By Enid LaMonte Meadowcroft, 1944
An Excerpt From the Novel
“Silver for General Washington”
Among Meadowcroft’s other works are “Benjamin Franklin,” “By Wagon and Flatboat,” “The First Year,” “Texas Star,” and “By Secret Railway.” The latter work, published in 1948, is described by a reviewer at Amazon.com as “the best children’s book I’ve ever read about the Underground Railroad.”
Meadowcroft contracted hepatitis in 1966 while traveling in Greece doing research for a children’s book about the ancient world; she died of the disease on Nov. 23, 1966. Her books live on, but barely – many or most of them are out-of-print. They can sometimes be found online and at used bookstores.
A bit of background to the following excerpt. Gil Emmet and his cousin Danny Gardner, youngsters in Pennsylvania, have just returned to Valley Forge from a daring mission to Philadelphia, where they obtained a cache of silver dinnerware belonging to Danny’s family, selling it for gold coins to help the American army and the cause of freedom.
I first read “Silver for General Washington” at age eight when I had the flu. Such was the power of the writing, with perhaps a contribution from a fever, that I plunged into a hallucination that I was present in Valley Forge in 1778. When the narration reached springtime, my fever broke, gloriously. The book shaped my life permanently and for the better. – H.F.
Gil leaned on his crutch and looked at General Washington and could not say a word.
For the second time the General asked, “Well, my lads, what can I do for you?”
This time he spoke rather hurriedly, for he had had a very busy morning and his desk was piled high with things to which he must attend. Indeed, much as he liked children, he would never have stopped on such a busy day to speak with two boys if it had not been for his wife. Martha Washington herself had brought the boys in to him.
“I found them on the step arguing with the sentry and insisting that they must talk with you,” she whispered to her husband. “The lad with the crutch says they have something to give you and they won’t give it to anyone else. Do speak to them for a minute if you can.”
And so, to please his good Martha, General Washington was now waiting for the boys, who were standing speechless with awe and excitement before his desk, to tell him why they were there.
It was Danny who spoke first.
“Gil has – has money for you, sir, to help you win the war,” he stammered. He nudged his cousin. “Give it to him, Gil,” he said.
Silently Gil laid on the General’s desk the neat cloth bag made by Aunt Abigail that morning to hold the gold coins, which she had ripped from the travel-worn money belts.
General Washington smiled as he unfastened the bag, but his smile changed to an expression of surprise when he poured the coins it contained into a little pile before him.
“This is a very welcome gift,” he said quietly, looking at Gil with steady gray eyes. “Before accepting so much money, however, I must know how you came by it.”
“Oh, sir!” Gil exclaimed, finding his tongue at last, “my father would want you to have it. Indeed he would. He wrote a letter to my sister and to me before he went away, and told us to do everything we could to help drive King George’s soldiers out of the land and to make our country independent. So when one of your soldiers said that you needed hard money to win the war, Danny and I went to Philadelphia and dug up the silver which was buried in the cellar and sold it and –”
“Just a minute, lad.” George Washington’s eyes twinkled as he held up a big hand. “You cover so much ground in one breath that I cannot keep pace with you. You say you were in Philadelphia.” He leaned forward earnestly. “How long ago?”
“Five days ago, sir,” Gil replied taking care to speak more slowly. “We would have got here sooner, except that near Gray’s Ferry a British picket shot me in the leg and I had to wait at Mr. Edwards’ house until –”
Again the General interrupted him. Turning to a slim young officer who had just entered the room with a sheaf of papers in his hands, he said, “Colonel Hamilton, will you have the kindness to bring two chairs for these lads? One of them is wounded and we must not keep him standing. Then make ready, if you please, to write down what they have to say, for they have recently come from territory held by the enemy.”
With a quick nod Colonel Hamilton placed two chairs near the General’s desk and the boys sat down. The colonel provided himself with writing materials and drew up a chair too. At once General Washington began to question Danny and Gil about Philadelphia.
He wanted to know if any new fortifications had been built near the city and where the sentinels were stationed. Gil and Danny were glad now that they had spent so much time roaming around Philadelphia, for they were able to give him much of the information he desired. At last General Washington motioned to the heap of gleaming coins on his desk.
