At what moment do men become great leaders? One of America’s icons, George Washington, passed his first leadership tests while stationed in the Shenandoah Valley between 1753 and 1758.
During these years as a young officer in Virginia’s colonial militia, Washington experienced crushing defeats, watched brave men die, felt his mission shackled by poor government funding, and faced certain death more than once. During this same time, the young Virginian learned how to defend against overwhelming numbers, how to keep his troops united during hard times, found value in administering strict discipline, and most important, learned how to “endure” until his goals were reached.
George Washington seemed to learn things the hard way. In 1753, the 21 year-old militia commander, was sent by Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie to capture and secure “The Forks”. Site of present-day Pittsburgh, it was a strategic site that would command many miles of the surrounding frontier. The Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined here to form the great Ohio. Important as transportation arteries, whoever controlled them would have the advantage in deciding whether the French or English would hold dominion in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains
Unfortunately for Washington, the French also knew the importance of The Forks. They beat Washington to the site, constructed a fort on its triangle of land, and united with Native-Americans in the area to protect their interests. The culmination of Washington’s expedition was an embarrassing defeat to these French and Indian forces at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania.
Virginia’s western frontier erupted and became a battleground between the British and French, each trying to gain control. Both sides constructed forts and enlisted support from Indian nations. Early-on, the French gained the upper hand in both respects.
The conflict became a nasty war featuring guerilla techniques and frequent atrocities. While Colonial and British legislatures haggled over details and funding, Virginia’s western settlements suffered greatly. Washington was named commander of Virginia’s 1st Regiment and headquartered in the northern Shenandoah town of Winchester.
In July of 1755, defeat came again for Washington as member of British General Edward Braddock’s doomed campaign to conquer Fort Duquesne- the French name for The Forks. Against the advice of Washington, British forces fought the Battle of the Monongahela out in the open- “European-style”. Native-Americans and the French fired from concealed positions and routed Braddock’s men. Washington was the only officer to survive.
After this crushing setback, Washington described the aftermath and retreat: “The shocking scenes which presented themselves in this night’s march are not to be described. The dead, the dying, the groans, lamentation, and crys along the road of the wounded for help. . . were enough to pierce a heart.”
Back in Winchester, young Washington clamored for assistance from both Parliament and Virginia’s House of Burgesses. He was mostly unsuccessful. Virginia’s wealthy legislators were more interested in funding military efforts to prevent slave insurrections which were greatly feared at the time. At the same time, Britain’s regular army fell victim to a similar kind of apathy from Parliament.
As attacks increased on the western frontier, settlers streamed eastward in late 1755 toward cities and better-protected areas. So many refugees clogged the road in late-1755 that westward travel on Shenandoah Valley roads almost came to a halt.
Somehow Colonel Washington held his regiment together. A string of 18 forts helped protect Virginia’s western frontier- pushed back by the French to the eastern border of today’s West Virginia. However, Washington rarely had enough troops to man them. Eventually, he had to concentrate forces in only six of these locations. Small-scale massacres of settlers could rarely be prevented, but further French progress was halted. Washington did his best and supervised construction of Fort Loudon next to his headquarters in Winchester. By 1756, the conflict here spread to Europe and became the much larger French and Indian, or Seven Years, War between Great Britain and France.
Despite low pay and serious deficiencies in supplies, Virginia’s 1st Regiment endured. Washington saw that his men were well-trained and he earned their respect as a leader, even with the numerous hardships caused by low funding levels. Although they held the French at bay, Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) continued to be a base for Indian raiding parties.
The French and Indian War became increasingly violent with massacres of isolated pioneers and brutal tactics, including scalping- used by both sides. Washington welcomed the assistance of a few Cherokee and Catawba Indians from the south to fight back. He sanctioned them to use such tactics to fight the French. During this time he wrote: “…a party of our Indians under command of Lieutenant Baker, with some Cherokee Indians met with ten Frenchmen at Turtle Creek, near Fort Duquesne, and killed and scalped five; two of which were officers… I must confess that I think these scalping parties of Indians we send out will more effectually harass the enemy… than any parties of white people can do.”
Finally, in 1758, a new Prime Minister named William Pitt helped turn things around. Funding increased which, in turn, permitted commanders to swell their ranks by offering better pay for recruits. Additionally, Pitt sent large numbers of British troops to the Colonies to defeat the French and regain control of lands west of the Appalachians.
Washington’s regiment joined British regulars under General John Forbes who had initiated a well-organized attempt to conquer Fort Duquesne. Unable to enlist support from Indians who were becoming frustrated with the results of the conflict, the French abandoned their stronghold. By the end of 1758, the British forces led by Forbes had made real progress to regain control of the frontier.
In January of 1759, Washington rode victoriously into Williamsburg, Virginia, the colony’s beautiful capital city. Only 27 years-old he was a hero, having helped to stabilize Virginia’s western frontier during the French and Indian War (though a state of war persisted until 1763). George had accomplished much under harsh conditions from 1753-1758 during these early days of the French and Indian War.
Washington had been elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses as Frederick County’s representative (the county surrounding Winchester). Even more important personally, he and a young widow named Martha Dandridge Custis were to be married in a few weeks (They had become engaged the previous spring). Now, reflecting on his life with satisfaction, Washington wrote: “I am now, I believe, fixed at this seat with an agreeable consort for life and hope to find more happiness… than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling world.”
Twenty years later during the Revolutionary War, Washington experienced numerous defeats and suffered at Valley Forge, but again drew on his leadership skills to hold together under-funded, out-manned troops. He and his men “endured”, and won America its independence. George Washington remembered the lessons-learned while a young commander “headquartered” in Winchester, and proved that he had learned his lessons well.
SOURCES & LINKS: Winchester Visitors Bureau- www.visitwinchesterva.com Winchester Frederick-County Historical Society- www.winchesterhistory.org; THE PAPERS OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS: THE GEORGE WASHINGTON PAPERS selected and edited by Frank Donovan, Dodd, Mead & Co., NY 1964; Pg. 82-193 GEORGE WASHINGTON: A LIFE by Willard S. Randall, Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1997; Pg. 289-292 CRUCIBLE OF WAR: THE SEVEN YEARS’ WAR AND THE FATE OF EMPIRE IN BRITISH NORTH AMERICA, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2000. Images courtesywww.americalibrary.gov and www.reenacting.net.