On Slaves and General Mercer – September 16th 1776
The clock strikes two bells past the eleventh hour. Reed quickly crosses to his general, passing under the substantial archway of the Morris mansion into the sitting room. The post’s bulky leather satchel remains over one shoulder while in his hand is held a sealed envelope. It is the eve of a battle which historians will call the Battle of Harlem Heights. Two days of crisis and desperate armed conflict has left the army and its commander exhausted beyond measure.
“I took the liberty to pull this,” Reed says, offering the envelope.
Washington’s eyes brighten with renewed vigor as he reads the wide post script. “Yes… you chose well,” accepting the slightly weathered parcel. He quickly breaks the wax seal and pulls out the enclosed letter. Putting on his spectacles, his anxious eyes flow over the pages.
Reed stands idle, patiently waiting for dismissal. He watches as his commander’s gaze intensifies, his initial exuberance rapidly fading. ‘Any second now,’ Reed thinks, averting his eyes. He hasn’t long to wait.
“That fellow is a rogue!” Washington explodes in a torrent of abuse and profanity, pounding a clenched fist on the arm of the chair. “I give that man Mr. Whiting the River Farm to manage. It is one of my more profitable farms.” Blazing eyes turn to the fireplace and flickering flames. “And what do I find? That it troubles that dear man to instruct my Negroes properly. To compel them to adhere to the practice of farming modes I have clearly outlined. So now what am I left with? I will tell you… a small harvest with even smaller profits!”
Washington slams the letter against his thigh in disgust. As one who worships strict adherence to the word of the law, he prides himself in controlling all details, especially those financial. It has pained him dearly to leave his beloved Mt. Vernon and his outlying farms in the hands of others while embroiled in the midst of war. Compounding his frustrations is the failure to personally oversee extensive renovations that will more than double his main residence.
Washington rips off his glasses and turns to Reed. “Colonel, given a free rein, my Negroes are a lazy, deceitful and impudent lot. And that is exactly what this… this man Whiting has allowed. It is why I have always taken pains to keep poor whites separate as much as possible from my servants. There is no good purpose when a manager attends socially with his employer’s Negroes. This man I have contracted has become too familiar. Permits far too much lollygagging and carousing. Unless I put a halt to this affair, the effects may be disastrous upon my return home.”
Reed watches Washington rub his eyes brusquely before replacing his glasses. The letter is once more brought under close scrutiny.
‘After one more outburst,’ thinks Reed, staring at the floor, ‘and I should be allowed to send word to divisional headquarters. Then finally… rest.’
“It has always been my aim to feed and clothe my Negroes well,” Washington states, staring at the letter as if holding a portion of decayed meat. “And be observant and careful of their needs in sickness. In return, I expect such labor as they ought to render. To be at their task with first light until darkness settles. It is no more than what is expected on any farm.”
Washington pauses to read more. “Yet here,” he blurts, flicking a finger at the letter, “Lund, my nephew and manager of Mount Vernon, details all the foul and shiftless behaviors that have been allowed to run rampant on my outlying properties.”
Washington pauses, peering over the top of the letter as if in thought.
Reed sees his chance. “If your Excellency will excuse me I may….”
“Well, I will have none of it,” Washington erupts. “I will send that manager on his way. And as for those Negroes who my nephew has named, I will deal with them directly. They will do their duty by fair means or they will be compelled to do so. Yes almighty, I will have them corrected. Or if I must, like I did with Negro Tom, I will send them off to the Indies. Each in return will fetch a barrel of molasses, some of the best rum and a barrel of limes and other fresh fruit to my liking.”
Washington abruptly rises and crosses the room to a small desk in a far corner. He pulls up a nearby chair and turns to face Reed. The efficient Colonel is directly behind him, offering the commander a sheet of paper and quill. Thanking his aide, Washington sits and immediately dips his quill in the ink.
Intent on addressing his concerns about the manager Whiting to his nephew, he suddenly lays the quill down. He looks up to Reed. “Do you wish to hear what else Lund has written?”
“If your Excellency wishes,” Reed replies, feigning interest.
“Not only in my absence have my slaves been faking illness, destroying equipment and are often seen idle in the fields, they have taken to thievery. I am not discussing what are considered customary robberies. No. It goes far beyond that. Unless watched, my servants would get two glasses of wine for every one served to my guests. No, this is a blatant rupture of my trust, not to mention my profits. Corn, meat, apples, liquor, and all quantities of goods. My stores and tools are missing and turning up with local retailers. Think of it.”
The quill is picked up. With each scribble of ink, Washington continues his harangue of the miserable lot of servants he is cursed with. “This will cease here and now. I am advising all my overseers and farm managers to visit my Negro quarters at unexpected hours. I will advise Lund to hire additional men to lie in wait along the roads to catch anyone making off with my goods. Worn or broken tools and utensils must be turned in before replacements are received. Nails will be rationed and must be produced upon inspection.”
The ink flies across the paper. He abruptly stops, tapping the top of the quill on his chin.
