Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Retreat from the Monongahela


Alain and Jacques walked away from the field of death. Neither brother felt like speaking as they trudged wearily up the hill overlooking the scene of Braddock's defeat. While their men stripped the dead of anything useful, the Abenaki taking the scalps as well, from those who yet lived as well as the dead.

When they reached the top of the hill, Alain cast his gaze about, looking for where he was when Little Wolf was hit. He thought he recognized a dip in the ground next to a small pine tree, he walked towards it.

Behind him he heard his brother gasp, then say, "It is true, our brother has gone to the spirit world." For there, in that dip which Alain had recognized, lay the body of Little Wolf of the Missiquoi people of the Abenaki.

Jacques fell to his knees, he had always been close with Little Wolf, the two had been inseparable after their meeting on the great Cannitticutt river of Little Wolf's homeland. To think that he had come all that way, to the banks of the Monongahela, only to die in battle. A battle in which the French and their Indian allies had suffered less than fifty dead as opposed to the hundreds of English dead scattered on the hillside and below them in the forest.

Alain knew they had to do something for their Abenaki brother and not just leave him for the wolves and other beasts of the forest. He was vaguely familiar with Abenaki funeral customs but had never really paid that much attention to them, something his wife often chided him for. As he stood there, at a loss for what to do, Stone Dog of the Lenape touched his arm.

"Big Bear, we must bury your brother, our friend, but do not speak his name ever again. It will cause his spirit great unrest." Stone Dog sighed, then spoke once more, "He was a good man."

As the remnants of the grenadier companies fell back, Lieutenant Jefferson turned to see that the few Indians which had been pursuing them had stopped on the other side of the river, most of them turned back to join in with looting the dead. A few shots were fired in their direction, but no one was hit.

Sergeant Lewis came up, "I've tried to get some of the men retreating to rally to us, maybe two men out of the many actually paused, then continued to run." Lowering his voice, Lewis continued, "Sir, most of our lads look ready to run. I don't think they'll stand if pressed."

Jefferson nodded, "I know, I know, keep them in order, but keep them moving south."

Jefferson heard hoof beats, he looked up to see Lieutenant Colonel Burton of the 48th, wounded but still game. "Leftenant! Will your men stand?"

Jefferson looked over behind Burton, he had gathered perhaps a company of men, both regulars and provincials, but as Burton spoke with him, those men began to drift away. "I'm sorry Sir, but your men aren't holding... Neither will mine."

Burton turned, swore loudly then galloped off.

Colonel George Washington rode beside the cart carrying General Braddock, the man was barely conscious. He had heard a rumor that one of the provincials, when the regulars had started firing at them, mistaking them for French or just out of sheer panic, Washington would never know, had intentionally shot Braddock down.

If so, that would be disastrous for the morale of the army, so he had dressed the officer down who had told him, a New Yorker he thought, and then told him to mind his tongue. Washington itched to make a stand, but he could see that the men were in no mood to fight. In fact, some of the men, provincials mostly, were already deserting the ranks and melting into the forest.

Stone Dog came up the hill with two other Lenape, they were carrying a canoe made of birch.  Alain wondered where they might have fetched that from. When they reached the position where Little Wolf lay, they began to strip the bark from the canoe, in one piece as best they could.

As they did this, Alain remembered the Abenaki custom of wrapping the deceased in birch bark. As the Abenaki and Lenape moved Little Wolf onto the bark, Jacques ran down the hill. Alain wondered what he was up to.

Moments later Jacques had returned, holding a fresh scalp in one hand, and an English firelock in the other. He stated, "We shall bury these with our brother, so that those in the spirit world will recognize a fellow warrior when he walks among them."

Stone Dog nodded and said, "Big Bear, your brother is wise."

The day after the battle Jefferson and his surviving men arrived at what the men called Rock Camp. The men who had been under Dunbar were deserting in droves, as Jefferson arrived he noticed that the army was burning the stores as well as the surviving twelve-pounder cannon.

"What is this?" he asked of a passing staff officer.

"The colonel says he does not have the horses nor the men willing to drive the teams to bring away the stores and the guns. So we destroy them so that the French do not capture them." Then that worthy went on his way, Jefferson suspected he was intent on getting away from the area as fast as he could.

He looked up when he saw a provincial colonel, a large man, riding in the direction of the late battle. He stopped and gazed in that direction for a long moment. Then he turned his horse and Jefferson recognized the man, a Virginian on Braddock's staff, Washington, he remembered, was the man's name. As far as Jefferson knew, this Washington was now the ranking man left to the army. So he called out...

