Band of Giants
By Jack Kelly
Silence. Rain spat cold on the napes of forty armed Virginians groping through “a Night as dark as Pitch.” They found the camp of their Indian ally Tanaghrisson and his braves. The two groups of men could smell each other: the rancid odor of the greased natives, the fetor of the unwashed white men. Tanaghrisson told their leader that the French raiding party was camped in a nearby hollow. He would take them there.
They padded on through the soggy forest “one after another, in the Indian Manner.” The rain ceased, the mist brightened. A summer day was percolating into the Ohio Country, then a vast wilderness, now western Pennsylvania. On that breathless late May morning in 1754, each man listened to his own anxious heartbeat.
Their commander, a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant colonel named George Washington, crept with Tanaghrisson to the edge of a low cliff and peered into the hollow where about thirty-five French soldiers and Canadian militiamen were waking. Washington listened to the murmur of foreign tongues, breathed the incense of smoky fires. The enemy had posted no sentries and had chosen a poor defensive position. Washington lacked formal military training, but he recognized that high ground and surprise afforded him a masterful advantage.
The Virginian had orders to enforce the sovereignty of His Britannic Majesty, King George II. In that endless western forest, Washington relied on the guidance of Tanaghrisson. It was Tanaghrisson, a man in his fifties, known as the Half King, who had alerted him to the danger.
At six foot three, Washington stood eight inches taller than the average man of his day. Gilbert Stuart, the portrait artist who would become most intimate with Washington’s face, would see in his features “the strongest and most ungovernable passions.” If let loose from his exacting will, Stuart speculated, those passions would make Washington “the fiercest man among the savage tribes.” . . .
Twenty years later, the colonies continued to feel the effects of the war that George Washington had started in 1754. The fighting had left Great Britain with a magnificent empire and a ruinous debt. The government’s attempts to tax the colonies had generated more protests than revenues and had goaded the inhabitants to the edge of violent insurrection.
During the tense summer of 1774, two men sat discussing the affairs of the day over pints of ale in the Boston tavern The Bunch of Grapes. One was the tall, paunchy Henry Knox, a well-known city bookseller of twenty-four, given to booming laughter and subtle, insightful analysis. The other was a pudgy, lame Rhode Island businessman named Nathanael Greene. Eight years older than Knox, he still showed the roughness of his country upbringing. But Greene was an avid learner and was in fact one of Knox’s best customers. The liberal-minded Knox admired his friend’s enthusiasm. To know freedom and not defend it, Greene asserted, was “spiritual suicide.”
Knox’s shop, the London Book-Store, was stocked with volumes on weapons, strategy, and tactics, ranging from Caesar’s Commentaries to Maurice de Saxe’s influential Mes Reveries, on the art of war. British officers frequented the shop to brush up on military theory. It was no contradiction that Knox, a bookseller, had transformed himself into an expert on war. Both he and Greene had access to information that was out of the reach of most citizens, who could not afford to purchase books. Knox suggested a reading list for his friend, who was compiling a substantial library.
Knox had grown up during the last war. Greene had experienced the conflict as a teenager, although his Quaker family’s strict pacifism discouraged participation. Both men had come of age during the increasingly contentious and tumultuous years that followed the peace treaty of 1763. Both now sensed that the clash of interests between Great Britain and her American colonies was careening toward armed conflict. . . .
. . . Three days before the carnage on Charlestown peninsula, the Continental Congress voted to adopt the collection of New England militiamen and transform them into a national army. They turned to one of their own to lead the effort, a delegate who had sufficient knowledge of the military art, the only one of them who had attended the proceedings wearing a uniform: George Washington. The tall Virginian combined a radical devotion to the cause with the ingrained forbearance of a man of property.
Appointed to the job, Washington immediately expressed his fear that “my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust.” His humility combined affectation with genuine modesty. He had never directed the movements of a massed army or mounted a formal siege. He had been away from active military life for sixteen years. He knew almost nothing about naval affairs, cavalry, engineering, or artillery.
Washington appeared “majestic” as he rode into the camp in Cambridge, his boots polished, his silver spurs gleaming. What he found there appalled him. “Confusion and discord” reigned. The soldiers were unseasoned–most had never been more than twenty miles from their homes. Commander Artemas Ward, sick with a bladder stone, had failed to impose a structure on the jumble of militias.
