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General Washington and the Water Witch

GENERAL WASHINGTON AND THE WATER WITCH is a fantasy in which past and present combine, in which its hero's fateful decision to cross the Delaware and attack the British is shown to be the result of the same revolutionary spirit which would today bring "The Father of his Country" up against McCarthy and his henchmen. This is more than a fine play, it is a vindication of America's tradition and an encouragement to all her friends who see in her the Land of the Free.

from the dust jacket of the 1956 Bodley Head first edition


GEORGE WASHINGTON, who bears the rather pompous title – perhaps too much of a load for any man – of Father of his Country, has always been an enigma to historians, a puzzle to psychologists, and an awesome challenge to novelists. Perhaps this is only in small measure due to the man himself; not George Washington, but those who have made a profession of him ever since his death are the authors of the curious Washington legend. Even today, in all the cynical reality of cold war America, the legend of Washington is the legend of the man who could not tell a lie, the little boy who chopped down his father's favourite cherry tree with his hatchet, and the adult paragon of virtue, immobility and frozen implausibility. The image will die hard, if ever.

It is unfortunate that so many of the worst elements in America have seized upon Washington as their pillar and post. The Daughters of the American Revolution who trace their descent from various members of General Washington's army, and who act and react with consistent hypocrisy and bigotry, are only one of the many reactionary groupings that have seized upon this man as theirs, and turned him into a particular, personal, and rather nasty coat of arms.

About twenty years ago, when I was very young and caught up in the motion and hope of the great movement of the unemployed during our depression, and later the movement to organize the unorganized, I began to ponder over the character of a man who had led a revolutionary War of Independence through seven weary and often desperate years – and who had always remained true, not only to the revolutionary cause, but to the men who fought alongside of him. This kind of reflection led me to an investigation of the American Revolution and its leaders, a search which lasted for many years and which resulted in a series of books on the subject – one of which was a novel about George Washington entitled The Unvanquished.

In the course of trying to find out what had actually happened, indeed what must inevitably happen in any revolutionary movement, I discovered that thousands and thousands of contemporary documents were available, easy to come by, plain to understand, and direct in their implications. It was not that one could not gain access to the truth of General Washington and the American Revolution; on the contrary, access was easy; but apparently no one wanted the facts or cared to present them without tampering and bowdlerising. The legends of our Colonial period die very hard.

In The Unvanquished, I began to assemble certain facets of Washington's personality that made sense and could have been the equipment of an actual human being. I discovered that the man who is held up to us for all the years of our schooling as a pious teetotaller because, as the gentle ladies who revered him pointed out, his stately home at Mt. Vernon had no wine cellar, was actually a heavy drinking man in accord with the custom of his time – and perhaps a little more so. His fondness for Madeira, Claret and West Indian Rum reached the point where he abandoned all thought of a wine cellar and built an entire house to hold his precious liquor collection. Later this house was conveniently torn down.

I also discovered that the rather depressing and idiotic picture of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge at his army's moment of extreme peril, was another bit of fiction. As with almost all intelligent men of his time, George Washington was deeply agnostic. He hated preachers, held almost all men of the cloth in contempt and avoided the interior of churches as one would the plague. A contemporary account by a writer for a New York City newspaper at the time when New York was the capital of the young nation touches on this. George Washington had just been elected President of the United States. His wife Martha decided that it was both seemly and necessary that the president of the young republic become a responsible churchgoer, and accordingly dragged him to church with her one Sunday morning. They entered the church in the midst of the sermon. Seeing that new sheep had wandered into his fold, the pastor changed horses in midstream and directed his sermon impromptu toward repentent sinners, particularly sinners in high places, and particularly one sinner who happened to be the president of the United States. Washington sat in grim silence, head bowed, body rigid, and listened quietly to a half-hour of righteous berating. When the parson had finished, Washington rose, left the church, and left church-going as well.

The point is that Washington was very much of a man, beloved of his men not because he was a cross between a Boy Scout and a Rotarian, between an Anglican Pastor and a plaster image of a Catholic Saint – but because he was a very real, lusty and bold man of good solid flesh and blood. He was a gentleman farmer from Virginia, hard drinking, hard riding and addicted to personal independence and personal decisiveness. Gambling was also the fashion of the time, but perhaps he gambled more than most. Another side of his character made him keep a scrupulous accounting of his winnings and losses at cards; but his account books on this subject show a life-time addiction and very considerable stakes on the table.

He had an eye for dogs, for horses, for men, and for women, and many of his associates noted, without rancor, that while he slept in practically all houses of any substance that lined his paths of campaign, he never slept alone. While his official genealogy gives no blood descendants, his companions in arms raised a brow at the very thought that the father of his country might have died without issue. His use of strong language, both colourful and rich, was proverbial among his men as well as among the British against whom he fought. It was said that Washington knew more four-letter Anglo-Saxon words and used them more frequently than any man in the colonies, and one of his officers remarked that it was not merely the quality of his anger that made anyone at whom it was directed shrivel with fear but the quality of the language in which he expressed his annoyance. We have dozens and dozens of verbatim quotes of his battlefield directions. They are what one might expect from a soldier – rich, pungent and to the point.

A man with so little military experience that it counted for almost nothing, he was thrown almost without warning into command of one of the first revolutionary struggles of our times. Far from being the man of stone and ice so often depicted, he exhibited a talent for adaptability, a willingness to learn from his own errors, to grow and to change, that is unequalled in the record of American military leaders. He combined with this emotional stability, devotion to unity of cause and purpose and singular and passionate dedication to the task at hand – the bringing to a successful conclusion of a military struggle upon which he had staked his life, his fortune, and his best hopes.

