Did 22-Year-Old George Washington Inadvertently Start the French and Indian War?
The answer is not a simple one
Everyone knows that George Washington led the Continental Army in the American Revolution, became the first President of the United States, and ended up on both the quarter and the dollar bill. There are also a lot of longtime myths about Washington, like that he chopped down a cherry tree and once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. But have you ever heard that it was a young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington who in 1754, twenty-two years before the American colonies declared independence, actually started the French and Indian War (with the resulting wider European conflict called the Seven Years’ War)?
That’s the view many historians hold about this little-known period of Washington’s military career. The accounts of the pivotal incident are sometimes conflicting, but the story is basically that in May of 1754, the 22-year-old Washington set out with a force of around 100 Virginia militia to enforce Britain’s claim to the Ohio Valley against the encroaching French. On the morning of May 28, Washington and a party of 30 to 40 soldiers came upon a French camp that had been initially spotted by their Iroquois scouts.
Washington said in his report to his superiors that he and his men opened fire when they saw the French scrambling for their muskets. In what became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, the British force defeated the French in around fifteen minutes, with ten French soldiers killed. The question of who fired the first shots remains a mystery that has been debated for over 250 years, with some accounts claiming it was one of his Native American allies and others reporting that it was Washington himself. Regardless of who fired first, it was Washington’s command and thus his responsibility.
Such a minor skirmish would normally not have had far-reaching repercussions, except for an event that happened after the brief battle ended. The French force was led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, a French-Canadian officer and diplomat; de Jumonville carried a diplomatic summons from the French Crown ordering Washington to leave what they considered French territory (Washington had delivered a similar summons to the French a few months earlier). Given this, once captured de Jumonville would have enjoyed not just the courtesies extended to captured officers by both sides, but also the protections afforded diplomats.
It appears that Washington did indeed extend de Jumonville all of these expected courtesies, though his attempt to interrogate de Jumonville was hindered by their language barrier. According to several eyewitness reports, however, while the two were talking, Tanacharison, the leader of Washington’s Iroquois allies who was also known as the Half King, walked over to de Jumonville and split his head open with a tomahawk.
Tanacharison’s reasons for killing de Jumonville are not known. He claimed that the French had killed his family when he was a young child and sold him into slavery, which may or may not have been true. He may also have feared what would happen to him and his Iroquois Confederacy if the French were ultimately victorious. Whatever the reason, he had murdered a French officer and diplomat under Washington’s protection as a prisoner of war, and there were bound to be consequences.
For his part, Washington always maintained that this account was false and that de Jumonville had been killed by gunfire early in the battle. Given that he knew what a furor the first account would have caused in France, it was certainly in his best interests to hold to his version of the story, and his concern turned out to be justified. When he heard about the incident, French Captain Coulon de Villiers, who happened to be de Jumonville’s half-brother, vowed to take revenge on Washington.
He attacked Washington and his force at Fort Necessity, overwhelming them and forcing their surrender on July 3, 1754. As part of the surrender terms, Washington signed a document stating that that de Jumonville’s death had been an assassination, though once again the language barrier played a part; it is unlikely Washington knew this statement was included in the surrender and would surely not have signed it had he known. The diplomatic outcry this caused on the other side of the Atlantic was swift, with even British politicians denouncing Washington for triggering a global conflict.
But while it is true that the events of the Battle of Jumonville Glen may have been the catalyst for a war that eventually encompassed both Europe and British and French colonies in North America, Africa, and Asia, it was just one of many events hurtling the two historic rivals toward war. The most recent trigger (before Jumonville Glen) was the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, the results of which left neither side happy and set the stage for future conflict (the War of the Austrian Succession requires its own article).
Bad blood between France and England had been simmering for six years when Washington led his men into battle, and the unfortunate killing of de Jumonville simply provided the excuse both sides were looking for. Had Washington never stumbled upon the French that day, the war could as easily have been triggered by a cloud audacious enough to cross the English Channel from France to “invade” British soil. But it was George Washington who led the troops into the battle that ignited a fire that caused over one million deaths and ended France’s time as a power on the North American continent. It’s not as heroic a legacy as his later life produced, and historians will continue to argue about it, but it is a part of his legacy nonetheless.
First published on Medium.com.
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