out that if something as horrific as the Half-King wiping his hands in Jumonville’s brains did happen, Washington can hardly be blamed for not preventing it – he’d have been traumatized by the sight, naturally, and so could be forgiven for freezing. But Axelrod himself has previously pointed out (and Washington’s letters to Dinwiddie clearly state) that the young lieutenant colonel had surveyed in the territory for
years and was well aware of the more sanguine habits of its inhabitants.

In any case, Washington realized that once word of Jumonville’s death (the French would call it ‘assassination’) reached Fort Duquesne, he could expect a heavy counter-blow. Simple common sense would dictate that he withdraw, but he advanced, thinking to push on and make an assault on Fort Duquesne itself. The arduous conditions and his dwindling command combined to change his mind, and the change was aided by word he received of a large French force being sent out to meet him. Finally, he turned around.

He marched his men back to Great Meadows and immediately commenced building a fort. Since its construction lasted only a couple of days, Fort Necessity was inevitably a sorry affair. Nor was it helped by the location that Washington had chosen, in the middle of a valley floor, surrounded by high ground. When it rained, as it inevitably did, the site became a muddy trench that could be fired into with impunity from the surrounding woods.

When the French force arrived, led by Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville’s older brother, Washington was again faced with a common-sense decision: to take his small, bedraggled force and fall back on the defensive before a larger, better-armed foe. This he did not do, instead leading his men out for a formal, frontal encounter. The French, comfortably defiladed among rocks and trees, proceeded to rake Washington’s ranks with gunfire. Only then did Washington order his men back to the stockades of Fort Necessity, where they sat huddled in the rain as night fell. Soon after dark, some of Washington’s demoralized men broke into the fort’s store of rum and promptly got drunk. Washington’s second military action had devolved into a complete disaster.

The morning brought unexpected hope: the French sent word that in exchange for guarantees and standard hostages, the English would be allowed to surrender and honorably depart. Washington sent over an aide to learn the terms and readily agreed to them, whereupon his men filed out of Fort Necessity and the French burned it. The saga of Great Meadows was over and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the French and Indian War had begun.

Washington would expend a great deal of energy afterward defending his actions to Dinwiddie and others. Despite the rather large number of Jumonville’s party and despite the presence of the summons among Jumonville’s papers, Washington flatly declared that the French had been ‘spies of the worst sort.’ And despite the high casualty rate among the French (and the fact that the prisoners taken were barefoot in their nightshirts), Washington maintained that he had not been the aggressor, that he’d only fired when fired upon. His insistent repetition of these claims quickly starts to smell of justification.

It’s from this rather unpromising material that Axelrod hopes to fashion something not only instructive but ultimately redemptive. It’s no small wonder that he fails – Herodotus himself couldn’t have succeeded – but it’s interesting how he tries. Interesting but ever so slightly iniquitous (it’s impossible to feel too great a spirit against Axelrod, since his writing is light and well-intentioned): Axelrod is by and large a popular historian, but he’s written enough books to know that writers of history must draw their theories from the facts, not manage the facts to fit their theories. Blooding at Great Meadows can only very gingerly be relied upon as a work of history, but as an extended piece of temperate propaganda, it voices very typically a disillusioned age’s need for heroes.

Axelrod’s design is made obvious early on in his book, when he refers to Washington as the ‘most remote’ of the founding fathers:

Perhaps it is high time to go beneath the surface and, without fabrication, search the character of George Washington, the boy, the youth, and the young man for some clues as to what made him what he was to become – in every sense, truly, the father of his country.

Digging under the veneer of deification would indeed be a welcome exercise when it comes to so unreasonably venerated a figure as Washington, and the time period Axelrod picks, a young, untried lieutenant colonel in the colonial service, seeing his first military action, would seem promising. But Axelrod has made his mind up at the onset that he’ll find only seeds of greatness, not petty venality and rank incompetence.

This makes for uphill work, because venality and incompetence cover the events Axelrod describes like moss on stone. Even at 22, Washington displayed both to a conspicuous degree. Axelrod writes, somewhat hopefully, “Yet we must also recognize that the presumed objectivity of historical distance is itself illusory,” but it’s tough to argue with expense accounts.

At one point before the Great Meadows debacle, Washington’s officers draft an official objection to their scanty pay, and they pass it up through channels to Washington, with the request that he forward it to Dinwiddie. Washington does so with an added note of his own, saying he agrees that both he and his men are being egregiously underpaid. Dinwiddie peevishly responds that a) the middle of a campaign is hardly the time to bring up salary disputes and b) both Washington and his men knew their pay-rates when they signed up. Axelrod reaches a high point in his gymnastic justifications when he attempts to deal with this incident:

At first glance, we tend to share Governor Dinwiddie’s somewhat self-righteous opinion that disputes about pay at this juncture were at best ‘unseasonable’; yet if we think it through, what emerges is not a selfish or petulant George Washington disputing shillings and pence when absolute patriotism is called for. Instead, we see an officer so thoroughly principled that he was unwilling to allow even a crisis of the greatest urgency and danger to trump what is right and honorable.

Axelrod goes on:

Washington’s point here was that even on the frontier, faced with overwhelming danger, right is right and doing right should never require compromising with what is wrong. It makes for a far more powerful fable of the character of the future father of his country than Parson Weems’s celebrated cherry tree tale – and unlike the Weems confection, it is a true story.

The italics are the author’s, which is unfortunate, since they serve to draw attention to the fact that Axelrod’s ‘confection’ here is only more sophisticated than that of Weems, not different in kind. Instead of inventing actions, as Weems did, he’s inventing motives (that Washington was standing for ‘right is right’ instead of, say, waiting until the middle of a crisis in order to maximize his leverage with the governor). It’s Weems redux.

