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and deeds seems in a sense superfluous. No doubt all our readers have read this story, and know a great deal about who he was and what he did. But it may be said that the lives of great men cannot be told too often, and to write about the military heroes of America without giving a leading place to the noblest of them all would be like giving the drama of Hamlet with the character of Hamlet left out.
George Washington was what is called well-born. He belonged to the colonial aristocracy of the Old Dominion. His ancestors came from noble English families, the first Americans among them, Lawrence and John Washington, coming to Virginia in the time of Cromwell. John had a son named Augustine, and on the 22d of February, 1732, Augustine's first child was born. His parents named him George Washington, little dreaming how famous that name was afterwards to become.
Little George grew up to be a fine, hearty, handsome boy, strong and sound in body and noble in character. His father died when he was twelve years of age, but his mother, one of the wisest and most excellent of women, was left with a good estate. She dwelt in an old manor-house on the Rappahannock River opposite the town of Fredericksburg, and there she devoted herself to bringing up her six fatherless children to be good men and women.
George, as the years went on, became a tall, vigorous, well-proportioned youth. He got what little education the poor Virginia schools of that time could give, was good in mathematics and learned surveying, intending to become a civil engineer, a profession which promised very well in that pioneer period.
In those days Virginia was in great part an unsettled and little known wilderness. When Washington was sixteen he met with Lord Fairfax, a great landholder of Virginia, who owned a vast tract of land in the unexplored Shenandoah Valley, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The landowner took a warm fancy for the fine manly boy, made him his friend and companion, and finally engaged him to survey this pathless forest land, on which the foot of a white man had rarely been set. It was an excellent opportunity for the young surveyor, and he did his work so quickly and so well that for the next three years he was kept busy surveying for the colony of Virginia. He was building for the future, getting familiar with the wilds, in which he was soon to spend active years of war.
While Washington was surveying trouble was approaching. The English and the French alike had their eyes on the rich Ohio Valley, and when the French began to come down from Canada and build forts on the streams south of Lake Erie, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia selected the young surveyor, then twenty-one years of age, to go to these forts and bid the French commanders go back whence they came, telling them that they were on English soil.
It was a difficult task for one so young, one needing the judgment and discretion of a much older man, but Washington performed it admirably. He made his way with a small party through more than five hundred miles of the unbroken wilderness, wild, wooded and mountainous, and came back again in midwinter, at great risk from hostile Indians and the icy rivers. But his work had been done so well that he was warmly thanked by the assembly of Virginia.
The French paid no heed to Governor Dinwiddie's orders. On the contrary they advanced to the Forks
of the Ohio, where Pittsburg now stands. The irate governor now determined to drive them back by force, and in the spring of 1754 he sent out a small force of militia, of which Washington was lieutenant-colonel. The colonel died on the way, leaving Washington in command. He was to “drive away, kill and destroy, or seize as prisoners," any foreigners he found in the valley of the Ohio.
In May the young commander met a small force of French at a place called the Great Meadows, shots were fired and the leader of the French was killed. That, as we have said, was the first shot in the first important American war, a conflict which was to last for seven years, and not end until the French were forced to give up all their possessions in America.
“I heard the bullets whistle," wrote Washington, "and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
That was the boast of a very young soldier. He was to live through times when he would not think the sound of bullets charming. In fact, he soon found it so now, for he was besieged by a much stronger body of French in a hastily built fortification which he named Fort Necessity. There was a brisk fight; then, on July 4, 1754, he was forced to surrender, on condition that he and his men should be free to go back to Virginia. Thus he had his baptism in battle.
The fights at Great Meadows and Fort Necessity opened the war. The next spring General Braddock, an obstinate Englishman, too conceited to take advice, and utterly ignorant of the ways of the wilderness, was sent to Virginia with two regiments of troops. To these were added some Virginians under Washington, who was now a colonel.
Through the wilderness marched Braddock against Fort Duquesne, a stronghold which the French had built at the Forks of the Ohio. As he approached the fort his men were drawn out in a long straggling line. Washington advised caution, but Braddock was not to be taught by a colonel of militia. Suddenly, from the surrounding woods, a tempest of bullets was poured into the ranks. A French and Indian ambush lay behind the bushes and trees. Washington and his men took to the woods, but Braddock would not let his soldiers seek cover, and kept them under fire until in the end he fell, with nearly half his men around him.
Washington and his Virginians were the only ones who came with credit out of that deadly fight. He and his men fought the Indians in their own way, and when the British troops ran, leaving their baggage and cannon behind them, he tried to rally them in vain. “They ran like sheep before the hounds," he wrote. The best he could do was to cover their retreat.
Washington took only a local part in the general operations of the war that followed. Their success at Fort Duquesne had made the Indians so bold that all the frontier settlements were in danger, and during several years he was kept busy, with a force of about two thousand men, in protecting the settlers from massacre.
In 1758 another expedition, under General Forbes, was sent against Fort Duquesne, Washington again accompanying. Forbes proceeded very slowly, and was on the point of giving up and retreating when Washington asked permission to go forward with a small party of men. He reached the fort to find that the French had abandoned it on hearing of his approach, and he took possession without a shot.
George Washington had won all the credit gained in that part of the field of war. But he had been given little opportunity to take part in the great events of the conflict, and now resigned, married Mrs. Martha Custis, a rich and beautiful widow, and settled at Mount Vernon as a planter. He was soon elected to the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and on his appearance there was complimented by the speaker for his military services. He rose to reply, but, as Irving says, “ blushed, stammered, trembled, and could not utter a word.”
“Sit down, Mr. Washington," said the speaker; your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language I possess.”
For the fifteen years that followed Washington dwelt happily in his lovely home at Mount Vernon, cultivating and improving his estate and adding to it until it amounted to eight thousand acres. He raised wheat and tobacco; he had fisheries and brick yards; he was a good master to his slaves, and in his will gave them their freedom. He was for years a member of the House of Burgesses, and in 1774 became a member of the first Continental Congress. When Patrick Henry was asked whom he considered the greatest man in Congress, he replied: "If you speak of solid information and sound judgment Colonel Washington is undoubtedly the greatest man on that floor."
A change in affairs was close at hand, which was to make George Washington great in the eyes of all the world. In April, 1774, the fights at Lexington and Concord brought the country suddenly from peace to war, and two months later, when Congress deliberated upon the choice of a commander-in-chief for the patriot