Young George Washington Sparks a World War: 1754 CE

If asked how many World Wars there have been, the average educated American will confidently answer two, specifying the Great War of 1914 CE – 1918 CE, and the conflict between Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Allies, which most will date 1939 to 1945, though the fighting started in Asia in 1931 and continued in Eastern Europe until at least 1947.

Some will punningly identify the proxy conflicts in developing nations sponsored by the Soviet Union and the United States in the second half of the 20th century as the Third World Wars. Few will include the global conflicts of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, though these are widely understood to be World Wars by historians of the periods.

Global wars before the 20th century include:

• Nine Years War: 1688 – 1697 [King William’s War in North America]
• War of the Spanish Succession: 1701 – 1714 [Queen Anne’s War in North America]
• War of the Austrian Succession: 1740 – 1748 [King George’s War in North America]
• Seven Years War: 1756 – 1763 [French and Indian War in North America]
• War of American Independence: 1775 – 1783
• Wars of the French Revolution: 1792 – 1802
• Napoleonic Wars: 1803 – 1815

The Mongolian wars of the 13th and 14th centuries might be thought to qualify as pre-modern global conflicts, a category into which the Nine Years War is sometimes shoehorned, but in any case it is clear that worldwide war is not an invention of the 20th century.

The Seven Years War was triggered by a 22-year-old American colonial named George Washington. He held the distinction of being the youngest man to spark a world war until Gavrilo Princep beat his record by a year when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his beloved spouse Sophie on June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo. The magnitude of Washington’s youthful achievement is seldom properly acknowledged. Before it ended, the Seven Years War saw fighting in Europe, North America, India, Africa, and Cuba, among other places.

In the first half of the 18th century, Great Britain and France saw each other as being in a competition for expansion into and possession of the Ohio River territory, by which name they generally referred to the entire Mississippi basin.

Both European powers identified the struggle for the Ohio lands as key to dominance in North America, and both were ready to use violence and aboriginal allies to further their interests. For most of the previous 200 years, France had shown more skill in managing the indigenous people of North America to their advantage in empire building, with the notable exception of the Iroquois.

This exception was significant. The Iroquois not only ruled the lands that were to develop into Upstate New York, but also projected power successfully enough to devastate France’s Canadian tribal allies of choice, the Hurons, in 1649, and dominated the various Algonquian peoples inhabiting the underpopulated Ohio region, which was in large part used as an Iroquois hunting ground.

The Iroquois who moved into the Ohio territory in the mid-18th century were commonly called Mingo, derived from an Algonquian term of opprobrium meaning treacherous or stealthy. In the 18th century the English hoped to use the Iroquois to counter the French and their numerous native allies. Neither Great Britain nor France seems to have given enough consideration to the possibility that their Indian allies were hoping to exploit the antagonism of the European imperial powers to their own advantage.

In 1753 a 21-year-old George Washington was sent by the Governor of Virginia to deliver a letter to the French in the Ohio territory demanding they desist their activities and vacate the area. Washington presented himself to the 52-year-old local commander of the French, Legardeur, whom Washington underestimated with all the confidence of youth, seeing only “an elderly gentleman with much the air of a soldier.” Legardeur had more than 30 years of service in North America, with postings among other places in Acadia, Saskatchewan, and what is now Indiana and Tennessee. Legardeur politely declined to accept the authority of the King of England, Governor of Virginia, or the stripling they had sent to deliver the message.

Washington hurried back to Virginia. The French expelled a group of English colonials who were attempting to fortify the Forks of the Ohio [the site of present day Pittsburgh], and began their own efforts along those lines, which they called Fort Duquesne.

In 1754 Washington, newly made a Lieutenant Colonel, hurried back to the Ohio country with a rag-tag band of about 160 men and renewed orders from the Governor of Virginia to stop French activity there. One member of Washington’s company was a Mingo guide Washington seems to have considered to be a personal friend: the Half-King Tanaghrisson. The title Half-King was used for a number of Iroquois leaders west of the Appalachians whose treaties and decisions needed to be confirmed by the Onondaga before they were considered binding.

