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Washington’s First War

5 Things you might not have known about the “model of a modern major general’s” first war

From 1754-1758, George Washington fought in his first armed conflict, the Seven Years War, commonly referred to as the French and Indian War. This war was foundational to who he would become, as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and later, the first President of the United States.

Here are five things that you may not know about young Colonel Washington during his first baptism of fire, the French and Indian War.



1. George Washington almost dies...a lot!

Washington, throughout his young adulthood, is not the picture of perfect health. He contracts smallpox in 1752 while visiting Barbados. He has pleurisy, agues, and fevers regularly, and often is so sick he cannot travel.

In 1755, on the infamous Braddock Campaign (where the British and their American Colonial troops are horribly defeated by a smaller army of French, Canadians, and American Indians), he gets so sick with the bloody flux (probably dysentery), he cannot even ride his horse. One of his doctors tells him that if he overexerts himself, he will probably die.

That didn’t deter Washington, because a few days later he is on his horse, and present at Braddock’s defeat where he has three horses shot, and multiple bullet holes through his clothes without ever suffering a scratch.

A few years later, in 1757, he is so sick again with flux, fevers, agues, and stomach pain (while also probably struggling with depression due to the horrors he has seen in the frontier war), that he is practically bed ridden for five months! One doctor suggests that he won’t survive the year.

Imagine the immune system he had to survive all those diseases while dashing about the Virginia frontier fighting a war.

2) George Washington is made commander in chief of the Virginia military forces when he is 23.

He is given the command in late 1755...but he has very little military experience. At that point he has only been actively serving in conflict for nine months, including the defeat he suffered at Fort Necessity in western Pennsylvania, and the previously mentioned Braddock’s Defeat, where he handled himself with bravery and courage.

Washington is also very concerned about the current state of Virginia’s military and that whoever takes the position will only meet with failure and dishonor.

“…I believe our circumstances are…brought to that unhappy dilemma that no Man can gain any Honor by conducting our Forces at this time; but will rather loose in his reputation if he attempts it…so that I am truly sensible, whoever undertakes this command will meet with such insurmountable obstacles that he will be soon lookd upon in the very light of an idle indolent body, have his conduct censurd, and perhaps meet with opprobrious abuse…” (To W. Lewis, August 15, 1755)

He tells his mother, who doesn’t want him to take the position, “If it is in my power to avoid going to the Ohio again, I shall, but if the Command is press’d upon me by the general voice of the Country, and offered upon such terms as can’t be objected against, it would reflect eternal dishonor upon me to refuse it…” (To M. B. Washington, August 14, 1755).

Now, one can argue that there is some false modesty to this. Washington definitely wanted to be in the military, and previously had actively sought out military positions and will continue to try to get into the British Army until 1757. However, he is very consistent in expressing his lack of experience, and that he recognizes he is not really sure what he is doing

“I know, Sir, that my inexperience may have led me into innumerable errors…”

To J. Robinson, April 18, 1756

“That I have foibles, and perhaps, many of them, I shall not deny; I should esteem myself, as the world also would, vain and empty were I to arrogate perfection. Knowledge in military matters is to be acquired by practice and experience only: & if I have erred, great allowance should be made for my errors for want of it…” (To R. Dinwiddie Sept 17, 1757)

3) Washington is a stickler for discipline and proper behavior

Washington holds himself and his soldiers to an incredibly high standard, something he does during the Revolution as well. He makes this very clear in an address he orders read to all his officers after one of them is court martialed for cheating at cards and being drunk.

“Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer—and that there is more expected from him than the Title…I think it my duty, Gentlemen, as I have the Honour to preside over you, to give this friendly admonition; especially as I am determined, as far as my small experience in Service; my abilities, and interest of the Service, dictate; to observe the strictest discipline through the whole economy of my Behaviour…I shall make it the most agreeable part of my duty, to study merit, and reward the brave, and deserving. I assure you, Gentlemen, that partiality shall never bias my conduct; nor shall prejudice injure any: but throughout the whole tenor of my proceedings, I shall endeavour, as far as I am able, to reward and punish, without the least diminution.”

To back up his discipline, he builds a 40-foot-tall gallows in Winchester to serve as a warning to soldiers not to desert.

4) Washington is deeply and emotionally affected by the suffering of civilians during the war

This letter speaks for itself:

“Not an hour, nay, scarcely a minute passes, that does not produce fresh alarms and melancholy accounts. So that I am distracted what to do! nor is it possible for me to give the people the necessary assistance for their defence…Three families were murdered the night before last at the distance of less than twelve miles from this place: and every day we have accounts of such cruelties and Barbarities, as are shocking to human nature: nor is it possible to conceive the situation and danger of this miserable County: Such numbers of French and Indians all around; no road is safe to travel: and here, we know not the hour how soon we may be attacked!…From these and other circumstances you may form but a faint idea of the wretched and unhappy situation of this County: nor can it be conceived. My extreme hurry, confusion and anxiety, must plead an excuse for incorrectness…” (To R. Dinwiddie, April 24, 1756)

He also says that “The supplicating tears of the women; and moving petitions from the men, melt me into such deadly sorrow, that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind—I could offer myself a willing Sacrifice to the butchering Enemy, provided that would contribute to the peoples ease.” (To R. Dinwiddie April 22, 1756)

5) Washington loses friends in high places because of his passionate opinions

Washington is not perfect, but he attacks his responsibility with great passion and determination, and always strives to do the best that he can. At times, this gets him in trouble, for he is blunt with people, like the Governor, that he probably should be more cautious with. Yet even in this, he asserts that he did not mean to offend, only to do his job.

“I do not know that I ever gave your Honor cause to suspect me of ingratitude, a crime I detest, and wou’d most carefully avoid. If an open, disinterested behaviour, carries offence, I may have offended: Because I have all along laid it down as a maxim, to represent facts, freely and impartially; but no more to others than I have to you, Sir. If instances of my ungrateful behaviour had been particularized, I would have answered to them. But I have long been convinced, that my actions and their motives, have been maliciously aggravated.” (Dinwiddie, Oct 5, 1757)



Daniel Cross returned to Colonial Williamsburg in October 2018 to take on the role of young Washington. He has been interpreting history off and on since he was 10, has worked in education, and has experience in various forms of performance.

Resources

“Address, 8 January 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%201756&s=1111311113&r=72

“To John Robinson from George Washington, 18 April 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Recipient%3A%22Robinson%2C%20John%22&s=1111311113&r=9

“To Mary Ball Washington from George Washington, 14 August 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22&s=1111311113&r=153&sr=

“To Robert Dinwiddie from George Washington, 22 April 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-03-02-0033

“To Robert Dinwiddie from George Washington, 24 April 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Recipient%3A%22Dinwiddie%2C%20Robert%22&s=1111311113&r=34

“To Robert Dinwiddie from George Washington, 5 October 1757,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22&s=1111311113&r=834&sr=

“To Warner Lewis from George Washington, 14 August 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 28, 2020, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22&s=1111311113&r=154&sr=

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