George Washington is remembered for many things. He was the victorious general who defeated the most powerful army on earth to win our nation’s independence. He then provided the leadership for the Constitutional Convention that formed our new government. He then led our new government as our first president. He was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But few people know anything about his early military career.
Washington began his military career at the age of 20. He idolized his half-brother Lawrence, who was the adjutant of the Virginia militia. When Lawrence died in 1752, George applied for his job. George had no military experience, no military training, in fact very little formal education of any kind since he had dropped out of school at 15. Still, as though it were a family possession to be inherited, he received Lawrence’s job as adjutant of the Virginia militia. At 20, with no training or experience, he became a major in the largest military organization in the Western Hemisphere.
In October 1753, looking for duty more exciting than drilling and training rural militia, Washington volunteered for a dangerous mission. British Governor Robert Dinwiddie had received word that the French had come down from Canada and built a fort in the western territory near the Ohio River. The Governor sent Washington and a small force to carry a message to the French to leave English territory. (Virginia claimed this land, as well as most of the lands west of all the English colonies from Georgia to New York.)
Washington left in November and took two months to make the hazardous journey through the winter snows and the wilderness to the French Fort Le Boeuf, (near present-day Erie, Pa.), and back to Virginia. The French commander’s blunt reply was, “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.” Washington informed the Governor that the French were probably going to build another fort on the Ohio River near present-day Pittsburgh. Governor Dinwiddie had already sent men to that place to build a fort. Washington’s report convinced the Governor to send troops to protect the workers from French attack.
In March 1754, Washington, now a lieutenant colonel, led an expedition to the Ohio River to hold the region for Britain. His force consisted of less than 200 poorly trained militia. After a month, and having covered less than a third of the distance, he received word that the French had already captured the uncompleted British fort that was his objective. Still, he pressed forward.
In late May, he encountered his first French troops, and had a skirmish which is considered by many to have been the first shots of the French and Indian War. In Washington’s own words:
“I was the first man that approached them, and the first whom they saw, and immediately they ran to their arms and fired briskly till they were defeated….I fortunately escaped without any wound, for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to, and received, all the enemy’s fire; and it was the part where the man was killed and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
When this last quotation was reported to King George II later in the year, he is said to have commented that Washington “would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.” Washington himself, years later when asked about the quote, would only say that it had been made “when I was young.”
In this brief fight, Washington’s troops killed 10 Frenchmen and captured 21, with the loss of only one Virginian. One of the killed was the French commander. Washington now set about building a stockade fort, which he named Fort Necessity. Governor Dinwiddie rewarded him by promoting him to full colonel.
The French sent a retaliatory attack against Washington before he could complete his fort. He was surrounded by the French. It was raining hard, and his poorly trained and ill-disciplined troops were cold, and their gunpowder was wet. They broke into the rum supply and got drunk. With drunken troops with wet gunpowder, there was nothing Washington could do but surrender. Although he had refused when asked twice before, the third time he could not refuse. In an ironic twist of fate, Washington surrendered on July 4th, 1754. Having dropped out of school, he had never learned to speak French, which all English gentlemen learned. When he could not read the written French demands, he had to rely on a Dutchman among his troops who spoke some French.
Due to the faulty translation, Washington signed a surrender document which admitted to the assassination of the French commander killed in the battle. He admitted that the French commander had been captured, and killed while an unarmed prisoner. He had also agreed that the “disputed” lands belonged to France, and agreed that the British would not “invade” the area for at least a year. The French broadcast this document widely in justification of their actions during the French and Indian War that continued for the next nine years. Washington immediately returned to Williamsburg to give a first hand report to the Governor. He was absolved of all blame, with the Dutchman being held responsible. Washington was acclaimed for his soldierly courage.
Shortly after this incident, word came from London that all militia units would be placed under one commander, and that no colonial officer would be higher than a captain, with all higher officers supplied by the English. Washington retired rather than accept the demotion. But this was not the end of his military career.
In the Spring of 1755, Major General Braddock prepared to lead a regiment of regular British troops to the Ohio and capture French Fort Duquesne. Knowing of Washington’s courage and previous experience, he invited Washington to join him as an aide-de-camp. In July, they reached the Monongahela River and fought a battle with the French. During the battle, Braddock was killed and the British troops defeated. Washington took command of the British troops and prevented a rout. He got the British troops home safely, again being hailed for his courage. At 23, Washington was now the most experienced military officer in Virginia. He was again appointed commander of the Virginia militia with the rank of colonel.
Colonel Washington traveled to Philadelphia, Boston and New York to confer with northern military leaders. He made a most favorable impression on these leaders, and they remembered him later. In 1758, Washington led an expedition which captured Fort Dusquene and re-named it Fort Pitt. With the French driven from Virginia’s lands, Washington retired. Later, he was elected to the Continental Congress to represent Virginia. With an army being formed to fight the British, Washington arrived in Congress wearing his colonel’s uniform, giving a clear message as to wear he stood on the issue and his readiness to join in the fight. Congress unanimously voted to name him commander of the Continental Army, and the rest, as they say, is history.
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