Episode 007

Presidents Who Served – George Washington

George Washington was not only our countries first President, he was also our military's first commander. But why Washington? What were the events that brought him to, and most importantly made him ready for, leading our countries military.

We ended the last episode with George Washington assuming command of the newly (as in the day before) created Continental Army. But why Washington? What brought him to this point? The best place to start, as always, is at the beginning…

Washington was born February 22, 1732. He was the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife Mary Ball Washington. The couple owned an estate on Pope’s Creek, near modern day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Augustine had his hands in tobacco planting and small iron-mining ventures. The Washingtons were considered a moderately prosperous family and members of Virginia’s middle class.

His father died when George was 11 and his half brother Lawrence became both a surrogate father and a role model. William Fairfax, Lawrence’s father-in-law, also was a formative influence for young George. Upon his father’s death, George inherited the property of Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg. Lawrence, being the elder brother, inherited a plantation along the Potomac River, which he named Mount Vernon, in honor of his commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. George would, of course, inherit Mount Vernon later in life.

When George was still a teenager, he accompanied his older brother Lawrence to Barbados in 1751. Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis and it was hoped that the tropical climate of the island would help rid him of it. Barbados would serve several purposes in Washington’s life, first it would be the only foreign country that he would visit during his lifetime, secondly it would be the place where he contracted smallpox, which ultimately gave him slight scarring on his face (not something you typically see in all of the paintings depicting him). As a result of his smallpox contraction, George developed an immunity to the disease, which would come in handy during the American Revolution when the disease threatened to become an epidemic. Lawrence however, did not fare as well. His tuberculosis did not clear up and he hated the oppressive heat of the island.

Lawrence returned to Mt. Vernon as his health continued to get worse, he died there in 1752. His position as Adjutant General (the militia leader) of Virginia was split among four offices when he died. George was appointed as one of these four adjutant offices in Feb of 1753 with the rank of major in the Virginia militia.

At 21, Washington was a young and ambitious man, ready for action. So much so, he started a war. The Ohio River valley, particular the area near modern Pittsburgh was of great interest to both the British and their French rivals. The location near Pittsburgh contained the joining of two rivers which would boost the local economy with trade and transit.

Concerned that the French were pushing too far into the Ohio Valley, Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent Major George Washington to confront the French forces. And by confront, he we was to deliver a message to the French commander that the Virginia governor demanded 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.

Upon hearing of the French’s response, Lt Governor Dinwiddie ordered the newly promoted: Lt. Col George Washington and roughly 160 Virginia militia men to return to the Ohio Valley in March of 1754. Washington was told to “act on the defensive” but he was also clearly empowered to “make Prisoners of or kill & destroy” all those who resisted British control of the region.

The French had decided to send their own diplomatic to the British, demanding that they withdrawal from the Ohio Valley. 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. This marked the beginning of the Seven Years War (as it was called in Europe) and the French and Indian War (Americas)

Upon hearing of Washington’s actions, Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the French commander at Fort Duquesne ordered Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, to assault Washington and his forces. De Villiers left Fort Duquesne with nearly 600 French soldiers and Canadian militiamen, and 100 Native American allies. De Villiers was also the brother of Ensign Jumonville, who was in charge of the French forces that Washington had attacked.

Alerted that a superior force was heading his way, Washington instructed his men to fortify and dig in. He did receive reinforcements, bringing his total men to around 400, but he was still outmatched almost 2 to 1. The fort that his men had constructed, Fort Necessity, was poorly located and subject to fire for the nearby wooded hills. Not an easily defended position. On July 1, the French contingent reached Washington, where he gathered his troops and retreated inside Fort Necessity. Knowing he couldn’t win, Washington agreed to surrender to the French. The terms, written in poorly translated French, allowed Washington and his troops to return peacefully to Virginia, however, one clause in the document stated that Washington admitted that he had “assassinated” Ensign Jumonville – something that Washington contested, despite his signature.

The Battle of Great Meadows, as the events here were called, stand as the only time that Washington surrendered to an enemy in battle.

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 on a route to take them across teh Allegheny Mountains to capture the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne.

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.

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 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

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 by 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 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.”

How did Washington perform in the Revolutionary War? Not so fast, we’ll get to that in the rest of our episode series on the Revolution. We will talk about his terms of service and the ranks that he achieved in his service, and again these ranks are militia level ranks, not royal commissioned ranks.

  • Major – 1752-1754
  • Lieutenant Colonel – 1754-1755
  • Colonel – 1755-1758
  • Major General – 1775-1783
  • Lieutenant General – 1798-1799
  • General of the Armies of the United States (1976 – present, posthumously awarded)

Washington also held the following commands during his years of service.

  • Colonel – Virginia Regiment
  • General and Commander-in-chief – Continental Army
  • Commander-in-chief – United States Army

Of his 67 years of life, he served for a total of 15 of those in some military fashion.

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