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George Washington's First War: His Early Military Adventures

George Washington's First War: His Early Military Adventures

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by David A. Clary

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Renowned historian David A. Clary studies George Washington’s early military career as a young colonel during the French and Indian War, and how those campaigns influenced his leadership and strategy as a general during the Revolutionary War and as the first president of the newly formed United States of America.

The searing, formative military adventures


Renowned historian David A. Clary studies George Washington’s early military career as a young colonel during the French and Indian War, and how those campaigns influenced his leadership and strategy as a general during the Revolutionary War and as the first president of the newly formed United States of America.

The searing, formative military adventures of the inexperienced boy colonel of the French and Indian War who grew up to become one of the great soldier-statesmen of his age.

George Washington wasn’t born a military leader. He became one the hard way—through trial and error and perseverance at a very early age and in the most trying circumstances imaginable. From the massacre of a French diplomatic party by soldiers under his command (thereby starting a world war), to his surrendering of Fort Necessity to the French, to his leading a harrowing retreat of British troops under fire, we see Washington learn the lessons of command.

George Washington’s First War is a story told in vivid language, combining dramatic depictions of battle with the anxieties and frustrations of an adolescent who’s not yet a great man. Readers learn of harrowing ordeals in the wilderness, the hitherto little explored role played by the Indian nations whose continent this was, and the epic clash of empires that all combined to turn the young Washington into the great commander and president of his age.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
What Washington, who secured his first military appointment at 21, lacked in experience he made up for in ambition. Governed from afar by colonial elites, mid-18th-century Virginia was "no more ready to conduct military campaigns" than Washington himself. Yet one of the untested officer's first assignments was to confront French traders over their claim to Ohio River Valley land. Some deemed it "extraordinary," he would reflect, "that so young and inexperienced a person should have been employed on a negotiation with which subjects of the greatest importance were involved." In well over his head, Washington got his diplomatic party into a messy military skirmish that fueled the start of the Seven Year's War. Despite this, an appetite for adventure won Washington an opportunity to return to the wilderness (where on his second assignment he and his men surrendered to the French after becoming trapped). Clary expertly chronicles how Washington navigated command layers and adapted-or failed to adapt-to the wild American terrain, revealing that these early military failures shaped Washington to become a versatile commander, capable of leading not only a revolution, but a country.
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From the Publisher
Advance Praise for


“A wonderful book on George Washington before he became an American icon. In lucid and gripping prose, Clary chronicles Colonel Washington in the French and Indian War, showing his glory-seeking imprudence and numerous—and sometimes monumental—errors. But Clary also demonstrates how young Colonel Washington learned from his mistakes, so that he was better prepared for the challenges he faced during the Revolutionary War. This not only is one of the better books on the French and Indian War, it is perhaps the best book on George Washington during that war.”

—John Ferling, author of The Ascent of George Washington

“In the 1750s the Ohio Valley was as strange as Afghanistan. George Washington’s First War shows the confusion and cross-purposes of a world war waged on the frontier, and the steep learning curve of a twenty-something who would become (but was not yet) our first great warrior.”

—Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father

“Clary’s portrait of the young George Washington is a revelation, offering incredible insights into the great Virginian as military thinker. A marvelous historical accomplishment. Highly recommended!”

—Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of The

Wilderness Warrior

“With drama and insight, David Clary lays out the suspenseful coming-of-age tale of George Washington’s determined march from callow youth to eventual glory.”

—A. J. Langguth, author of Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution

“This ripsnorting tale traces the adventures—really, the misadventures—of a raw, striving, sometimes bewildered and often overwhelmed George Washington. Through his fast-paced, deeply informative tale of hard lessons learned, David Clary shows that in his youth our ‘indispensable man’ was almost anything but. Humanizing, exciting, Clary’s story delves into matters all too often glossed over in biographies of the Great General, reminding us of weaknesses from which sprang President Washington’s mature strengths.”

