The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Yankee Doodle comes to Town

One of the uses to which we put America in the days of our British dominion was to make it a refuge for our sinners. Besides convicts and assigned servants whom we transported to our colonies, we discharged on their shores scapegraces and younger sons, for whom dissipation, despair, and bailiffs made the old country uninhabitable. And as Mr. Cook, in his voyages, made his newly discovered islanders presents of English animals (and other specimens of European civilisation), we used to take care to send samples of our black sheep over to the colonies, there to browse as best they might, and propagate their precious breed. I myself was perhaps a little guilty in this matter, in busying myself to find a living in America for the worthy Hagan, husband of my kinswoman — at least was guilty in so far as this, that as we could get him no employment in England, we were glad to ship him to Virginia, and give him a colonial pulpit-cushion to thump. He demeaned himself there as a brave honest gentleman, to be sure; he did his duty thoroughly by his congregation, and his king too; and in so far did credit to my small patronage. Madam Theo used to urge this when I confided to her my scruples of conscience on this subject, and show, as her custom was and is, that my conduct in this, as in all other matters, was dictated by the highest principle of morality and honour. But would I have given Hagan our living at home, and selected him and his wife to minister to our parish? I fear not. I never had a doubt of our cousin’s sincere repentance; but I think I was secretly glad when she went to work it out in the wilderness. And I say this, acknowledging my pride and my error. Twice, when I wanted them most, this kind Maria aided me with her sympathy and friendship. She bore her own distresses courageously, and soothed those of others with admirable affection and devotion. And yet I, and some of mine (not Theo), would look down upon her. Oh, for shame, for shame on our pride!

My poor Lady Maria was not the only one of our family who was to be sent out of the way to American wildernesses. Having borrowed, stolen, cheated at home, until he could cheat, borrow, and steal no more, the Honourable William Esmond, Esquire, was accommodated with a place at New York; and his noble brother and royal master heartily desired that they might see him no more. When the troubles began, we heard of the fellow and his doings in his new habitation. Lies and mischief were his avant-couriers wherever he travelled. My Lord Dunmore informed me that Mr. Will declared publicly, that our estate of Castlewood was only ours during his brother’s pleasure; that his father, out of consideration for Madam Esmond, his lordship’s half-sister, had given her the place for life, and that he, William, was in negotiation with his brother, the present Lord Castlewood, for the purchase of the reversion of the estate! We had the deed of gift in our strongroom at Castlewood, and it was furthermore registered in due form at Williamsburg; so that we were easy on that score. But the intention was everything; and Hal and I promised, as soon as ever we met Mr. William, to get from him a confirmation of this pretty story. What Madam Esmond’s feelings and expressions were when she heard it, I need scarcely here particularise. “What! my father, the Marquis of Esmond, was a liar, and I am a cheat, am I?” cries my mother. “He will take my son’s property at my death, will he?” And she was for writing, not only to Lord Castlewood in England, but to his Majesty himself at St. James’s, and was only prevented by my assurance that Mr. Will’s lies were notorious amongst all his acquaintance, and that we could not expect, in our own case, that he should be so inconsistent as to tell the truth. We heard of him presently as one of the loudest amongst the Loyalists in New York, as Captain, and presently Major of a corps of volunteers who were sending their addresses to the well-disposed in all the other colonies, and announcing their perfect readiness to die for the mother country.

We could not lie in a house without a whole window, and closing the shutters of that unlucky mansion we had hired at Williamsburg, Madam Esmond left our little capital, and my family returned to Richmond, which also was deserted by the members of the (dissolved) Assembly. Captain Hal and his wife returned pretty early to their plantation; and I, not a little annoyed at the course which events were taking, divided my time pretty much between my own family and that of our Governor, who professed himself very eager to have my advice and company. There were the strongest political differences, but as yet no actual personal quarrel. Even after the dissolution of our House of Assembly (the members of which adjourned to a tavern, and there held that famous meeting where, I believe, the idea of a congress of all the colonies was first proposed), the gentlemen who were strongest in opposition remained good friends with his Excellency, partook of his hospitality, and joined him in excursions of pleasure. The session over, the gentry went home and had meetings in their respective counties; and the Assemblies in most of the other provinces having been also abruptly dissolved, it was agreed everywhere that a general congress should be held. Philadelphia, as the largest and most important city on our continent, was selected as the place of meeting; and those celebrated conferences began, which were but the angry preface of war. We were still at God save the King; we were still presenting our humble petitions to the throne; but when I went to visit my brother Harry at Fanny’s Mount (his new plantation lay not far from ours, but with Rappahannock between us, and towards Mattaponey River), he rode out on business one morning, and I in the afternoon happened to ride too, and was told by one of the grooms that master was gone towards Willis’s Ordinary; in which direction, thinking no harm, I followed. And upon a clear place not far from Willis’s, as I advance out of the wood, I come on Captain Hal on horseback, with three — or four-and-thirty countrymen round about him, armed with every sort of weapon, pike, scythe, fowling-piece, and musket; and the Captain, with two or three likely young fellows as officers under him, putting the men through their exercise. As I rode up a queer expression comes over Hal’s face. “Present arms!” says he (and the army tries to perform the salute as well they could). “Captain Cade, this is my brother, Sir George Warrington.”