“Will you tell me now just how you obtained this gold, which you want to give to help your country?” he questioned, looking gravely from one boy to the other. “I will have to ask you to make your story brief, for there are several people outside waiting to see me.”
By this time both Gil and Danny were feeling much more at ease, and Gil was able to tell his story just as he had planned it lying in bed the night before. Only once did General Washington stop him.
“What is your father’s name?” he asked.
“It is the same as mine, sir,” Gil replied. “Gilbert Emmet.”
“Gilbert Emmet,” George Washington repeated, rubbing his chin and staring thoughtfully at Gil. Then suddenly his face lighted. “Oh, of course, now I know,” he said softly. “Go on.”
So Gil, with Danny’s help, completed the story of the silver and how it had been sold. He repeated, as well as he could remember it, the message which the old patriot in Philadelphia had given him, and told quickly of the assistance he and Danny had had from Mr. and Mrs. Edwards.
When he had finished, General Washington nodded slowly. “Colonel,” he said, turning to Alexander Hamilton, “this boy’s father is, as you know, now in Holland trying to arrange a loan for us. I feel sure that he would be proud of what his son is doing in his absence. Will you therefore be so good as to count this money and make out a receipt for it to Mr. Gilbert Emmet, which I will sign?”
“Holland!” Gil thought, hardly hearing these last words. “Now I know where my father is! Holland!” And bursting with excited questions he started to ask the General how his father was and how much longer he would have to be away.
But already General Washington was standing up. It seemed to Danny and Gil, who rose also, that his head would touch the ceiling of the low room, he was so tall. Coming around his desk he laid a hand on each boy’s shoulder.
“In the name of our country, which we now call the United States of America, I accept this money for which you brave lads have run such risks,” he said, looking down at them soberly. “You have done our army and myself a real service. Is there anything now that I can do for you?”
“Oh yes, sir!” Danny blurted out, not giving Gil an opportunity to ask the questions about his father which were on the tip of his tongue. “Please tell my pa that I am old enough to join the army. He says I am too young, but Johnny Geyer is only eleven and he is a drummer boy. I am thirteen and strong for my age.”
“I, too, sir,” Gil added quickly. “I’d like to fight, too, if I could help to free my country.”
Smiling at the boys’ eagerness, General Washington shook his head. “Fighting is for men – not for boys,” he declared. “And you must remember that fighting alone will not win any war. You lads have already struck a real blow at the enemy by obtaining money for our soldiers. There will be other ways – many other ways in which you and all the people who must remain at home can help. And when the war is over and our country is independent at last, then it will be your task to aid in building it into a strong, united land.”
He turned to Colonel Hamilton. “The receipt, Colonel – is it ready?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Colonel Hamilton replied, handing his chief a piece of paper and a quill pen which had already been dipped in ink. “It’s a tidy sum the boys have brought.”
“And badly needed, too,” General Washington added. Then, bending over, he signed his name, sanded the paper, folded it, and gave it to Gil.
“Keep this for your father, if you please, and give it to him when he returns,” he said.
Gil looked up earnestly into the big man’s face. “Please tell me about my father, sir,” he begged. “Is he well? When will he be home? Jennifer and I haven’t had a letter from him since he went away last September.”
“That has been hard for you, I know,” General Washington said kindly. “I believe that he is well. I can’t tell you when he will be able to return to this country. But I expect to have some news of him, and you should, too, before another month is out.”
He shook hands warmly then with each boy, and turned back to his desk. Proudly Gil put the receipt into his greatcoat pocket. He felt happier than he had in many days, as he picked up his hat and crutch and followed Danny through the hall, which was filled with people waiting to see the General.
He said little, however, as he and his cousin mounted old Peg and started the horse toward home. Danny, too, was silent. Both boys’ thoughts were on the tall, grave, kindly man whom they had just left, and on his shabby, hungry army.
It was noon when Gil and Danny reached the crossroad where the Connecticut huts stood. The day was warm and several of the soldiers were cooking their dinners of salt fish and rice over outside fires. Gil looked about, hoping to find Seth or one of his other friends among them. But he did not see them, and he dared not stop to look for them, for he and Danny had promised to return to the house as soon as they left the headquarters. The entire family was waiting, of course, to hear about the boys’ meeting with General Washington, and the talk at the dinner table was all of this, and of the news about Mr. Emmet.
