Forged Under Fire: Washington the Warrior and the French & Indian War
Long before he became the bane of the mighty British Empire, George Washington was a faithful and eager servant of the Crown. As an ambitious young man, he stepped onto the global stage at a time when tensions broiled between Britain and France over control of North America. Washington’s experiences in the buildup to and in what ultimately became the French and Indian War helped mold him into the warrior who would one day stun the great empire that he once devotedly served by winning the fight to secure American independence in the Revolutionary War.
At 21-years old, Major George Washington of the Virginia Regiment volunteered to deliver an ultimatum to the French from Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie’s message warned the French to withdraw from the Ohio Valley region, a vast fertile frontier that includes parts of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. This coveted region was not only claimed by both Britain and France, but also between various Native American tribes. Stepping into this complex power-struggle was Washington, who set out from Virginia in October 1753 to deliver Dinwiddie’s ultimatum to the French at Fort Le Boeuf. In early December, he reached the fort in the middle of a raging snowstorm and presented the missive to French Captain Jacques Legardeur de St. Pierre. Washington was treated with respect, but he would not be bringing good news back to Virginia. In response to Dinwiddie’s ultimatum, the French commander penned a response in which he politely and firmly refused to vacate, stating that French King Louis XV’s claim to the Ohio Valley was “incontestable.”
Following a grueling journey across harsh winter terrain and unforgiving elements, Washington returned to Virginia with the French reply to Dinwiddie in mid-January 1754. After traveling hundreds of miles and surviving more than one brush with death along the way, the young captain was asked to convert his frontier journal into a detailed report for Dinwiddie and his council. Washington’s account went on to be published in colonial newspapers and also made its way across the Atlantic to London, where it was published as The Journal of Major George Washington. Washington’s account captivated both American and British readers alike and elevated him to celebrity status. For those faithful to the British Crown, his report also made it clear that the French threat in the Ohio Valley was very real.
During the journey back to Virginia, Washington and his companion Christopher Gist were forced to make a dangerous crossing of the ice-clogged Allegheny River. (Photo Credit: George Washington's Mount Vernon)
For his faithful service in the Fort Le Boeuf operation, Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington with a commission as a lieutenant colonel. It was in this position of great responsibility that Washington experienced his first taste of combat on May 28, 1854.
After learning that a French detachment was encamped only several miles from Washington’s base at Great Meadows (presently in Fayette County, Pennsylvania), the 22-year-old lieutenant colonel and his native ally, Tanacharison, decided to move out and confront the intruders. Tanacharison, also known as the Half King, and his warriors guided Washington and his 40 militiamen through a difficult all-night march to reach the French camp. At dawn on May 28, Washington and his party snuck up on and surrounded roughly 35 Frenchmen sheltered at the bottom of a rocky ravine. What happened next changed the world forever.
The contrasting accounts and details of what has come to be remembered as the “Jumonville affair” remain a source of debate to this day, but what is clear is that a sharp firefight broke out between Washington’s party and the French detachment. Although we may never know which side fired first, the historical record reveals that a 15-minute skirmish ensued between the two sides, which left roughly one dead and three wounded from Washington’s contingent and nearly ten Frenchmen dead and another 21 taken prisoner. Among those killed was French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. This bloody affair ultimately helped provide the fuel that sparked the French and Indian War, which was known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. As the English writer and politician Horace Walpole described the significance of the Jumonville incident, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”
The firefight between Washington's party and the French detachment under Ensign Jumonville on May 28, 1854. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The surviving Frenchmen of Jumonville’s detachment claimed to be on a diplomatic mission with the goal of finding the British and issuing a demand that the English leave the region. Although they had papers substantiating their claims, Washington did not buy the story. As he reasoned, if that had truly been the party’s intention, why hide in a ravine in the wooded wilderness, and in his area of operations for multiple days without openly approaching his camp? Washington believed that the diplomatic papers were simply a ruse and that Jumonville’s force had in fact been on a mission to spy on his troops. Regardless of the finger pointing on both sides, young Washington would soon find serious trouble coming his way.
