The French and Indian War Lays the groundwork for George Washington's military career.

Economic Interests in Colonial America and Global Competition Lead to War

The Ohio Company's Economic interests helped start the French and Indian War.  In 1747, a group of influential Virginians formed the Ohio Company.  Its charter was to enable Virginians to settle the Ohio Country and to trade with the Indians there.  The Ohio Company included Lawrence Washington, Augustine Washington Jr., and Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie.

Before the official start of the French and Indian war, England and France were locked in a cold war where each attempted to check each other throughout the world.  The Ohio Country that the Ohio Company had claimed for England was also desired by France.  In fact, French explorers from Canada had better knowledge of the area than their English counterparts in Virginia.  When news came to Governor Dinwiddie that the French were building fortifications from Lake Erie to the Ohio River system, he became alarmed.  He requested and received permission from King George II to send an envoy to notify the French of England's claims to the land and determine the extent of the French fortifications.

Click here to view a map of places George Washington made famous during the French and Indian war.

Governor Dinwiddie choose George Washington to lead the envoy.  In October 1753, George led a small group which included a French interpreter, an Indian interpreter, woodsmen, and horses from Virginia to the Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh, PA.  From there they traveled north to Logtown, an Indian village where they picked up an escort of three Indian chiefs who guided them to the French forts located along French Creek.  The Native Americans of the Ohio Valley had not yet chosen sides in the French and Indian war and were willing to help the English.  At Fort Le Boeuf, now Waterford, PA, George Washington presented King George II claims on the Ohio Country to Legardeur de St. Pierre.  The Frenchmen did not take the ultimatum seriously.

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Upon return to Virginia, Washington submitted his reports of French forts and their intentions to control the land that the Ohio Company had interest in.  Dinwiddie published these reports as The Journal of Major George Washington as an attempt to convince Virginians of the importance of claiming the land and defending their rights against the French.  The reports did not create a ground swell of public support.  However, Dinwiddie was able to convince the Virginia legislature to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio and raise an army of 300 men to defend it.   Dinwiddie offered George Washington command of the army.  Washington suggested that he would be better as second in command as he believed first command was beyond his experience.  Dinwiddie agreed with Washington and installed Joshua Fry as commander.  Fry and Washington were now commanding the first American regiment to participate in the French and Indian War. 

George Washington's First Military Experience Causes an International Incident

A task force of 33 men were sent ahead of the army to build the fort at the Forks.  They were met by a large French and Indian force that did not attack but instead escorted them back onto the trail to Virginia.  When news of the French maneuvers reached Virginia, Dinwiddie sent his army to respond.  Colonel Fry fell off of his horse and died from his injuries.  In April 1754, George Washington was now in command of the Virginian forces with a mission of pushing back a much larger French force and securing the Forks for Virginia.  George Washington would now command over the first battle in the French and Indian War.

Washington's party met up with some of the Indian guides he had met during his initial trip.  They informed him that a French party was camping in the area.  After consultation with the Indians, Washington led a team of 40 men on a sneak attack.    Washington's party surprised the French in their camp.  When the first American battle in the French and Indian war had ended there were 10 French dead and 22 captured.  The prisoners informed Washington that he had just attacked a peaceful diplomatic envoy that was heading to Virginia on a mission similar to Washington's previous trip to the French forts.  The lead diplomat, Joseph Coulon, Sieur de Jumonville, was among the dead.

Click here to read more about Jumonville Glan and Fort Necessity National Battlefield.

George Washington Suffers His First Defeat

The French were in the process of building Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio.  They had amassed a force of 800 soldiers.  Washington had his troop build a fort to defend against attack.  Fort Necessity was poorly designed.  It was too small to hold Washington's entire force and provided no defense against attacks from a nearby cliff.  On July 3, 1754 a force of French and Indian troops attacked.  After a day of fighting nearly 100 Virginians had been killed.  On July 4 Washington surrendered.  As a condition of the surrender, Washington signed a document stating that the French actions were solely from the need to avenge the assassination of Jumonville.  When news Washington's attack and subsequent surrender reached Europe he was roundly condemned by both the English and French.  In Virginia, he was celebrated as a hero of the French and Indian War who was able to win a battle and survive one against a much larger force.

George Washington Volunteers for British Army

In March 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock arrived in Alexandria, VA.  Braddock's intention was to lead two British regiments along with colonial militia to Fort Duquesne to move the French out of the Ohio Valley.  Washington met with Braddock to determine how he could help.   Braddock was unable to offer him a position in the British army that was acceptable.  Braddock and Washington agreed that Washington would assist as a volunteer aid as Washington had the best knowledge of the route from Alexandria to Fort Duquesne and of the enemy forces.  On July 9, 1755 Braddock's forces attacked Fort Duquesne and suffered one of the worst losses of the French and Indian War.  The British were routed and Braddock killed.  The outline of Fort Duquesne is now in Port State Park in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Washington took command of the survivors and managed to lead a group back to Virginia.  During the battles Washington's horse was shot out from under him but he was able to survive.  Prior to the battle at Fort Duquesne, Washington had warned Braddock that the French and Indian forces would not fight a conventional war and would use the wilderness as a shield.  Based on this advice and Washington's ability to lead the survivors to safety, his reputation in the colonies continued to grow.

Washington Attempts to Defend Virginia

Upon return to Virginia, Washington was promoted to Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all Virginia forces.  The British surrendered the Ohio Valley to the French and Indians and moved their base of operations to Philadelphia.  French control of the Ohio Valley gave Indians free reign to attack Virginian settlers in Shenandoah Valley.  It was Washington's job to defend the settlements on the Western frontier.  His army was unable to provide much defense.

Britain Drives French from Ohio River Valley

A new British general, John Forbes, planned to mount a new attack on Fort Duquesne from Philadelphia.  Washington pestered Forbes to move quickly and attack from Alexandria rather than from Philadelphia.  Washington wanted the road to Fort Duquesne and the gateway to the Ohio Valley  to run from Virginia rather than Pennsylvania.  Waiting to have his supplies in place proved beneficial to Forbes as by the time the force of over 6000 troops arrived at Fort Duquesne the French had already abandoned it and burned it to the ground.  During Forbes planning, the British had officially declared war on the French.  The British navy took control of the Atlantic Ocean preventing French goods from reaching Canada.  Without supplies the Canadians retreated from the Ohio Valley. 

Washington Retires from Army

With the fall of Fort Duquesne, Washington believed Virginia to be safe and he retired from the army.  The French and Indian War continued but Washington had no further participation.

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