Sunday, March 27, 2016

George Washington and General Howe's Dog

The Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777, was bloody and terrifying. Above all, it was confusing, the entire battlefield being shrouded in a thick early morning fog made worse by an immense amount of gunpowder smoke. The Continental Army under George Washington attacked the British army commanded by Sir William Howe, which was deployed outside Philadelphia, the American capital which had recently been captured. The Americans hoped to rout Howe's troops and retake the city. Had they succeeded, the Revolutionary War might have ended in a single afternoon.

They failed. Washington's plan, which involved multiple columns of troops converging in the same place at the same time, was probably too intricate to have worked even under the best circumstances. Amid the thick fog, the plan fell apart in the opening minutes of the battle. Fierce British resistance was encountered, especially at a stone house known as the Chew Mansion, where one hundred British soldiers stubbornly resisted American attempts to dislodge them. Amid the swirling fog and gunpowder smoke, American units accidentally fired on one another, increasing both the confusion and the casualties. As British reinforcements began to arrive, Washington ordered a retreat.

Bizarrely, in the midst of the chaos and bloodshed, American soldiers apparently encountered a dog. The details are a bit sketchy. One can imagine a terrified hound bounding about in confusion, barking at anything and everything, desperately searching for its master amidst the swirl of battle. Perhaps a kindhearted soldier took pity on the poor creature and carried it off during the retreat. Perhaps it took a liking to somebody and followed them. Nobody knows. In any event, the dog ended up in the hands of the Americans. Later on, someone studying the animal's collar found that the dog belonged to none other that Sir William Howe.

George Washington was informed. He could have easily dismissed the matter as not being worthy of his attention. He was reeling from yet another defeat, his fifth in seven pitched battles against the enemy. He was absorbed with all the heavy duties that came with being the commander of the Continental Army, with the success of failure of the American Revolution resting on his shoulders. He knew that many members of the Continental Congress were questioning his leadership. Needless to say, he had much more important problems to deal with than a captured dog.

On October 6, Sir Howe received the following message from Washington sent under a flag of truce.

To General William Howe, 
General Washington's compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar appears to belong to General Howe.

General Howe was the commander of the enemy army, a man who had been been Washington's great adversary for more than a year, who had humiliated him on more than one occasion, and who was bending all his energies to depriving Washington and his nascent nation of their freedom. Yet in the midst of all his troubles, Washington took the time to return the man's pet and include a polite note in the bargain.

Can anyone imagine such a thing as this taking place today?

George Washington was a gentleman, in the pure 18th Century sense of the word. It came from his upbringing among the landowning upper class in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Washington would never have considered not returning Sir Howe's dog, because returning the dog was the honorable thing to do and acting in anything other than an honorable manner was simply unthinkable to Washington. This attitude was evident in almost every action Washington took throughout his eventful life. When he was a young man, he laboriously copied out one hundred and ten rules of civility and right conduct. His hospitality at Mount Vernon was legendary, with literally thousands of guests enjoying his kindness there over the years. There is no record of his ever accepting a bribe. Though he appreciated the social company of beautiful women, there is no hint of his ever being unfaithful to his wife. His integrity was ironclad and his sense of decency and propriety knew no bounds.

On many occasions during the war, British and Hessian troops were ordered by their officers to slaughter American soldiers even if they tried to surrender; Washington never issued such an order. American prisoners died by the thousands in rotting prison hulks in the East River of New York; Washington always treated British and Hessian prisoners were decency and respect. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence fell into British hands during the war and were brutally mistreated; when Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Washington treated him with civility and even invited him to dine at his table. If George Washington ever felt any inclination to sink the same level as his enemy, it was more than outweighed by his horror at the idea of acting in a dishonorable manner. He never compared himself to other people, but only the standards he had long before set for himself.

These days, the concept of being a "gentleman" is so foreign that we put the word on the doors of public bathrooms, as if all a man has to do to be a gentleman is possess the ability to urinate.  We live in an age where politeness, dignity, and civility are disdained as old-fashioned or simply ignored altogether. The so-called "stars" of sports, music, and reality television are expected to debase themselves and arrogantly ridicule one another and we, the American people, are expected to be entertained by it. Shoppers are so inconsiderate that they don't even bother to push their shopping carts to the return area, simply leaving them in the parking space instead for somebody else to deal with. People boom the base speakers of their cars as they drive about, simply because they enjoy annoying other people. There are a thousand examples I could cite. If Washington could have been brought forward in time to look around for a little bit, he could be forgiven for concluding that we have degenerated into a state of barbarism.

It's customary these days to dismiss the Founding Fathers as "dead, white, European males" who have nothing to say to us in the modern world. It's true that they lived in a time much different from our own and, being trapped in the 18th Century, they held ideas about race and gender which we have rightfully cast into the ash heap of history. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers have an enormous amount to teach us. In more ways than one, our country has lost its way since the days of its founding. One lesson that the Founders left us is that no representative republic can survive if its people do not maintain a sense of civic virtue. Washington exemplified civic virtue in his every action and he warned us, in his Farewell Address, that we needed to hold fast to it if our country was going to survive.

As a thought experiment, imagine if one of us somehow came into possession of Sir William Howe's dog under similar circumstances as did Washington in 1777. What would we do? Why, we'd whip out our cell phones and take some "selfies" with the dog, grinning like idiots and giving thumbs-up signs, then post the the pictures to social media along with some swaggy messages like "This Is What Awesome Looks Like". The idea of taking care of the animal and then sending it back to its rightful owner without comment would probably never ever occur to us.

We're always told that we need to look to the future. Sometimes, though, we need to look to the past.

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