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Providential Events In The Life Of Washington

( Originally Published 1916 )


From The Independent

At this season of the anniversary of Washington's birth, it seems especially appropriate to recall certain singular circumstances in the life of the greatest of Americans—events remarkable in themselves in whatever light they may be viewed ; whether, in accordance with the tenets of modern Spiritism and, to a certain extent, in harmony with the doctrines of Swedenborg and his followers in human affairs of departed spirits; or if, on the other hand, we adopt the simple teachings of the Sacred Scriptures, and acknowledge the truth with men and their affairs.

Authentic history records no less than six marvelous instances in which the life of Washington was saved under circumstances seemingly little less than miraculous. The first of these wonderful escapes from impending peril occurred during the period of Washington's sole recorded absence from the American continent—when he accompanied his brother Lawrence, then fatally ill with consumption, to the Barbadoes.


They sailed in September of 1751, George being then in the twentieth year of his age. Before the brothers had been a fortnight in the island the younger, the future hero of the Revolution, was attacked with smallpox in its " natural " and virulent form. This disease was not then the fangless monster with which we are familiar, but was terrific in its assaults and almost invariably fatal; yet Washington recovered in something less than three weeks, and retained through his life but slight marks of the malady.

One of General Washington's biographers well says, in reference to this incident, in the life of the first President, that, it may well be doubted whether in any of his battles he was in equal danger. If the disease entered an army, it was a foe more to be dreaded than embattled hosts. . . . But it belongs to that class of diseases of which, by a mysterious law of our nature, our frames are, generally speaking, susceptible but once. . . . Thus it came to pass, that, in the morning of his days, Washington became (humanly speaking) safe from all future danger from this formidable disease."

The reader of American history will remember that the smallpox appeared among the British troops in Boston in the fall of 1775 ; that it ravaged our army in Canada in the following spring; that it prevailed the same year at Ticonderoga, and in 1777 at Morristown. Regarding this last occasion of its appearance, Washington said, in a letter to Governor Henry, of Virginia, where vaccination was not permitted :

You will pardon my observation on smallpox because I know it is more destructive to the army than the enemies' sword and because I shudder whenever I reflect upon the difficulties of keeping it out.

This was the tremendous peril from which Washington was comparatively safe after his twentieth year. " If," says a very eminent writer, " to refer this to an overruling Providence be a superstition, I desire to be accounted superstitious."

The Tourney to Venango, 1753

The next imminent danger to which Washington was exposed, and from which his escape was well-nigh miraculous, was on the occasion of his historic expedition to the headquarters of the French Governor at Venango, in 1753. The journey itself, in the winter season, of five or six hundred miles through an unsettled country, most of it constantly traveled by natives at enmity with the English, was one continued story of danger and escape. It was but two years after this trip of Washington's to Venango that English soldiers—surrendered prisoners of war—were tortured to death by the savage natives within sight of Fort Duquesne. On his return from the fulfillment of his mission, Washington traversed the forest with a single companion and an Indian guide. Just at nightfall, on one of the days of their perilous journey, their savage attendant suddenly turned, and at a distance of but fifteen paces fired on Washington, happily without evil result.

After this alarming experience the two companions pursued their way alone, footsore and weary, through the woods, with the sure knowledge that the savages were on their trail. Reaching the Alleghany River on a night of December, they found it encumbered with drifting ice, and only to be crossed by means of a raft which, with only " one poor hatchet," cost them an entire day's labor to construct. When crossing the river, Washington, while using the setting pole, was thrown violently into the water at a depth of ten feet, and saved his life by grasping a log. They spent the night, in their frozen clothing, on a little island on which, had they been forced to stay till sunrise, they would, beyond question, have fallen into the hands of the Indians; but the intense cold which froze the feet of Washington's companion, also sealed the river and enabled them to escape on the ice.