Gil, who had hoped that he might borrow old Peg again and ride her back to the Connecticut huts that afternoon, was disappointed when Uncle Benjamin announced after dinner that he was going to harness the horse to the plow to see if she were strong enough to plow up the back field.
The old black mare did so well that for several days thereafter Uncle Benjamin lent her in turn to neighboring farmers whose horses had been stolen by the Hessians or taken over by the American army. This meant that Gil was unable to get about the camp at all until his leg was well enough so that he could walk without pain. Nearly two weeks passed by before he was able to set out on foot in search of Seth, late one Saturday afternoon.
Many things had happened in the camp since the snowy day when Gil and Danny had started out for Philadelphia. Now the snow was gone. Muddy brown meadows were beginning to show tinges of green. Birds, returning from the South, twittered and chirped, searching in vain for trees. But nearly all the trees of Valley Forge had been chopped down to make campfires or to build huts and fortifications.
Ragged soldiers were hard at work strengthening these fortifications, for they knew that the enemy was scarcely twenty miles away and might decide at any minute to attack them. Other ragged soldiers were drilling on the big parade ground, marching and wheeling and shouldering arms, and trying to understand the commands of their new German drillmaster, General Steuben.
When the thirteen American colonies had first decided to liberate themselves from King George’s rule, a number of freedom-loving men in Europe had crossed the ocean to help the brave new country in its fight. Chief among the men who had come from France was the tall, blue-eyed, young Lafayette, who had fought gallantly with the American soldiers and had been wounded at the battle on Brandywine Creek. From Poland, Count Pulaski had arrived to lead a band of four hundred horsemen against the redcoats. And the German general, Steuben, had recently come from Prussia to teach the American soldiers how to march and fight together.
Such teaching was badly needed. Farmers, blacksmiths, storekeepers, teachers, students, hunters, and backwoodsmen had enlisted under General Washington to defend their country. They were stout-hearted men, but they had not yet learned that a good army must obey orders quickly and keep its weapons in excellent condition at all times.
General Steuben was shocked to find the American soldiers cooking food over their fires on the points of their bayonets. He was amazed when he learned that they often ignored or disobeyed the commands of their officers. But he was filled with admiration when he saw how courageously and cheerfully they were enduring the hardships of the winter. And he was determined to make them into as fine an army as possible before they should again meet the redcoats in battle.
Day after day he drilled different companies of men, and as Gil now walked past the parade ground which lay across the road from the Gardner house, he could hear him shouting commands in his strange broken English. The boy stopped to watch for a minute while the soldiers in their tattered clothing marched back and forth. Then he went on toward the Connecticut huts. He walked slowly and it was well after five o’clock when he reached the hut where Seth lived. All drilling was over for the day and the men had returned to their little log cabins to rest and to eat their suppers.
The door to Seth’s hut was ajar. Gil pushed it open and looked around. He could tell at once that something unusual was afoot, for the plank table had been pulled into the center of the room and set with bark-slab plates and pewter mugs. And Seth was crouching before the fire roasting a scrawny goose. The old soldier struggled to his feet the minute he saw Gil in the doorway.
“Lord love you lad, ’tis good to see you,” he cried. “Where have you been all this long time?”
“To Philadelphia,” Gil replied, his eyes twinkling.
At this, Henry, who was squatting on the floor cracking a little pile of hickory nuts, let out a whoop of laughter. “That’s a likely story,” he declared, grinning at Gil.
“It’s true,” Gil protested. “I vow it’s true. Look, here’s where a British picket shot me.”
He pulled up the leg of his breeches to show Henry his wound. Immediately Henry, Caleb, and Tom, as well as three new recruits to the army whom Gil did not know, surrounded him. They all asked questions at once and asked them so quickly that Gil did not know which one to answer first. Seth came to his rescue.
“Leave the lad be,” he commanded. “Leave him set down a spell an’ rest afore you jumps on him like that.” He pushed a stool toward Gil and the boy sat down.
“Um, duck!” Gil said, sniffing. “Where in the world did you get it?”
