The Fantastic Adventures Of Captain Stobo

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Captain Robert Stobo enters the pages of history on horseback, at the head of a company of Provincial Virginia troops marching as reinforcements into Colonel George Washington’s encampment on the western border. He departs seven years later after a career in which he distinguished himself in the battle that opened one of the longest and bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century; was turned over to the enemy as a hostage for promises that would not be fulfilled; wrote a letter that made him an international figure; was sentenced to have his head cut off; escaped from prison twice and was recaptured twice; escaped a third time to lead a small band through seven hundred miles of enemy territory; was twice captured by pirates; was given an ovation by his government; consorted with the mightiest men of his day; and played a major role in winning one of history’s decisive battles.

Despite these adventures and despite the considerable service he rendered his country, Robert Stobo is an almost forgotten figure today. He may be the least appreciated, most undervalued hero of our colonial period.

Captain Stobo joined Washington on June 9, 1754, at the Great Meadows, which lay some seventy miles south of the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River, the site of present-day Pittsburgh. The newly commissioned young Scots-American, who had left behind him a pleasant social life in Petersburg, Virginia, had been sustained on his journey over the Allegheny Mountains by ten servant-mechanics whom he had personally recruited, by several hunters engaged to take game, and by a covered wagon containing personal supplies and equipment valued at 300 guineas. The wagon (in the words of a contemporary) was “well-filled with every necessary proper to make these mountainous woody deserts as agreeable as their situation would admit.” Among the necessaries were food and a full butt (about 130 gallons) of Madeira wine, both of which, on his arrival in camp, the Captain dispensed at “open table” for his fellow officers.

A few days earlier, Washington and his men had met the French in an exchange of fire. They had killed Ensign Coulon de Jumonville and had sent twentyone prisoners back to Alexandria, one of them the French commissary and Indian expert, La Force. Now in mid-June the French and their Indian allies, led by Jumonville’s half brother, Captain Coulon de Villiers, were moving south from Fort Duquesne to attack.

Washington had started for the French fort but, greatly outnumbered, withdrew in a thirteen-mile forced march to the hastily erected, badly situated stockade he had named Fort Necessity. More than a fourth of his four hundred men were sick or exhausted. His Indian allies had quietly vanished. His food supply was low. As engineer and senior captain, Stobo was apparently put in charge of clearing a field of fire, digging trenches, extending the palisades, and attempting as best he could to strengthen an indefensible position.

After a nine-hour battle in a drenching rain, Washington signed an honorable capitulation. He would receive the honors of war and could retire with his garrison to his own country. The French would do all they could to restrain their Indians. Since the English had lost their dray animals, they could place their baggage en cache , under English guard, until they could send for it. They must “work no more on any buildings on this side of the mountains for one year.”

Washington struck his flag, cached his baggage, destroyed what he could not save or carry, buried his thirty dead, and marched his men out of the encampment, drums beating and colors flying. It was July 4, and it was the blackest day the Colonel-then twentytwo years old—had yet known. He had been badly beaten in his first battle—the first of a war that in the next nine years would rage over three continents, cost almost a million lives, and lose France an empire. He would be humiliated to find, when back in Virginia, that Governor Dinwiddie would not honor the terms of his capitulation, on grounds that Washington had exceeded his authority in offering to surrender La Force and the other prisoners, who had been turned over to higher command. Worst of all, he would learn that in signing the papers he had unwittingly confessed in two places to the “assassination” of a peaceful French envoy, Jumonville. He would spend much of the next four years of his life trying to take the ground he had failed to take in 1754.

The jubilant French burned Fort Necessity to the ground, smashed Washington’s artillery, and began the march back to Fort Duquesne. (They would use the confession of assassination to win a propaganda victory in the capitals of Europe.∗) With them they took two young colonial captains given under Article Seven of the capitulation. These were surety for the general agreement, which Dinwiddie (as it turned out) would not honor, and they were hostages for the French prisoners taken in the Jumonville affair, whom Dinwiddie, in the final event, would not return.

∗ In France, on July 12, 1757, Voltaire wrote to a friend: “I was formerly of the English party, but am that no longer, since the English assassinate our officers in America.”