The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


A Colonel without a Regiment

When my visit to my brother was concluded, and my wife and young child had returned to our maternal house at Richmond, I made it my business to go over to our Governor, then at his country house, near Williamsburg, and confer with him regarding these open preparations for war, which were being made not only in our own province, but in every one of the colonies as far as we could learn. Gentlemen, with whose names history has since made all the world familiar, were appointed from Virginia as Delegates to the General Congress about to be held in Philadelphia. In Massachusetts the people and the Royal troops were facing each other almost in open hostility: in Maryland and Pennsylvania we flattered ourselves that a much more loyal spirit was prevalent: in the Carolinas and Georgia the mother country could reckon upon staunch adherents, and a great majority of the inhabitants: and it never was to be supposed that our own Virginia would forgo its ancient loyalty. We had but few troops in the province, but its gentry were proud of their descent from the Cavaliers of the old times: and round about our Governor were swarms of loud and confident Loyalists who were only eager for the moment when they might draw the sword, and scatter the rascally rebels before them. Of course, in these meetings I was forced to hear many a hard word against my poor Harry. His wife, all agreed (and not without good reason, perhaps), had led him to adopt these extreme anti-British opinions which he had of late declared; and he was infatuated by his attachment to the gentleman of Mount Vernon, it was farther said, whose opinions my brother always followed, and who, day by day, was committing himself farther in the dreadful and desperate course of resistance. “This is your friend,” the people about his Excellency said, “this is the man you favoured, who has had your special confidence, and who has repeatedly shared your hospitality!” It could not but be owned much of this was true: though what some of our eager Loyalists called treachery was indeed rather a proof of the longing desire Mr. Washington and other gentlemen had, not to withdraw from their allegiance to the Crown, but to remain faithful, and exhaust the very last chance of reconciliation, before they risked the other terrible alternative of revolt and separation. Let traitors arm, and villains draw the parricidal sword! We at least would remain faithful; the unconquerable power of England would be exerted, and the misguided and ungrateful provinces punished and brought back to their obedience. With what cheers we drank his Majesty’s health after our banquets! We would die in defence of his rights; we would have a Prince of his Royal house to come and govern his ancient dominions! In consideration of my own and my excellent mother’s loyalty, my brother’s benighted conduct should be forgiven. Was it yet too late to secure him by offering him a good command? Would I not intercede with him, who, it was known, had a great influence over him? In our Williamsburg councils we were alternately in every state of exaltation and triumph, of hope, of fury against the rebels, of anxious expectancy of home succour, of doubt, distrust, and gloom.

I promised to intercede with my brother; and wrote to him, I own, with but little hope of success, repeating, and trying to strengthen the arguments which I had many a time used in our conversations. My mother, too, used her authority; but from this, I own, I expected little advantage. She assailed him, as her habit was, with such texts of Scripture as she thought bore out her own opinion, and threatened punishment to him. She menaced him with the penalties which must fall upon those who were disobedient to the powers that be. She pointed to his elder brother’s example; and hinted, I fear, at his subjection to his wife, the very worst argument she could use in such a controversy. She did not show me her own letter to him; possibly she knew I might find fault with the energy of some of the expressions she thought proper to employ; but she showed me his answer, from which I gathered what the style and tenor of her argument had been. And if Madam Esmond brought Scripture to her aid, Mr. Hal, to my surprise, brought scores of texts to bear upon her in reply, and addressed her in a very neat, temperate, and even elegant composition, which I thought his wife herself was scarcely capable of penning. Indeed, I found he had enlisted the services of Mr. Belman, the New Richmond clergyman, who had taken up strong opinions on the Whig side, and who preached and printed sermons against Hagan (who, as I have said, was of our faction), in which I fear Belman had the best of the dispute.

My exhortations to Hal had no more success than our mother’s. He did not answer my letters. Being still farther pressed by the friends of the Government, I wrote over most imprudently to say I would visit him at the end of the week at Fanny’s Mount; but on arriving, I only found my sister, who received me with perfect cordiality, but informed me that Hal was gone into the country, ever so far towards the Blue Mountains to look at some horses, and was to be away — she did not know how long he was to be away!

I knew then there was no hope. “My dear,” I said, “as far as I can judge from the signs of the times, the train that has been laid these years must have a match put to it before long. Harry is riding away. God knows to what end.”

