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.)

On the cusp of gaining his prize, Braddock was trapped by the French and their Indian allies, who easily shot the exposed redcoats in their neat formations from behind their own wooded cover. Hundreds were killed, and Braddock himself died from his wounds—but not before bestowing his bloody sash and pistols on his trusted young Virginian aide. (These relics remain on view at Mount Vernon.) Washington, who had no commission in the British Army, virtually took command of the fleeing British force, which ultimately retreated to Philadelphia, leaving the frontier wide open for French and Indian terror.

Although associated with yet another military disaster, Washington was now entrusted by Dinwiddie with the defense of Virginia’s western frontier. Colonel Washington created the Virginia Regiment virtually from scratch. Ostensibly to number a thousand men, it never achieved that size. And despite the obvious crisis—with enemy forces easily penetrating into Virginia (thanks partly to General Braddock’s inviting new road)—Virginians were mostly unwilling to enlist.

Washington constructed a phalanx of frontier forts from western Maryland to southwest Virginia, and he visited and supervised each fort, traveling hundreds of miles across near-nonexistent roads where ambush was a constant threat. Yet Clary emphasizes that Washington often used his travels to manage personal business. Washington also continued to whine about a lack of support from Dinwiddie and just about everyone else. He fussed about his uniform, his title, and his lack of military status as an uncommissioned colonial in the British Army. He also flirted with his best friend’s wife, the alluring Sally Fairfax. 

Despite his constant complaints, his preoccupation with finances, and his supposed lack of success, Washington gained the trust of the newly dispatched Brigadier John Forbes. Savvier than Braddock, Forbes would lead his army across southern Pennsylvania and on to Fort Duquesne. Washington became a confidant to Forbes, who was more than twice his age; and Forbes, like Braddock, would also be killed, but only after the successful expulsion of the French. Young Washington was central to that campaign. He resigned from the Virginia Regiment at the end of 1758, and did not return to military service until 1775.

Washington’s officers, many of whom must have been considerably older, mourned the “loss of such an excellent commander, such a sincere friend, and so affable a companion.” David A. Clary, however, faults Washington’s “adolescent outlook” for his “tendency to shade the truth and pass responsibility for failure on to others,” as well as his “open hostility” towards his seniors, such as Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie, despite their having elevated him from obscurity. Yet, thanks to his service in the French and Indian War, the 43-year-old Washington would join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia as a revered military veteran, where John Adams nominated him, without opposition, as commander of the new Continental Army. 

Given the embarrassments of his military career, as Clary tells it, it’s not entirely clear why. Despite his obvious yearning for the appointment, Washington told Congress, in his acceptance speech, “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” Clary maintains that, in 1775, there was an “echo of the boy colonel of the 1750s, obsessed with personal honor and trying in advance to avoid blame for whatever might go wrong.” He entered the Revolutionary War “as a man, and emerged from it a great man,” knowing that if he truly wanted honor, this time “he must earn it. And so he did.”

Fair enough. But the tall, redheaded youth who, two decades before, had gained the trust of powerful men three times his age for expansive and dangerous missions that helped achieve the British conquest of North America was, perhaps already, something of a “great man.” In its determination to minimize the young man in contrast with the mature general, George Washington’s First War fails to understand the continuity of Washington’s  character.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, and vice president of the Fort Edwards Foundation, a French and Indian War museum in Capon Bridge, West Virginia.