“Yes,” he exclaims. The pen moves across the page, vigorously scrolling down the paper. “I will order all the dogs belonging to my Negroes to be shot. I am convinced they serve as sentinels for evening raids on my stores.” He pauses in thought. “But what if some animals are preserved… hidden or under some pretense brought onto the farms?”
Once more the quill hovers over the letter while Washington gazes into the hearth’s warming flames.
“Why then, said servant shall be severely punished. And the dog hanged.” A quick nod of head and Washington closes the letter.
“There,” he proclaims laying the quill down. “That should thwart that scurrilous lot from robbing me any further in my absence.”
“Very good Your Excellency,” Reed says, quietly waiting beside the desk.
Washington looks up from his desk. “Colonel Reed, my apologies for holding you from your duties while I rave over my domestic staff. I imagine you wish to convey my orders for tomorrow’s council before turning in.”
“That and the day’s order for brigade adjuncts. But Your Excellency, may I say that no apologies are necessary. I am eternally at your disposal.”
“Colonel, you are a liar,” warmth returning to Washington’s voice. “Fortunately for us both a very good one. May I ask if you are aware if General Mercer has crossed back over the North River to Fort Lee?”
“Last I saw, he was toasting his brother-in-law, Colonel Weeden on his fine handling of his 3rd Virginians. I sensed an air of regret that he was no longer leading the regiment he took such pains to train.”
“Yes… Dr. Hugh Mercer,” Washington says fondly. “A fine physician, yet always and foremost the soldier. I recall the time he joined Lt. Colonel John Armstrong’s expedition on the Indian village of Kittanning in fifty six. He was badly wounded and separated from his unit. Yet still was able to trek one hundred miles through the wilderness living on roots, rotting carrion and a snake’s skin until making Fort Shirley.”
Washington shakes his head. “Call of the guns,” he whispers. “General Mercer never could stay long from a fight.”
Washington pushes away from the small table and stands. Reed notes that Billy, Washington’s servant, has slipped into the room with a tray that has two glasses of sherry on it. Taking one, Reed offers it to his commander. Washington nods his thanks. “That old Highlander stood firm before the fields of Culloden while Cumberland’s English guns were well served.” He crosses the room. “For over an hour the British plowed horrendous lanes through the ranks of the Scotts while their own French artillery scarcely killed a man.”
Washington reclines in his arm chair. “As I understand it,” he continues, his voice now raising, echoing among the spacious room and lofty ceiling, “the tribes in the center and right wing had suffered enough useless carnage under that galling fire. As one, they would not wait a moment longer.”
Washington turns and stands before the arm chair, his gaze transported beyond the walls of the lavish estate. “Before the Prince Charles chieftain Lord Murray could issue an orderly advance, his men rushed furiously down the slopes in their usual manner of attack. Muskets quickly spent, they threw them aside and with sword in hand charged into the bowls of heavy fire and grape shot…”
Eyes fall to his adjunct. “They were unstoppable,” Washington mutters, his voice lost amidst the plush carpets and richly ornate furniture. Reed can see it in his commander’s face – the burning envy for those who commanded such men.
“The fury of their charge caved in the British General Munroe’s regiment on Cumberland’s left,” he adds, sitting down. “However the general anticipated such a possibility when forming his reserve. When the Scotts broke through, they faced thrice their numbers. Unscathed, the Scotts charged like mad men directly into three lines of massed infantry. There wasn’t a chance in Hell. But those northern Highlanders, with sword only, knew what they faced, yet still they rushed with unabated fury. General Munroe waited until they were about to fall on his men when he gave the order to fire. My God,” Washington whispers, “the carnage was dreadful.”
Washington pauses. Once more he stares out over the room; eyes drawn to the memories of so many Scotsmen’s despair, still shared by a proud northern nation. “General Munroe released all the fires of the abyss that day. More than you nor I will ever face. It was continuous. Rank after rank. Muskets relentlessly belching flames, tearing into those men. Ripping to shreds those who continued to press the attack. The bayonet put to rest any whose wounds failed to convey them from the field…”
His voice trails off. Washington looks up at his aide. “Colonel…” he whispers wistfully, “if I had but a regiment… just one regiment of such men at my disposal, I could very well end this war. End it with one blow,” he says with his clenched fist pounding against the arm of the chair.
Reed stands silently by the hearth, feeling fatigue’s heavy weight. One foot impatiently slides noiselessly over the carpet.
“But enough of this,” Washington says abruptly. “Colonel, please do not allow me to indulge in any further ramblings. You may tend to your affairs. However, before doing so, kindly see if General Mercer is available. General Greene also. I wish to meet briefly to personally congratulate both gentlemen regarding their men’s outstanding performance this day.”
“At once, your Excellency,” Reed says, grabbing the opportunity to spin on heels and cross the room to the foyer. Laying on hat and coat, he turns in time to see Washington’s head pressed against the plush chair’s back cushion – eyes fluttering in semi-slumber.