Washington makes an impassioned statement about the service and loyalty of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War—and exposes fissures in the commitment of the British monarchy to its American subjects.
Following his ignominious defeat by the French at Great Meadows in late spring 1754, George Washington resigned his appointment in the Virginia militia, but he seized the opportunity of returning to Fort Duquesne as an aide to General Braddock the following year; this position was terminated with the death of Braddock. Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie, despite some previous disagreements with Washington, still believed that the young man could have a successful military career. In the fall of 1755 he commissioned the twenty-three-year-old Washington as commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces, with the rank of colonel. Washington's principal responsibility was protecting the vast Virginia frontier against the raids of the French and their Indian allies. And one of the chief obstacles he faced was the arrogant non-cooperation from regular British troops who refused to accept the colonists as equals.
Washington made a young man's mistake in taking his grievances to John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, as well as governor of Virginia (forcing Dinwiddie to take the position of lieutenant governor). Washington wrote a lengthy memorial to Loudoun in January 1757, seeking a regular establishment for his Virginia Regiment. Loudoun ignored Washington's missive, and the Virginia colonel was given leave by Dinwiddie to seek a meeting with the commander in Philadelphia. Washington fared less well than even his letter. As Thomas Flexner writes: "Washington ... received from Loudoun the roughest treatment he had known in his public career. ... As for the Virginian's grievances and all the problems he faced in his Colony, Loudoun could not be made to pay the least attention to them, nor would he listen to Washington's arguments that the Virginia Regiment be taken into the regular establishment. Having communicated irrevocable orders, the fourth Earl dismissed George Washington with the cold, bland, impersonal courtesy of an aristocrat dealing with an inferior" (The Forge of Experience, pp. 176, 175). In near desperation, Washington turned to Dinwiddie wiht this emotional plea for his case:
"We may I think with great Propriety and Justice Represent. That—The Virginia Regiment was the first in arms of any Troops upon the Continent, in ye prest. War. That—The three Years which they have Servd has been one continued Scene of Action. That—whilst other Troops have an agreeable recess in Winter Quarters, the Nature of the Service in which we are engagd, and the smallness of Our Numbers so unequal to the Task, keep us constantly in Motion—That nevertheless, all these Services have hitherto been performd with great Spirit and cheerfulness but That continuing in a Service precarious and uncertain: hazarding Life Fortune & health to the chances of War, for the present, and a bare Subsistance, is matter for serious, and melancholy Reflection: It tends to promote langour and Indifference: It sickens that laudable and generous Emulation so necessary among Troops: It is nipping in the bud our rising hopes:—Hopes that we have been led to cherish: It is discouraging to Merit, and, I can't help repeating, that it is in the highest degree dispiriting to the Officers, more especially those, who, having thrown themselves out of other employments are now to look forward and see, that they are wasting the Prime of their Lives and Constitutions in a Service the most uncertain, and Precarious: In which they can expect to be continued no longer than hard blows, and continual Dangers require their Aid, and when those Causes Cease, are then dismissed, perhaps in a State of disability and Indigence from wounds &ca.
"These are reflections that must have due weight in every Breast, but the Idiots and Madman's, and have made Our Officers anxiously Sollicituous to know their Fate—at once—and the full extent of their Dependances, that they may regulate their conduct accordingly.
"We cant conceive, that being Americans shoud deprive us of the benefits of British Subjects; nor lessen our claim to preferment: and we are very certain, that no Body of regular Troops ever before Servd 3 Bloody Campaigns without attracting Royal Notice."
Having stated his complaint, Washington proceeds to knock down arguments against the Virginia Regiment being given official status in the British Army. His rhetoric and the subsequent turn of events seem to support his implication that the affection and loyalty held by Americans for Great Britain was far greater than that felt by the mother country for the colonists. "As to those Idle Arguments which are often times us'd—namely, You are Defending your own properties; I look upon to be whimsical & absurd; We are Defending the Kings Dominions, and altho the Inhabitants of Gt. Britain are removd from (this) Danger, they are yet, equally with Us, concernd and Interested in the Fate of the Country, and there can be no Sufficient reason given why we, who spend our blood and Treasure in Defence of the Country are not entitled to equal prefermt.
"Some boast of long Service as a claim to Promotion -- meaning I suppose, the length of time they have pocketed a Commission -- I apprehend it is the service done, not the Service engag'd in, that merits reward; and that their is, as equitable a right to expect something for three years hard & bloody Service, as for 10 spent at St. James's &ca. where real Service, or a field of Battle never was seen."
Washington also differentiates the Virginia Regiment from other colonial troops, making clear that he was not suggesting that all militiamen be granted the rights of British regulars. "If it shoud be said, the Troops of Virginia are Irregulars, and cannot expect more notice than other Provincials, I must beg leave to differ, and observe in turn, that we want nothing but Commissions from His Majesty to make us as regular a Corps as any upon the Continent—Because, we were regularly Enlisted attested and bound, during the King's or Colony's Pleasure—We have been regularly Regimented and traind; and have done as regular Duty for upwards of 3 Years as any regiment in His Majesty's Service—We are regularly and uniformly Cloathd; Officers & Soldiers—We have been at all the expence that regulars are in providing equipage for the Camp—and in few words I may say, we labour under every disadvantage, and enjoy not one benefit which regulars do.
"How different from Us, the Establishment of all other Provincials is, may easily be discernd by considering, that they are raizd for a Season—assembld in the spring and are dismissed in the Fall. Consequently are totally ignorant of regular Service—They know their Dependance, and had nothing to expect; therefore coud not be dissappointed. They are never cloathd, and are at little expence. ... There remains one reason more, which of itself, is fully sufficient to obviate scrupples: & that is—we have been in constant Pay, & on constant Duty since the commencement of these Broils, which none other have."
After rehearsing many of the regiment's engagements, Washington allows that "The Recounting of these Services is highly disagreeable to us—as it is repugnant to Modesty becoming ye Brave, but we are compelled thereto by the little Notice taken of Us—It being the General Opinion, that our Services are slighted, or have not been properly represented to His Majesty: Otherwise the best of Kings would have graciously taken Notice of Us in turn, while there are now six Battalions raizd in America, and not an Officer of the Virginia Regiment Provided for. Notwithstanding many of them, had distinguishd themselves in the Service, before Orders were Issued for Raizing one of the Battalions abovementioned."
Having nowhere else to turn, Washington closes by urging Dinwiddie to make his case to Lord Loudoun, but in fact he must have had little hope that Dinwiddie would undertake the charge, let alone achieve success. Washington remained in service throughout the French and Indian War, and he returned to civilian life in 1759 still feeling slighted by the Crown.
Fifteen years later, Washington was a delegate to the First Continental Congress. The Congress petitioned Great Britain for a redress of grievances, not unlike Washington's earlier appeals to Loudoun and Dinwiddie—and with the same degree of success. Subsequently, the Second Continental Congress elected Washington commander-in-chief of American forces, and the pretense of an American reconciliation with George III—son of "the best of Kings"—was finally ended.
Ironically, Washington's tenure as American commander was plagued by many of the same problems that he experienced in the Virginia Regiment: insufficient troops, poor supply, erratic pay, challenges to his authority, and a sometimes interfering civilian government.
An extraordinary letter, and an imposing physical artifact.
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