— William Hogeland, author of Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion

“A well-written and well-informed portrait of a young and untried George Washington struggling against enormous challenges to come of age both as a soldier and a man. Washington emerges from his first war not yet the leader he will become, but watching him mature during these early years helps us understand and appreciate him all the more.”

—Walter R. Borneman, author of The French and Indian War

Kirkus Reviews

A popular historian unblinkingly assesses the military exploits of the young George Washington.

By 1759, Washington, as the newly appointed major of the Virginia militia, had already acted as the governor's emissary to the Ohio Country, delivering an ultimatum to French traders; presided over a confused and bloody incident at Jumonville Glen that ignited a global war; suffered a humiliating defeat, surrendering Fort Necessity to the French; and distinguished himself as "the hero of the Monongahela" for organizing the retreat of the slain Gen. Edward Braddock's army, an unprecedented disaster for the British military. As the Virginia Regiment's commander in chief, he was also charged with protecting the colony's frontier as the French and Indian War proceeded, and he had played a tangential role in the "conquest" of Fort Duquesne, resigning his commission afterward to marry Virginia's richest widow and assume a seat in the House of Burgesses. He was 26 years old. Clary (Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent, 2009, etc.) convincingly demonstrates that in this first, crowded chapter of his military career, the boy colonel was overmatched. Given delicate responsibilities and little guidance by superiors who should have known better, Washington responded energetically, eager to prove himself. Ferociously ambitious, he lobbied for rank and angled for positions he had no business filling. Whether as surveyor, planter or military man, Washington, for the most part, educated himself. Out of this peculiar isolation and youthful insecurity, he tended to bend the truth, to evade or shift responsibility and to criticize superiors. Obsessed with honor, he fretted about public opinion, afraid of being blamed for failure. Clary ascribes these failings not to incompetence, but rather to youth. Fortunately for his country, a seasoned General Washington learned from his adolescent mistakes.

A sharp, warts-and-all portrait of the soldier as a young man.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


PICKAWILLANY (June 21, 1752)

Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.


The river gurgled. The only other sounds came from the rustle of leaves, the chattering of squirrels, the mating calls of birds, and the occasional barking of dogs. The men crept silently in small groups through the towering forest until they nearly surrounded the town, a collection of pole-and-bark wigwams and log huts and the Pennsylvania traders’ stockaded storehouse. The silent figures carried muskets and tomahawks, with ammunition and scalping knives on cords slung from their shoulders; some of them also had cutlasses. They wore, most of them, no more than moccasins and loincloths, some not even that much, and they had coated themselves with bear grease—a defense against mosquitoes and biting flies, and against an enemy getting a solid grip during a tussle. Each had painted himself in colored patterns according to his own way of projecting fierceness, and most had adorned their hair with feathers and other objects.

The town was Pickawillany, the main English trading post in the Ohio Country. Beside the Great Miami River, it was also the capital of the Miami (Twightwee) Federation, which was in rebellion against the great alliance among the French and the Great Lakes nations. The raiders’ aim was to end the rebellion, drive the English traders out of the country, and teach a lesson about getting in league with l’Anglais to the Miami leader, Memeskia—whom the French called “la Demoiselle” (“Maiden,” in the derisive sense of “Old Maid”) for his perfidy and the English called “Old Briton” for his loyalty.

There were about 250 men in the raiding party, Ottawa and Ojibway (Chippewa) fighters from around Michilimackinac, at the northwest end of Lake Huron, and a few Canadian militia. They followed a handsome and charismatic young man—really little more than a boy but already a proven leader. He was a métis (mixed blood) who had inherited his French father’s flowing black hair and his Ottawa mother’s glittering black eyes. Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade was his name, a grand one reflecting his status among the habitants of western New France. He enjoyed even higher status among the Indians of the northern Great Lakes.

