Painting showing George Washington during his French & Indian War days. by Charles Volkmar, 1874, after Charles Willson Peale
(Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
Control of the expansive Ohio Valley region, especially near the joining of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers (modern day Pittsburgh), was of great interest to both the British and their French rivals. Rivers like the Ohio, which connected to the Mississippi, were essential transit corridors for goods produced in this fertile region.
Concerned by reports of French expansion into the Ohio Valley, Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent 21-year-old Major George Washington of the Virginia Regiment on a mission to confront the French forces. Washington was to deliver a message from the governor demanding that the French leave the region and halt their harassment of English traders. Washington departed Williamsburg, Virginia in October 1753 and made his way into the rugged trans- Appalachian region with Jacob Van Braam, a family friend and French speaker, and Christopher Gist, an Ohio company trader and guide. On December 11, 1753, amidst a raging snowstorm, Washington arrived and was politely received by Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort LeBoeuf. After reviewing Dinwiddie's letter, Legardeur de Saint-Pierre calmly wrote a reply stating that the French king's claim to the Ohio Valley was "incontestable."
Washington's return to Virginia during the winter of 1753 was a perilous one, but the group safely returned to Williamsburg after traveling almost 900 miles in two and a half winter months.
Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie, George William Fairfax, George Mason, and George's half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine Washington were all shareholders in the Ohio Company. Founded in 1749, the Ohio Company was created to help encourage settlement and development of the vast Ohio Valley. Granted 200,000 acres (with the potential for an additional 300,000 acres) between the Kanawha and Monongahela Rivers, the Ohio Company shareholders were economically threatened by the French incursion into these granted lands. In addition to the larger geopolitical issues at stake, the principle shareholders of the Ohio Company, George Washington included, were also personally motivated to push the French out of the region.
Cover page of George Washington’s published account of his journey into the Ohio Country.
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Shortly after his return to Williamsburg in January 1754, George Washington sat down and wrote a detailed account of his journey to the Ohio Valley and a description of all that he had seen. This account was so well received by Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie that he had Maj. Washington's journal published in both Williamsburg and in London. The Journal of Major George Washington included not only Washington's careful account of his experiences in the Ohio country, but also Dinwiddie's letter to the French and the French reply.
The Journal of Major George Washington appeared in monograph form and was published in various newspapers in both Britain and America. The account not only helped to inform the American and British populations of the perceived growing French threat in the Ohio Valley, but also made young George Washington a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.
The rocky bluffs at Jumonville Glen (Rob Shenk)
Responding to the defiant French, Lt. Governor Dinwiddie ordered the newly promoted Lt. Col. George Washington and approximately 160 Virginia militia to return to the Ohio country in March of 1754. Dinwiddie wanted Washington to "act on the defensive," but also clearly empowered Washington to "make Prisoners of or kill & destroy…" all those who resisted British control of the region.
Eager to send their own diplomatic directive demanding an English withdrawal from the region, a French force of 35 soldiers commanded by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville camped in a rocky ravine not far from Washington's encampment at the Great Meadows (now in Fayette County, Pennsylvania). Accompanied by Tanacharison, a Seneca chief (also known as the Half-King) and 12 native warriors, Washington led a party of 40 militiamen on an all night march towards the French position. On May 28, 1754, Washington's party stealthily approached the French camp at dawn. Finally spotted at close range by the French, shots rang out and a vigorous firefight erupted in the wooded wilderness. Washington's forces quickly overwhelmed the surprised French force and killed 13 soldiers and captured another 21. Washington later wrote of his first military engagement with a certain amount of martial enthusiasm.
"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."
Both sides claimed that the other fired first, but what neither side disputed was that this event deep in the American wilderness helped spark a war that would ultimately spread to places as far away as Europe, Africa, and India.
After learning of the attack at Jumonville Glen, Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the veteran French commander at Fort Duquesne, ordered Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Ensign Jumonville's brother, to assail Washington and his force near Great Meadows. De Villiers left Fort Duquesne with nearly 600 French soldiers and Canadian militiamen, accompanied by 100 native allies.
Aware of the onset of a powerful French column, Washington busily fortified his position at Great Meadows. Despite receiving additional reinforcements, Washington's bedraggled force of around 400 men remained outnumbered by the approaching French. Even more concerning, the small circular wooden fort – named Fort Necessity - built in the center of the meadow was poorly situated and vulnerable to fire from the nearby wooded hills that circled the position.
View of a swivel gun in front of the recreated Fort Necessity at Great Meadows. (Rob Shenk)
On July 1, 1754, the large combined French and native forces reached the Great Meadows. Washington gathered his troops and retreated into Fort Necessity where on a rainy July 3rd the French began firing on the surrounded English. Sensing the hopelessness of his situation, Washington agreed to surrender to the French. The surrender terms, written in French, poorly translated, and soaking wet allowed Washington and his troops to return to Virginia in peace, but one clause in the document had Washington admitting that he had "assassinated" Ensign Jumonville – something that Washington hotly contested despite his signature on the document.
