On the World Stage in the French and Indian War
Soon after Washington's commission in the Virginia militia, he was appointed by Governor Robert Dinwiddie to deliver a message to French troops occupying the Ohio River Valley. Despite English claims to the land, the French were building forts and making alliances with local Indian nations. The British king had granted much of this land to a group of speculators that included Dinwiddie. Eager to protect their claims, these men convinced the king that the French must be removed. He ordered a message to be sent to the French; Washington was to be the messenger.
Washington left Mount Vernon in November of 1753 with a small group of frontiersmen and traveled into the Ohio Valley. He traveled almost all the way to Lake Erie to find a French soldier willing to officially accept his message from the British king. After many weeks of travel he finally delivered his message: leave the Ohio Valley or face the wrath of Britain. Not surprisingly, the French rejected Britain's demand. His mission accomplished, Washington began the long journey home in the dead of winter. Troubled by brutal weather, Indian attacks and river ice, Washington barely made it back to home.
Upon his return, Washington published the news of his journey. This caused a stir among Virginians, who demanded the government do something about the French threat. In response, Dinwiddie appointed Washington to lead 150 troops back into the Ohio Valley. Now a colonel, Washington planned to occupy the area where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. This place, known as the Forks of the Ohio, controlled access to a large chunk of the Ohio Valley. En route to the Forks, Washington learned that the French had already built a fort there, which they called Fort Duquesne. It was manned by over a thousand French troops, against whom Washington's 150 men had no hope of victory.
Washington marched on, building Fort Necessity about fifty miles from the Forks of the Ohio. On May 28, he surprised a group of French soldiers at a place called Great Meadows. A battle broke out, and ten French soldiers were killed. The captured survivors insisted that they had been on a peaceful diplomatic mission, just like Washington had the previous year. News of his action spread to Fort Duquesne, and soon the French came to even the score. Washington retreated to Fort Necessity and prepared to fight. The French came, and after a long battle on July 7, Washington was forced to surrender. He and his soldiers were released by the French, but not until they had tricked Washington (who didn't speak French and could not read the document) into signing a "confession" that he had murdered French diplomats. The chain of events sparked by Washington's attack and defeat would eventually lead Britain and France to war in the French and Indian War, which was to be the bloodiest war of the entire eighteenth century.
The British government responded by sending two regiments of the regular British Army, commanded by General Braddock, to dislodge the French from Fort Duquesne. Washington accompanied Braddock as an aide. Braddock's force numbered 2500 troops and should easily have defeated the French. Instead, Braddock's forces were surprised and defeated by the French on July 9, 1755. Braddock and most of his officers were killed in the attack while the army fled in terror. Washington led the retreat. Braddock's Defeat (as the battle came to be known) stunned and humiliated the British, but Washington's role in the battle won him fame and honor among Virginians.
Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington by re-appointing him commander of the Virginia militia. He was ordered to defend the frontier, which was over 350 miles long. He suffered from a lack of supplies, untrained soldiers, and constant surprise attacks from the Indians whose land was being taken by British settlers. In these frontier skirmishes Washington seldom won an outright victory, but he gained experience that would prove important in the Revolutionary War.
Finally, in 1758, the British sent another force against the French. It was led by General John Forbes; Washington commanded two regiments under Forbes as a brigadier general. This time the British succeeded in dislodging the French from Fort Duquesne, which effectively secured the Ohio Valley. The frontier was now relatively safe, so Washington resigned his command to return to private life.
Washington's role in the conflict with the French reveals several aspects of the man. In attacking the French at Great Meadows, Washington showed his inexperience. He was rash in attacking and had no hope of defending himself at Fort Necessity. Though very brave, Washington was neither politically nor militarily savvy. Mostly, he was just ambitious.
His confession at Fort Necessity, though a sham, was a disaster for Washington and the British. The French used it as proof of British aggression; in Paris he was denounced as a killer, while in London he was mocked as a bumbling hick. Though he proved himself a hero at Braddock's Defeat, he survived only by luck, as bullets twice killed his horses and on one occasion knocked off his hat. As an assistant to General Forbes, Washington displayed further bravery but did not understand Forbes' careful strategy. This was largely because Washington did not understand the larger struggle between Britain and France. He was concerned only with Virginia.
The contrast between Washington's reputation in Britain and America reflected a growing rift between the mother country and her colonies. While the British denounced Washington as incompetent, in Virginia he was hailed a hero. This further encouraged Washington to see himself as American rather than British. A similar process was happening among many other people living in the colonies.
Washington's break with Britain was encouraged by his failure to get a commission in the British Army. As a man of property and experience, Washington felt he deserved an officer's commission in the army. The British, however, were unwilling to grant this privilege to colonials. In fact, it was British policy that any officer in the British Army outranked any member of the colonial militias. Thus Washington, though the hero of Braddock's Defeat and an expert on the frontier, had to take orders from ignorant lieutenants. Washington lobbied continually to have this policy changed, both because it unfairly discriminated against Americans and because it frustrated his own military career. The British wouldn't budge, however. Washington grew increasingly bitter and disillusioned with Britain as a result.
Washington's mistakes and narrow perspective reveal a man who was ambitious, arrogant, impetuous and at times ignorant. Yet Washington was able and willing to learn from his mistakes. He studied the frontier, immersed himself in the techniques necessary for fighting and winning battles in the wilderness, and took careful note of the tactics and discipline used by the British Army. Though his mistakes contributed to starting a war between France and Britain, it also gave him the experience necessary to command the American troops in the Revolutionary War.
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