In response to the attack against Jumonville and his contingent, the French commander at Fort Duquesne, near the Forks of the Ohio River (near modern-day Pittsburg), dispatched a powerful force to strike Washington at Great Meadows. Leading this small army of roughly 600 French soldiers and Canadian militiamen, which was also supported by 100 native allies, was Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, the older brother of the fallen Ensign Jumonville. Bent on revenge, de Villiers and his men struck back against Washington on July 3, 1754. Although the young Virginian had prepared for an attack by constructing a circular palisaded fort, which was dubbed, Fort Necessity, the French and their allies gathered around the surrounding hillsides and enveloped his position. Exposed to relentless enemy fire and hindered in their ability to fight back by a torrential downpour that flooded the marshy ground and rendered their powder and muskets useless, Washington and his roughly 400 men were overwhelmed. As Washington biographer Ron Chernow records, “So one-sided was the outcome that the French suffered only three dead and seventeen wounded.” Washington’s losses amounted to nearly 100 dead and wounded.
At about 8 p.m. on July 3, the French released their grip on their prey and called for a parley. With his command in shambles, Washington ultimately “surrendered to terms that included-unbeknownst to him, because of a poor French translation-taking responsibility for the assassination of Jumonville,” as explained by one historian. Rather than being taken prisoner, Washington and his men were allowed to leave Fort Necessity the following day and made their way back to Virginia.
The French and their Indian allies fire down from the hillsides into the defenders of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. (Photo Credit: Pinterest.com)
In the aftermath of the Battle of Fort Necessity, Chernow writes, “The French had a field day with the articles of capitulation, brandishing them as proof that Washington had murdered Jumonville, a man on a peaceful mission. In this manner, they cast the British as the first belligerents in the French and Indian War.” Although Washington was harshly criticized at first for the defeat and the admission that Ensign Jumonville had been “assassinated,” his reputation quickly recovered as the action at Fort Necessity was assessed more carefully. The young lieutenant colonel had certainly made his share of mistakes, but the way in which he had bravely led his men against a superior enemy force and demonstrated great coolness under fire in less than ideal conditions marked him as a warrior worthy of respect. With his honor intact and frustrated with changes made to the Virginia Regiment, Washington resigned his command to Governor Dinwiddie in October 1754. His return to private life did not last long.
In early 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock and two regiments of Redcoats arrived in Virginia. A 45-year veteran of the British Army, Braddock was named commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America and entrusted with the task of capturing the major French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. While feverishly working to plant his first spring crop at his home of Mount Vernon, Washington received a letter inviting him to serve on Braddock’s personal staff. Washington, who turned 23 years old that February, ultimately agreed to serve as a volunteer aide to the British commander-in-chief. In May, Braddock’s army of some 2,100 British Regulars and 500 colonial militia ventured into the treacherous wilderness and set out for Fort Duquesne.
After lumbering along very slowly, Braddock’s army finally reached the Monongahela River, roughly ten miles from Fort Duquesne, in early July. Although Washington had warned General Braddock to remain vigilant against ambushes and other improvisational tactics used by the French and Indians, the British commander had no doubts about the military power that he wielded. As he once expressed to Benjamin Franklin, “These savages may be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the king’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they would make any impression.” That arrogant attitude and ignorance of the cunning fighting ability of the French and Indians would lead to fatal consequences for General Braddock and his soldiers.
After crossing the Monongahela, Braddock’s army was ferociously attacked by the French and their Indian allies in a wooded ravine on the far side of the river on July 9, 1755. As historian James Thomas Flexner points out, “The British regulars were entirely untrained in fighting out of formation, as individual men.” Facing an enemy that encircled them and fought from behind trees and other good pieces of high ground, Braddock’s troops were cut to pieces by an enemy that they often could not even see. The losses were so severe that Chernow writes, “So many intrepid British officers were killed or wounded-nearly two-thirds of the total-that it led to a complete collapse of the command structure.” Among the casualties was General Braddock, who had four horses shot from under him and was mortally wounded during the fighting.
A mortally wounded General Braddock is surrounded by his aides as he rests against a tree at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. George Washington stands to Braddock's right. (Photo Credit: The Westmoreland Museum of American Art)
In the midst of the bloody chaos and confusion experienced by General Braddock and his army at the Battle of the Monongahela, George Washington was a tower of strength. Still recovering from a case of dysentery and suffering from painful hemorrhoids, Washington had strapped cushions to his saddle earlier that morning to help deal with the jolting agony of being on horseback. Despite his afflictions, he was fearless under fire and rode all over the battlefield. Washington was so active during the fight that he had two horses shot out from underneath him and four bullets tore through his hat and uniform. Dr. James Craik observed Washington on the unforgiving field of fire and reflected, “I expected every moment to see him fall. His duty and station exposed him to every danger. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him.” Considering that he had not been seriously wounded or killed despite the whirlwind of death all around him, Washington himself believed that “the miraculous care of Providence,” which was the word he often used to refer to God, had protected him “beyond all human exception.”