"Orders Sir?"

Washington reined in and broke away from the dark thoughts he harbored. "Orders?" He gazed at Jefferson's uniform, "Orders, Leftenant? I reckon we continue to retreat, perhaps Great Meadows would be best I think. Perhaps another day's march from here."

"Very good Sir, begging the Colonel's pardon, but how is Sir Peter, and how is the General?"

Washington looked at the ground, then at Jefferson, "Sir Peter died on the field, I'm not sure if we brought the body away with us. His son James is also dead. Hard news for the Halkett family I'm afraid."

Washington paused, then looked at Jefferson, "You and your grenadiers did well Leftenant. What is your name, pray tell?"

"Leftenant Will Jefferson at your service Colonel, 44th Foot."

"I shall remember you, for what it's worth. As to the General, he is dying, he is still alive, but I fear he is beyond saving. Continue your retreat Sir, keep your men well in hand." Then Washington rode off.

"Impressive fellow that colonial." Sergeant Lewis offered.

"Yes, indeed. I doubt we've heard the last of that man."

Alain stood with his head bowed as the Abenaki lowered Little Wolf's body into the grave they had dug. One of the Lenape had dressed the corpse in an English officer's coat, saying, "We do not have any of his own clothing to bury him in, this red coat of an anglais officer is very fine, it will have to do."

They had also laid the English firelock beside him and had tied the scalp to his belt. After wrapping him in the birch bark and tying it up, they had begun the small ceremony. They had to return to Fort Duquesne before long. Alain remembered an old prayer his father had taught him as a boy. He had no idea if the after life for the Abenaki was like that of the Catholic. He rather hoped not, the religion of his youth made it sound like a place a warrior would not care for.

As they moved the earth over the grave using wood split from a dead tree, Jacques raised his face to the sky and howled like a wolf. Then he had cut the palm of his left hand and squeezed the blood into the dirt over the grave.

Jacques looked at the earth and then the sky, saying "Part of me goes with you brother. I vow to raise your sons as my own, your woman will be welcome in my lodge. Your family is my family. Farewell my brother. Farewell."

Somewhere, deep in the forest, a wolf howled.

The sound sent a chill through Alain, yet it comforted him as well. He somehow knew that Little Wolf now walked in the spirit world.

¹ Abenaki dressed the bodies of the deceased in their finest clothing, wrapped them in birch bark, and tied them with a cord. They buried them quickly so their spirits would not linger over the corpses and the village. Graves contained food for the deceased person’s journey to the other world, as well as weapons, tools, and personal items to use in the afterlife.

In winter the Abenaki placed the remains of the dead on a high platform until the earth thawed in the spring and the corpse could be buried. If a man died during a hunting trip, they left his body above ground, and the first person to find the body in the spring buried it.

Widows wore hoods on their heads and did not participate in social events for one year after the death of a husband. After the death of a child, a grieving mother would usually cut off her hair and blacken her face. Relatives brought presents to the parents to help ease their pain; in return the parents sometimes held a feast. (Source)

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  1. That is one fine piece of writing. Thanks.

  2. Very well written indeed Sarge. Thank you.

  3. George Washington was 23 years old for that battle.

    1. I wonder how many modern 23-year olds could have done the job he did on that campaign.

    2. How many 23 year old colonels have you heard of these days? Then again the Marquis de La Fayette was 20 years old during the Valley Forge winter.
      Different times....

    3. That would be exactly zero, Rob. Though the USAAF in WWII had a lot of "senior" officers in their 20s.

  4. Sad, the passing of Little Wolf. Seems death on the battlefield does not play favorites, as you say, Sarge. Nevertheless, an object lesson can be learned from the situation surrounding his unfortunate passing. Even a retreating enemy can still deal out death to those unwise enough to expose and bring attention to themselves.

    1. Indeed, one always should maintain situational awareness.

  5. Ah, an orderly retreat. Much better than a full rout, where one fears the bayonets from both sides.

    Washington, from what I have read, was quite an imposing man. Able to command the room even at a young age.

    Now, I wonder, will Jefferson go colonial after the war? Hmmmm...

    1. I will keep you guessing.

      But you knew that...

  6. Good one again, Sarge!
    --Tennessee Budd

  7. "Impressive fellow that colonial." Sergeant Lewis offered.

    "Yes, indeed. I doubt we've heard the last of that man." Somehow I got chills reading that....You wrote well this story Old AFSarge.


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