Birth of a Leader

Conflict: Revolutionary War

Young George Washington. Did you know? George Washington was a redhead.

George Washington’s birthday was on the 22nd of February. Most of us know him as the commander of American forces in the Revolutionary War and as the first president of the fledgling United States. But how much do you know about his earlier years?

George Washington was the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife Mary Ball. His youth was spent at Ferry Farm, working the land with his family. When his father died, eleven-year-old George inherited the farm. Sadly, his father’s death prevented him from following his older siblings’ footsteps across the ocean to England’s Appleby School. Instead, he gained an education, more or less equivalent to that which he’d have received at Appleby’s, from a variety of tutors and at a school run by an Anglican clergyman.

When he was 17, George became the official surveyor of Culpeper County, thanks to his older brother Lawrence’s connections with the influential Thomas Lord Fairfax. George’s ability, connections, and noticeable height also got him noticed by the lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, who knew the family through the leader of the Virginia militia: Lawrence Washington.

Did you know? George Washington was six feet tall, a towering height compared to his contemporaries.

In 1752, Lawrence died from tuberculosis. His position was divided into four district positions, and Governor Dinwiddie assigned George to be one of these district adjutants. When the French started imposing military influence in the British Ohio County, Major George Washington was sent to deliver a letter informing the French of the British claims and asking them to go. He also met with Iriquois leaders to secure their support in case of hostility from the French. The letter was delivered to the local French commander, who politely refused to leave.

The French forces kicked out the British crew at a fort near present-day Pittsburgh and began constructing Fort Duquesne. Washington’s unit and their allies ambushed the French, leading to a conflict during which the French commander was killed and Washington was captured. The French allowed him to return to Virginia with his troops, and this whole experience was considered by historian Joseph Ellis a good demonstration of Washington’s “bravery, initiative, inexperience and impetuosity.” Unfortunately, Washington was also accused of killing the commander, and as both sides wanted control of the territory, war was delcared in 1756.

Washington in the French and Indian War. Did you know? Washington's men were involved in an accidental friendly-fire incident that resulted in several British casualities during their recapture of Fort Duquesne.

Around the same time, Washington was rewarded with the position of  “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony,” which gave him command of a thousand men and the responsibility of defending Virginia’s frontier. His unit engaged in brutal campaigns against the indians in the West, losing many men to the conflict. But as a result, Virginia’s frontier population suffered less than that of the other colonies. He participated in the Forbes’ Expedition, experiencing victories and embarrassments while working to reclaim Fort Duquesne. Most significantly, Washington gained experience in military, political, and leadership spheres, skills that would come in handy during the American Revolution.

In 1759, George married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, a union which appears to have been strong. Martha was intelligent and capable, and George was dutiful and respectful. Though the two raised children from Martha’s earlier marriage, and later some of Martha’s grandchildren, they never had children of their own.

Martha Dandridge Custis. Did you know? Letters from just before George's marriage indicate that he may have been in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Nonetheless, all signs suggest that they were always on their best behavior.

In the time before the Revolutionary War, Washington lived the life of a wealthy aristocrat. He enjoyed fox hunting, going to dances, playing backgammon and billiards. His succesfful plantation gave him the status of a leader in the social elite. Then, in 1769, he decided to take an active step into the world of politics, presenting the Virginia Assembly with legislation to ban the importation of goods from Great Britian. His involvement in the politics of a new country snowballed, as he became delegate, commander-in-chief, and eventually, president of the United States. And the rest is history.

For more pictures and information on George Washington’s political life, take a look at this page, created on Fold3 by gorgeriverman.