How George Washington started a World War

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George Washington and the Battle of Jumonville Glen: 1754: Read time - 9 minutes

Farmer or Greek God?

George Washington is probably the most famous figure in American history. He is known as the Father of His Country, and has been depicted as everything from a gentry farmer to a literal Greek god. There used to be people who actually believed that he never lied in his entire life.

Most Americans tend to have a healthy respect for George Washington’s military career. After all, he’s the man who managed to lead the American underdogs to victory over one of the greatest powers in the world in the American Revolutionary War. But what if I told you that long before he was the Commander in Chief, George Washington’s early military career saw him make a series of blunders that inadvertently led to the first global conflict in human history  – The Seven Years War.

American Revolutionary War: The  war in which the American colonies fought for independence. The American (Continental) Army was led by George Washington. 

Seven Years War: A major war between European powers and their colonies with theaters in Europe, Africa, India, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Between 900,000-1.4 million people died.

“The Apotheosis of Washington” by Constantino Brumdi in the US Capitol Rotunda
George Washington Meme

Born February 22, 1732, George was the latest in a long line of Washingtons living in the British colony of Virginia. The family had arrived early in the colony’s history and made a small fortune from tobacco farms and land speculation. 

Through his elder brother Lawrence’s personal connections, George was able to make a nice career as a surveyor and map-maker. From 1748-1751, he led surveying expeditions all along the Virginia frontier, but that venture was cut short when Lawrence came down with terminal tuberculosis.

Lawrence Washington: George Washington’s eldest brother and successful militia officer who inspired George’s military career.

Surveyor:  A person who maps a site and catalogs its features for possible uses.

Washington inherited a bunch of land and money, and never needed to work again, but Lawrence’s death inspired him to take up a new path in life. Lawrence had been a decorated officer in the Virginia militia, and George wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Militia: A volunteer military force drawn from local recruits, and the primary military force in early British colonies.

Major George Washington Energy

As the son of a wealthy family, Washington had no trouble getting appointed as a major in 1752. There was no better time to join as France and Britain were in the midst of a mini cold war. The exact border between the British colonies on the east coast of North America and the French in the middle of the continent had never been very clear, and tensions were heating up over disputed boundaries in the Ohio River Valley. It was especially tense on the northern end of the river, where both the British and the French were rapidly building forts.

Ohio River Valley: The region surrounding the Ohio River from Lake Eerie in southwestern New York to the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois. 

The Ohio River Valley marked in yellow image by Karl Musser
Map of North America in 1750 (with modern state borders) by Pinpin

In October 1753 at the age of 21, Major George Washington was appointed to lead his men into the disputed river valley to make peace with the indigenous Iroquois Confederacy and demand that the French leave British territory. The first task went off without a hitch, the Iroquois confirmed their alliance with the British from an earlier treaty. Then Washington formally told the French to get lost. In turn, they gave him a letter which formally said “suck my baguette.”

Iroquois Confederacy: A coalition of six Native American nations in what is now the northeastern United States and parts of Canada. 

Screwup in the forest

A few months later, in February, Washington was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and ordered to go north again in April with 150 Virginians under his command. This time the mission was to confront the French in the field and stake a British claim on the Forks of the Ohio, the site of modern Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Forks of the Ohio: The Point where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers meet, now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Act on the [defensive], but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our [settlements] by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill and destroy them. 

– George Washington’s orders in April 1754

The Forks of the Ohio, better known as “The Point” in modern Pittsburgh, Pa by Allie_Caulfield

As they went north, the British were joined by the local Iroquois leader, Tanacharison, and 12 of his men as guides. At the same time, a French patrol of 35 Canadiens under the command of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville was out looking for the British army. The Iroquois scouts found Jumonville and his men encamped in the wilderness near modern Uniontown, Pennsylvania and sent word to Washington. He rushed to join the Iroquois with 40 of his militiamen early on the morning of May 28, 1754.

Tanacharison: The local Iroquois leader nearest to the Forks of the Ohio who joined Washington in 1754. Sometimes called “Half King.”

Joseph Coulon de Jumonville:  The French patrol commander ambushed by Washington and namesake of The Battle of Jumonville Glen.

The French camp was set up in a forest clearing dotted with glacial boulders, and the British force took up positions behind the rocks overlooking the camp. What happened next depends on whose side of the story you believe. One thing is for certain – the British opened fire and after 15 minutes of chaos Jumonville was dead. In fact, most of the French party were killed or captured, with exact numbers varying from different reports.

Woodcut depicting the Battle of Jumonville Glen, 1854

The later reports of the skirmish varied. Washington himself reported a 15 minute shootout in his diary, but a French investigator followed up with Canadien and Iroquois witnesses. He reported that the English shot two warnings before Jumonville was able to get them to stop to negotiate, but someone shot the French commander while he was speaking and hostilities resumed. 

One of Washington’s men reported that the French shot first, and that Tanacharosin personally killed Jumonville. Whatever the case, the Battle of Jumonville’s Glen concluded with Washington’s militia fleeing the scene returning to their camp.