I began to explore this type of man and personality in my novel The Unvanquished. Written shortly before the outbreak of World War II, it was published soon after Pearl Harbour, and hailed by reviewers as the one book that could give courage and confidence to our people in those dark and dismal times. That was another time, another world – a time when we were bound to the Soviet Union and to Great Britain in the first cruel passages of what was to be a long and bitter war. In that period, hundreds of thousands of Americans seized upon this new image of Washington, upon the symbol of a real man who might give them courage for their current travail. The book became a best seller overnight and went on through printing after printing to reach better than half a million copies.

More than a decade later, at the high point of the hate and passion of the cold war, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was running his own race to be the new American Fuehrer, when fear and terror stalked our whole land like ugly and all-too-well remembered ghosts, I turned once again to the image of Washington as a symbol of hope and possibly as a source of courage. In General Washington and the Water Witch I present an elaboration in comic fantasy of the last chapter of my novel, The Unvanquished. Here, however, is a new Washington, developed in part out of my own added years of experience and hardship, and in part through the exigencies of the new times in which we found ourselves. My opinion is that he is a more truthful Washington than I presented in The Unvanquished, a more valid one and closer to what the original man might have been. His loneliness does not accidentally pair with the loneliness of brave Americans during these past years of fear and persecution. His groping resembles our own groping and, of course, I had to add to the qualities which I noted years ago – that final, important, and necessary quality of humour.

General Washington and the Water Witch emerges as a comedy because such men as McCarthy – as all the McCarthys the world over – cannot be fought without the weapon of laughter. Such men not only abuse and debase the dignity of the people and destroy the hope of people; they also stifle and throttle the precious laughter of people. Laughter is their enemy even as it was the enemy of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini; and Joseph McCarthy is of their school and in their image, whereby he shares their essential and vulnerable ridiculousness. Laughter such people cannot tolerate; and of the many weapons that must be directed against them, laughter is not the least.

General Washington and the Water Witch is a fantasy, but its qualities of fantasy do not, I hope, impinge upon its realism. It tells something of another time and something of today, and they are not so far apart as one might think. Indeed, from the first whip-lash that the serf knew from his master to the concentration camps of our own time, is only a moment in the broad book of history. I hold and hope that the age of man's inhumanity to man is reaching its end – and we have not only the obligation but perhaps also the opportunity to practice civilisation.

The Revolution and War of Independence which brought our country into being was a part of the movement toward civilization; and it is worth recalling the singular group of civilized and cultured men – Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, to mention only a few who led that struggle. In philosophy as well as action, George Washington was one of their number, a fact which is rather hotly denied in certain circles these days. His small experience in the British Army during an earlier colonial war combined with his imposing appearance and his gift for saying very little when little had to be said, threw him into a position of military leadership. Living about half-way between the northernmost and southernmost colonies, he was, to a degree, a compromise between two differently-structured types of colonial settlement, with all of the weaknesses and the contradictions a compromise usually contains.

From July to December in 1776, from the beginning of the ill-fated New York campaign to the moment when the incident of this play begins, his military experience was one of unbroken defeat. It is hard to say just how much he, as a commander, contributed to this. After all, he led rough, untried units of volunteers, with a staff of immature officers and with, at times, the indifferent support of the countryside. He fought in perhaps the least passionate as well as the least anti-British area in all the colonies. In every engagement where he faced the British in a test of arms his army was mercilessly defeated, and from the first battle on Brooklyn Heights he was compelled to engage in a series of retreats that took him north from what is now New York City, into Westchester, back to New York, across to Jersey, and then slowly southward through the Jersey countryside as the summer ended and fall turned into winter.

The best estimates gave him, at the outset of this campaign, some 30,000 men. Over 20,000 of these were lost in battle, captured by the British or had deserted by the middle of December, that is, in the period from July to December of the same year, 1776. His army was also divided into two halves, and some historians hold that at the moment when Washington led his men south across the Delaware River a few miles ahead of British troops in pursuit, he could claim no more than 2,000 men fit for action. Retrospectively, it can be seen that at that moment the struggle was very nearly concluded, the British in possession of all contested points, and the main army of the colonials not only defeated but scattered and eliminated as any sort of effective fighting force.

It was the indecision of the British commanders, their unwillingness to cross the Delaware and pursue Washington's army to its final extinction that gave General Washington the breathing space he needed to recoup his fortunes, to gather his army around him, to reinforce it, and to plan a campaign.

When Washington camped on the south-west bank of the Delaware River, the British posted a force of Hessian mercenaries on the opposite bank – to observe Washington's movements, and if need be to counteract them. Shortly before Christmas day, in 1776, General Washington and his staff decided upon the bold and desperate move of recrossing the Delaware River at night and attacking the Hessians from the rear on Christmas day – an attack which was neither anticipated nor considered possible by the Hessian officers.

One of the more stirring pages in our history books tells every American school-child how this attack was planned and successfully undertaken. Of course the accounts are well salted with legend and improbability, and the famous, and enormous if unartistic painting of Washington crossing the Delaware has fixed the visual image of the incident firmly in our consciousness.

Yet, even divested of its gaudy and improbable stage trappings, the incident must be remembered as a brilliant piece of military strategy and invention; and it was the decisive moment in the struggle of our revolutionary forces. There is no doubt that if the Hessians had been able to defeat the weary and underfed handful of volunteers Washington retained under his banner, the British would have emerged triumphant during that first year of the Revolution, and the history of the American continent would have been very different indeed. This, in any case, is the speculation upon which the play is based.