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By the time Washington was twenty-one he had grown to be over six feet in height. He was straight as an arrow and tough as a whiplash. He had keen blue eyes that seemed to look into the very heart of things, and his fist was like a blacksmith's sledge-hammer. He knew all about the woods, all about Indians, and he could take care of himself anywhere.
At this time the English settlers held the country along the seashore as far back as the Alleghany Mountains. West of those mountains the French from Canada were trying to get possession of the land. They had made friends with many of the Indians, and they hoped, with their help, to be able to drive out the English and get the whole country for themselves.
In order to hold this land in the west, the French had built several forts south of Lake Erie, and they were getting ready to build some on the Ohio River. The governor of Virginia was determined to put a stop to this. He had given young George Washington the military title of Major; he now sent Major Washington to see the French commander at one of the forts near Lake Erie. Washington was to tell the Frenchman that he had built his fort on land belonging to the English, and that he and his men must either leave or fight.
Major Washington dressed himself like an Indian, and attanded by several friendly Indians and by a white man named Gist (pronounced Jist), who knew the country well, he set out on his journey through what was called the Great Woods.
The entire distance to the farthest fort and back was about a thousand miles. Washington could go on horseback part of the way, but there were no regular roads, and he had to climb mountains and swim rivers. After several weeks' travel he reached the fort, but the French commander refused to give up the land. He said that he and his men had come to stay, and that if the English did not like it, they must fight. On the way back, Washington had to leave his horses and come on foot with Gist and an Indian guide sent from the fort. This Indian guide was in the pay of the French, and he intended to murder Washington in the woods. One day he shot at him from behind a tree, but luckily did not hit him. Then Washington and Gist managed to get away from him, and set out to go back to Virginia by themselves. There were no paths through this thick forest; but Washington had his compass with him, and with that he could find his way just as the captain of a ship finds his at sea. When they reached the Alleghany River they found it full of floating ice. They worked all day and made a raft of logs. As they were pushing their way across with poles, Washington's pole was struck by a big piece of ice which he says jerked him out into water ten feet deep. At length the two men managed to get to a little island, but as there was no wood on it, they could not make a fire. The weather was bitterly cold, and Washington, who was soaked to the skin had to take his choice between walking about all night, or trying to sleep on the frozen ground in his wet clothes.
When Major Washington got back to Virginia, the governor made him a colonel. With a hundred and fifty men, Colonel Washington was ordered to set out for the West. He was to "make prisoners, kill or destroy," all Frenchmen who should try to get possession of land on the Ohio River. He built a small log fort, which he named Fort Necessity (near Farmington, PA). Here the French attacked him. They had five men to his one. Colonel Washington fought like a man who liked to hear the bullets whistle past his ears, -- as he said he did, -- but in the end he had to give up the fort.
Then General Braddock, a noted English soldier, was sent over to Virginia by the king to drive the French out of the country. He started with a fine army, and Washington went with him. He told General Braddock that the French and the Indians would hide in the woods and fire at his men from behind trees. But Braddock paid no attention to the warning. On his way through the forest, the brave English general was suddenly struck down by the enemy, half of his army were killed or wounded, and the rest put to flight. Washington had two horses shot under him, and four bullets went through his coat. It was a narrow escape for the young man. One of those who fought in the battle said, "I expected every moment to see him fall"-- but he was to live for greater work.
The war with the French lasted several years. It ended by the English getting possession of the whole of America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. All this part of America was ruled by George the Third, king of England. The king now determined to send over more soldiers, and keep them here to prevent the French in Canada from trying to get back the country they had lost. He wanted the people here in the thirteen colonies to pay the cost of keeping these soldiers. But this the people were not willing to do, because they felt that they were able to protect themselves without help of any kind. Then the king said, If the Americans will not give th e money, I will make them pay by force, -- for pay it they must and shall. This was more than the king would have dared say about England; for there, if he wanted money to spend on his army, he had to ask the people for it, and they could give it or not as they thought best. The Americans said, We have the same rights as our brothers in England, and the King cannot force us to give a single copper against our will. If he tries to take it from us, we will fight. Some of the greatest men in England agreed with us, and said that they would fight, too, if they were in our place.