“The Lord prosper the righteous cause, Sir George,” says she.

“Amen, with all my heart. You and he speak as Americans; I as an Englishman. Tell him from me, that when anything in the course of nature shall happen to our mother, I have enough for me and mine in England, and shall resign all our land here in Virginia to him.”

“You don’t mean that, George?” she cries, with brightening eyes. “Well, to be sure, it is but right and fair,” she presently added. “Why should you, who are the eldest but by an hour, have everything? a palace and lands in England — the plantation here — the title — and children — and my poor Harry none? But ’tis generous of you all the same — leastways handsome and proper, and I didn’t expect it of you; and you don’t take after your mother in this, Sir George, that you don’t, nohow. Give my love to sister Theo!” And she offers me a cheek to kiss, ere I ride away from her door. With such a woman as Fanny to guide him, how could I hope to make a convert of my brother?

Having met with this poor success in my enterprise, I rode back to our Governor, with whom I agreed that it was time to arm in earnest, and prepare ourselves against the shock that certainly was at hand. He and his whole Court of Officials were not a little agitated and excited; needlessly savage, I thought, in their abuse of the wicked Whigs, and loud in their shouts of Old England for ever; but they were all eager for the day when the contending parties could meet hand to hand, and they could have an opportunity of riding those wicked Whigs down. And I left my lord, having received the thanks of his Excellency in Council, and engaged to do my best endeavours to raise a body of men in defence of the Crown. Hence the corps, called afterwards the Westmoreland Defenders, had its rise, of which I had the honour to be appointed Colonel, and which I was to command when it appeared in the field. And that fortunate event must straightway take place, so soon as the county knew that a gentleman of my station and name would take the command of the force. The announcement was duly made in the Government Gazette, and we filled in our officers readily enough; but the recruits, it must be owned, were slow to come in, and quick to disappear. Nevertheless, friend Hagan eagerly came forward to offer himself as chaplain. Madam Esmond gave us our colours, and progressed about the country engaging volunteers; but the most eager recruiter of all was my good old tutor, little Mr. Dempster, who had been out as a boy on the Jacobite side in Scotland, and who went specially into the Carolinas, among the children of his banished old comrades, who had worn the white cockade of Prince Charles, and who most of all showed themselves in this contest still loyal to the Crown.

Hal’s expedition in search of horses led him not only so far as the Blue Mountains in our colony, but thence on a long journey to Annapolis and Baltimore; and from Baltimore to Philadelphia, to be sure; where a second General Congress was now sitting, attended by our Virginian gentlemen of the last year. Meanwhile, all the almanacs tell what had happened. Lexington had happened, and the first shots were fired in the war which was to end in the independence of our native country. We still protested of our loyalty to his Majesty; but we stated our determination to die or be free; and some twenty thousand of our loyal petitioners assembled round about Boston with arms in their hands and cannon, to which they had helped themselves out of the Government stores. Mr. Arnold had begun that career which was to end so brilliantly, by the daring and burglarious capture of two forts, of which he forced the doors. Three generals from Bond Street, with a large reinforcement, were on their way to help Mr. Gage out of his ugly position at Boston. Presently the armies were actually engaged; and our British generals commenced their career of conquest and pacification in the colonies by the glorious blunder of Breed’s Hill. Here they fortified themselves, feeling themselves not strong enough for the moment to win any more glorious victories over the rebels; and the two armies lay watching each other whilst Congress was deliberating at Philadelphia who should command the forces of the confederated colonies.

We all know on whom the most fortunate choice of the nation fell. Of the Virginian regiment which marched to join the new General-inChief, one was commanded by Henry Esmond Warrington, Esq., late a Captain in his Majesty’s service; and by his side rode his little wife, of whose bravery we often subsequently heard. I was glad, for one, that she had quitted Virginia; for, had she remained after her husband’s departure, our mother would infallibly have gone over to give her battle; and I was thankful, at least, that that terrific incident of civil war was spared to our family and history.

