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Hope and Tragedy in the Wilderness

Hope and Tragedy in the Wilderness
Prologue to Greatness

Battle of the Monongahela

During the French and Indian War, a British expeditionary force under the command of General Edward Braddock was en route to capture Fort Duquesne near present-day Pittsburgh but clashed with a mixed detachment of French irregulars and Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi warriors along the way. Being an old Indian hunting ground, the battlefield could not have been better suited for Braddock's enemies, who skillfully used trees and shrubs for cover and concealment while gnawing away at the British soldiers caught out in the open.

Braddock was fatally wounded during the ambush, and so his aide, Colonel George Washington, took control of the crumbling British-American force, despite being outside the official chain of command. Incredibly, Washington was still recovering from severe dysentery at the time, having been confined to a wagon for ten days prior to the engagement. But the young colonel quickly rallied his men and fought bravely for the next three hours.

Washington lost two mounts and took four musketballs through his coat at the Battle of the Monongahela. He also witnessed Indian warriors crush the skulls of his friends and comrades and nail their scalps to nearby trees. But somehow in the heat of battle Washington managed to assemble a rear guard that eventually put an end to the fighting, ultimately saving hundreds of lives and earning him the enduring loyalty of his men; he was just 23.

After the Battle of the Monongahela, Washington was made commander-in-chief of all Virginia military forces, and in less than a year, he would find himself fighting once again on the frontier, where he survived more than 20 battles and witnessed some of the most brutal scenes of the war. Washington lost over a third of his men in these frontier campaigns. He also had to navigate treacherous political problems unique to the backcountry—all as a twenty-something-year-old commander-in-chief of the largest British colony in the Americas.

Unfortunately, Washington’s military career ended abruptly with a tragic friendly-fire incident that left him deeply ashamed. To add insult to injury, he was denied a much-coveted commission in the British Army. With the French having abandoned the Ohio River Valley and his military career at an inglorious end, Washington abandoned his military aspirations to focus on family, farming, and politics. By 1776, George Washington was a man past his prime. But as they say, the rest is history...

For most of us, Washington only comes alive at the outset of the Revolution. It is his finest hour, no doubt. But I think we do ourselves a great disservice by ignoring those hardscrabble years in the wilderness, when Washington was nothing more than an ambitious, fatherless boy muscling his way through genteel society, hungry for a chance to prove himself; the aspiring country gentleman with an illiterate mother and no formal education to speak of.

He was strong like his father and no stranger to backbreaking work. He could wrestle, swim, fish, hunt, ride, and, of course, dance like a proper Virginia gentleman. Surveying deep in the backcountry, he slept on the cold hard ground, braved the elements, evaded Indians, and nearly starved a time or two. As a colonel, he endured failure, overcame disaster, and witnessed the frontier’s darkest horrors: scalping, torture, butchered women and children, men burned alive. He also had to lead an undisciplined and underfed militia into one of the most savage places on earthall as as undistinguished man in his twenties. It was messy, thankless, impossible work, and even after all he had seen and done, it still was not enough to earn a commission—the thing he wanted most. And then the tragedy: to have their blood on his hands and their tragic fate forever carved into his mind.

But this is all just a prologue that nobody reads. Washington only appears to us in 1776; we all know the story. Through it all he is stone-cold and silent as the grave. He is respected and admired, but he does not easily inspire. We just cannot relate. He almost strikes us as irrelevant. Perhaps if we spend a little more time in the wilderness, however, in the mud, sweat, and blood, alone in the dark with an ambitious country boy just muscling his way through, he would not seem so distant. Washington might even inspire us. And maybe, just maybe, he could help us find our way through this dreary wilderness of our own.

Happy Presidents Day.

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