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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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.