The Magazine

Baptism of Fire

George Washington’s adventures as a British officer.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Was young George Washington a slightly inept and self-serving martinet who helped to blunder the British Empire into the otherwise avoidable French and Indian War? Seemingly so, according to this account of Washington’s early military adventures. 

Washington

Colonel Washington, 1756

At age 21, Washington was selected by Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, as leader for a dangerous mission to warn the French against further occupation of the “Ohio Country.” It was the first of several crucial leadership roles that Dinwiddie would lavish on the youth, who was young enough to be the royal official’s grandson. But given Washington’s continued mishaps and missteps, it’s not fully clear why Dinwiddie vested such authority in him. 

Washington had no military experience. His major qualification was his familiarity with the Virginia frontier, thanks to his extensive surveying work as a teenager on behalf of Lord Fairfax, the controlling proprietor of what is now Northern Virginia and northeastern West Virginia. Young Washington’s extensive social and professional ties with the Fairfax family (their elegant Belvoir estate was near Mount Vernon) gave him the necessary connections to the governor’s palace in Williamsburg. (Typically, lieutenant governors such as Dinwiddie lived in the palace and governed the colony, while the official royal governor preferred to receive his salary while remaining in England.) George’s older half-brother Lawrence, whose early death would bequeath Mount Vernon to him, was a British naval officer, a role to which George had unsuccessfully aspired. 

 The first expedition that launched Washington’s military career was to the French Fort Le Boeuf, near present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1753. En route through wild country across the Alleghenies, Washington had negotiated tentative alliances with Indian friends, such as Tanacharison (known as Half-King), who would play a crucial role for Washington at the eventual start of the conflict. In Washington’s first exposure to the treacheries of diplomacy, the French commander entertained him sumptuously (at least by frontier standards), but also told the young upstart that France would by no means abandon its lands to the British. Once in their cups at the end of a long meal, the French virtually divulged their plans for further fortifications in what is now western Pennsylvania.

After reporting the exchange back in Williamsburg, Washington was  ordered by Dinwiddie to lead a military expedition to what is now Pittsburgh to construct a fort. The French beat him to it by building Fort Duquesne, the conquest of which would remain a chief British objective throughout the upcoming war. A small French exploratory party approached the Pennsylvania camp of Washington’s command of Virginians and Indian allies, but Washington ambushed the French, who surrendered, after which Half-King apparently tomahawked the French commander, likely to Washington’s shock. 

So began the French and Indian War, which was the North American chapter of the global Seven Years’ War between France and Great Britain. Washington boasted to his brother of his first combat: “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” Published in London, the boast famously prompted George II to reply, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.”

Rightly expecting an aggressive reaction from the full French force back at Fort Duquesne, Washington hastily built his own Fort Necessity, unwisely in a sunken meadow. There, the French easily forced his surrender in 1754. Washington’s command was permitted to depart with honor, of a sort, with their weapons; but thanks to bad translation by a Dutchman, Washington unknowingly signed a confession of his “assassination” of the French officer slain by Half-King. The disaster was international news, giving Washington, then all of 22 years old, some global notoriety. 

After the embarassment of the accidental confession, not to mention the ignoble surrender, Washington’s nascent military career should have been stillborn. But then, inexplicably, he gained appointment as adviser to Major General Edward Braddock, dispatched from Britain with the largest European military force ever to invade North America. The target was Fort Duquesne, to which Braddock hacked and slashed a 10-foot-wide highway through the virgin wilderness. (For much of the journey, Washington was on his back in a wagon, or on a cot, or struggling on a saddle padded with pillows, suffering from hemorrhoids, among other crippling maladies.)