“The Miraculous Care Of Providence”

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The next effort to capture Fort Duquesne was made three years later under the command of the British general, John Forbes. He was to lead between six and seven thousand men, three times Braddock’s force. Much had been learned since the great defeat; diplomatic efforts were undertaken with the Indians, and the value of provincial troops, fighting in the Indian manner, was recognized. Temporarily designated a brigadier general, Washington was given command of the advanced brigade, made up of local troops.

The army was encamped along the route when scouts reported that a large enemy force was within three miles. Forbes ordered Washington to send out five hundred of his Virginians. Listening to “hot firing” and judging that the Americans were falling back, Washington received Forbes’s permission to go to the rescue with a group of volunteers. As they advanced through thick woods in deepening twilight, they saw facing them armed men lurking behind trees. The two groups were quick to fire at each other. Finally, the cacophony of gunshots sank to a moment of silence and Washington could hear an order being shouted to the opposing force. It was in a familiar voice! Washington’s men were firing at each other.

Washington, as he remembered, ran between the lines of firing men, “knocking up with his sword the presented pieces.” Bullets sped around him. Before the two bloodied groups could be made to understand, fourteen had been killed and twenty-six wounded. Washington commented when the Revolutionary War was behind him that his life had been “in as much jeopardy as it has ever been before or since. ” He was not touched.

After Forbes had successfully captured Fort Duquesne, Virginia’s role in the French and Indian War, and with it Washington’s active participation, came to an end. Our narrative must thus jump ahead twelve years to what took place on September 15, 1776, within sight of the hilltop where the New York Public Library now stands.

Washington was trying to hold Manhattan Island, and with it New York City, against a greatly superior British military and naval force. He had hoped to seal off the rivers that surrounded Manhattan. However, the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the first confrontation between the Continental Army and true British power, had been a humiliating defeat. Brooklyn and with it the power to operate on the East River fell into British hands. The now endangered Manhattan shore was flatly inviting and too extensive to be held in force. Washington’s strategy was to line the river front with troops and trenches just strong enough to delay an invasion until powerful reserves could be brought to bear. Saving New York City depended on preventing the British from establishing a beachhead.

After a terrifying naval barrage, the British landed at Kip’s Bay, an indentation between the present Thirty-second and Thirty-eighth streets that penetrated almost to Second Avenue. The raw militia who were stationed there were too frightened by the banging of the naval guns to make a stand. Arriving at a gallop, Washington, “to [his] surprise and mortification,” found himself surrounded with fleeing men. Then to his relief he saw reserves coming up: two brigades marching in good order. But when a small British force appeared over the crest of the slope, the reserves took one look, jettisoned their guns, and ran.

Washington threw his hat on the ground and cried out. “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” And again, “Good God, have I got such troops as these?”

By now, he was alone. He saw some fifty of the enemy only about eighty yards away and advancing at a run. He stared at them blankly. The enemy were preparing to fire when some of Washington’s aides appeared, grabbed his horse’s bridle, and pulled him back. According to General Nathanael Greene, Washington was “so vexed at the infamous conduct of his troops that he sought death rather than life.” But death was otherwise engaged.

The following year saw the nadir of the American cause. New York City had become a British base. The Continental Army was defeated at White Plains. Forts Washington and Lee fell with great losses of men and supplies. Washington’s Continental Army fled ignominiously across New Jersey, while the terrified inhabitants scrambled to swear renewed allegiance to the crown. Then, during a blizzard, Washington made a midnight crossing of the Delaware to overwhelm the Hessians at Trenton. This might have been considered no more than an audacious raid had it not been followed by the beating up of three British regiments at Princeton.