Time for a New Plan
In late 1757, a man on horseback rode toward a large house that overlooked the Potomac River, several miles south of Alexandria, Virginia. Draped with a soldier's cloak, the man's figure was martial, tall, and lean. His russet hair was tied at the nape of the neck. His face reflected weeks of grinding illness. His fair complexion, usually ruddy from wind and sun, had paled. Though he was particular about the fit of his garments, now they sagged from his long frame.
Colonel George Washington, the twenty-five-year-old master of Mount Vernon, was home from war on Virginia's western frontier. Though he was taller and stronger than most men, four years in the wilderness had sapped his health. Some days before, he had left his command of the Virginia Regiment in the Shenandoah valley. Charged with stopping bloody Indian raids with a thousand-man regiment, but often having fewer than half that number, Washington had met with little success. Sick and dispirited, he left for home without permission from his British commander or from the colony's royal governor.
Washington's affliction had lingered for nearly three months, then worsened. A frontier doctor had bled him, but it did not help. When the doctor said that Washington might die unless he had an immediate rest, the young officer left for Mount Vernon, assuming that the Indian attacks would subside in the cold months, when even tough Shawnee warriors stayed near their home fires.
Washington had the "bloody flux," a vivid term for dysentery, which haunted military camps. Often fatal, the bloody flux was a grim ordeal under the best of conditions: cramps, diarrhea, intermittent chills and fever, dehydration, and debilitating fatigue. Its eighteenth-century name reflects the stage when the sufferer expels blood. Through the frosty autumn, commanding too few troops against a skilled enemy, Washington might have felt the disease was part of a curse against him.
For four years, Washington had ridden thousands of miles through Virginia and Pennsylvania, back to eastern Virginia, and as far as Boston, but few of those journeys could have been as difficult as his ride home to Mount Vernon that November. The bloody flux compelled frequent stops for undignified squats. Remounting the horse would be another trial.
Washington stopped in Alexandria, not far from Mount Vernon, to see the Reverend Charles Green. Like many pastors, Green ministered to bodies as well as souls. He directed the young commander to eat only jellies and the like, avoiding meat. Green also prescribed gum Arabic (gum from African acacia trees) and sweet wine from the Canary Islands.
No friend or family member greeted Washington at Mount Vernon, though the estate was far from empty. More than a dozen Black slaves, along with white servants and overseers, cared for the house and worked the fields. Jonathan Alton, servant to Washington earlier in the war, likely settled the ailing squire in a warm room.
Finding the cupboards bare of the items prescribed by Reverend Green, Washington sent to Belvoir, the nearby estate of the aristocratic Fairfaxes. His friend George William Fairfax was away in England, so Washington asked Mrs. Fairfax to lend him Canary wine, green tea from China, and a pound of hartshorn shavings to make jellies. "I am quite out," he confessed, "and cannot get a supply anywhere in these parts." He added a bachelor's plea for "such materials to make jellies as you think I may not just at this time have."
For the next six weeks, no correspondence survives from Washington's pen. No evidence shows visitors coming to Mount Vernon-not his mother or sister from Fredericksburg, nor any of his four surviving brothers. Through the shortening days, Washington's disease maintained its grip in a house heated by wood fires. Cramping and sweating and shivering, Washington ate jellies while sipping tea and sweet wine. He had time-nothing but time-to reflect on where he stood in life and what might lie ahead.
The truth, one that likely gnawed at him, was harsh. After a brilliant beginning, he had stumbled from setback to disappointment.
At twenty-two, he was acclaimed a hero, his exploits recounted throughout British North America and in England. As commander of the Virginia Regiment, he gave orders to men decades older. Blessed with athletic ability, stern self-discipline, and polished manners, Washington was good at most things he tried. He expected success.
But his war had taken an ill turn. Washington led his men to an indefensible position and endured a grisly defeat by the French and their Indian allies. His surrender saved lives, but the truce terms proved controversial. Then a British army, with Washington as aide to the commander, marched into the wilderness and was slaughtered, suffering unprecedented casualties. Washington's reputation survived because he had not been in command and showed signal courage, but the episode was an epic failure.