But George the Third did not know the Americans, and he did not think that they meant what they said. He tried to make them pay the money, but they would not. From Maine to Georgia, all the people were of one mind. Then the king thought that he would try a different way. Shiploads of tea were sent over to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. If the tea should be landed and sold, then every man who bought a pound of it would have to pay six cents more than the regular price. That six cents was a tax, and it went into the king's pocket. The people said, We won't pay the six cents. When the tea reached New York, the citizens sent it back again to England. They did the same thing at Philadelphia. At Charleston they let it be landed, but it was stored in damp cellars. People would not buy any of it any more than they would buy so much poison, so it all rotted and spoiled. At Boston they ahd a grand "tea party." A number of men dressed themselves up like Indians, and went on board the tea-ships at night, broke open all the chests, and emptied the tea into the harbor.
The king was terribly angry; and orders were given that the port of Boston should be closed, so that no ships, except the king's war-ships, should come in or go out. Nearly all trade stopped in Boston. Many of the inhabitants began to suffer for want of food, but throughout the colonies the people tried their best to help them. The New England towns sent droves of sheep and cattle, New York sent wheat, South Carolina gave two hundred barrels of rice; the other colonies gave liberally in money and provisions. Even in England much sympathy was felt for the distressed people of Boston, and in London a large sum of money was raised to help those whom the king had determined to starve into submission.
The colonies sent some of their best men to Philadelphia to consider what should be done. As this meeting was made up of those who had come from all parts of the country, it took the name of the General or Continental Congress. (The word "Congress" means a meeting or assembly of persons. The General or Continental Congress was an assembly of certain persons sent usually by all of the thirteen American colonies to meet in Philadelphia or Baltimore, to decide what should be done by the whole country. Teh first congress met in 1774, or shortly before the revolution bagan, and after that from time to time until near the close of the Revolution.)
About this time too, a great change took place; for the people throughout the country began to call themselves Americans, and to speak of the English troops that the king sent over here as British soldiers.
In Boston General Gage had command of these soldiers. He knew that the Americans were getting ready to fight, and that they had stored up powder and ball at Concord, about twenty miles from Boston. One night he secretly sent out a lot of soldiers to march to Concord and destroy what they found there.
But Paul Revere, a Boston man was on the watch; and as soon as he found out which way the British were going, he set off at a gallop for Lexington, on the road to Concord. All the way out, he roused people from their sleep, with the cry, "The British are coming!"
When the king's soldiers reached Lexington, they found the Americans, under Captain Parker, ready for them. Captain Parker said to his men, "Don't fire unless you are fired on; but if they want a war, let it begin here." The fighting did begin there, April 19th, 1775; and when the British left the town on their way to Concord, seven Americans lay dead o the grass in front of the village church. At Concord, that same day, there was still harder fighting; and on the way back to Boston, a large number of the British were killed.
The next month, June 17th, 1775, a battle was fought on Bunker Hill in Charleston, just outside Boston. General Gage thought the Yankees wouldn't fight, but they did fight, in a way General Gage never forgot; and though they had at last to retreat becaause their powder gave out, yet the British lost more than a thousand men. The contest at Bunker Hill was the first great battle of the Revolution; that is, of that war which overturned the British power in America, and made us a free people. Many Englishmen thought the king was wrong. They would not fight against us, and he was obliged to hire a large number of German soldiers to send to America. These Germans had to fight us whether they wanted to or not, for their king forced them to come.
At the time the battle of Bunker Hill was fought, Colonel Washington was living very quietly at Mount Vernon. His brother Lawrence had died, and Mount Vernon was now his home. Washington was very well off: he had a fine estate and plenty of slaves to do the work on it; but when he died, many years later, he took good care to leave orders that all of his slaves should be set free as soon as it could be done.
Congress now made Colonel Washington general, and sent him to Cambridge, a town just outside of Boston, to take command of the American army. It was called the Continental Army because it was raised, not to fight for the people of Massachusetts, but for all the Americans on the continent, north and south. Washington took command of the army under a great elm, which is still standing. (The book this came from was written in 1896, I doubt the elm is still standing.) There, six months later, he raised the first American flag.
Men now came from all parts of the country to join the Continental Army. Many of them were sharpshooters. In one case an officer set up a board with the figure of a man's nose chalked on it, for a mark. A hundred men fired at it at a long distance, and sixty hit the nose. The newspapers gave them great praise for their skill and said, "Now, General Gage, look out for your nose."
