Young Washington at War
In 1752 George Washington, just 20, was appointed an administrative officer in the Virginia militia, ranking as a major. The following year he conducted a diplomatic mission to the French garrison at Fort Le Boeuf , which had been built on territory claimed by Britain. During this journey he observed that the site where the Monagahela and Allegheny Rivers join to form the Ohio was an excellent one for a fort. Acting on his advice, Virginia began to build a fort there, where Pittsburgh now stands. Early in 1754 the French captured the incomplete Fort George, renaming it Fort Duquesne. This put them in a position to dominate what is now western Pennsylvania, and control the Ohio Valley.
Virginia reacted quickly. Washington was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of a portion of the “Virginia Regiment,” an active duty unit supported by the colonial government, and dispatched on an expedition to oust the French. On May 27th Washington defeated the French in a skirmish that developed when some of his Indian allies got out of hand at a parlay.
The experience of combat was exhilarating to the young officer. A few days later he wrote to his brother John, “I have heard the bullet whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” Nevertheless, confronted by superior numbers, he was forced to fall back to the improvised Fort Necessity, where, on June 4th, Washington surrendered his command. After his release, Washington returned to private life.
Meanwhile, his line about the “charm” of the bullet’s whistle had been widely circulated, turning Washington into something of a celebrity. The phrase even crossed the Atlantic, eventually reaching the ears of King George II. No stranger to the battlefield, for he had soldiered for much of his life and was the last King of England to command an army in combat, having won the Battle of Dettingen on June 27, 1743, the King commented on Washington’s phrase with a short, but pithy, “He would not say so, had he been used to hear many.”
General de Division Abel Douay: Ready for Any Contingency
Napoleon III’s “Second Empire” produced quite a number of beaux sabeurs, dashing professional soldiers with vast experience on many a field in diverse corners of the world. One such was Abel Douay (1809-1870).
The son of a captain in Napoleon’s army, Douay was born in the Var, a small department on the Riviera right up against the Italian Alps. In 1827 he enrolled in St. Cyr, the French Military Academy, and two years later was commissioned in the infantry. Over the next 41 years he saw extensive service both in garrison and in the field from the West Indies to Algeria to Italy. As a lieutenant, he accompanied a strong French force that convinced the Netherlands to accede to the will of the Great Powers regarding granting independence to Belgium, and was later decorated by King Leopold I of Belgium for his role in his battalion’s defeat of a much larger Dutch force. He later served five years in garrison in the West Indies, a pestilential hardship post at the time. Douay commanded a light infantry battalion on “pacification duty” in Algeria in 1847-1851, with a brief diversion to Italy in 1848-1849, to help crush the Roman Republic and return the Eternal City to Pope Pius IX. He went back to Algeria at the head of a regiment in 1854-1855. In 1859 Douay went to Italy at the head of brigade in the IV Corps, fighting at Magenta (June 4) and Solferino (June 24), where he was wounded and for which he was later made a Command of the Legion d’honneur. His performance earned him command of a brigade in the garrison of Paris. In 1866, Douay was promoted to general de division.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, on July 17, 1870, Douay was named commander of the 2nd Division of the I Corps. On August 4th, Douay’s division formed the advanced guard of the Army of the Rhine, at Wissembourg, in eastern Alsace, preparing to advance into Germany. By a surprise concentration, three German corps fell on the French force. Despite a desperate resistance, the French, greatly outnumbered (c. 60,000 to c. 8,000), were driven from the town. Douay himself was mortally wounded during the fighting when a mitrailleuse, an early machine gun, exploded during the fighting. He died soon after, the first French general to fall in the war. In death, Douay received honors from Prussian Crown Prince Frederick William (later the Emperor Frederick III, the father of “Kaiser Bill”), who had commanded the attacking forces, and other German commanders.
Meanwhile, after driving the remnants of Douay’s division from Wissembourg, the Germans pressed on, though not after collecting the spoils of war.
Among the loot were four carriages that belonged to Douay. One was described as “a businesslike traveling office.” The second was “an elaborate kitchen wagon, complete with mini-wine cellar, cages for live poultry, and all the tools of the culinary arts.” Finally, there were to two well-appointed camp wagons. In the wagons were found the late general’s considerable collection of uniforms, and “corsets, crinolines, and peignoirs,” belonging to the general’s mistress, who was, alas, not among the spoils.