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The Story of Bacon's Rebellion
VII. - The Commission
by Standard, Mary Newton


At last the Grand Assembly's work was done and everything but one was ready for the march against the Indians-the commission which Sir William Berkeley had publicly promised Bacon, and for which alone Bacon and his army tarried at Jamestown, was not yet forthcoming. The perfidious old man, crazed with jealousy of his prosperous young rival in the affections of the people, postponed granting it from day to day, while he secretly plotted Bacon's ruin. His plots were discovered, however, by some of the friends of Bacon, who was "whispered to," not a moment too soon, and informed that the Governor had given orders for him to be arrested again, and that road and river were beset with men lying in wait to assassinate him if he attempted to leave Jamestown. Thus warned, he took horse and made his escape through the dark streets and past the scattered homes of the sleeping town before the sun was up to show which course he had taken. In the morning the party sent out to capture him made a diligent search throughout the town, actually thrusting their swords through the beds in the house of his "thoughtful" friend, Mr. Lawrence, to make sure that he was not hidden in them.

No sooner had the fugitive Bacon reached the "up country" than the inhabitants crowded around him, clamoring for news of the Assembly and eager to know the fate of his request for a commission to fight the Indians. When they learned the truth they "began to set up their throats in one common cry of oaths and curses." Toward evening of the same day a rumor reached Jamestown that Bacon was coming back at the head of a "raging tumult," who threatened to pull down the town if the Governor's promises to their leader were not kept. Governor Berkeley immediately ordered four "great guns" to be set up at Sandy Beach--the only approach by land, to Jamestown--to welcome invaders and all the men who could be mustered--only thirty in all--were called out and other preparations made to defend the town.

Next morning the little capital rang with the call to arms, but the despised Governor, finding it impossible to get together enough soldiers to resist the people's favorite, resorted to the strategem of seeking to disarm the foe by the appearance of peace. The unfriendly cannon were taken from their carriages, the small arms put out of sight, and the whole town was made to present a picture of harmlessness and serenity.

The Assembly was calmly sitting on that June day when, without meeting with the slightest attempt at resistance, Nathaniel Bacon marched into Jamestown at the head of four hundred foot soldiers and a hundred and twenty horse. He at once stationed guards at all the "principal places and avenues," so that "no place could be more securely guarded," and then drew his men up in front of the State House where the Councillors and Burgesses were in session, and defiantly demanded the promised commission. Some parleying through a committee sent out by the Council followed, but nothing was effected. Throughout the town panic reigned. The white head of the aged and almost friendless Governor along kept cool. At length, his Cavalier blood at a boiling point, he arose from the executive chair, and stalking out to where Bacon stood, while the gentlemen of the Council followed in a body, denounced him to his face as a "rebel" and a "traitor." Then, baring his bosom, he shouted, "Here! Shoot me! 'Fore God, a fair mark, shoot!" repeating the words several times. Drawing his sword, he next proposed to settle the matter with Bacon, then and there, in single combat.

"Sir," said Bacon, "I came not, no intend, to hurt a hair on your Honor's head, and as for your sword, your Honor may please to put it up; it shall rust in the scabbard before ever I shall desire you to draw it. I come for a commission against the heathen who daily inhumanly murder us and spill our brethern's blood, and no care is taken to prevent it," adding, "God damn my blood, I came for a commission, and a commission I will have before I go!"

During this dramatic interview, Bacon, his dark eyes burning, his black locks tossing, strode back and forth betwixt his two lines of men-at-arms, resting his left hand upon his hip, and flinging his right from his hat to his sword-hilt, and back again, while the Burgesses looked on breathless from the second-story windows of the State House.

At length the baffled Governor wheeled about and, with haughty mien, walked toward his private apartment at the other end of the State House, the gentlemen of the Council still close following him, while Bacon, in turn, surrounded by his body guard, followed them, continuing to gesticulate in the wild fashion that has been described.

Finding Sir William deaf to every appeal, the determined young leader swore another great oath, and exclaiming, "I'll kill Governor, Council, Assembly and all, and then I'll sheathe my sword in my own heart's blood!" he turned to his guard and ordered them to "Make ready, and present!"

In a flash the loaded muskets of the "fusileers" pointed with steady aim and true toward the white faces in the State House windows, while from the throats of the little army below arose a chorus of "We will have it! We will have it!" meaning the promised commission.

A quick-witted Burgess waved his handkerchief from the window, shouting, as he did so," You shall have' it! You shall have it!" and the day was saved. The tiny flag of truce worked a magic spell. The soldiers withdrew their guns, uncocked the match-locks, and quietly followed Bacon back to the main body of his men. One witness says that Bacon's men also shouted a chorus of, "No levies! No levies!"