Tanaghrisson had staked his personal reputation on the dominance of the English over the French in the Ohio territory, and he took it hard when the French dismantled the partially constructed English fortification: he “stormed greatly against the French … and told them that he order’d that Fort, and laid the first log of it himself.” French control of the Forks of the Ohio would mean the end of Tanaghrisson’s power there.

As Washington and his band made their noisy way towards the French, Legardeur’s successor, Contrecouer sent Ensign Jumonville with a band of 35 men to parley with the English, warn them that they were trespassing, and gather intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of Washington’s expedition. Contrecouer’s instructions to Jumonville were carefully designed to prevent provocation on the part of the French. Washington’s orders from the Governor of Virginia were bellicose to a degree unsupported by any policy or directives from London.

As Jumonville’s small group approached Washington, the young Virginian first sent 75 men under the command of Captain Peter Hogg to intercept the French. Unfortunately Washington sent Hogg in the wrong direction. When Tanaghrisson arrived in the English camp with the alarming news that Jumonville’s party was about seven miles away, Washington and the Mingo quickly planned an ambush.

Washington took 47 men to confront the French while Tanaghrisson and a select group of Native Americans worked their way around the French, cutting off any retreat.

The fighting lasted about 15 minutes. Washington’s terse and misleading report is not the only description of what happened. We also have a report provided by a member of the French party who escaped; an even more complete account, accurate in verifiable details, from an English colonial private who had been provided with specifics by soldiers present that day; and a key summary of what happened provided by an Iroquois who deserted to the French shortly after the ambush.

It appears that Jumonville was shot in the ambush, but managed to deliver the letter he was carrying to Washington, who withdrew to read it. Tanaghrisson approached the wounded French ensign, mocking him using the language of diplomatic communications between the Iroquois and the leaders of New France before chopping open Jumonville’s skull with a hatchet. Tanaghrisson then extracted some of Jumonville’s brains with his hands before he and his men dispatched most of the wounded French. One account described Tanaghrisson as washing his hands with Jumonville’s brains.

Washington, like many inexperienced young officers leading a heterogeneous group of soldiers, had lost control of his men and the situation.

He returned to his former campsite and erected a risibly inadequate defensive palisade called Fort Necessity. He had received reinforcements and planned an offensive action against the French in Fort Duquesne at the Ohio River Forks. His march was a logistical disaster, made worse by the refusal of many of his Ohio territory Indian allies to join him in the attack.

Warned by Indian allies of the approach of a much larger French force, Washington retreated and concentrated his forces in Fort Necessity, where he and his badly deployed men, many of whom were drunk after breaking into the rum supply, were overwhelmed by French forces led by Jumonville’s older brother.

Short on supplies and almost out of ammunition, the French allowed Washington’s forces to withdraw to Virginia after Washington had signed a capitulation document he could not read that specified that Washington was responsible for the “assassination” of Ensign Jumonville.

Tanaghrisson was not interested in fighting to enable militarily incompetent English to seize and settle the Ohio region. He retired to a frontier trading post in Pennsylvania, where he criticized Washington’s inexperience in warfare and his arrogance and ignorance in insisting that the Native American allies fight by his directions, before dying in October of a disease attributed to witchcraft by his followers.

As they retreated towards Virginia, the colonial English soldiers realized that many of their native “allies” had joined with the French forces against them. Washington may have begun to understand that while both the English and the French thought they were using the Indian tribes, the Indians were intent on using both the French and English for their own purposes.

France was furious at what they proclaimed was Washington’s assassination of Jumonville on a diplomatic mission. Both France and England reinforced their troops in the New World in 1755. War was formally declared in 1756. This conflict is known in Europe as the Seven Years War, and in North America as the French and Indian War.

Washington’s immaturity at the time is evident in a letter he wrote to his brother after the ambush of Jumonville’s mission, in which he wrote “I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.” He had frequent and prolonged opportunities to revise his judgment in the following years.

Further Reading:

• In The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, Fred Anderson provides a detailed and well documented description of Washington’s activities on the Ohio River frontier in the 1750s, setting them in the context of English, French, colonial, and aboriginal efforts to achieve dominance in the region.

• Edmund S. Morgan’s essay on George Washington’s contributions to American independence and the founding of the United States in The Genuine Article is a model of clarity, concision, and judicious evaluation that avoids the usual perils of writing about Washington, neither indulging in hagiography nor descending into exposé.

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