Since that disaster, Washington's Virginia Regiment had flailed ineffectively against raids by France's Indian allies. The raiders killed or kidnapped nearly at will, looting settlements while easily evading Washington's men. Settlers fled east, as did Virginia soldiers who deserted in record numbers. Washington's current situation-eighty miles from his overmatched force, staring into a fire, his world defined by chills and fever and the chamber pot-was far from the soaring trajectory he had imagined for himself.
From his earliest days, Washington hungered for distinction, for high reputation that would validate his worth. He never minced words about it: His goal was renown. Two years before, he wrote that "the chief part of my happiness" was "the esteem and notice the country has been pleased to honor me with." Serving as an unpaid volunteer for part of his military service, he said he wanted only the "regard and esteem" of Virginians. Years later, he wrote that his "only ambition is to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it and to merit the good opinion of all good men." Yet in late 1757, his military career seemed to promise only failure. For a man who ached for recognition, that prospect would be a horror.
His personal life offered little solace. He had courted women, once proposing marriage before entering military service. That woman's father rejected him, skeptical that George Washington would be an advantageous match. Service on Virginia's frontier had offered few opportunities for finding a life partner of the type Washington needed, one with social standing and financial assets.
Washington's challenge was to remount the ladder of his high aspirations. The challenge was greater because he could no longer turn to the men who had propelled his early ascent. His father, Augustine (called Gus), died when George was eleven. He left George, his third son, a good name and enough slaves and land to stand above the middling classes, but nowhere near enough to enter Virginia's elite.
Two other men played paternal roles for George. Half-brother Lawrence, fourteen years older, hauled his brother up in the world alongside him. And Lawrence presented George to Colonel William Fairfax, who had managed his family's huge lands from the Belvoir mansion where the colonel's son George William now lived. A power in the colony's government, Colonel Fairfax boosted Washington into high military office while dispensing sound advice. But Lawrence had died some years before, Colonel Fairfax only a few months back.
A fourth sponsor was alive, but no longer a friend. Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie had advanced Washington at Colonel Fairfax's suggestion. Dinwiddie stuck by the young commander through difficult times, but then disappointment made each man testy and quarrelsome. Now the governor, in poor health himself, was bound for England, embittered by the ingratitude of the young Virginian whose career he had launched.
Washington still possessed advantages that might help him progress from his station as the third son of a Virginia family of the second rank. His military reputation had survived his many reverses. Some influential friends remained, including the eccentric Lord Fairfax, elder cousin of the departed Colonel Fairfax; the officers from his regiment; and some of the leaders of the House of Burgesses, the elected lower house of the colony's General Assembly.
He also occupied a fine home at Mount Vernon, though he did not own it. Built by his father and improved by Lawrence, the house offered a commanding view of the river and the lands beyond. On mild days, Washington could venture out the riverside entrance and draw strength from that prospect.
Washington's greatest advantage was his ambition and drive, which never rested. He knew he was capable of great things. He could feel it when he entered a room to admiring glances, when he swiftly won the trust of others. That special talent-his ability to inspire trust-would carry him to heights not even he imagined.
Washington left no record of his musings at Mount Vernon during that difficult winter of 1757-58, when his society consisted mostly of servants and his enslaved workers. In late December, he felt well enough to send carping letters to merchants in Britain. He protested delivery delays, incomplete and misrouted shipments, poorly selected or damaged items, and high prices.
By the first week of the New Year, Washington plainly felt better. Colonel John Stanwix, his military superior, wrote to congratulate him on his recovery. Washington's neighbor George Mason urged him not to return to duty until the weather warmed.
Dysentery, however, can wax and wane. When Virginia's interim governor, John Blair, asked Washington to attend a council with frontier Indians, Washington declined and consulted another doctor. A few weeks later, he headed to Williamsburg to report on the regiment, but found "my fever and pain increase[d] upon me to a high degree." Doctors again said his life was at risk. Washington retreated to the Mount Vernon fire, once more ailing and solitary, uncertain if he would ever recover.
By early March, self-pity seeped into Washington's letter to Colonel Stanwix. "My constitution," he wrote, "has received great injury, and . . . nothing can retrieve it but the greatest care, and most circumspect conduct." Viewing his illness together with his failures on the frontier, Washington added, "I now see no prospect of preferment in military life . . . I have some thoughts of quitting my command and retiring from all public business." Someone else, he added, "may perhaps have their endeavors crowned with better success."
