Friday Excerpt | Washington: A Life
I’ve started to appreciate presidential biographies. It’s fascinating to read about the man who is the most well-known face in America. In 2010, Ron Chernow published his gigantic, and Pulitzer Prize winning, look into the life of our first president, George Washington. You know his name, but you probably don’t know much else about the elusive and stoic figure. Turns out, he was quite the badass. The episode below finds Washington traveling with a fellow soldier on one of his first missions. Washington was in his early twenties when this happened.
When these weary travelers arrived at an icy river, they expected to find it frozen solid. Instead, a large section of icy water swirled in the middle of the river. With “one poor hatchet,” Washington remembered, he and Gist devoted an entire day to hacking out a rude raft to float them across. Midway across the river, they became wedged in an ice floe, stuck so fast that Washington “expected every moment our raft would sink and we perish.” He tried to free the craft by pushing a pole against the river bottom: “I put out my setting pole to try to stop the raft that the ice might pass by, when the rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence against the pole that it jerked me into ten feet of water.”
Bobbing breathlessly in the current, Washington latched onto one log of the raft and heaved himself onto its surface. Unable to get ashore, he and Gist lay stranded on an island in the river. Although Washington had been submerged in the icy water, it was Gist who suffered frostbite in his toes and fingers. The pair withstood the elements on the island all night. By the next morning, the river having congealed into a sheet of ice, they were able to scramble across to safety. Clearly, to have survived these mishaps, Washington must have been a physical prodigy, made of seemingly indestructible stuff. In his first political assignment, he had overcome a punishing array of obstacles, both physical and psychological, without losing sight of his primary objectives.
~Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, pg 36.