Early Military Disasters
Today, many think that merit and education are prerequisites for high profile jobs. In 18th-century Virginia, family connections and money were more than enough for most people. That goes a long way to explaining how George Washington managed to gain rank in the Colonial Militia at only 20 years of age, immediately before the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1753.
Unsurprisingly for a kid whose experience at this point consisted of schmoozing and sucking up to local socialites, Washington did really poorly as a combat officer.
Washington’s first big job came right away, before war had been formally declared, in 1753. Governor Dinwiddie dispatched Washington to the Ohio River valley with a letter containing an ultimatum for the French forces occupying the area. The idea was to politely urge the French to leave before things went south.
Washington took his time getting to the French outpost and actually sidetracked for a bit to make contacts among the local Iroquois. He was met with courtesy by the French, but the order to leave was refused. Washington returned to Virginia with the French in full possession of the territory.
Shortly after he got back to Williamsburg, Washington was dispatched back to what is now western Pennsylvania to take the land the French wouldn’t give up without a fight. He had a militia company with him, as well as a few native allies, and his orders were to guard a fort under construction near what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Washington met the French in May 1754, and fought a brief battle that ended with victory and the capture of the French commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. What happened next is uncertain, mainly because Washington’s war diary was written by Washington himself and is therefore full of self-serving spin, but somebody shot Jumonville after he surrendered.
This really irked the French, who sent a much bigger force out of Fort Duquesne, under Jumonville’s own brother, to chase the British force back to Fort Necessity. After a brief siege, on July 4, 1754, Washington agreed to terms and surrendered the fort.
Unfortunately for him, and very unfortunately for the British, the surrender demand was written in French, a language every gentleman knew and Washington was too embarrassed to admit he couldn’t read. That’s probably why he signed it despite the wording in the document that essentially admitted to assassinating Jumonville.
This series of clashes, and the “admission” that a British officer had murdered a French general, fanned the flames of the Seven Years’ War.
George Washington may not have been good at negotiating surrenders, or at choosing high ground for his forts, or at reading French, or admitting when he was in over his head, but he sure was good at shifting blame.
According to his later report on the debacle, the campaign had failed because he had bad troops and poor provisions. Also, they had marched and fought in bad weather and his translator was a Dutchman.
Between these excuses, and the fact that he was tight with half of the money in Virginia, Washington not only survived the defeat at Fort Necessity, he was promoted to colonel and sent back into the area under General Braddock in 1755, thus setting the stage for an even more humiliating disaster: Braddock’s Defeat.
This battle was a disaster from the beginning. Braddock’s force of around 1,300 Colonials and Iroquois allies marched right into the kill zone of twice as many French and Huron fighters. In the exchange of fire, Braddock was shot in the lung and died on the retreat.
Washington was lucky to escape with his life, but had two horses shot out from under him and later found four bullet holes in his coat. According to his own later report to his superiors, the defeat was all the fault of the British regulars and he had performed brilliantly. Governor Dinwiddie rewarded him with appointment as commander in chief of the Virginia Regiment.