A Dog on the Battlefield and the Character of George Washington
Washington was said to have been a man who loved dogs and owned many. He was an
avid hunter, and most of his dogs would have been used for hunting.
The Marquis de Lafayette was known to have sent seven staghounds to George Washington in a sign of friendship. A photo of this breed shows a likeness to what we know today as greyhounds. In colonial times, these dogs were great hunters, but they were bred to hunt via speed and sight; scent was not key to their hunting ability. Sweet Lips, Scentwell, and Vulcan were the names of three of Washington’s staghounds.
Washington also owned Black and Tan Coonhounds. These dogs were scent hounds, and those whose names are known were called Drunkard, Taster, Tippler, and Tipsy (It would be nice to know more about this choice of names!). One source says that Washington bred the Black and Tan Coonhounds with the Staghounds, which may have resulted in Americas first fox hounds.
But a story about a dog found on a battlefield reveals a great deal about the character of the man who was to be our first President.
The Battle of Germantown
In July of 1777 British General William Howe started moving his forces toward Philadelphia in an effort to seize the city that was serving as the revolutionary capital. Washington and the Continental Army had suffered a couple of serious defeats in September of 1777, and then Cornwallis successfully marched into Philadelphia and claimed it for the British, so American spirits were low. General Howe arranged for the next move for the British, and he sent of his men off to Germantown.
With winter approaching, Washington felt he had time for one more attack, and with the British forces spreading out, Washington thought his men might be able to overtake those at the garrison in Germantown. While Washington’s plan was a brave one–and if successful, it could have made a huge difference in the war. However, Washington did not accomplish his goal. He over-estimated his men’s preparedness, and the plan, which required coordination among spread-out units, was plagued by incredibly foggy weather.
The men could not coordinate their movements because they could not see what was happening on the battlefield. The British were again successful, assuring that Philadelphia would remain in British hands for the remainder of the war.
Small Dog Found
After the battle, a small dog was found on the battlefield, and when the Americans capture the dog, they saw from his collar that he belonged to General Howe. Washington’s men wanted to hold the dog in retribution for their defeat at the hands of Howe’s men.
Washington saw the situation from a different view, and he arranged for a messenger to return the dog to Howe with a two-line letter:
“General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return [to] him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.”
While many of the stories about Washington’s character seem to have been created by his earliest biographer, Parson Weems, this lovely story of kindness and gallantry is one that can be fully documented as a draft of the note still exists. It is written in the handwriting of Washington’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, and the note can be found is in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.