The Battle of Great Meadows proved to be the only time that Washington surrendered to an enemy in battle.
The young, ambitious George Washington was keenly aware that his Virginia militia rank was looked down upon by those in the British military. British regular officers, with their royal commissions, regularly dismissed provincial militia officers and sought to have even their most junior officers placed above more senior ranking militia officers. During the 1755 Braddock expedition, Washington became an unpaid, volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddock rather than assume his militia rank and be subjected to the embarrassment of being subordinate to junior officers. Washington's interest in obtaining a royal commission became so strong that he traveled to Boston to meet with Governor William Shirley, who was the acting commander in chief after Gen. Braddock's death. Washington was unsuccessful in obtaining a royal commission, but Shirley did issue a decree that officers in the Virginia militia would outrank British officers of lower rank.
Scene from Mount Vernon’s We Fight to Be Free movie showing Washington at the Battle of the Monongahela (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
In the spring of 1755, a column of 2,100 British Regulars and 500 colonial militia commanded by Major General Edward Braddock, set out from Virginia to advance upon and take the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. Braddock's column faced the daunting challenge of moving their men and material over the rough, densely wooded Allegheny Mountains.
George Washington accompanied Braddock's column as an aide-de-camp to the general. Washington, who knew the terrain well, was recovering from a terrible case of dysentery as Braddock's force reached the Monongahela River ten miles from Fort Duquesne. In a wooded ravine on the far side of the river, Braddock's leading force of 1,300 men was suddenly attacked and defeated by a smaller French and native force on July 9, 1755 at the Battle of Monongahela. During the attack, most of the senior British officers, including Gen. Edward Braddock were killed or severely wounded. With panic in the air, George Washington quickly rode into the fray and helped to reestablish some amount of order. During the savage fight, Washington had two horses shot out from underneath him and his coat was pierced by four musket balls. Washington's cool leadership helped many of the surviving soldiers to effectively escape the onslaught. Despite the British loss of 977 killed or wounded, Washington was lauded as the "hero of Monongahela" by Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie and was given the rank of colonel in command of the 1,200 man Virginia Regiment.
The Braddock Sash (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
In the aftermath of the British defeat at the Battle of Monongahela, George Washington helped to lead the defeated remnants of Braddock's army back towards Colonel Thomas Dunbar's camp and the army's reserve. Braddock who had been severely wounded in the battle, succumbed to his wounds on July 13, 1755 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the middle of the narrow road that his troops were using. According to Washington family legend, Edward Braddock presented his red commander's sash to Washington, as the only uninjured aide on Braddock's staff and the leader who helped to save the army from further catastrophe. This sash – Braddock's Sash – was a symbol of command and the gift represented a powerful gesture to the young Virginian. In 1846, this same sash was presented to another war hero, Zachary Taylor, and later returned to Mount Vernon in 1918.
George Washington, who had been a part of two failed efforts to take Fort Duquesne, commanded the Virginia militia forces attached to Brig. Gen. John Forbes's expedition against the French stronghold at the Forks of the Ohio from 1757-1758. Commanding a strong force of almost 2,000 British Regulars and 5,000 colonial militia, Forbes chose to drive westwards along the southern border of Pennsylvania instead of along the more southerly Braddock road – the path that Washington has strongly recommended.
View of Fort Ligonier in western Pennsylvania. Col. Washington and his Virginians operated from this forward base. (Rob Shenk)
Operating from the recently established Fort Ligonier, Colonel Washington's Virginians participated in a number of operations in the area east of the French position. On November 24, 1758, Washington led his troops on an advance that occupied the smoking ruins of the abandoned Fort Duquesne. After almost five years of hard marching, combat, and countless setbacks, Washington was finally able to stand at the British controlled forks of the Ohio.
The French & Indian War provided George Washington with many important experiences and examples that helped to shape this future Founding Father. As a young, ambitious 21-year old, Washington had been exposed to the realities of life at the edges of British North America, and been asked to lead and negotiate with experienced native and French commanders. As part of Braddock's command, Washington took the opportunity to read military manuals, treatises, and military histories. He practiced the art of creating clear and effective orders, but transcribing orders issued by more experienced British officers around him. In more practical military terms, Washington's French & Indian War experience taught the young officer much about how to organize supply, how to dispense military justice, how to command, how to build forts, and how to manage subordinates. Even though he was denied a royal commission, Washington did all he could to emulate the habits, manners, and actions of the regular officers around him. As historian Fred Anderson states, "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 travelled 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."