After a long and heated argument with Council and Burgesses (though not until the next day) Governor Berkeley grudgingly drew up a commission and sent it out. Bacon, who was bent upon making the most of his hard-won position, was not content with it, however, and scorning to accept it, dictated one to his own mind and required the Governor to sign it, as well as thirty blank ones for officers to serve under him, to be filled with such names as he himself should see fit. Afterward, finding need of still more officers, he sent to Berkeley for another supply of blank commissions, but the beaten old man, deserted, for the time, by his resources and his nerve, sent back the answer that he bad signed enough already, and bade General Bacon sign the rest for himself.

One more paper, however, the old man was made to sign-a letter to King Charles explaining and excusing Bacon's course, and an act of indemnity for Bacon and his followers.

Most of the commissions Bacon filled with the regular officers of the militia, as the "most fit to bear commands," and likely to be the "most satisfactory to both Governor and people."

The young General sat up all night long making his appointments and preparing the commissions, keeping the Burgess from Stafford County, Mr. Mathew, whom he had pressed into service as secretary, up with him. This gentleman made bold to express the fear that as the people he represented dwelt upon the most northern frontier of the colony, their interests might not be so much regarded as those in General Bacon's own neighborhood, on the far southern frontier; but his fears were set to rest by Bacon's assurance that "the like care should be taken of the remotest corners in the land as in his own dwelling house."

In the very midst of Nathaniel Bacon's little reign at Jamestown came the news that the Indians, with a boldness exceeding any they had hitherto shown, had swooped down upon two settlements on York River, only twenty-three miles distant from the little capital, and more than forty miles within the bounds of the frontier plantations, and had massacred eight persons. This was upon the morning of the twenty-fifth of June-a Sunday-when the pious Virginians were doubtless rejoicing in a welcome rest from law-making, and, resplendent in apparel fashioned after the latest mode in England at the time when the ships that brought it over sailed thence, were offering thanks in the church for the promise of brighter days which filled their hearts with good hope.

The town was again thrown into an uproar. Bacon ordered supplies to be taken to the Falls of James River, and upon Monday morning, bright and early, flags were unfurled, drums and trumpets sounded, and with the authority of the cherished commission as "General of all the forces in Virginia against the Indians," and the God-speed of men, women and children, he marched away at the head of his thousand troops.

From the chorus of cheers and prayers for his safety and success that followed him, however, one voice was missing. There was among those that witnessed the departure one who was silver-haired and full of years, but who had grown old ungracefully, for his brilliant and picturesque prime had been eclipsed by a narrow and crabbed old age. While every heart but his was stirred to its depths, every eye but his dimmed by the gentle moisture of emotion, every tounge but his attuned to blessings, Sir William Berkeley was possessed by wrathful silence, resolved to submit as best he could to what he could not help, and to bide his time till the aid from England, which he confidently expected, should arrive. He was in the mean time upon the lookout for any straw that could be caught at to stem the tide of his rival's popularity, and such a straw he soon found.

The people of Gloucester County had been irritated by the rigorous manner in which Bacon's officers impressed men and horses for the Indian campaign. One account even states (most likely without truth) that Bacon himself had been in Gloucester upon this business. Berkeley was informed of the feeling in that county and told that the settlers there were loyal to him and would support him against Bacon. The old man hastened to Gloucester, where he was presented with a petition complaining bitterly of the loss of men and horses impressed for the Indian war, and especially of the rowdy methods of "one Matthew Gale, one of Mr. Bacon's chief commanders," and begging for protection "against any more of these outrages." Sir William answered that the petition would be "most willingly granted," for that he "felt bound" to preserve his Majesty's subjects from the "outrages and oppressions to which they have lately too much submitted by the tyranny and usurpation of Nathaniel Bacon, Jun., who never had any commission from me but what, with armed men, he extracted from the Assembly, which in effect is no more than if a thief should take my purse and make me own I gave it him freely, so that in effect his commission, whatever it is, is void in law and nature, and to be looked upon as no value."

Encouraged by the attitude of the people of Gloucester, Governor Berkeley at once began raising troops, ostensibly to go himself to fight the Indians, but really to attack Bacon.

In the mean time, Bacon, in blissful ignorance of the fresh trouble brewing for him, was marching on toward the Falls. They were reached ere long, and all was now ready for the plunge into the wilderness where the red horror lurked. He gathered his men about him and made them a speech. He assured them of his loyalty to England and that his only design was to serve his King and his country. Lest any should question the means by which he had gotten his commission, he reminded them of the urgency of the time and the "cries of his brethren's blood that alarmed and wakened him to his public revenge." When he had finished speaking he took the oath of "allegiance and supremacy," in the presence of all his soldiers, had them to take it, and then gave them an oath of fidelity to himself. By this oath they bound themselves to make known to him any plot against the persons of himself or any of his men, of which they might happen to hear; also, to have no communication with the Indians, to send no news out of camp, and to discover all councils, plots, and conspiracies of the Indians against the army.

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