Another Mission

The year following the mission to Venango (1754) Colonel Washington was sent in command of a small force in the same direction; but by reason of the greatly superior strength of the enemy, the expedition resulted in a calamitous retreat. By a singular coincidence, the compulsory evacuation of the English stronghold—" Fort Necessity," as it was called—occurred on the Fourth of July, 1754—a date afterward made forever glorious in great measure by the inestimable services of the young commander of this earlier and ill-fated military expedition. But such were the ability, energy, and power evinced by its youthful commander, that the disaster resulted in his own greatly enhanced reputation as a born leader of men.

Braddock and Washington

In the following year (1755) a gigantic effort was made by England to recover lost ground, and to repair the military misadventures of 1754. The history of Braddock's disastrous expedition is familiar to every schoolboy in the land. At this period, Colonel Washington had retired from the army in disgust at the unjust regulations which gave undue preference to officers holding commissions from the Crown over abler men—some of them their seniors of the same rank—in the service of the provinces. He was, however, at length induced—in great measure from motives of the purest patriot-ism, and partly, no doubt, from his strong leaning toward a military career—to accept a position on the staff of the commanding General, Braddock, a soldier of courage and large experience, but, as events afterward proved, a haughty, self-willed, and passionate man.

During the passage of Braddock's forces through the Alleghany Mountains, Washington was attacked by so violent and alarming a sickness that its result was for a time extremely uncertain; on his partial recovery the General caused him to move with the heavy artillery and baggage. In this position Washington remained two weeks, returning to the General's headquarters on the eighth of July, the day preceding the fatal battle of the Monongahela.

On the morning of this day—forever and sadly memorable in American annals—Washington mounted his horse, weak and worn by sickness, but strong in hope and courage. These are his own words uttered in other and better days :

The most beautiful spectacle I had ever beheld was the display of the British troops on that eventful morning. The sun gleamed from their burnished arms, the river flowed tranquilly on their right, and the deep forest overshadowed them with solemn grandeur on the left.

Braddock's Defeat

It is needless to repeat here the tale of that day of defeat and slaughter. Historians have recorded its events, and poets have sung its story. Throughout the action Washington was in the thickest of the fight. " I expected every moment to see him fall," wrote Dr. Craik, his physician and friend. It was during this disastrous battle that Washington escaped perhaps the most imminent peril of his life.

In company with Dr. Craik, in the year 1770, he descended the Ohio River on a journey of observation to the Great Kanawha, and it was there that an incident occurred, which is thus described by Irving :

Here Washington was visited by an old sachem, who approached him with great reverence and addressed him through Nicholson, the interpreter. He had come, he said, a great distance to see him. On further discourse, the sachem made known that he was one of the warriors in the service of the French, who lay in ambush on the banks of the Monongahela, and wrought such havoc to Brad-dock's army. He declared that he and his young men had singled out Washington, as he made himself conspicuous riding about the field of battle with the General's orders, and fired at him repeatedly, but without success; whence they concluded that he was under the protection of the Great Spirit, that he had a charmed life, and could not be slain in battle.

Washington himself wrote thus to his brother :

By all the powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me; yet I escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side.

His marvelous preservation was the subject of general remark; Mr. Davies, later President of Princeton College, used these words in an address a few weeks after the Braddock defeat:

That heroic youth, Colonel Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner for some important service to his country.

Escape from a Marriage

The next apparently providential intervention in the affairs of the hero of the Revolution is connected with very different scenes from those of battle and carnage; it may, perhaps, be fairly described as a narrow escape from a marriage which, while it might have proved a happy alliance in so far as Washington himself was concerned, would almost certainly have resulted in the loss of his inestimable services to his country.

Washington's attachment to Mary Philipse is a fact beyond reasonable question; his offer of marriage to that young lady is somewhat traditional. It is certain, however, that during his necessary absence on military duty, Captain Morris, his associate aide-de-camp in the Monongahela engagement, became a successful suitor for the hand of Miss Philipse.

What is far less generally known is the fact that, had Washington been successful in his early matrimonial aspirations, he would certainly have remained a loyal adherent of the royal cause, and would thus have been lost to his native land. Evidences of the justice of this theory are by no means lacking. The relatives and friends of the lady were nearly all devoted to the cause of England ; Washington was the associate of many of them; and Captain Morris, his successful rival, remained in the British service during his life. There can be, I think, little doubt that, in the event of his marriage with Miss Philipse, Washington, like Captain Morris, would have returned to England and been for-ever lost to America. Mrs. Morris survived her illustrious admirer twenty-five years, dying about the year 1825.