Yet a few days after writing those weary, humble words, Washington was restored as a forceful man of action. Over the next several weeks, he twice visited the country home of Martha Dandridge Custis, a pleasingly rich widow about his age. In those two visits, he wooed her and won her. He made it to Williamsburg in mid-March, where he reported to Acting Governor Blair and again wrote stinging letters to his British suppliers. By early April, he had returned to command the regiment at Winchester while ordering cloth for his wedding suit. Martha, in her turn, ordered "genteel" cloth for a new gown, "to be grave but not to be extravagant."
Washington's transformation was complete. With self-deprecating humor, he admitted to a merchant, "You will perhaps think me a crazy fellow to be ordering and counterordering goods almost in a breath." He wrote no more about leaving the army. Rather, he avidly sought preferment in a new offensive. He would "gladly be distinguished," Washington confided to Stanwix, "from the common run of provincial officers; as I understand there will be a motley herd of us."
This reversal in Washington's spirits is not easy to explain. Restored physical vigor may account for much of it. When he reached Williamsburg in March, he consulted a doctor who proclaimed Washington nearly recovered. The encouraging prediction may have helped Washington to reclaim his vitality.
Also, the new British expedition aimed to follow the strategy that Washington had been urging. Early in the war, he concluded that Virginia's frontier posts were too small to resist attack and too widely dispersed to protect settlers. The better strategy, he insisted, was to drive the French from Fort Duquesne (today's Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers combine to form the Ohio), thereby severing French support for their Indian allies. By mid-March, Williamsburg buzzed with news that the British advance would target Fort Duquesne.
But more was happening by March of 1758 than Washington's return to health, or his engagement to Martha Custis, or even the shift in British war strategy. Through that prolonged period of forced introspection, Washington evidently resolved on a fundamental change of direction, one previewed in his letter to Stanwix. He had spent nearly five years trying to build a military career. Repeatedly, he sought either an officer's commission in King George's army, or the absorption of his Virginia Regiment into the British military. Each plea had withered under British contempt for colonists. Moreover, in 1758 British officers purchased their commissions. A lieutenant colonelcy, one rank below Washington's position with the Virginia Regiment, cost £3,400. Washington could not imagine having so much cash in hand, equivalent to roughly fifty years of a teacher's annual salary in Virginia, or close to $300,000 today. He would never hold a British Army commission.
Nor could Washington expect a career as a soldier for Virginia. For seventy years before the current conflict with France, the colony had maintained no military force. Whenever this fighting ended, Virginia again would rely on citizen militia to defend against Indian raids and slave insurrections.
His military ambitions blocked, Washington charted a new path that began at Mount Vernon. The estate included enough acreage to establish him as gentry. He would remodel the house and improve its farms. A good marriage could bring more farmland.
And he would turn to the west. Like many Virginians, Washington saw frontier lands as the likeliest source of wealth. The war with France had stalled westward migration, but peace would reignite it. From soldiering and surveying, Washington knew the west. By examining new lands early, surveyors could acquire choice parcels to resell at a profit. Thomas Jefferson's father did that, as did Patrick Henry's and John Marshall's. Washington meant to do it too.
And he would turn to politics. Washington's grandfather and great-grandfather had served in the House of Burgesses. So had his brother Lawrence. His surviving older brother, Augustine Jr. (called Austin), had just won a seat from Westmoreland County. With Fairfax support plus his military reputation, Washington would be a strong candidate. Three years earlier, he had been on the ballot in a Frederick County contest, though he did not campaign for the office. In October 1757, struggling with dysentery while commanding the regiment, he brought a court proceeding to confirm that he was qualified to represent Frederick County. Brother Lawrence had been justice of his county court and a member of his parish vestry. Washington could aim at those positions too.
When a revived Washington reached Winchester in April 1758, he knew his remaining time in uniform would be short. He had a fiancŽe to wed, an estate to improve, an economic fortune to create, and political aspirations to follow. If the expedition against Fort Duquesne succeeded, Washington could resign with a sense of accomplishment. If it failed, the British would mount no other offensive on the Virginia frontier for years. Washington had a plan. It would take him beyond even his high ambitions.