[A Frenchman] fired a Gun upon which Col. Washington gave the Word for all his Men to fire. Several of them being killed, the rest betook themselves to flight, but our Indians haveing gone round the French … they fled back to the English and delivered up their Arms … Some Time after the Indians came up the Half King took his Tomahawk and split the Head of the French Captain haveing first asked if he was an Englishman and haveing been told he was a French Man. He then took his Brains and washed his Hands with them and then scalped him.

– The events according Private John Shaw of the British Army

“The right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy’s fire … I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

George Washington in a letter to his brother on the Battle of Jumonville

Battle of Jumonville meme

Just the bare necessities

Expecting a French reprisal, Washington and his men set to work turning their camp into a British fort, which Washington named Fort Necessity. Fort Necessity was constructed as a simple circle of tree trunks and sharpened stakes in an open meadow, surrounded by trees, with hills on two sides. If you have any tactical sense at all, now is the time to start shouting “Get out of there! Run!” That’s basically what Tanacharison said. Washington hoped the Iroquois would support him with reinforcements. Instead Tanacharison begged Washington to move somewhere else, and when the stubborn Virginian refused, Tanacharison and his men left.

Fort Necessity: A bare bones wood-walled fort built by Washington to fight the French in 1754 in modern Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

The modern reconstruction of Fort Necessity on the site of the original by Wilson44691

It took some time for the French to discover what had happened to their scouts and prepare for retaliation with their own Native American allies. In that time, Washington received reinforcements in the form of 150 militiamen from Virginia and 100 British army regulars. They arrived on June 9, but over the next month, more and more French forces began arriving in the area. Between the French army and their indigenous allies, the attacking army was 1,100 men strong with access to their supply lines and the hills overlooking the meadow. Washington only had 400 men and Fort Necessity.

French forces arrived late in the morning on July 3 and found the British still digging muddy trenches. They fired, forcing the trench diggers to retreat into the fort, preventing Washington from making use of any of his external fortifications. The French took positions in the surrounding woods to shoot at the Fort with tree coverage defending them. 

In an attempt to break up the attack, Washington ordered his men out into the open field, ordered them into a square formation, and demanded that they hold their ground. Out in the open and under constant fire, the Virginian militia did the only sane thing and retreated, leaving Washington and the British regulars severely outnumbered when the French started to advance. Washington was forced back inside his fort. 

Square formation: A military tactic popular with early firearms where all of the soldiers were tightly grouped together in lines to concentrate their fire in one direction.

Inside the fort, nobody could get a clear shot at the French with their bullets harmlessly flying overhead their adversaries. To make matters worse, it began to storm that night and rain soaked all of the gunpowder inside the fort, rendering their weapons practically useless. The French kept shooting until they were practically out of ammunition, at which point the French commander called for a ceasefire and negotiations.

The Night Council At Fort Necessity by John McNevin

Washington’s representatives were sent out of the fort to negotiate, while inside the fort, the Virginian militia disobeyed orders again and broke into the liquor supply. When the negotiating team returned, they presented Washington with the terms of surrender and a treaty to sign. In short, he would abandon his position and leave the Ohio River Valley. He would also take responsibility for the “assassination” of Jumonville. Unable to communicate directly with the French, and with most of his army sloshed out of their minds, Washington ironically signed the treaty on the Fourth of July. The next day, Washington’s army left and to add insult to injury the French and their Native American allies began looting the baggage train as it left the fort.

To be fair to George, he was only 22 and had little military experience. I’m about that age sitting here making history memes.

Fort Necessity meme

We made the English give us their own bonds, that they had committed an assassination on us, in the camp of my brother. We had hostages as sureties for the French whom they had in their power; we compelled them to evacuate the country as belonging to the most Christian King. We obliged them to leave us their cannon, which consisted of nine pieces. We had already destroyed all their horses and cattle, and further we made them give us their own bond that the favor we showed them was only to prove to them how greatly we desired to treat them as friends. 

– A French report on the Battle of Fort Necessity

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World War Time!

Shockingly, Washington was not fired or reprimanded when he returned to Virginia. Instead, he was honored with a vote of praise by the colonial legislature for bravely resisting French aggression. The next year, Washington found himself back in the field headed north to the Ohio River Valley once again, but no longer in command of the operation. Instead, his militia regiment was just one of many under the overall command of the British regular army. Rather than accept the French victory as the outcome of a rogue colonial operation, Britain had elected to go to war in North America. This second attempt to take the Forks of the Ohio was also a failure, but now it was just one of a series of battles. 

George Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity had unwittingly set off a chain of events that escalated into the so-called French and Indian War in North America. The British eventually did take control of the Forks in 1758, an event George Washington was present for, but by then, Washington was just fighting in one theater of a globe spanning conflict. 

French and Indian War: A nine year conflict started at the Battle of Jumonville Glen that became the American theater of the Seven Years War. Also called the “War of Empire” or the “War of Conquest.”

