A Letter from the General

A Letter from the General

Washington remembers fighting for the British empire.

A new exhibit at the Carlyle House takes visitors back to the spring of 1755, when Alexandria was in its infancy. The stone house had recently been built, and it attracted a British general who was staging a campaign against the French into the Pennsylvania frontier. After the general was killed in battle, a 23-year-old George Washington took control of the chaotic situation. It was an important moment in his life, and the new exhibit explains why.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is an 11-page letter that Washington wrote years later describing his involvement in what we now call the French and Indian War, the American theater of a world war between France and England. Washington was part of an effort to seize Fort Duquesne, which had been established by the French colonization of the Americas, at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers.

"Washington Remembers: Reflections on the French and Indian War," opened this week and will remain at the Carlyle House until April 17. French and Indian War 250, a consortium of Pennsylvania historical sites that wanted to promote a public awareness of the French and Indian War, put the exhibit together last year. The consortium acquired Washington's letter from a private collector, and now it's finally being revealed to the general public. The exhibit also includes a sword that was used by Washington during the 1750s.

<b>IN 1787, GEORGE WASHINGTON</B> George was having an identity crisis. He had fought and won the Revolution, becoming first in war and first in the hearts of his countrymen. He had planned to live out the remainder of his life under a fig tree at Mount Vernon, the heroic soldier returning to his fields.

But destiny called. And Washington felt obliged to answer.

After the Constitutional Convention, many people were asking the old general to become America's first president. He had, after all, presided over the convention and publicly given his support to the ratification effort. But he longed for the peaceful life of a gentleman planter at Mount Vernon.

It was at this time, as he was contemplating one of the most important decisions he ever made, that he sat down to write about his early life. He wrote a lengthy letter to David Humphreys, who had been his aide during the Revolution. Humphreys was working on a biography of the general, which was never published, and asked for an account of his days before the Revolution.

The 11-page letter is one of the few examples in which Washington attempts autobiography. Perhaps this is why he instructed Humphreys to burn the letter. Fortunately for posterity, the biographer defied Washington's wishes. And now the letter is on display in Alexandria.

In the letter, Washington remembers how fighting for the British empire played a vital role in creating the image that he spent the rest of his life chasing: the war hero, the brave soldier, the knight on a white horse who comes to the rescue in the nick of time.

"I think that there was a certain amount of self-reflection because when you read the letter, you can see his thought process," said Burton Kummerow, a history consultant who worked with the consortium that created the exhibit. "Washington made a lot of mistakes, but the letter shows that he was clearly learning from them."

Washington graphically describes the terrible defeat of General Braddock in 1755 near Fort Duquesne and his frustration that the British commanders were unwilling to modify their style of fighting to combat the French and Indian forces: "So prepossed were they in favr of regularity & discipline and in such absolute comtemp were these people held that the admonition was suggested in vain."

His vivid recollections of the horrors of battle give us an insight on life during wartime: "The shocking Scenes which presented themselves in this Nights March are not to be described. The dead, the dying, the groans, lamentation, and crys along the Road of the wounded for help were enough to pierce the heart of adamant."

<B>BRADDOCK'S EXPEDITION</B> into the Pennsylvania frontier is considered to be one of the greatest defeats in British military history. Part of the reason for this is the sheer size of the force that he assembled, which was the largest military presence that had ever assembled on the North American continent at that time in history.

It consisted of more than 2,000 men. The heavy artillery needed to be pulled by horses, and the horses needed food, which had to be carried by wagons, which were pulled by more horses. Thousands of military men, hundreds of horses and several camp women formed a supply train that was several miles in length. The Carlyle House acted as a staging ground for the war effort because Carlyle was a quartermaster for the British government. Washington volunteered to work as an aide-de-camp for Braddock.

"There was God, the king and Braddock," said Carlyle curator Jim Bartlinski. "He was the most famous general of the era."

The expedition progressed slowly, in some cases moving as few as two miles a day. In the process of traveling from Alexandria to modern-day Pittsburg, the expeditionary force created Braddock Road, which remains an important part of Alexandria's infrastructure.

After Braddock's men crossed the Monongahela, a force of fewer than 900 French and Indians met them. The Virginia militia rushed into the woods to fight the enemy at close range, but the British regulars stayed in formation. The gap created a dangerous friendly fire zone, and the Virginia troops were caught in the crossfire. General Braddock rode into the fire zone attempting to stop the confusion, but he was shot down and seriously wounded.

With the chain of command broken, confusion took over. Men and horses scattered about and bullets flew wildly through the air. Entire companies were wiped out from British muskets. That's when 23-year-old George Washington rode into the hail of bullets to stop the British from firing at the Virginians. Two horses were shot out from under him, but he emerged unscathed and stopped the massacre. He then led the retreat. Three days later, Braddock died. Washington buried him in the middle of Braddock's road, then led the retreat over his body to prevent its desecration.

By the time Washington got back to Alexandria, word of his heroism had already made him a legend. He became known as the "hero of the Monongahela" and was shortly afterward put in command of the Virginia Regiment. But the memory of that day stayed with Washington, and it was clear that the violence of that day made a deep impression on him, one that he would recall many years later as he was preparing to enter the presidency.

<B>"WASHINGTON REMEMBERS"</B> is part of a series of events to commemorate the anniversary of the French and Indian War, a confusing part of America's history. Even its name is in dispute. Many historians argue that "French and Indian War" is confusing because the French were at war with the English and both sides had Indian allies. Other historians argue for the "War for Empire," but what war is not fought for empire? A new PBS documentary will try to recast the war as "The War that Made America."

At the Carlyle House, the commemoration continues on April 9. The museum will host a reenactment of what John Carlyle called "the grandest congress" ever assembled in North America, a meeting of five colonial governors to coordinate wartime planning against the French and their Indian allies. From noon to 5 p.m., guests to the Carlyle House will see reenactors portraying the governors. They will read Washington's words and remember with him.