Langlade had led his men in a flotilla of canoes down the lakes to the French post at Detroit, which they reached in early June. There they gathered intelligence and whipped their spirits up for the campaign. They then paddled on to the Maumee River, stopping at the French post at the head of the portage to the Great Miami before crossing overland to Pickawillany. They ate the boiled meat of sacrificial dogs the night before the attack, their ritual way of acquiring strength, loyalty, and determination.

They had timed their assault well. Ordinarily there would be as many as fifty Pennsylvanians at the town this time of year, but there were only eight because most of the Miami men were out hunting for meat instead of bartering furs. Not enough land had been cleared for farming to feed the town’s population of about 2,000, and the previous year’s crops had failed because of drought. Only about two dozen Miami men, including Memeskia, guarded the place.

The town’s women were in the surrounding cornfields, pulling weeds and planting squash and beans, when the attackers exploded out of the forest, screaming war whoops and firing their muskets. The terrified women fled into the town. Langlade’s men tore across the fields behind the women, pouring into the settlement with hatchets drawn, still screaming. The first rush took down three English traders, two dead, one wounded, before the other five escaped into their stockade. Fourteen Miamis went down before gunfire and slashing blades, among them Memeskia. The women and a few men were prisoners.

After some ineffective sniping back and forth, the raiders called to the English in the stockade, offering to swap the women for the traders, whom they promised not to harm. There was no water in the stronghold, so the Englishmen agreed, and the exchange took place. The trader wounded outside the fort, however, was not worth saving as far as the Indians were concerned. They finished him off, cut open his chest, and passed his heart around, each taking a bite out of it. During this distraction, two of the surrendered traders escaped into the woods, along with a few Miamis.

Ritual cannibalism was a sacred custom among Langlade’s people, and he honored it, formally presenting Memeskia’s corpse to his men. They cut it up, boiled it in a large iron pot, and ate the great chief to ingest his spiritual energy. They also, in this peculiar way, reincorporated him into the French alliance. When they had concluded their feast, they torched part of the town and the trading post, rounded up their captives, and set off back to Detroit and eventually Montreal with scalps and a pile of loot. Pickawillany was left to the blowflies, the buzzards, and its dogs.1

Shock waves spread out in all directions, changing the alliances and attitudes of Indian nations great and small, revising the imperial policies of the French, and rattling the colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia. In the Old Dominion the news was received with special alarm because Virginians believed that Pickawillany had stood in their own colony. Virginia’s charter claimed its borders ran west to the Pacific and northwest to, in theory, the Bering Strait. The hundreds of traders dealing with the Indians of the Ohio Country had been mostly Pennsylvanians, and Virginians had begun to take steps to counter the “invasion” of Virginia territory by men from the other province.

Now French-allied Indians had taken matters into their own hands, and this was interpreted in Virginia as foreboding a French invasion of the Old Dominion. What should be done about that? The colony’s leaders considered that question for more than a year until they settled on a solution. Implementing that decision fell upon the shoulders of an energetic and ambitious young man—really little more than a boy. His name was George Washington.

© 2011 David A. Clary

Meet the Author

David A. Clary is the author of Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution; Rocket Man; and most recently Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent. Clary is the former Chief Historian of the U. S. Forest Service, has taught history at the university level, and lives in Roswell, New Mexico, with his wife, Beatriz.

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George Washington's First War: His Early Military Adventures 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
fin_bheara More than 1 year ago
I found this book, a first ed. hardcover, in the bargain bin at B&N. It is a very well written and researched book and it really shows George Washington in a much more human and fallible light, given that he is so mythologized these days. It is interesting that his first military command ended up sparking the French and Indian War- when his 300 or so soldiers and Indian Allies blundered upon a French patrol and ended up massacring them, which was mostly out of the control of the young, green Colonel Washington who didn't quite have his men under control, and also details Washington's bravery and initiative while serving under Gen. Braddock when he was defeated. It also goes a great deal into his political wrangling with the government and it shows just how ambitious and driven he was, and how he gained the foundation for leading our own struggle for independence from the British. Highly recommended!
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MollyMW More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best historical novels that I have read in quite some time.
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