by Jack Kelly
Excerpts from Chapters 1 & 2 Tanaghrisson
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. . . .
Jack Kelly is a journalist, novelist, and historian. He is the author of BAND OF GIANTS: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence has contributed to American Heritage, American Legacy, Invention & Technology, among other national periodicals, is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in Nonfiction Literature, as well as author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World. He has appeared on The History Channel , been interviewed on National Public Radio , and conducted book signings across the country. He lives near Kingston in New York’s Hudson Valley, where much of the action of the Revolutionary War took place.