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George Washington and the French and Indian War

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

George Washington in his uniform as a British Colonial Colonel during the French and Indian War, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

George Washington in his uniform as a British Colonial Colonel during the French and Indian War, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

America in the Early Eighteenth Century

From the early decades of the 1700s the French had built alliances with Indian tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains from New Orleans in the south to Quebec in the north. New France was sparsely populated with mostly French fur traders and a few French forts situated along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. While the French had laid claim to much of the heartland of North America, the Spanish held Florida and Mexico, with the British establishing colonies from Georgia to Maine along the Eastern Seaboard.

Reverberations from the sporadic wars in Europe between France, Spain, and Britain were felt in the settlements of North America. In 1754, international tensions erupted in America’s Ohio Valley—land variously claimed by Virginians, Pennsylvanians, the French, and more than a dozen Indian tribes. It was into this volatile mix that a tall, muscular, and ambitious young Virginian named George Washington made his debut on the world stage.

Map of North America after 1748.

Map of North America after 1748.

The Ohio Company

To profit from the push of Virginians into land on the western frontier, a group of enterprising Virginians, including brothers Laurence and Augustine Washington, formed the Ohio Company in 1747. To halt the westward expansion of the British colonies, the French established a series of military forts along the Allegheny River in the region where Virginia and Pennsylvania met. The British Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, dispatched a messenger to warn the French that they were trespassing on Virginia land. For this mission Dinwiddie chose the 21-year-old half-brother of two of the Ohio Company leaders, George Washington, along with two other men. After making the dangerous journey and serving notice to the French, young Washington returned to tell Dinwiddie that the French showed no signs of leaving the region.

Fort Necessity

Impressed with Washington’s resourcefulness, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie put Washington in charge of 160 Virginians along with a small contingency of Mingo Indians to route the French. The Indian chief Tanaghrisson guided a detachment of Washington’s men to a small French camp. There the encounter turned hostile, shots were fired, and 13 Frenchmen were killed and several were captured. The French commander, a 35-year-old ensign named Joseph de Jumonville, was wounded in the melee and without a translator Washington struggled to communicate with the commander. Washington did manage to learn that Jumonville was on a diplomatic mission to order the British to evacuate the lands of the king of France or suffer the consequences. Without warning, Tanaghrisson and his braves killed and scalped the wounded Frenchmen, including the commander. The motives of the Indians were unclear, possibly to incite a conflict between the French and the British; if that was their motive, their plan worked brilliantly.

Washington realized the murders of the French diplomat and his men would cause the French to seek revenge. In retreat, he had his men build a circular wooden fort and named it Fort Necessity. The hastily constructed fort was poorly situated as the men had not cleared the forest sufficiently far back from the fort, and this allowed the French and Indians, using the forest as cover, to fire upon the fort at will. Though Washington received reinforcements, bringing his force to some 400 men, they still were outnumbered by the 600 French soldiers and Canadian militiamen accompanied by 100 Indian allies.

The French and their Indian allies took positions along the tree line just outside of range of the Virginians’ musket fire, taking pot shots at Washington’s men throughout the day and into the night. The cover of the trees made the French nearly impervious to fire from Washington’s troops. A heavy rainstorm broke out and soaked the Americans’ gunpowder, leaving them virtually defenseless. With a third of his men dead or wounded and short on supplies, Washington’s only play was to surrender. During the negotiations over the surrender, Washington made a crucial error: He signed the surrender document, which was written in French, without knowing what it said. The document he signed gave him the responsibility for the murder of Jumonville and his men. Though the Virginians were able to return to their homes unmolested, the first shots of an international war had just occurred.

Washington and his men in night council at Fort Necessity.

Washington and his men in night council at Fort Necessity.

The French and Indian War Begins

As news of the massacre of the French commander and the accompanying troops reached the governor of New France and King Louis XV, the French response was a call to arms. When news of Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity reached the halls of Parliament, the British realized their position in North America had been weakened, while the French were emboldened. No longer willing to trust the fate of their colonies in America to the lieutenant governor of Virginia and his militiamen, the British dispatched the seasoned veteran General Edward Braddock and his troops. Braddock’s orders were to destroy the French and their Indian allies, while increasing the number of Indians willing to ally with the British

The Seven Years War as it was known in Great Britain became a global conflict. Before the war ended in 1763, it would engulf the great powers of Europe with an expanded theater of war that included America, West Africa, the Caribbean, India, and even the Philippines. The twentieth-century prime minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, called the extended war “the first world war.” And British historian Horace Walpole observed, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”

General Braddock’s Defeat

Even though Washington had been defeated, miraculously, he was greeted back home by his fellow Virginians as a hero for his courage. Washington’s next chance for military glory came in 1755 when he became a volunteer aide for General Braddock. The 61-year-old Braddock was a career British military officer, who, like the two regiments of red coats that accompanied him, had no experience fighting in the wilderness—a shortcoming that would prove lethal. The general was also not accustomed to dealing with Indians, and his contempt toward the “savages” would cost him dearly as potential allies became his foes.