As this is true of the venality, so too is it true of the incompetence, only here Axelrod’s task is well-nigh impossible. The only possible justification of Washington’s many blunders during the course of events Axelrod chronicles that would be even vaguely sympathetic would be the callowness of untried youth, and that justification would only be exculpatory if the blunders had faded right along with the youth.

As even a cursory glance at Washington’s record during the Revolution twenty years later demonstrates, that incompetence didn’t fade in the least – indeed, it ripened while hanging on the vine. All throughout the battles of the Revolution, the Washington hallmarks are there: sullen, mulish tactics, ridiculously over-complicated battle-plans, overlooked reconnaissance, miserable troop-dispositions. Over and over again, at Monmouth and Germantown, at Brandywine and New York, at Bunker Hill and Yorktown, blunders, oversights, and misplaced bravado come a hairsbreadth from wrecking his army. He loses far more encounters than he wins, and what wins he has result almost always from the caution or incompetence of his opponents. At Bunker Hill and at New York he must be forcibly restrained from making disastrous frontal assaults on the British; at Yorktown, facing annihilation by a much stronger British force, he is saved only by de Grasse’s providential French fleet – a fleet Washington had wanted to sail to New York. Throughout all the years of the Revolution, he is saved time and again by one thing and one thing only. Axelrod himself admits it:

Part of the reason, to be sure, was luck. As many hardships and defeats as Washington would endure – most of them years off, in the American Revolution – he was an incredibly lucky soldier.

The problem here, of course, is that Axelrod believes, and is trying to convince his readers, that Washington was ever anything but lucky. He takes in the sight of a man clumsily knocking over furniture and tries to characterize him as an interior decorator:

His later career would give full play to his genius for not merely surviving disaster, but for turning defeat into victory at best or, at the very least, enduring defeat while simultaneously denying outright victory to his adversary.

Add ‘of his own making’ right after ‘disaster’ and the whole assertion becomes a punch line.

Axelrod has set himself the task of determining what elements of the man Washington would become were uncovered or refined at Great Meadows. In the face of pettiness, ineptitude, and a willingness to blame others for his own misdeeds, Axelrod is forced to turn to a degree of fantasy and idealization that might very well have brought a blush to the cheek of the old Parson himself:

Lessons in survival, leadership, the inevitability of death in war, and the even greater danger of the chaos that may accompany death; lessons, too, on the importance of logistics, on adapting forces to prevailing conditions, and on discipline – all these things Washington learned at Great Meadows.

This level of willful blindness is, it must be admitted, almost heroic. But it simply won’t do: Washington only survived Great Meadows because the French who were firing on him were running out of ammunition and wanted to conclude a surrender in a hurry. Washington’s leadership at Great Meadows consisted of splintering his forces in the face of a superior enemy. Whatever death and chaos resulted from the whole disaster were a direct result of Washington’s own actions – deliberate actions identical to ones he would take twenty years later. Someone learning the importance of logistics would probably refrain from building a fort in a gully, even if it was his very first fort, since, after all, water runs downhill. Someone learning discipline could probably have prevented his men from getting drunk in the middle of an engagement, even if they were the first men he’d ever led. And someone learning to adapt forces to prevailing conditions would probably not march vulnerable columns of men against a concealed enemy in possession of the high ground – and then try to do the same thing, time and time again, twenty years later.

On some level Axelrod must have sensed some of this, for at his book’s conclusion he tries to move the metamorphosis of his hero to more comfortably spiritual planes:

His faith was in the future. It was a uniquely American faith, a belief that it is not only possible to rise from the ashes of loss, but that those ashes are, in fact, indispensable to the rise. They are the foundation of a character capable of enduring without despair all manner of disappointment and defeat, no matter how bloody.

It’s clear from Axelrod’s bibliography that he’s at least consulted the voluminous Washington correspondence. But the conclusion that he did so hugely selectively is unavoidable, given the above quote. In his very, very frequent letters and dispatches to the Continental Congress, Washington’s references both to his own despair and to the hopelessness and certain defeat of his efforts are virtually innumerable. They are the letters of a commander who has no belief whatever in the future. They are the endless complaints of a man who carried the ashes of loss in his saddlebags, ready to be scattered over every battlefield. Axelrod must have seen such letters, he cannot have helped but note their tone. But they didn’t aid his pre-determined task, so they get no mention here.

Still, hemi-hagiography though Blooding at Great Meadows is, something of its central mission bears consideration: what were the qualities in Washington that led the other leaders of the Revolution to place their ultimate trust in him? Gates and Arnold were better tacticians by far; Greene and Lee had better strategy and more experience. The Continental Congress, in other words, had options. The field commander Washington would become is, ironically for Axelrod but perhaps instructively for the rest of us, damningly clear at Great Meadows. So the question remains: why Washington?

And the answer is Twain’s: luck. Washington was a big, conspicuous target, always on horseback, always leading his men from the front – and yet he was never even so much as scratched by enemy fire. His plans were ill-formed and foolhardy – and yet, through the drunkenness or overconfidence of his opponents, they often worked. And most of all, despite all his disastrous personal inclinations, he managed to avoid being annihilated, despite coming inches away time and time again.

This was not the eerie, agile prescience that would be displayed so often by his fellow great Virginian Robert E. Lee almost a century later. This was sheer, dumb luck. John Adams was not the first to see – and seeing it was not wrong – that new nations could look for worse traits in their warriors.


Steve Donoghue was forced into long-term exile in Rhode Island after being accused by John Winthrop of “infernal and diabolical wizardry.” He has since moved back to his ancestral estate in Massachusetts and is busy redacting his diaries from that time. In addition, he hosts the literary blog Stevereads at www.stevereads.blogspot.com.