First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, George Washington simply was the Greatest American hero. Farmer, frontiersman, surveyor, soldier, ladies' man, dancer, inventor, plantation owner, soldier, statesman, socialite and first president. Above all, he was a patriot who could have been king but instead gave the world something it did not have at the time: term limits. Washington served two terms, then handed the presidency off to his successor, peacefully.
George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, under the old British calendar, which is February 22, 1732, under the modern calendar. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was the second wife of Augustine Washington, a tobacco farmer who owned iron mines and had several estates, as well as two older sons. George's father died when he was 11. His half-brother, Lawrence, inherited Mount Vernon and became a surrogate father and his mother managed the Ferry Farm in Stafford County near Fredericksburg, Virginia, until George turned 21 and was old enough to accept this inheritance. Unlike his older brothers, George did not attend college in England. Likewise, his mother scotched his plan to join the Royal Navy at 15.
But the lad's dreams would have served him and his country poorly. Instead, Lawrence secured a position as Culpeper County surveyor for George at 17. Lawrence did quite right for his younger brother, landing him a place in the Ohio Company of Virginia, a land speculation company. The king granted them 200,000 acres of land with the incentive of up to another 300,000 acres if they could convince 100 families to move to West Virginia. The investors included Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie, George William Fairfax, George Mason, and George's half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine Washington.
This adventure would take George down the unexplored Kanawha River and parts north in what is now West Virginia. Lawrence also got his brother into the Virginia militia. Along with the connection to Dinwiddie and the Fairfax family, He was setting his half-brother up for great things.
Sadly, Lawrence would not live long enough to see his ward's success. He contracted tuberculosis and headed for Barbados to see if a southern clime would help. George followed and contracted a mild form of smallpox, which along with scarring his face, also protected him for life from the disease's more deadly strains. Lawrence died in 1752, which would lead to George's acquisition of Mount Vernon, but the more immediate effect was Washington's promotion to major in the militia as Lawrence's duties as adjutants were split among four men. At 20, Major Washington joined the Freemasons. He was politically connected and moving ahead in the military and in society.
The French and Indian War was near. The French built four military trading posts in western Pennsylvania from Presque Island on Lake Erie south to Fort Duquesne in what is now Pittsburgh. The French sought control of the Ohio Valley. Dinwiddie as governor of colonial Virginia sent Washington and a party of seven soldiers north to deliver a cease and desist order to the French. The journey took two months, and then only because Washington and his scouts knew all the shortcuts. They arrived at Fort Le Boeuf in a blizzard on December 11, 1753. Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, commandant at Fort Le Boeuf, greeted Washington politely and allowed his party to rest and recuperate for three days. But as expected, Saint-Pierre was contemptuous of the ultimatum. Saint-Pierre's reply to Dinwiddie was to take the ultimatum up with the French commander in Quebec. Washington and his men humped back to Virginia through the worst of a snowy winter. The journey had proven George Washington's leadership abilities.
His account of the journey also made him a bit of a celebrity, earning him a promotion at 22 to lieutenant colonel -- two ranks below general. Usually an officer his age was a lieutenant. Dinwiddie sent Washington back in with 160 soldiers with orders to "make prisoners of or kill and destroy" all those who resisted British control of the Ohio Valley.
The French and their Indian allies sent soldiers to greet the British colonists. On May 28, 1754, Washington struck first, overwhelming a French force, killing 13 men and capturing 21 more. In short, he carried out Dinwiddie's order. His first military engagement was a complete victory in the Battle of Jumonville Glen.
His account included this tidbit: "I fortunately escaped without any wound, for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy's fire, and it was the part where the man was killed, and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me there is something charming in the sound."
However, the French would exact a revenge five weeks later at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania, in the Battle of Great Meadows on July 3, 1754. Fort Necessity was basically a tall wooden fence in the middle of a meadow ringed by woods from which the French could lob cannon balls until they ran out without fear of retribution. Assessing his situation as hopeless, young Washington surrendered for the first and only time in his lengthy career. Being allowed to retreat to Virginia unmolested mitigated the humiliation he and his men suffered.
The next summer, he returned as the aide-de-camp -- gofer -- of British Major General Edward Braddock, who brought 2,100 British regulars and 500 colonists north to show the French who is boss. Washington was an able guide, although he caught dysentery along the way. Ten miles from their first destination, Fort Duquesne, the British faced a surprise attack on July 9, 1755 at the Battle of Monongahela. Although the French and their allies were smaller in number, they were easily able to send the British in disarray by killing or wounding the officers, including Braddock. British casualties included 977 killed or wounded, many at the hands of friendly fire as chaos ensued.
But Washington rallied his troops, first by mounting Braddock's steed (which was shot from under him) and then another horse (which was shot from under him) and finally on foot. Throughout it all, Washington kept calm, carrying the wounded Braddock to a cart and then leading a safe retreat for the rest of the survivors. At the end of the day, he inspected his coat. The garment had four musket ball holes. None wounded him. Providence had intervened. Upon his return to Virginia, the Hero of Monongahela would receive a promotion to colonel and command of the 1,200-man Virginia Regiment.
Braddock died four days after the battle, and Washington received his red sash of command, which is now displayed at Mount Vernon. Washington also gained the loyalty of Braddock’s batman -- personal assistant -- Thomas Bishop, who would be at Washington's side for the next 30 years.
Washington over the next five years would lead assaults on the French throughout the Ohio Valley. The war ended with the French evacuating the Ohio Valley. At 27, Colonel Washington was the most experienced military leader in Colonial America.
By this time, he also was the patriarch of Mount Vernon, having inherited it from his dear half-brother Lawrence. The next stage of George Washington's life would see him ascend in society, become very rich, and become very tired of being taken advantage of by the British.
My collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.