Braddock’s mission was to capture Fort Duquesne, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, on the site of modern-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To accomplish his mission, Braddock’s men hacked a 125-mile road through the wilderness from the upper Potomac River in Maryland to haul his troops, supplies, and heavy artillery for the siege of the French fort. Just six miles from Fort Duquesne, the dense forest came alive with gunshots and war whoops from the French and their Indian allies. The ambush terrified the British and colonial troops, sending them in retreat, leaving their artillery and supplies as they ran. General Braddock fought valiantly, having two horses shot out from under him before he was fatally wounded. George Washington and some of the officers led the remaining troops in a hasty retreat. In what is now called the Battle of Monongahela, two-thirds of the nearly 1,500 British troops were either killed or wounded, making this one of the worst British defeats of the eighteenth century. The despondent Washington, who himself had two horses shot out from under him and had four bullet holes in his jacket, wrote to his brother that they had “been scandalously beaten by a trifling body of men.” Though the battle had been lost, Washington’s bravery under fire did much to enhance his reputation as a capable and brave military officer.

George Washington on horseback rallying the troops after the fall of General Braddock at the Battle of Monongahela.

George Washington on horseback rallying the troops after the fall of General Braddock at the Battle of Monongahela.

Colonel Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia Militia

For Washington’s great courage and skill as a military leader, lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie promoted him colonel and commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces. He was responsible for repelling any French or Indian attacks on the colonies over three hundred miles of backwoods settlements along the whole length of the Shenandoah Valley. In mid-September 1755, Washington set up his headquarters at Winchester, the largest settlement in the Shenandoah Valley, and began to put the region in a defensive posture. The war on the frontier and the unceasing Indian attacks on settlers had driven thousands of refugees eastward. As the number of refugees grew, Washington realized he had no real authority over them. He reported, “No orders are obeyed, but what a party of soldiers or my own sword enforces.” For the next two years, it was all Washington and his men could do to hold their own against the attacks from raiders and keep from descending into total chaos. It was not until the British government agreed to reimburse Virginia for their expenses that Washington had enough funds to compensate his solders to a level at which he could fill his regiment with worthy volunteers.

The opportunity presented itself for Washington to participate in one more major campaign of this phase of his military career. He led the first Virginia Regiment as the advance element of General John Forbes’ army from Fort Ligonier to Fort Duquesne. The British had assembled a much larger force to take Fort Duquesne than that of the failed Braddock mission. Though the British did take the French fort, the victory was hollow as the French had burnt the fort and retreated in the face of the much larger British contingency on the march.

Block of four 1958 4-cent U.S. postage stamps commemorating the bicentennial of the fall of Fort Duquesne.

Block of four 1958 4-cent U.S. postage stamps commemorating the bicentennial of the fall of Fort Duquesne.

Washington’s Military Lessons from the French and Indian War

During his time as a solider and officer in the French and Indian War, George Washington learned many valuable lessons that would serve him well during the American Revolutionary War. Serving under Braddock, Washington took the opportunity to read military manuals, treatises, and military histories. He studied the orders issued by more experienced British officers to become proficient in writing clear and effective military orders. From the day-to-day routine of a solider, young Washington learned much about how to organize supplies, dispense military justice, build forts, and be a leader of men. The historian Fred Anderson wrote of Washington’s development as a solider, “Washington, at age twenty-seven, was not yet the man he would be at age forty or fifty, but he had come an immense distance in five years’ time. And the hard road he had traveled from Jumonville’s Glen, in ways he would not comprehend for years to come, had done much to prepare him for the harder road that lay ahead.”

Washington’s Return to Civilian Life After the War

During Christmas of 1758, Colonel Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon plantation. There he was hoping to live the life of a planter with his soon-to-be wife, the wealthy and handsome widow Martha Custis. In gratitude for his service to the colony, the electors of Fredericksburg elected him to the House of Burgesses, where he served for the next 15 years. Within a few short years, Washington’s domestic life as a planter, husband, and father of Martha’s two children would be shaken by the American Revolution. His disdain for the British continued to grow, fueled by his conviction that British sales agents were cheating him on the price of the tobacco he sold from his plantation. Washington’s anti-British sentiments increased leading up to the Revolution.

As the Virginia House of Burgesses grew more rebellious, the British dissolved it in 1770. This did not stop Virginians such as Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other former burgesses from meeting in secret at Williamsburg’s Rayleigh Tavern. In the meetings, they established a nonimportation agreement for British goods. Siding with the radical element, Washington opposed making petitions of their grievances to the king and Parliament not only because he felt they would be scorned but because he did not believe in begging for what the colonists considered their rights.

The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774 with representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies to deal with the harsh Coercive Acts imposed by the British Parliament. Washington was chosen as one of Virginia’s representatives to the Congress. At the Second Continental Congress held the following year, Washington, who attended in his military uniform, was chosen as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The American Revolution for freedom from British domination had begun, and George Washington would spend the next eight long years leading a rag-tag army made of volunteers against the most powerful army in the world.

Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

References

  • Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. Penguin Books. 2006.
  • Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman (Reviser). Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
  • Tindall, George B. and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative Story. W.W. Norton & Company. 2007.
  • West, Doug. George Washington: A Short Biography: First President of the United States. Missouri: C&D Publications. 2020.
  • West, Doug. The French and Indian War: A Short History. Missouri: C&D Publications. 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West