George Washington first saw armed conflict in 1754, when he was 22 years old and still had all his teeth. Although he’s most famous for his success as the commanding general of the American Revolution, it was during the French and Indian War that he cut those teeth as a military leader, making lots of mistakes and inciting an international incident that sparked a global conflict. But along the way, he learned many valuable lessons that he would apply in the Revolution.
The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was a nine-year conflict over whether Great Britain or France would control the fertile frontier country of the Ohio River valley, a region that includes parts of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia (then part of Washington’s home colony of Virginia). Ultimately, the battle escalated into the larger Seven Years’ War, a global conflict that drew in the two nations’ European allies and extended into their colonies in Africa and Asia. In the American theater of this war, Native nations chose to remain neutral or ally themselves with France or Britain, depending on what they thought would serve their interests and ensure their survival.
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Washington, a complete novice, was likely maneuvered into the first skirmish
The conflict began in southwestern Pennsylvania on May 28, 1754, when a group of British soldiers and Mingo warriors approached the encampment of French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. The man leading the British forces was 22-year-old Washington—who, despite being lieutenant colonel of the Virginia Regiment, had never seen combat. In contrast, the leader of the Mingo (also known as “Ohio Iroquois” or “Ohio Seneca”) was Tanacharison, the “Half King,” an experienced warrior and statesman in his mid 50s.
To say that the seasoned Tanacharison provided guidance to the novice Washington “would be an understatement,” says Colin Gordon Calloway, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation.
Given that the Ohio Valley was a contested area not just between Britain and France, but also between multiple Native nations, Tanacharison may have had strong motivation for Britain to advance at war. “[Tanacharison] understands what’s going on in the Ohio country in a way that Washington doesn’t,” Calloway says. “So he not only provides guidance to Washington, I actually think he manipulates and exploits the situation and maneuvers Washington into a conflict with the French that Washington had no business sparking.”
When Washington and Tanacharison’s forces reached Jumonville’s camp, they attacked, killing Jumonville and several of his soldiers, and taking others prisoner. While the question of who fired first remains in dispute—according to one Mingo warrior, it was Washington himself—the skirmish quickly escalated into a broader conflict. In the aftermath of the “Jumonville affair,” the French accused Washington of having led an unprovoked attack against the French during peacetime, claiming that Jumonville and his men had diplomatic, not military, orders. For his part, Washington maintained the diplomacy claim was just a ruse, and that his attack was justified to defend his forces from French aggressions.
It’s unclear whether Washington had much of a strategy. Looking at the different first-hand accounts of the skirmish, “I frankly see a young man seeing his first command unraveling before his eyes,” Calloway says. “This was a disaster, and I think very quickly thereafter, he’s kind of trying to cover it up.”
The French retaliated in the Battle of Fort Necessity
Technically, the skirmish was a military victory for Washington—but a diplomatic loss. The fact that he had attacked France, a country with which Britain was not at war, gave France a huge propaganda advantage. It also angered Jumonville’s half-brother, a French military leader named Louis Coulon de Villiers, who, just over a month after his brother was killed, helped lead an attack on Washington’s Virginia Regiment at Fort Necessity.
Unlike the Jumonville affair, the Battle of Fort Necessity was a military and diplomatic disaster for Washington. On July 3, a mix of French, Huron, Odawa and Iroquois fighters overwhelmed Washington’s men at their recently built fort. The Virginia Regiment, unable to drum up its own corps of native allies, was outnumbered and underprotected behind the small, flimsy Fort Necessity, which looked like a tall, circular fence and was situated in an open field. Ultimately, Washington surrendered to terms that included—unbenownst to him, because of a poor French translation—taking responsibility for the assassination of Jumonville.
“That gives the French a huge diplomatic and propaganda advantage,” Calloway says. The lieutenant governor of Virginia tried to distance himself from Washington’s conduct, which received “negative reactions from as far away as London.”
Britain responded to this loss by sending over the largest army it had ever dispatched to North America. In May 1755, Major General Edward Braddock marched this army into the Ohio River valley along with George Washington, who was now colonel of the Virginia Regiment. On July 9, Braddock’s army suffered a massive defeat in the Battle of the Monongahela at the hands of French, Shawnee, Abenaki and Lenape forces. After Braddock was mortally wounded, Washington helped to organize the retreat.
Washington’s many lessons
Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War, including Braddock’s defeat, made a huge impression on the future commander-in-chief. Not only did he gain a strong understanding of military organization and logistics, but he observed British tactics from the inside. He saw, early on, the acute need for supplies and training for his troops, and understood the importance of garnering political and economic support for those needs.
In addition, the French and Indian War taught Washington, the hard way, that winning any war in the colonies would require Native allies. During the American Revolution, he and his Continental Army made sure to broker strategic treaties with Indigenous nations—agreements that, after the war, the United States proceeded to systematically break.
Britain’s loss was the colonies’ gain
The French and Indian War ended in 1763 with France’s expulsion from the Ohio River valley and its ceding of all its territories in modern-day Canada to Britain. However, from a personal standpoint, Washington was disappointed that he came out of the war without having fulfilled his greatest ambition: a royal commission. The colonial military ranked lower than the royal British military, and the fact that he couldn’t get a royal commission seemed to signal that his soldiering career might be over.
“He’s wrong,” Calloway says, “because of course when the Revolution breaks out, and then the colonists are looking for somebody with military experience and somebody who can cement the very diverse colonies—New England and Virginia in particular—he’s the go-to guy.”