The Frustrated Hero — 1754

Back to the boring history classroom. Our last topic, if you remember, was Ben Franklin’s attempt to get the colonies to form a plan to manage their western borders, which were always threatened by the local native american tribes. But no.

So time went by — but not much. Within three years the colonies were at war with France and the Indians. Guess who started it.

es! You’re right. George Washington, the frustrated hero.

And what was it that frustrated him? Becoming a gentleman in the  Virginia upper class. It should have been easy. His father held political office, owned several thriving plantations, and was a managing partner of Accokeek Iron Furnace located on a tributary of the Potomac River. He educated his oldest sons at  the Appleby School in England, remarried when their mother died George, along with several other youngsters, was the result. Here’s the lovely image of his childhood which has come down through the years:

“I cannot tell a lie.”

When he was eleven, his father died  and his older brothers (from the previous marriage) inherited everything worth having. The older one got his father’s tidewater holding, which he renamed Mount Vernon; the second brother got the next best property and George got Ferry Farm (where the family had been living) and 10 slaves. However, he was too young by ten years to inherit. There were no funds to pay for Appleby, where his brothers had studied and where they had acquired their polish and grace. The only possible future for a young man in Virginia was to belong to the upper class, trade with other upper class entrepreneurs, go to parties with them and meet their sisters, one of whom would be willing to marry him.

But how could he become part of that esteemable group without a classical, preferably English, education? With only a small, interior piece of land?  Without manners, or knowledge of dancing, or flirting with (gulp) girls. (Yes, he was shy. A bumbling teenager, in fact.)

His father had left behind a small set of surveying instruments. Having learned to read and do his arithmetic and other similarly boring stuff at the local school, the young Washington taught himself to use his father’s surveying tools and instantly became hooked. He was 16 years old and had found his  first true calling. He wasted no time, locating a man who could teach him all the intricacies of surveying. He could make money that way, and buy land. It was a start.

Next came proper behavior. He read up on manners of the upper class and copied out the contents of  “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” Here are some rules that interested me, especially when I envisioned the scene without them:

Rince not your Mouth in the Presence of Others.

Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife.

Drink not nor talk with your mouth full.

It’s unbecoming to Stoop much to one’s Meat.

Keep your Fingers clean & when foul wipe them on a Corner of your Table Napkin.

Put not your meat to your Mouth with your Knife in your hand, neither Spit forth the Stones of any fruit Pye upon a Dish nor Cast anything under the table.

He regularly visited his older stepbrother Lawrence at Mt. Vernon,  who took him on fox hunts (even at a young age, he was an able rider) found him a dancing teacher, and took him to parties, showing him how to negotiate the world of the upper gentry. But the best thing brother Lawrence did was marry into the Fairfax family — the uppermost of the upper crust in Virginia. These Fairfaxes were cousin to Lord Fairfax who’d been given great amounts of land by His Majesty. He recently had decided to sell some off, and to do that, he’d need a surveying party to go northwest, where the land was.

And so, at the age of 16, young George joined the party. The lands in the Shenandoah Valley were untamed; the weather was awful, but he became  accustomed to life in the wild,which was fortunate, since soldiers rarely stayed in their bunkhouse for long, and soon George would be a military man. First, though, he earned enough money with surveying to buy some land and continued to work on fitting into polite society at home.

He was ready when, in 1752, his brother died of tuberculosis. His seat as an adjutant general of the Virginia militia was vacant, as a result, and George, with some influential patrons who would vouch for him, applied for the position. Even lacking military experience, he received the appointment as district adjutant for the Northern Neck of Virginia, becoming a major in the Virginia militia. At more than  six feet tall and a muscular 180 pounds, he looked the part and now that he knew better than to talk at table with his mouth full, or spit out fruit seeds or cast anything upon the floor, his upward climb was doing very well.

In October of the following year, Washington was ordered to explore the Ohio Country, north and west of Virginia. Rumor was that the French, who had claimed the Ohio Country for their king, were unhappy about the English plan to build settlements there. Earlier in the year 1500 French soldiers entered the area and had erected several forts. Washington was commissioned to ask them to peacefully depart. If they didn’t, King George II had signed an order to “drive them off by force of arms,” and George was supposed to tell them that, too.

The French commander refused and let it be known that the French would arrest any English settlers or merchants entering the Ohio Country. Of course, this could not go unchallenged, and the governor sent Washington and a force of Virginia militiamen back the Ohio Country to force the French to withdraw from the area. The French, however, had built Fort Duquesne by then, and were firmly entrenched. To establish the British presence, a fort was begun nearby. Clearly the French could not let that go unopposed. A small scouting party reconnoitered the situation, trying to determine how far the English fort had progressed. They camped for the night in Jumonville Glen when a company of colonial militia under George’s command, and and a small number of  Mingo warrior allies ambushed them. The leader was ritually slain by the Mingo’s chief; some Canadians were also killed. Most of the others were captured.

Washington decided to build  Fort Necessity, to challenge the French dominance in the Ohio Country.

Meager though it was, this could not remain unchallenged. A combined force of French soldiers and their Indian allies attacked Fort Necessity in July 1754, killing a third of Washington’s soldiers while only suffering three dead of their own. By nightfall, the French command accepted Washington’s surrender and allowed him and his men to return to Virginia.

The hero had not yet conquered. In fact, he was blamed for the defeat and was replaced and demoted. But he refused to accept this demotion to the rank of captain and resigned his commission. We will not concern ourselves with what he did next, though a page will tell about his activity in the Braddock campaign which followed immediately. What we shall note here is that the brief encounter in Jumonville Glen eventually led to a European war that forced the French out of North America, and soon enough was followed by another war that forced out the British. Horace Walpole, an English  politician, summed it up by writing, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”

That’s got to count for something.