“It ain’t duck. It’s goose,” Seth told him. “You see, we’re havin’ a bit of celebration for young Davey. He’s leavin’ us,” he said. “Tom here, lucky like, found a wild goose with its wing broke and we’ve managed to get ourselves some taters that ain’t been too badly froze an’ with them an’ some gravy made from the goose drippin’s an’ Henry’s hickory nuts, it’ll be a real feast.”
“Where’s Davey going?” Gil asked with a sinking feeling in his heart, for he knew that wherever Davey went his violin would go also.
“He’s a-goin’ to be one of them new Life Guards for General Washington,” Seth replied proudly, “an’ live in one of them huts behind the General’s headquarters.” He left his goose to cook, stood up, and brushed off his knees. “Looks like our celebration will be a double one seein’ as you’re back again,” he said. “Kin you tell us now somethin’ about your journey?”
So Gil began the story of the trip to Philadelphia. By the time he had finished and had answered all the questions put to him by the men in the hut, the goose was cooked and Davey had come in. Gil stood up to leave, but Davey and Seth pressed him to stay. Since he had told Aunt Abigail where he was going and knew she would not worry if he were late getting home, he agreed.
“Only I’m not a bit hungry,” he declared, realizing as he watched Henry carve the goose that each man would get only a very small portion.
Henry grinned. “All the more for us, then,” he said. But he placed a bark plate before Gil with just as much on it as the other plates held and insisted that he take it. The men sat around the fire while they ate and talked about the holiday the camp had been given on St. Patrick’s Day when they had all played at Long Bullet, rolling cannon balls to see whose would go the farthest; and then had watched Captain McClane’s band of Indian scouts shoot feathered arrows at a little copper coin fifty yards away and hit it almost every time. And they told Gil about the dinner General Steuben had just given for some of his officers.
“There wasn’t one man could come to that meal ’lessen his breeches was worn thin enough to have patches on ’em, and what they had to eat wasn’t near as good as this,” Tom declared, wiping up his last drop of goose gravy with a piece of fire cake.
The meal was soon over and Caleb suggested to Davey that he bring out his violin. “Let’s have a little tune,” he said. “We’ll miss the fiddle sore when you’re gone.”
Davey chuckled. “More than you’ll miss me, I’ll warrant,” he said, lifting the violin tenderly from its box. He tightened his bow, tuned the strings, and began to play Yankee Doodle – a favorite song with the soldiers. One after another the men began to sing. Other soldiers from nearby huts who had heard the music came in to listen or to add their voices to the chorus. Gil sang too, looking longingly all the while at the violin and yearning to get his hands on it. Perhaps Davey saw his look. At any rate, he stopped after a while and thrust the fiddle at Gil.
“Your turn now, lad,” he said. “Give us something lively.”
Gil shrank back, unwilling to play before so many strangers. But Henry teased him. “What’s wrong, boy? You’d brave the redcoats in Philadelphia and then are afraid of us?”
“Philadelphia!” one of the new recruits exclaimed. “Who’s been to Philadelphia?”
“He has!” Seth said with pride, laying an arm across the boy’s shoulders. “Tell ’em, Gil.”
Again Gil had to tell his story. Again he had to show his wound. The men made much of him and when he had finished, Davey asked him once more to play. So he tucked his own beloved fiddle under his chin, fumbled through a few notes and began a rollicking country dance which his father had taught him. When he had finished he handed the violin back to Davey. “I have to go now,” he said. “It’s getting late.”
“I’ll walk along with you a piece, lad,” Seth told him. And together the two set out. It was dark, but the stars were bright and the air was mild. Gil thought of his violin as he walked along, wondering if he would ever see it again, and what his father would say when he found that it was gone. Apparently Seth, too, was thinking of the fiddle, for he spoke of it as they neared the Gardner house.
“Since Davey is a-leavin’ us, maybe you’ll bring your own fiddle to the hut an’ play to us a bit now and then,” he suggested.
“I can’t,” Gil said miserably. “I haven’t any. The Hessians stole it.” Then, afraid that he might be tempted to say more about the theft of his violin, he blurted out a quick “good night.”
“Don’t come any farther now, Seth. You’ve a long walk back and I’m almost home,” he said, and he started to run, leaving Seth in the middle of the road, staring after him and wondering what had come over the boy. ●