Washington wanted to drive General Gage and the British soldiers out of Boston, but for months he could not get either cannon or powder. Benjamin Franklin said that we should have to fight as the Indians used to, with bows and arrows.
While Washington was waiting, a number of Americans marched against the British in Canada; but the cold weather came on, and they nearly starved to death: our men would sometimes take off their moccasins and gnaw on them while they danced in the snow to keep their bare feet from freezing.
At last Washington got both cannon and powder. He dragged the cannon up to the top of some high land overlooking Boston harbor. He then sent word to General Howe, for Gage ahd gone, that if he did not leave Boston he would knock his ships to pieces. The British saw that they could not help themselves, so they made haste to get on board their vessels and sail away. They never came to Boston again, but went to New York.
Washington got to New York first. While he was there, Congress, on the 4th of July, 1776, declared the United States independent - that is, entirely free from the rule of the king of England. There was a gilded lead statue of King George the Third or horseback in New York. When the news of what Congress ahd done reached that city, there was a great cry of "Down with the king!" That night some of our men pulled down the statue, melted it up, and cast it into bullets.
The next month there was a battle on Long Island, just across from New York City; the British gained the victory. Washington had to leave New York, and Lord Cornwallis, one of the British generals, chased him and his little army clear across the state of New Jersey. It looked at one time as though our men would all be taken prisoner, but Washington managed to seize a lot of small boats on the Delaware river and get across to Pennsylvania: as the British had no boats, they could not follow.
Lord Cornwallis left fifteen hundred German soldiers at Trenton on the Delaware. He intended, as soon as the river froze over, to cross on the ice and attack Washington's army. But Washington did not wait for him. On Christmas night (1776) he took a large number of boats, filled them with soldiers, and secretly crossed over to New Jersey. The weather was intensely cold, the river was full of floating ice, and a furious snow-storm set in. Many of our men were ragged and had only broken shoes. They suffered terribly, and two of them were frozen to death.
The Germans at Trenton had been having a jolly Christmas, and had gone to bed, suspecting no danger. Suddenly Washington, with his men, rushed into the little town, and almost before they knew what had happened, a thousand Germans were made prisoners. The rest escaped to tell Lord Cornwallis how the Americans had beaten them. When Washington was driven out of New York, many Americans thought he would be captured. Now they were filled with joy. The battle of Trenton was the first battle won by the Continental Army. Washington took his thousand prisoners over into Pennsylvania. A few days later he again crossed the Delaware into New Jersey. While Cornwallis was fast asleep in his tent, he slipped round him, got to Princeton, and there beat a part of the British army. Cornwalls woke up and heard Washington's cannon. "That's thunder," he said. He was right; it was the thunder of another American victory.
But before the next winter set in, the British had taken the city of Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. Washington's army was freezing and starving on the hillsides of Valley Forge, about twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia.
But good news was coming. The Americans had won a great victory at Saratoga, New York, over the British general, Burgoyne. Dr. Franklin was then in Paris. When he heard that Burgoyne was beaten, he hurried off to the palace of the French king to tell him about it. The king of France hated the British, and he agreed to send money, ships, and soldiers to help us. When our men heard that at Valley Forge, they leaped and hurrahed for joy. Not long after that the British left Philadelphia, and we entered in triumph.
While things were happening at the north, the British sent a fleet of vessels to take Charleston, South Carolina. They hammered away with their big guns at a little log fort under command of Colonel Moultrie. In the battle a cannon-ball struck the flag pole on the fort, and cut it in two. The South Carolina flag fell to the ground outside the fort. Sergeant William Jasper leaped down, and, while the British shot were striking all around him, seized the flag, climbed back, fastened it to a short staff, and raised it to its place, to show that the Americans would never give up the fort. The British, after fighting all day, saw that they could do nothing against palmetto logs when defended by such men as Moultrie and Jasper; so they sailed away with such of their ships as had not been destroyed. (The wood of the palmetto tree is very soft and spongy; the cannon-balls, when they struck, would bury themselves in the logs, but would neither break them to pieces nor go through them.)