The troops, Washington noted, had “very little discipline, order, or government.” He could smell the camp from a mile away, a vast shanty town of wood, turf, and canvas. He found the Yankees viscerally repugnant. They were, he felt, “an exceeding dirty and nasty people.” He observed “an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.” Washington had to issue explicit orders for men to use the latrines rather than “ease themselves” where they pleased. Disease had subtracted many from the active duty list, others had simply gone home. Instead of the expected 20,000 soldiers, a count showed only 16,000.
A twenty-one-year-old captain wrote: “We were all young, and in a manner unacquainted with human nature, quite Novices in Military matters.” The men had left their homes, farms, and families to take a stand for a cause. They were independent agents asserting rights that no king or Parliament could abrogate. One observer noted that “the doctrines of independence and levellism have been so effectually sown throughout the country,” that soldiers would not respond to the commands of officers. Washington had to grapple with a paradox: the spirit that induced men to take up arms for freedom stood in the way of their becoming effective soldiers. . . .
. . . Now experienced at moving heavy artillery, Knox busied himself preparing to transport a portion of his armament onto the heights. His men wrangled the rest of the cannon into emplacements in Roxbury to the south of Boston and Cobble Hill to the north. He distributed ammunition and made sure his men were prepared to service their machines.
This was to be Washington’s first great gamble. If it failed, the shaky Continental Army could be crushed, the guns lost, the rebellion extinguished. Even civilians sensed an approaching climax. “Something terrible it will be,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, who was attending to the business of Congress in Philadelphia. “It has been said ‘tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ for this month, but when the dreadful tomorrow will be, I know not.”
On March 2, tomorrow arrived. As night descended, Knox gave orders to his gunners. They put smoldering matches to the touch holes of their cannon.
Adams went to a knoll near her home in Braintree, ten miles from Boston. She heard “the amazing roar of cannon,” “ a sound she described as “one of the grandest in nature.” The concussions plowed the night, –the hills echoed in applause. Inside the city, a British colonel wrote, “At nine o’clock . . . they began a pretty hot cannonade and bombardment.” Shells “tore several houses to pieces.” . . .
. . . Eighteenth-century naval battles were unimaginably violent. Ships could support the weight of huge cannon and carry them to an intimate range. Guns with the power to throw a cannonball a mile blasted enemy vessels from less than a hundred yards. The confined interior of the ships turned hellish. The firing in close quarters numbed men’s ears; smoke burned their eyes. Cannonballs punched through hulls with an explosion of splinters, lacerating limbs. Decks turned slippery with blood.
As the air screamed, Arnold, his face blackened by gunpowder, ran from gun to gun on the Congress, carefully aiming the cannon. He pointed one heavy piece and barked the order to fire. The explosion sent a five-inch iron ball hurling across the water. It passed directly between two men on the quarterdeck at the Maria. The shock wave knocked Guy Carleton’s younger brother Thomas to the deck and left him bleeding from both ears. This was no fluke–men were sometimes killed by near misses. Carleton himself, although unhurt physically, was stunned by this supersonic angel of death. He allowed Commodore Pringle to direct the ship back down the channel. The Maria did not stop until she was safely two miles up the lake.
Carleton had neglected to draw up any plan of battle in advance. Each British captain was left to improvise. As the afternoon progressed, the fight turned into a water-borne melee, with British gunboats and American galleys and gondolas darting forward to fire, returning to the line to reload. By now, Indians were shooting from both banks, waiting to capture or tomahawk any American forced ashore.
The enemy “continued a very hot fire with round and grape-shot,” Arnold reported. Smoke wafted on the wind. The noise of the firing echoed down the lake. The raw militia fifty miles away at Crown Point knew from the distant booms that the fate of the lake–and their own fate–hung in the balance.
At five o’clock, Arnold watched as the captain of the mighty Inflexible finally managed to zigzag his ship into the channel. The firing from both sides reached a mad crescendo as the ship’s big guns pounded the American line.
Only darkness brought an end to the shrieking madness. Carleton’s ships and gunboats pulled back and formed a line across the mouth of the channel. For a time, Arnold could make them out in the light of the flames that had engulfed the Royal Savage. Then all faded to blackness. An autumnal fog unrolled a deep quiet over the water. . . .