“Washington the Soldier” by Regnier, depicting the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755

As part of the war effort in North America, the British Navy began attacking French merchant ships in the Atlantic. Seeing this as an escalation beyond a war in the colonies, the French made plans to invade Hanover. The British made a treaty with Prussia to protect that territory. France was then joined by Russia and Austria in a series of alliances meant to attack Prussia. On top of this, the anti-Prussian alliance was complemented by alliances with Spain, Sweden, and a series of small German states. Prussia and Britain were joined by Portugal and their own alliances in Germany. Fighting would span from the Americas, Europe, West Africa, the Pacific and India.

Hanover: A region of the Holy Roman Empire whose Prince-Elector became the British King George I in 1714. Hanover remained legally separate from Britain but was ruled by the British King until 1837.

Prussia: A powerful German kingdom that became famous for its military skill. In the late-19th Century it led the formation of modern Germany.

If this sounds like a world war to you then you have the right idea. Increasing tensions between all of these European powers went off like a (dry) powder keg in 1756 when Prussia invaded Saxony. This war lasted seven years until 1763 and was creatively named the Seven Years War. Over a million would die.

The British won, but accrued a massive amount of debt. To pay this off they taxed the American colonies which of course led to the American Revolution. It’s weird to think that perhaps without George Washington’s series of blunders, America may not exist as it does today. Funny how history works.

Timeline - Terms - Memes - Sources

February 22, 1732: George Washington was born.

1748-1751: George Washington works as a surveyor.

July 26, 1752: Lawrence Washington died, inspiring George to join the militia.

Autumn 1752: George Washington became a Major in the Virginia militia.

October-December 1753: Washington led the peaceful but unsuccessful mission to evict the French from the Ohio River Valley.

April 1754: Washington was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and sent to retake the Forks of the Ohio for Britain and Virginia.

May 28, 1754: The Battle of Jumonville Glen

May-June 1754: Washington’s troops constructed Fort Necessity.

June 9, 1754: British Reinforcements arrived at Fort Necessity.

July 3, 1754: The Battle of Fort Necessity

July 4, 1754: Washington formally surrendered early in the morning.

July 5, 1754: Washington and his army abandon Fort Necessity under French supervision.

Summer 1755: Washington joins the “Braddock Expedition” as the conflict erupted into the French and Indian War. The British Navy attacked French shipping and France threatened Hanover.

Autumn 1755: The European powers confirmed a series of competing alliances.

August 29, 1756: Prussia invaded Saxony, officially starting the Seven Years War.

Summer 1758: Washington participated in the “Forbes Expedition” which captured the Forks of the Ohio for Britain.

February 10, 1763: The Treaty of Paris formally ends the war in all theaters with a British and Prussian victory.

Forks of the Ohio: The point where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers meet, now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Fort Necessity: A bare bones wood-walled fort built by Washington to fight the French in 1754 in modern Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

French and Indian War: Also called the “War of Empire” or the “War for Empire.” A nine year conflict started at the Battle of Jumonville Glen that became the American theater of the Seven Years War. Also known as the War for Empire or the War of Conquest.

Hanover: A region of the Holy Roman Empire whose Prince-Elector became the British King George I in 1714. Hanover remained legally separate from Britain but was ruled by the British King until 1837.

Iroquois Confederacy: A coalition of six Native American nations in what is now the northeastern United States and parts of Canada. 

Joseph Coulon de Jumonville:  The French patrol commander ambushed by Washington and namesake of The Battle of Jumonville Glen.

Lawrence Washington : George Washington’s eldest brother and successful militia officer who inspired George’s military career.

Militia: A volunteer military force drawn from local recruits, and the primary military force in early British colonies.

Ohio River Valley: The region surrounding the Ohio River from Lake Eerie in southwestern New York to the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois. 

Prussia: A powerful German kingdom that became famous for its military skill. In the late-19th Century it led the formation of modern Germany.

Seven Years War: A major war between European powers and their colonies with theaters in Europe, Africa, India, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Between 900,000-1.4 million people died.

Square formation: A military tactic popular with early firearms where all of the soldiers were tightly grouped together in lines to concentrate their fire in one direction.

Surveyor:  A person who maps a site and catalogs its features for possible uses.

Tanacharison: The local Iroquois leader nearest to the Forks of the Ohio who joined Washington in 1754. Sometimes called “Half King.” Played a key role in the Seven Years War.

And win free stuff 🙂

A Charming Field for an Encounter: The Story of George Washington’s Fort Necessity by Robert C. Alberts https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/fone/charming_field.pdf

“French and Indian War Events” in Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Jumonville-Glen

Crucible of war: the Seven Years’ War and the fate of empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

George Washington: Man and Monument by Marcus Cunliffe

War for Empire in Western Pennsylvania produced by the Fort Ligonier Association, et al

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nouvelle-France_map-en.svg under the GNU Free Documentation License

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ohiorivermap.png under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2008-05-25_Pittsburgh_108_(2669916773).jpg under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fort_Necessity_101114.jpg under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apotheosis_of_Washington_-_Close_up_of_George_Washington_(6881712763).jpg. Public Domain.

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