Several years later, Charleston was taken. Lord Cornwallis then took command of the British army in South Carolina. General Greene, of Rhode Island, had command of the Americans. He sent Daniel Morgan with his sharpshooters to meet part of the British army at Cowpens; they did meet them, and sent them flying. Then Cornwallis determined to either whip General Greene or drive him out of the state. But General Greene worried Cornwallis so that at last he was glad enough to get into Virginia. He had found North and South Carolian like two hornets' nests, and the further he got away from those hornets, the better he was pleased.
When Lord Cornwallis got into Virginia he found Benedict Arnold waiting to help him. Arnold had been a general in the American army; Washington gave him command of the fort at West Point, on the Hudson River, and trusted him as if he was his brother. Arnold deceived him, and secretly offered to give up the fort to the British. We call a man who is false to his friends and to his country a traitor: it is the most shameful anme we can fasten on him. Arnold was a traitor; and if we could have caught him, we should have hanged him; but he was cunning enough to run away and escape to the British. Now he was burning houses and towns in Virginia; and doing all that he could - as a traitor always will - to destroy those who had once been his best friends. He wanted tostay in Virginia and assist Cornwallis; but that general was a brave and honorable man: he despised Arnold, and did not want to have anything to do with him.
A young nobleman named Lafayette had come over from France on purpose to help us against the British. Cornwallis laughed at him and called hima "boy"; but he found that Lafayette was a "boy" who knew how to fight. The British commander moved toward the seacoast; Lafayette followed him; at length Cornwallis shut himself up with his army in Yorktown.
Washington, with his army, was then near New York City, watching the British there. The French king had done as he agreed, and had sent over warships and soldiers to help us; but so far they had never been able to do much. Now was the chance. Before the British knew what Washington was about, he had sentthe French war-ships down to Yorktown to prevent Cornwallis from getting away by sea. Then, with his own army and some French soldiers besides, Washington quickly marched south to attack Yorktown by land.
When he got there he placed his cannon round the town, and began battering it to pieces. For more than a week he kept firing night and day. One house had over a thousand balls go through it. Its walls looked like a seive. At last Cornwallis could not hold out any longer, and on October 19th, 1781, his army came out and gave themselves up as prisoners.
The Americans formed a line more than a mile long on one side of the road, and the French stood facing them on the other side. The French had on gay clothes, and looked very handsome; the clothes of Washington's men were patched and faded, but their eyes shone with a wonderful light - the light of victory. The British marched out slowly, between the two lines: somehow they found it pleasanter to look at the bright uniforms of the French, than to look into the eyes of the Americans.
People at a distance noticed that the cannon had suddenly stopped firing. They looked at each other, and asked, "What does it mean?" All at once a man appears on horseback. He is riding with all his might toward Philadelphia, where Congress is. As he dashes past he rises in his stirrups, swings his cap, and shouts with all his might, "Cornwallis is taken! Cornwallis is taken!" Then it was the people's turn to shout; and they made the hills ring with, "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
Poor Lord Fairfax, Washington's old friend, had always stood by the king. He was now over ninety. When he heard the cry, "Cornwallis is taken!" it was too much for the old man. He said to his negro servant, "Come, Joe; carry me to bed, for I'm sure it's high time for me to die."
The Revolutionary war had lasted seven years, - terrible years they were, years of sorrow, suffering and death, - but now the end had come, and America was free. When the British left New York City, they nailed the British flag to a high pole on the wharf; but a Yankee sailor soon climbed the pole, tore down the flag of England, and hoisted the Stars and Stripes in its place. That was more than two hundred years ago. Now the English and Americans have become good friends, and the English people see that the Revolution ended in the way that was best for both of us.
When it was clear that there would be no more fighting, Washington went back to Mount Vernon. He hoped to spend the rest of his life there. But the country needed him, and a few years later it chose him the first President of the United States.
Washington was made President in New York City, which was the capital of the United States at that time. A French Gentleman who was there tells us how Washington, standing in the presence of thousands of people, placed his hand on the Bible, and solemnly swore that with the help of God he would protect and defend the United States of America.
Washington was elected President twice. When he died many of the people in England and France joined America in mourning for him; for all men honored his memory.
Lafayette came over to visit us many years afterward. He went to Mount Vernon, where Washington was buried. There he went down into the vault, and, kneeling by the side of the coffin, covered his face with his hands, and shed tears of gratitude to think that he had known such a man as Washington, and that Washington had been his friend.