J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

George Washington: “when I was young”

On 28 May 1754, Lt. Col. George Washington of Virginia was involved in an embarrassing skirmish that helped to spark the global conflict called the Seven Years’ War. (This little event is sometimes grandly called the Battle of Jumonville Glen.)

Three days later, the twenty-two-year-old officer wrote a letter to his brother John Augustine (Jack) Washington about the experience. It included the line: “I heard the bullet’s whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound…”

That letter got to the Virginia press, and thence to other North American newspapers, and eventually to the August issue of the London Magazine. It made George Washington famous across the British Empire—as an idiot. Or at least a callow youth.

According to Horace Walpole, even George II commented on Washington’s claim to be charmed by whistling bullets: “He would not think so, if he had been used to hear many.”

Meanwhile, Washington suffered a well-deserved and embarrassing loss at Fort Necessity. The next year, he volunteered as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock. That commander’s British column was caught in an ambush by Native and French soldiers, and Washington was the only aide not killed or wounded. He helped to lead the surviving British forces to safety, keeping the disaster from being even worse.

Once again, reports of that battle, many including Washington’s name, spread across the empire. On 31 Mar 1756, the Earl of Halifax wrote: “I know nothing of Mr. Washington’s character, but that we have it under his own hand, that he loves the whistling of Bullets, and they say he behaved as bravely in Braddocks action, as if he really did.”

More than twenty years after his first skirmish, Washington arrived in Massachusetts as general of the newly adopted Continental Army. The Rev. William Gordon wrote that at some point a gentleman—probably Gordon himself—asked the general about that old “heard the bullet’s whistle” line. Gordon said Washington answered, “If I said so, it was when I was young.”


Todd Gardner said...

The big mistakes and miscalculations of his early years provided the recipe for the leader he became. For instance, he learned to retreat and fight for a later day or be decimated. This slow moving revolution also allowed the country to catch up philosophically and prepare for separation from England.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there are two things about young Washington’s quote that I find impressive. First, during Braddock’s retreat he had the bravery and luck to live up to it. And second, as a middle-aged man he realized those words were a youthful folly (though he did shy away from acknowledging that he really did write them).

Anonymous said...

I cannot think of what this country would be like if he had not been who he was.