Washington Unrewarded

A striking historical fact,—as strange as it is authentic—is the treatment of Washington by the English Government after the death of Braddock. Had General Braddock survived his terrible misfortune the result might well have been very different; for it is matter of history that the youthful officer had the undivided confidence of his commander. But by the British Ministry, and even by the King himself, the young hero of the fatal battle was treated with scarcely disguised contempt and neglect.

In a letter to the British War Minister, Governor Dinwiddie speaks of Colonel Washington as a man of great merit and resolution, adding :

I am confident, that, if General Braddock had lived, he would have recommended him to the royal favor, which I beg your interest in recommending.

The sole results were a half-rebuke from the King, and a malicious fling from the lips of Horace Walpole. For more than three years Washington labored incessantly, by personal effort and by means of influential intercessors, to secure a royal commission.

In view of what the world knows now of Washington's well-nigh matchless ability as a soldier, and remembering especially the reputation he had al-ready acquired—amazing in so youthful an officer —his persistent neglect by the military authorities " at home," and particularly the stubborn and doltish determination on the part of the King to ignore the man and his almost unexampled services, suggests the theory that the heart of King George, of England, was as truly and providentially " hardened " as was that of his royal prototype, Pharaoh, of ancient times. For, finding that all his efforts were ineffectual and believing that the chief object of the war was attained by the capture of Fort Duquesne, and the final defeat of the French on the Ohio, the young hero retired after five years of arduous and ill-requited service, in the words of a great writer of our own land and time :

The youthful idol of his countrymen, but without so much as a civil word from the fountain of honor. And so, when after seventeen years of private life he next appeared in arms, it was as the " Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United Colonies, and of all the forces now raised, or to be raised by them."

The same writer elsewhere remarks :

Such was the policy by which the Horse Guards occasionally saved a Major's commission for a fourth son of a Duke, by which the Crown lost a continent ; and the people of the United States gained a place in the family of nations. The voice of history cries aloud to powerful Governments, in the administration of their colonies : "Discite justitiam moniti."

A Furious Conflict

The last of the six marvelous escapes of our hero from impending and fatal disaster occurred during the historic night march of Washington and the American Army on Princeton, where, on the third of January, 1776, he compassed the entire destruction of one regiment of the enemy, and captured or forced to ignoble retreat two others. This battle was the subject of one of Colonel Trumbull's most famous paintings ; and it was during this engagement—as Washington himself told the illustrious artist—that he was in greater peril than even at the time of Braddock's defeat.

In the height of the battle the two armies were for a brief season in furious conflict, and Washington between them within range of both fires. Washington Irving writes :

His Aide, Colonel Fitzgerald, losing sight of him in the heat of the fight when enveloped in smoke and dust, dropped the bridle on the neck of his horse and drew his hat over his eyes, giving him up for lost. When he saw him, however, emerging from the cloud, waving his hat, and beheld the enemy giving way, he spurred up to his side : "Thank God," cried he, "your Excellency is safe!" "Away, my dear Colonel, and bring up the troops," was Washington's reply; "the day is our own."

Trumbull's immortal picture shows us the hero of that decisive battle standing on the memorable day of Princeton by the side of his white war-horse. Says an eloquent writer :

Well might he exult in the event of the day, for it was the last of a series of bold and skilful manoeuvres and successful actions, by which, in three weeks, he had rescued Philadelphia, driven the enemy from the banks of the Delaware, recovered the State of New jersey, and, at the close of a disastrous campaign, restored hope and confidence to the country.

Such are the six memorable events which it well becomes the American people to recall with devout gratitude and awe, realizing anew the Providence that watches alike over human beings and the affairs of nations, and recognizing the solemn truth that ever, as, signally, in those times that tried the souls of men,

"God fulfills Himself in many ways."

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