During the French and Indian War, George Washington became embroiled in several different arguments over rank. In the most traumatic of these events, Captain John Dagworthy, the commander of a Maryland company, asserted that he was the highest-ranking colonial officer based on an outdated royal commission. Dagworthy's claim directly questioned the authority of Colonel Washington and prompted Washington to personally defend his rank. This incident had significant implications on Washington's military and social standing, as well as on Americans' status within the British Empire. While the dispute was ultimately resolved in Washington's favor, the hierarchical uncertainty it exposed remained.
In 1755, twenty-two-year-old George Washington encountered Dagworthy on the Maryland hinterland at Fort Cumberland. Although Washington possessed a superior rank, Dagworthy refused to recognize his command. In 1746, Dagworthy had gained a royal commission from a never-actualized British expedition against the French in Canada. He believed that a royal commission, even an outdated one, made him outrank any colonial. However, Washington refuted the matter because Dagworthy had traded in his royal commission in exchange for money. As a result, Dagworthy was commissioned by the Maryland governor, rather than the King.1 Despite the fact that his commission was no longer valid, Dagworthy claimed that it granted him supremacy over all provincial officers.
A year earlier, Washington had dealt with a similar scenario when Captain James McKay, a royally commissioned British officer, refused to respect that any colonial held a higher rank. Washington regarded such an infringement on his military rank as a slight to his person honor, a powerful eighteenth-century notion linked to an individual's reputation and social status. In the middle of arguing his case, Washington grew uncomfortable with the geographic proximity of his would be usurper. As a result, Washington distanced himself and his troops, in the process contributing to the British defeat at Fort Necessity.
Washington was outraged by the notion that a British captain thought himself to be superior in rank. When Dagworthy entered the picture, Washington fervently resented the colonial captain’s challenge. He protested to his long-time patron, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, even threatening to resign. Exasperated, Washington declared in a letter to Dinwiddie, "I can never submit to the command of Captain Dagworthy."2 After an unsuccessful attempt to gain the support of the Maryland governor, the situation was further complicated by another challenge to Washington’s rank from an even lower ranked officer: Lieutenant William Stark.
Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie
Washington became so incensed that he left the military front and traveled more than five hundred miles to Boston to present his case in person to the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, the commander in chief of British forces in North America. He hoped that Shirley would resolve the matter and grant Washington a royal commission, removing any further slights to his rank. The journey, however, had mixed results; Shirley reasserted Washington's command over Dagworthy, but did not grant the requested commission.
Image: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Undeterred, Washington continued to petition for a royal commission from Shirely's successor, John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun. But Washington's attempts were met with persistent failure, and the matter of the royal commission eventually distanced Washington from his superiors. Additionally the slight created greater uncertainty in Washington's mind about American colonists' place in the wider British Empire.
Craig Bruce Smith
1. "Robert Dinwiddie to George Washington, 22 January 1756," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.
2. "George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 5 December 1755," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006
Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
Longmore, Paul K. The Invention of George Washington. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.