With Braddock down, Washington was ultimately catapulted into a position as “the only person then left to distribute the [wounded] general’s orders.” Pushing past his “weak and feeble condition,” he effectively supervised a retreat of the survivors and ensured that Braddock was evacuated back across the Monongahela. Among Washington’s responsibilities was an order to ride forty miles through the night to track down reinforcements under Colonel Thomas Dunbar. As Chernow writes, “By now Washington had been on horseback for twelve excruciating hours, yet he gathered up the energy to ride all night and execute Braddock’s command.” The following day, Braddock and the other survivors reached Dunbar’s camp. After General Braddock’s death on July 13 and his subsequent burial, Washington helped to guide what remained of the army as it completed its painful retreat.
Regarded as the first major clash in what became the French and Indian War, the Battle of the Monongahela was a crushing British defeat. Of the roughly 1,400 men in Braddock’s army, his force suffered approximately 977 killed or wounded, including 63 officers. Although outnumbered, the 900-man-strong French and Indian force lost only 23 dead and 16 wounded. Despite the overwhelming setback, Washington’s role in saving the remnants of Braddock’s bloodied army from total ruin did not go unnoticed. Governor Dinwiddie hailed the young warrior as the “hero of Monongahela,” and many other prominent individuals wrote to Washington to express their admiration for his heroism.
The “hero of Monongahela” soon found himself elected “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all Virginia forces.” For two incredibly challenging years, he was entrusted with defending a frontier nearly 350 miles long against repeated Indian attacks on isolated settlements and towns. The small number of troops at his disposal, along with problems of recruitment, supply, and many other issues made Washington’s job even harder, but as Flexner concluded, “A force many times larger could not have defended so wide a frontier from the endlessly mobile Indians.” He added, “the amazing thing was not that Washington failed to do better, but that he managed to keep from being discharged as a failure, that he managed to keep an army in the field at all.”
A famous portrait by Charles Willson Peale of George Washington as colonel of the Virginia Regiment. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the final phase of his young military career, Washington led Virginia troops attached to British Brigadier General John Forbes’ expedition in yet another attempt to capture the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. This latest expedition was a success and the fort was ultimately taken without firing a shot in late November 1758. With the Forks of the Ohio River now controlled by the British and the Virginia frontier more stable, Washington felt that he had fulfilled his duty and permanently resigned his command in the Virginia forces at the end of the year. With his recent election to Virginia’s House of Burgesses and his upcoming wedding to Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington prepared for the next phase of his life as a husband, statesman, and planter. As the future would show, however, his days as a warrior were far from over.
The French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris Between France, Great Britain, and their respective allies in February 1763. Among the conditions of peace, France was expelled from the Ohio River Valley and ceded control of all its territories in mainland North America. Although the British Empire emerged from the conflict stronger than ever, the war left the Crown with an enormous war debt. Over the following years, the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies steadily grew more tenuous as the British government continually passed what the colonists viewed as repressive tax laws upon them to pay down the French and Indian War debt. As colonial resistance intensified in response to the measures passed by a parliament that was nearly 3,000 miles away and that lacked any American representation, the British reacted to the unrest by sending in troops to enforce these laws. The competing visions of life and liberty between the Crown and the colonies ultimately gave way to the American Revolution. The man who would emerge as the central American figure in the Revolutionary War was none other than George Washington.
As Flexner noted, “Washington was active in the French and Indian War from the age of twenty-one to almost twenty-six.” He made his share of mistakes during that time, facing deadly danger and experiencing painful defeats along the way, but through it all, he also showed great coolness under fire, firm leadership under the most difficult of conditions, and many more admirable traits that marked him as a warrior with a bright future. Although the young and ambitious Washington never received the royal commission in the British Army that he fervently desired and ultimately stepped down from his position with the Virginia forces, he always “prided himself on a military identity,” as Chernow astutely points out. That military identity and bearing was evident to the delegates of the Second Continental Congress, who in June 1775 selected Washington to lead the newly formed Continental Army against the British Crown in the American Revolution.
George Washington’s skills as a warrior were forged under fire during the French and Indian War and helped prepare him for the even greater challenges that he faced while leading the Continental Army during the Revolution. Exemplifying the same perseverance and spirit that carried him through those earlier years, the once faithful servant of the Crown battled with his ragtag soldiers for eight long years against the mightiest empire in the world and won the fight that secured American independence.
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