“As a relation of yours, Colonel,” says the individual addressed as captain, “the gentleman is welcome,” and he holds out a hand accordingly.

“And — and a true friend to Virginia,” says Hal, with a reddening face.

“Yes, please God! gentlemen,” say I, on which the regiment gives a hearty huzzay for the Colonel and his brother. The drill over, the officers, and the men too, were for adjourning to Willis’s and taking some refreshment, but Colonel Hal said he could not drink with them that afternoon, and we trotted homewards together.

“So, Hal, the cat’s out of the bag!” I said.

He gave me a hard look. “I guess there’s wilder cats in it. It must come to this, George. I say, you mustn’t tell Madam,” he adds.

“Good God!” I cried, “do you mean that with fellows such as those I saw yonder, you and your friends are going to make fight against the greatest nation and the best army in the world?”

“I guess we shall get an awful whipping,” says Hal, “and that’s the fact. But then, George,” he added, with his sweet kind smile, “we are young, and a whipping or two may do us good. Won’t it do us good, Dolly, you old slut?” and he gives a playful touch with his whip to an old dog of all trades, that was running by him.

I did not try to urge upon him (I had done so in vain many times previously) our British side of the question, the side which appears to me to be the best. He was accustomed to put off my reasons by saying, “All mighty well, brother, you speak as an Englishman, and have cast in your lot with your country, as I have with mine.” To this argument I own there is no answer, and all that remains for the disputants is to fight the matter out, when the strongest is in the right. Which had the right in the wars of the last century? The king or the parliament? The side that was uppermost was the right, and on the whole much more humane in their victory than the Cavaliers would have been had they won. Nay, suppose we Tories had won the day in America; how frightful and bloody that triumph would have been! What ropes and scaffolds one imagines, what noble heads laid low! A strange feeling this, I own; I was on the Loyalist side, and yet wanted the Whigs to win. My brother Hal, on the other hand, who distinguished himself greatly with his regiment, never allowed a word of disrespect against the enemy whom he opposed. “The officers of the British army,” he used to say, “are gentlemen: at least, I have not heard that they are very much changed since my time. There may be scoundrels and ruffians amongst the enemy’s troops; I dare say we could find some such amongst our own. Our business is to beat his Majesty’s forces, not call them names; — any rascal can do that.” And from a name which Mr. Lee gave my brother, and many of his rough horsemen did not understand, Harry was often called “Chevaleer Baird” in the Continental army. He was a knight, indeed, without fear and without reproach.

As for the argument, “What could such people as those you were drilling do against the British army?” Hal had as confident answer.

“They can beat them,” says he, “Mr. George, that’s what they can do.”

“Great heavens!” I cry, “do you mean with your company of Wolfe’s you would hesitate to attack five hundred such?”

“With my company of the 67th, I would go anywhere. And, agreed with you, that at this present moment I know more of soldiering than they; — but place me on that open ground where you found us, armed as you please, and half a dozen of my friends, with rifles, in the woods round about me; which would get the better? You know best, Mr. Braddock’s aide-de-camp!”

There was no arguing with such a determination as this. “Thou knowest my way of thinking, Hal,” I said; “and having surprised you at your work, I must tell my lord what I have seen.”

“Tell him, of course. You have seen our county militia exercising. You will see as much in every colony from here to the Saint Lawrence or Georgia. As I am an old soldier, they have elected me colonel. What more natural? Come, brother, let us trot on; dinner will be ready, and Mrs. Fan does not like me to keep it waiting.” And so we made for his house, which was open like all the houses of our Virginian gentlemen, and where not only every friend and neighbour, but every stranger and traveller, was sure to find a welcome.

“So, Mrs. Fan,” I said, “I have found out what game my brother has been playing.”

“I trust the Colonel will have plenty of sport ere long,” says she, with a toss of her head.

My wife thought Harry had been hunting, and I did not care to undeceive her, though what I had seen and he had told me, made me naturally very anxious.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00