The rush of our farmers and country-folk was almost all directed towards the new northern army; and our people were not a little flattered at the selection of a Virginian gentleman for the principal command. With a thrill of wrath and fury the provinces heard of the blood drawn at Lexington; and men yelled denunciations against the cruelty and wantonness of the bloody British invader. The invader was but doing his duty, and was met and resisted by men in arms, who wished to prevent him from helping himself to his own; but people do not stay to weigh their words when they mean to be angry; the colonists had taken their side; and, with what I own to be a natural spirit and ardour, were determined to have a trial of strength with the braggart domineering mother country. Breed’s Hill became a mountain, as it were, which all men of the American Continent might behold, with Liberty, Victory, Glory, on its flaming summit. These dreaded troops could be withstood, then, by farmers and ploughmen. These famous officers could be outgeneralled by doctors, lawyers, and civilians! Granted that Britons could conquer all the world; — here were their children who could match and conquer Britons! Indeed, I don’t know which of the two deserves the palm, either for bravery or vainglory. We are in the habit of laughing at our French neighbours for boasting, gasconading, and so forth; but for a steady self-esteem and indomitable confidence in our own courage, greatness, magnanimity; — who can compare with Britons, except their children across the Atlantic?

The people round about us took the people’s side for the most part in the struggle, and, truth to say, Sir George Warrington found his regiment of Westmoreland Defenders but very thinly manned at the commencement, and woefully diminished in numbers presently, not only after the news of battle from the north, but in consequence of the behaviour of my Lord our Governor, whose conduct enraged no one more than his own immediate partisans, and the loyal adherents of the Crown throughout the colony. That he would plant the King’s standard, and summon all loyal gentlemen to rally round it, had been a measure agreed in countless meetings, and applauded over thousands of bumpers. I have a pretty good memory, and could mention the name of many a gentleman, now a smug officer of the United States Government, whom I have heard hiccup out a prayer that he might be allowed to perish under the folds of his country’s flag; or roar a challenge to the bloody traitors absent with the rebel army. But let bygones be bygones. This, however, is matter of public history, that his lordship, our Governor, a peer of Scotland, the Sovereign’s representative in his Old Dominion, who so loudly invited all the lieges to join the King’s standard, was the first to put it in his pocket, and fly to his ships out of reach of danger. He would not leave them, save as a pirate at midnight to burn and destroy. Meanwhile, we loyal gentry remained on shore, committed to our cause, and only subject to greater danger in consequence of the weakness and cruelty of him who ought to have been our leader. It was the beginning of June, our orchards and gardens were all blooming with plenty and summer; a week before I had been over at Williamsburg, exchanging compliments with his Excellency, devising plans for future movements by which we should be able to make good head against rebellion, shaking hands heartily at parting, and vincere aut mori the very last words upon all our lips. Our little family was gathered at Richmond, talking over, as we did daily, the prospect of affairs in the north, the quarrels between our own Assembly and his Excellency, by whom they had been afresh convened, when our ghostly Hagan rushes into our parlour, and asks, “Have we heard the news of the Governor?”

“Has he dissolved the Assembly again, and put that scoundrel Patrick Henry in irons?” asks Madam Esmond.

“No such thing! His lordship with his lady and family have left their palace privately at night. They are on board a man-of-war off York, whence my lord has sent a despatch to the Assembly, begging them to continue their sitting, and announcing that he himself had only quitted his Government House out of fear of the fury of the people.”

What was to become of the sheep, now the shepherd had run away? No entreaties could be more pathetic than those of the gentlemen of the House of Assembly, who guaranteed their Governor security if he would but land, and implored him to appear amongst them, if but to pass bills and transact the necessary business. No: the man-of-war was his seat of government, and my lord desired his House of Commons to wait upon him there. This was erecting the King’s standard with a vengeance. Our Governor had left us; our Assembly perforce ruled in his stead; a rabble of people followed the fugitive Viceroy on board his ships. A mob of negroes deserted out of the plantations to join this other deserter. He and his black allies landed here and there in darkness, and emulated the most lawless of our opponents in their alacrity at seizing and burning. He not only invited runaway negroes, but he sent an ambassador to Indians with entreaties to join his standard. When he came on shore it was to burn and destroy: when the people resisted, as at Norfolk and Hampton, he retreated and betook himself to his ships again.

