George Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen
For Lesson One:
George Washington: Making of a Military Leader
George Washington, born in February 1732, was the eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife Mary Ball. On his father's death in April 1743, Lawrence, the eldest son of his father's first marriage, inherited the Potomac River plantation which he later named Mount Vernon. As a young man, George spent much of his time at his brother's Potomac estate. Lawrence had provided in his will that his estate would be left to his wife, Anne, during her lifetime and, upon her death, to their daughter Sarah. Lawrence, in poor health, died in 1752. His daughter died soon thereafter and Anne, who had recently remarried, leased Mount Vernon to George, who acquired the property in 1754.
Lawrence Washington had served as adjutant of the Virginia militia. Upon his death, George lobbied Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia for appointment to the post. Dinwiddie decided to divide the duties of the adjutant and appointed George Washington as one of four men to share responsibility. Washington had called upon a number of influential acquaintances to help secure his position. In February 1753, the twenty-one-year-old George Washington began a new career as a major in the Virginia militia. He had no prior military experience.
Ohio Company of Virginia
In 1753, the French began the construction of a fort in the Ohio country near Lake Erie. Within a few months, Governor Dinwiddie learned that the French had a force of some 800 men and were in the process of building another fort to the south on the Allegheny River in British-claimed territory. Britain and France had fought several wars in Europe and the Americas partly over colonial rivalry. In 1749, a year following the conclusion of King George's War (War of the Austrian Succession), a prominent group of Virginia land speculators organized the Ohio Company of Virginia as a business venture to open the Ohio Valley to trade and land development. The British crown approved the venture. Expansionist British ministers viewed the company as an opportunity to establish a foothold in the valley claimed by both Britain and France.
Prominent Virginians, including members of the House of Burgesses, Governor Robert Dinwiddie, Thomas Lee, and Augustine Washington, George's half-brother, held stock in the company. Although Virginia had taken the lead in opening the region, other colonies had similar interests in the Ohio Valley.
On receiving word of the establishment of a French fort in the upper regions of lands claimed by the Ohio Company, Governor Dinwiddie called a council to meet in October 1753, to determine a plan of action. The twenty-one year-old George Washington, adjutant for the Southern District of Virginia, saw an opportunity for advancement and volunteered his services to the governor. Washington, supported by prominent family friends in the House of Burgesses, was confirmed by the governor's council.
On October 31, 1753, Washington set out from Williamsburg with orders to deliver a message to the French commander complaining of their encroachments into British territory. In addition, he was to seek assistance from Indian leaders of the Six Nations, to collect information on the construction of French forts, and to provide intelligence on the numbers of French troops in the area. Major Washington delivered the governor's letter to the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf, who asserted France's claim to the valley and refused to withdraw. Washington returned to Williamsburg on January 16, 1754. The House of Burgesses awarded Washington a bonus of £50 in recognition of his service to the colony. His journal chronicling the expedition was published in Virginia and later in England, bringing him notoriety on both continents.
Battle at Fort Duquesne
Within a month, the House of Burgesses appropriated money to establish Fort Prince George on a site Washington had suggested on the fork of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers. Washington was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and appointed second in command of a new expedition to open a road to guarantee easy access from Virginia into the valley. Before the party could reach the stronghold, the French occupied the site and renamed it Fort Duquesne. On May 27, Washington surprised a French scouting party south of the fort and in a brief battle killed ten and took 22 prisoners. On the accidental death of the expedition commander, Washington took command. Assuming the French would retaliate, he established a stockade near the current Pennsylvania and Maryland boundary and christened it Fort Necessity. Although joined by a company of British army regulars, the British and colonial forces were far outnumbered by the French and their Indian allies. British regulars had little regard for colonial militia and friction developed between the two forces and their commanders, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia militia and a captain commissioned by the crown. The British regulars refused to work on construction projects along with the Virginia militia and established a separate camp.
A party of Indians in league with the British brought word that the French were planning an attack. The two commanders united their forces at Fort Necessity and prepared for the French attack. The failure of the British and colonial forces to cooperate enraged many of the Virginians who, along with virtually all the Indian allies, deserted. The battle began on the morning of July 3. Despite their superior numbers, the French refrained from a direct assault on the stockade and fired from wooded areas surrounding the British and colonial position. The British had failed to clear the land surrounding Fort Necessity, thus giving an attacking party the advantage of cover. Expecting to die, the British and colonial defenders broke into rum rations at the stockade and drank themselves into a stupor. Late that afternoon, to Washington's surprise, the French offered to negotiate and offered generous terms. Faced with dwindling supplies, wet powder, and drunken soldiers, Washington agreed.
Defeated, Washington returned to Williamsburg by mid-July and presented formal reports to the governor and House of Burgesses on the abortive mission. At the same time that he addressed the House of Burgesses, Washington heard of British plans to break up the Virginia regiment and combine it with forces from Maryland and North Carolina under the command of Governor Sharpe of Maryland. On learning that he would face a reduction in rank under the reorganization, Washington resigned his commission.
With General Braddock
Britain's concern over a French victory in the Ohio Valley prompted the government to send General Edward Braddock to the colonies. Braddock arrived in Virginia on February 20, 1755, and within a matter of days Washington let it be known that he would be interested in serving with the British general. Although Washington had refused to serve with a reduction in rank, he agreed to sign on as a volunteer without pay as a service to his country.
The British plan of action was to open several fronts against the French in the Ohio Valley. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts would attack Fort Niagara; a New York and New England force would attack the French on Lake Champlain. Another force from New England would move against the French in Nova Scotia. Braddock and his combined force of British regulars and colonial troops from Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina would attack Fort Duquesne.
Braddock's plan called for the construction of a road from Maryland into the Ohio Valley, a plan which disturbed the Ohio Company of Virginia. Opening a new road to the north would give other colonies advantages in settling the valley once the French were driven from the area. Throughout the campaign Washington lobbied for the Virginia route.
Braddock, confident of victory because of superior forces, marched toward Fort Duquesne. On July 9, the 1300 British were ambushed by a smaller force of French and their Indian allies. General Braddock was mortally wounded in the encounter and the British forces were in utter confusion. Washington's bravery during the battle became widely known and the House of Burgesses appointed him to command the Virginia Regiment.
Washington's Public Reputation
In addition to continued skirmishes with the French, Washington entered into verbal conflict with his British counterparts who sometimes expressed contempt for the abilities and public behavior of colonial forces. Angered by accusations published in the Virginia Gazette that colonial officers were a drinking, gambling, swearing, ungentlemanly lot, Washington wrote to the Speaker of the House of Burgesses in defense of the character of colonial officers. Only twenty-four years old and anxious about the impact such a report might have on his public reputation, Washington alternated between anger, resentment, and threats of resignation on one hand, and defensiveness and expressions of self-doubt on the other.
From the beginning of his career, Washington was concerned about his image and reputation. At different times during the turbulent years of the encounters with the French in the Ohio Valley, he was both praised for his leadership and ridiculed as inept. When he resigned his commission in 1758, he was well regarded throughout Virginia and won election to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County. He continued to serve in the Virginia legislature representing Frederick and later Fairfax County until he was appointed Commander of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress in 1775.