Washington's First War

Washington's First War

The nascent career of George Washington is nothing to wax sentimental about. The boy colonel of the Virginia militia learned his trade on the job, slogging through battles along the Colonial frontier against the French and Indian nations. His one minor victory was marred when an Indian ally murdered a wounded French officer who had surrendered and was under Washington’s protection — an incident that would escalate the undeclared war over who controlled the Ohio territory.

Two years later, in 1756, these frontier skirmishes would merge into the Seven Years War, which was fought in North America and in Europe and involved nine nations — what some term the first example of a world war.

Such is the awe evoked by the "Father of our Country" that David A. Clary, author of "George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures," feels compelled to remind the reader that his subject started out as a baby and was not born a great man. Clary, who has written 10 other books and is the former chief historian of the US Forest Service, has done his homework, as his footnoting attests, although at times the minutia overwhelms an otherwise engaging narrative.

Young Washington was a stern commander who didn’t flinch from ordering his charges to be flogged for drunkenness, disobedience, and even profanity, the last being a stretch because the swearing was often inspired by a lack of food, clothing, weapons, and pay. Deserters were often shot or hanged. When things didn’t go his way, Washington was capable of griping, whining, and finger-pointing. He was adept at what is known today as "spinning," or as Clary puts it, "He was not above straying from the truth when it suited his purposes.” He was also something of a clotheshorse who enjoyed designing his own uniforms.

But give young George his due: He had sand. At 21, he volunteered to trek more than 100 miles into a hostile wilderness — in late fall, with trigger-happy French and Indians lurking — to deliver a blunt message to the French commander: essentially, scram, Ohio Country belongs to Britain. The message was ignored, and Washington was shot at by an Indian on his way back to Williamsburg.

While the times and the military strategies were vastly different from today, many matters have a contemporary ring. To drum up support for an aggressive stance toward the disputed Ohio lands, Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie insisted that the French were an intolerable threat and intent on driving the colonists into the Atlantic. In reality, the French, whom the British outnumbered in North America by more than 10 to 1, had neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to do so. Indeed, it would be the French who would be dispossessed of all their continental possessions in Canada and Louisiana by war’s end in 1763.

Washington’s first encounter with the French in 1754 was aided and abetted by an Indian “Half Chief” who, according to Clary, was anxious to instigate conflict between the white tribes to bolster his own position against the French. Ignorance of Indian interests and strategies was crucial to the defeats that Washington and others would suffer. Washington won his first skirmish but subsequently was routed by a retaliatory force of French and Indians, who killed 30 and wounded 70 of his men before forcing him to surrender. The enemy lost four men. Remarkably, the French let the surviving Virginians walk away with their weapons, reasoning that since war had not been declared there could be no prisoners of war.

Back in Williamsburg, the campaign was treated as a triumph, with the surrender laid at the feet of neighboring Colonial governments that had not done their part in the war effort. A far greater British defeat in Ohio was yet to come in 1755, and Washington, serving under British Cmdr. Edward Braddock, again would emerge unscathed both physically and in terms of his military reputation. As Braddock lay dying, Washington, who had had two horses shot out from under him and whose uniform had been ripped by musket balls that had barely missed, led a first-class retreat.

Twenty years hence, Washington would learn from many of the mistakes he made as a 20-something commander. He became a kinder, gentler leader; adopted successful tactics used by his Indian adversaries; and mastered the art of keeping a citizen army in the field under adverse conditions. The young warrior, whose steadfast courage was unassailable, had been asked to undertake missions for which Virginia and Britain were unable or unwilling to provide the necessary men or materials. Like today, budgets were tight.