Even my mother, after that miserable flight of our chief, was scared at the aspect of affairs, and doubted of the speedy putting down of the rebellion. The arming of the negroes was, in her opinion, the most cowardly blow of all. The loyal gentry were ruined, and robbed, many of them, of their only property. A score of our worst hands deserted from Richmond and Castlewood, and fled to our courageous Governor’s fleet; not all of them, though some of them, were slain, and a couple hung by the enemy for plunder and robbery perpetrated whilst with his lordship’s precious army. Because her property was wantonly injured, and his Majesty’s chief officer an imbecile, would Madam Esmond desert the cause of Royalty and Honour? My good mother was never so prodigiously dignified, and loudly and enthusiastically loyal, as after she heard of our Governor’s lamentable defection. The people round about her, though most of them of quite a different way of thinking, listened to her speeches without unkindness. Her oddities were known far and wide through our province; where, I am afraid, many of the wags amongst our young men were accustomed to smoke her, as the phrase then was, and draw out her stories about the Marquis her father, about the splendour of her family, and so forth. But along with her oddities, her charities and kindness were remembered, and many a rebel, as she called them, had a sneaking regard for the pompous little Tory lady.

As for the Colonel of the Westmoreland Defenders, though that gentleman’s command dwindled utterly away after the outrageous conduct of his chief, yet I escaped from some very serious danger which might have befallen me and mine in consequence of some disputes which I was known to have had with my Lord Dunmore. Going on board his ship after he had burned the stores at Hampton, and issued the proclamation calling the negroes to his standard, I made so free as to remonstrate with him in regard to both measures; I implored him to return to Williamsburg, where hundreds of us, thousands, I hoped, would be ready to defend him to the last extremity; and in my remonstrance used terms so free, or rather, as I suspect, indicated my contempt for his conduct so clearly by my behaviour, that his lordship flew into a rage, said I was a rebel like all the rest of them, and ordered me under arrest there on board his own ship. In my quality of militia officer (since the breaking out of the troubles I commonly used a red coat, to show that I wore the King’s colour) I begged for a court-martial immediately; and turning round to two officers who had been present during our altercation, desired them to remember all that had passed between his lordship and me. These gentlemen were no doubt of my way of thinking as to the chief’s behaviour, and our interview ended in my going ashore unaccompanied by a guard. The story got wind amongst the Whig gentry, and was improved in the telling. I had spoken out my mind manfully to the Governor; no Whig could have uttered sentiments more liberal. When riots took place in Richmond, and of the Loyalists remaining there, many were in peril of life and betook themselves to the ships, my mother’s property and house were never endangered, nor her family insulted. We were still at the stage when a reconciliation was fondly thought possible. “Ah! if all the Tories were like you,” a distinguished Whig has said to me, “we and the people at home should soon come together again.” This, of course, was before the famous Fourth of July, and that Declaration which rendered reconcilement impossible. Afterwards, when parties grew more rancorous, motives much less creditable were assigned for my conduct, and it was said I chose to be a Liberal Tory because I was a cunning fox, and wished to keep my estate whatever way things went. And this, I am bound to say, is the opinion regarding my humble self which has obtained in very high quarters at home, where a profound regard for my own interest has been supposed not uncommonly to have occasioned my conduct during the late unhappy troubles.

There were two or three persons in the world (for I had not told my mother how I was resolved to cede to my brother all my life-interest in our American property) who knew that I had no mercenary motives in regard to the conduct I pursued. It was not worth while to undeceive others; what were life worth, if a man were forced to feel himself a la piste of all the calumnies uttered against him? And I do not quite know to this present day, how it happened that my mother, that notorious Loyalist, was left for several years quite undisturbed in her house at Castlewood, a stray troop or company of Continentals being occasionally quartered upon her. I do not know for certain, I say, how this piece of good fortune happened, though I can give a pretty shrewd guess as to the cause of it. Madam Fanny, after a campaign before Boston, came back to Fanny’s Mount, leaving her Colonel. My modest Hal, until the conclusion of the war, would accept no higher rank, believing that in command of a regiment he could be more useful than in charge of a division. Madam Fanny, I say, came back, and it was remarkable after her return how her old asperity towards my mother seemed to be removed, and what an affection she showed for her and all the property. She was great friends with the Governor and some of the most influential gentlemen of the new Assembly:— Madam Esmond was harmless, and for her son’s sake, who was bravely battling for his country, her errors should be lightly visited:— I know not how it was, but for years she remained unharmed, except in respect of heavy Government requisitions, which of course she had to pay, and it was not until the redcoats appeared about our house, that much serious evil came to it.

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