Since the very beginning of its history, America has been a country of dog-lovers. Colonists brought domesticated dogs over from Europe to help with the necessities of colonial life. Most dogs earned their keep with hunting, pest control and security but many families also had what they called “favorites” – animals that existed mostly for companionship. America’s first pets.
So it’s only natural that our first President was himself a dog lover. George Washington was known to have kept a great many canines at his home of Mount Vernon during the course of his lifetime. He had French hounds, Newfoundlands, Briards, Greyhounds and a wide variety of terriers, spaniels and toys. He liked to give them whimsical names, such as his hunting hounds Tipsy and Sweetlips (who accompanied him during the Revolution), or his favorite coach dog, a dalmatian named Madame Moose. He even had a beloved French hound named Vulcan who had a penchant for stealing Martha Washington’s prized ham from the kitchen (he was less beloved by Martha herself).
But the most famous dog story about George Washington involved a dog that wasn’t even his.
In October of 1777, the British had captured the capital of the Continentals, Philadelphia. The British commander, General Howe, decided to split his army, keeping 3,000 troops within the city and moving the rest to an outlying community called Germantown. Seeing the division of forces as an opportunity for one last strategic battle before Winter, Washington ordered an attack on the British forces at Germantown. Unfortunately, foggy early morning weather made it difficult to coordinate the complicated, multi-pronged attack and Washington was ultimately defeated, leaving Philadelphia in British hands until the following year.
Later, while surveying the aftermath of the battle, Washington came upon a small dog wandering around in the wreckage. The dog was very friendly and approachable and wore a collar with a shiny tag. The tag bore the name of the dog’s owner – none other than General Howe himself.
Many of Washington’s officers and soldiers wanted to keep the dog or leave it to fend for itself, a small retribution for the loss they suffered at Howe’s hands. But Washington, ever a gentleman, refused. He had his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton (he of Broadway fame) write a small note and tuck it into the dog’s collar. The note was brief and to the point: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” A brief truce was then declared between the two armies to allow for the dog to be returned to its master.
History did not record Howe’s reply, if there was any, but many historians say that from that day forward, he showed the colonists more compassion. Eventually, he even resigned from his commission when Britain asked him to fight longer and harder against the Americans. Perhaps one small act of kindness, and the understanding that comes between one dog lover and another, made a small impact on the war and the history of America.
So this July 4th, remember the men and women who fought to make our country free. And take a small moment out to remember the dogs as well – the ones who joined the fray back then, and the ones who still enrich our lives today.