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, May 17, 2020

Walpole on Young Washington

Horace Walpole, the son of British prime minister Robert Walpole and at the end of his life the fourth Earl of Orford, died in 1797.

A quarter-century later, Baron Holland edited and published Walpole’s review of the 1750s, ultimately titled Memoirs of the Reign of King George II.

In his manuscript, Walpole wrote this about the year 1754:
In August came news of the defeat of Major [George] Washington in the Great Meadows on the western borders of Virginia: a trifling action, but remarkable for giving date to the war. The encroachments of the French have been already mentioned; but in May they had proceeded to open hostilities. Major Washington with about fifty men attacked one of their parties, and slew the commanding Officer. In this skirmish he was supported by an Indian half king [Tanacharison] and twelve of his subjects, who in the Virginian accounts, is called a very considerable Monarch.

On the third of July, the French being reinforced to the number of nine hundred, fell on Washington in a small fort, which they took, but dismissed the Commander with military honours, being willing, as they expressed it in the capitulation, to show that they treated them like friends!

In the express which Major Washington dispatched on his preceding little victory, he concluded with these words; “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

On hearing of this letter, the King said sensibly, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.” However, this brave braggart learned to blush for his rodomontade, and desiring to serve General [Edward] Braddock as Aid-de-camp, acquitted himself nobly.
Young Washington’s comment about whistling bullets didn’t appear in an official dispatch about this event but in an earlier letter to his little brother, as discussed here. That letter made it into the press in both Virginia and London. Walpole appears to be our only source for George II’s response, but there’s solid evidence Londoners were talking about Washington’s callow bravado.

Walpole immediately went on to discuss another episode in the coming of the Seven Years’ War in the same gossipy style:
The violence of this proceeding gave a reverberation to the stagnated politics of the Ministry: in a moment, the Duke of Newcastle assumed the hero, and breathed nothing but military operations: he and the Chancellor held Councils of War; none of the Ministers, except Lord Holderness, were admitted within their tent. They knew too well how proper the Duke was to be consulted: of course they were jealous, and did not consult him.

Instead of him, they summoned one [Horatio] Gates, a very young officer just returned from Nova Scotia, and asked his advice. He was too sensible of their absurdity, and replied, that he had never served but in Nova Scotia, and it would be impertinent to give his opinion; he was ready to answer any questions.
In this manuscript, Walpole never mentioned that the “very young officer” he wrote about was his own godson, named after him. Walpole’s mother had employed Gates’s mother as a housekeeper.

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