This Day in History: George Washington starts a war. Sort of.

On this day in 1754, a young George Washington experiences his first combat. Did you know that he was involved in an incident that helped to trigger the French and Indian War?

The dispute then centered on the Ohio Country. Who would own and control that land? The French? Or the English?

A young George Washington sat squarely in the middle of the dispute. Just one year earlier, he’d been dispatched to the region with a letter from Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The letter asked the French to withdraw. Washington was cordially received, but the French maintained that their claim to the Ohio Valley was “incontestable.”

In the spring of 1754, Virginia responded by raising a regiment of men. Washington was promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel and sent back to the Ohio Country with 160 men. His task was to secure an area near the intersection of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (in present-day Pittsburgh). Washington was empowered to “make Prisoners of or kill & destroy” anyone who disputed British control of the region.

In the meantime, the French had taken the fort in the area, renaming it Fort Duquesne. Washington made his own small camp nearby and waited for reinforcements. But on May 27, he received a message from the Indians: The French were approaching Washington’s position. Washington decided to go on the offensive. Early on May 28, he advanced toward the French position with 40 men. He was joined by about 12 Indian warriors. Together, the two encircled the French detachment of slightly over 30 men.

What happened next is disputed. Who shot first? Did the French try to surrender? Were they on a diplomatic mission or a military one? The Indian Half King spoke fluent French, but Washington did not. Thus, the Half King may have been left to interpret the French commander’s statements at a critical moment. Either way, the conflict was over quickly. When the dust settled, about a dozen Frenchmen were dead or wounded and 21 were captured. One of the dead was the French commander,   Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville. In the French view, Jumonville was not a casualty of war. Not only was he on a diplomatic mission, they claimed, but he had been trying to surrender. Thus, killing him was murder.

As for Washington, he did not believe that the French were on a diplomatic mission. The next day, he wrote Dinwiddie, enclosing some papers from the French: “Officers pretend they were coming on an Embassy, but the absurdity of this pretext is too glaring as your Honour will see by the Instructions and summons inclos’d.”

Whatever questions may have surrounded the incident, this and other experiences in the Ohio Valley shaped Washington. He learned and grew. One of his biographers has written of Washington: “Instead of going to college, Washington went to war.”

The war for independence was coming, although Washington could not then know it.