George Washington: French & Indian War
He soon had his war. In fact, he basically started it. In 1754, the Virginia government had raised a statewide force to counterbalance the increasing French military presence in the interior. On the strength of his connections and experience, Washington had been appointed the unit's second-in-command, at the rank of lieutenant colonel. The force was sent into the Ohio Country with orders to warn the French to abandon their forts and keep out of the region. On 28 May, not far from the site of modern-day Pittsburgh, Washington's forces—a crew of 40 Virginians and a dozen allied Iroquois warriors—encountered a small French scouting force.
The battle lasted only fifteen minutes. Suffering only one casualty of their own, Washington's men killed a dozen Frenchmen and captured over twenty more. Victory quickly turned to nightmare, however; in the aftermath of the battle, Tanaghrisson—the leader of the Iroquois in Washington's contingent—led a massacre of the surrendered French prisoners. (Tanaghrisson had his own reasons for seeking to deliberately provoke war between the French, British, and Iroquois.) The first unarmed Frenchman killed was a noble officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who was murdered instantly via a tomahawk blow to the head. This killing of an unarmed prisoner of war was a war crime—a war crime for which George Washington, as commanding officer, technically bore responsibility.
As Tanaghrisson had hoped, the revelation of Jumonville's death caused an international scandal, quickly igniting a globe-spanning military conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years' War and in North America as the French and Indian War.
Washington's service in the war would form the cornerstone of his early military reputation. Not that Washington was an especially great commander (the battle he became best known for during the French and Indian War was a British defeat), but he was a better leader than most of his British contemporaries. The British didn't understand how to fight a war in the New World. Their generals did things like march troops into the forest in straight lines and bright red coats, where they made easy targets for the French and their Indian allies. Watching the blunders of his British superiors, Washington learned how not to fight a war in North America. He made a name for himself picking up the pieces of British military debacles, often at great personal risk. At the Battle of the Monongahela, for instance, Washington managed to organize the retreat of outmaneuvered British forces, even as hostile Indians shot two horses out from under him and put four bullets through his coat.4
Washington soon found himself in charge of his own regiment. The Virginia assembly had disbanded Washington's unit at the end of 1754, forcing him to serve as a volunteer on the British general staff, but as the war intensified, the colonial government decided to reconstitute the force. Washington's commanding officer had died the previous year after falling off his horse, leaving Washington as the obvious choice to lead the unit. He took command of the Virginia Regiment, at the rank of full colonel, in August 1755.
The assignment ultimately alienated Washington from the very British Empire his regiment was constituted to assist. As far as Britain was concerned, the colonies were mere possessions; the colonists, as such, were second-class citizens. This was particularly true in military affairs, as Washington already knew. British regulars looked down on colonial forces, and colonial officers had no official status. Still, Washington assumed that the success of his Virginia Regiment would show the British he was worthy of respect, and so earn him an officer's appointment. But despite Washington's ceaseless lobbying and the Virginia Regiment's deft fighting, the British never recognized Washington or his troops as their equals. Washington took this as a personal affront. It left him bitter and resentful. The British, it seemed to him, were so presumptuous they had lost the ability to value merit.