This Day in History: A young George Washington becomes a hero in Virginia
On this day in 1755, a young George Washington becomes the “hero of the Monongahela.” Only one year earlier, he had been given an early command, but then forced into a disgraceful surrender. Now he finally had a chance to redeem himself.
It was the second year of the French and Indian War. Washington was in a bit of an awkward position. He wanted to get back into the military game, but if he tried to join the British army, he would be expected to join as a captain. This rank was a demotion from the one he’d held a mere year earlier: He’d been a colonel before.
The young and ambitious Washington was never one to take a demotion.
Fortunately, Washington was able to work out a situation with British Major General Edward Braddock. Washington was told that Braddock would be “very glad of your Company in his Family.” In other words, Washington would be Braddock’s aide-de-camp. The position meant that “all inconveniences of that kind [rank] will be obviated.”
Washington joined Braddock and his forces in May 1755. The British were then striving to take Fort Duquesne (near Pittsburgh) back from the French.
Braddock and his long train set out for Fort Duquesne, but they were moving very slowly. At one point, they moved only twelve miles in four days! Washington encouraged Braddock to break up his caravan. A light infantry unit moved ahead at a faster pace, while the baggage, supplies and camp women followed.
On July 9, Washington was riding at the front with Braddock and roughly 1,300 British and Virginian troops. He had been sick, but he wanted to be present for this campaign against the French. He sat on his horse, propped up with pillows, because he was still somewhat weak from his illness.
Suddenly, the British and Virginians heard weapons firing and Indian war whoops. They had meant to launch a surprise attack on the French. Instead, they now found themselves under attack. Chaos broke out among the ranks. The Virginians knew to break toward the trees where the enemy was hidden, but the British regulars tried to file into a formal line instead. That didn’t work, of course. The Indians hiding in the trees destroyed the British, who were essentially presenting themselves as targets. Compounding matters, many Virginians were shot by friendly fire coming from the British behind them.
In all the commotion, Braddock was mortally wounded. Washington loaded him onto a cart and carried him off the field of battle. He rallied the panicking troops and managed to organize a retreat when Braddock was unable to do so. Once Braddock passed away, Washington buried Braddock where his body could not be found.
The aftermath of the battle was a melancholy affair. Washington later wrote that the “dead—the dying—the groans—lamentation—and crys along the Road of the wounded for help . . . were enough to pierce a heart of adamant.”
When the dust had settled, more than 900 of the British and Virginian troops were killed or wounded. The French and Indians emerged virtually unscathed. Washington was one of the few officers, on his side, to survive the battle without any injuries. He wrote his brother Jack: “I am still in the land of the livg by the miraculous care of Providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation; I had 4 Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me yet escaped unhurt.”
Washington’s fellow Virginians noted Washington’s bravery and believed that God was protecting him. Within a matter of weeks, Washington was asked to serve as commander of the Virginia Regiment. Washington accepted. He was only 23 years old.
David A. Clary, George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures (2011)
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, A Biography: Young Washington (1948)
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
General Orders of Major General Edward Braddock (May 10, 1755)
Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (2004)
Letter from George Washington to John Augustine Washington (July 18, 1755)
Letter from Robert Orme to George Washington (March 2, 1755)