VOLTAIRE said that a cannon shot in America gave the signal that set Europe in a blaze, but Parkman corrected him. It was only a volley from the hunting pieces of a few backwoodsmen, commanded by a Virginia youth, George Washington.
Mark you, now, how frontiers are pushed, wars started and empires made. A small group of Virginia land claimants clashed with French claimants in the Alleghany wilds and brought the might of England into their fight to bolster up her prestige, which they had lowered by the rashness.
After Washinton's surrender of Fort Necessity, the French cock crowed loudly over its victory in that small, far-off cocking main and rallied the wavering Indians to the winning side. It was a hard choice for the red man.
"If the French claim all the land on one side of the Ohio," a puzzled chief inquired, "and the English claim all the land on the other side, just where is the Indian's land?"
"You don't own even the dirt under your finger nails!" a French subaltern replied.
But the Indians had no use for the loser in a fight, and they started to raid English settlements after Washington's defeat. To teach both the French and the natives a lesson, the British sent over two regiments of redcoats under General Braddock in 1755.
Supported by a body of colonials, the regulars marched forth on a punitive expedition along the trail that led to Washington's disaster the year before. That young Virginian joined the staff of the commander, but only on condition that he should go as "Mr." Washington. Disappointed in his ambition for a commission in the British army, he had thrown up his colonelcy in the militia. He preferred to have no rank at all, rather than expose his pride to the humiliation of the British system, which left a provincial colonel subject to any whippersnapper out from England whose father had purchased for him a captaincy in the regular service.
'Tis a fine and fleeting chance we now have to catch a glimpse of Washington ere he was translated to the deity of the two-cent postage stamp. He was not yet even the stately lord of Mt. Vernon or the fortunate winner of a rich widow, but penniless, unplaced and restless from the pricking of ambition. His naturally impetuous spirit, his high temper remained to be bridled and broken to the self-control that history rightly honors.
As "Mr." Washington, with no commission to lose, he made bold freely to talk back at Braddock and tell that old martinet what's what. The veteran general only smiled at such youthful temerity and colonial freshness. He took a hearty liking to his outspoken aide-de-camp, who impatiently scoffed at the regulars for stopping to "level every molehill and to erect a bridge over every brook." The young frontiersman was for traveling light as an Indian on the warpath and for as swift an advance. "As for any danger from the French," he snapped his fingers; "I look upon it as trivial."
Nor was there any danger to a force so superior, if only it kept a sharp lookout. Alas, Old World soldiers had no eyes to guide them through a New World wilderness. The keenest eyes had gone over to the French, and the loss of those children of the forest was the weakest spot in Braddock's army.
Still no army should commit the folly of sitting down in a hole. Braddock had safely come within only a few miles of his objective, Fort Duquesne, around which modern Pittsburgh roars, smokes and blazes, when he and his soldiers stopped to eat in a narrow road they had just cut in the forest.
While poor Braddock was at mess, he heard the savage shrieks of the enemy as the Indians pounced upon his unsuspecting army. Some officers sprang up and plunged into the fight with their napkins still tucked under their chins, as the good fashion was in those days. Attacked in front and raked by a cross fire from an invisible foe, hidden in the dense woods on either side of the newly cut road, they were all blind and helpless.
That untutored but natural master of tactics, the red Indian, was teaching a European army a new but now universal method of warfare. The colonials had learned the game and they rushed to get behind trees. But that was contrary to the art of war, as the Old World had been taught by the great Frederick. Squares and solid formations were a sacred dogma. Braddock stormed curses upon what he scorned as the cowardice of the colonials, and he whacked and even hacked them with his sword, as he tried to drive them back into the fiery trap.
After three hours of futile bravery, having five horses shot from under him and wooing the honor of death in battle, the general was mortally wounded and swept from the field in the midst of the panic-maddened survivors of a frightful slaughter. He had lost, in killed and wounded, sixty-three out of his eighty-six officers and not far from eight hundred out of some thirteen hundred men. The thirty-six French officers, one hundred and forty-six French-Canadians and perhaps six hundred Indians had inflicted more casualties than they themselves numbered all together.
Washington was twice unhorsed, and four times his clothing was bullet pierced. He did not take his boots off for a week to come and seldom was out of the saddle, as he struggled to steer the frantic retreat. It fell also to the young aide-de-camp to read the prayers for the dead, after his stricken commander had jolted over the mountains with the fleeing mob for six days, until body and soul could endure the agony no longer.
In later years Washington returned to seek but he could not find the grave that was made in the middle of the road, where the wagon wheels of the army obliterated it and cheated the pursuing Indians of a scalp much to be prized. Braddock was swallowed up in the wilderness he had challenged.
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930