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How 22-Year-Old George Washington Inadvertently Sparked a World War

January 21, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The first U.S. president’s celebrated military career actually started out quite poorly, in the French and Indian War.


Given that the Ohio Valley was a contested area not just between Britain and France, but also between multiple Native nations, Tanacharison may have had strong motivation for Britain to advance at war. “[Tanacharison] understands what’s going on in the Ohio country in a way that Washington doesn’t,” Calloway says. “So he not only provides guidance to Washington, I actually think he manipulates and exploits the situation and maneuvers Washington into a conflict with the French that Washington had no business sparking.”

When Washington and Tanacharison’s forces reached Jumonville’s camp, they attacked, killing Jumonville and several of his soldiers, and taking others prisoner. While the question of who fired first remains in dispute—according to one Mingo warrior, it was Washington himself—the skirmish quickly escalated into a broader conflict. In the aftermath of the “Jumonville affair,” the French accused Washington of having led an unprovoked attack against the French during peacetime, claiming that Jumonville and his men had diplomatic, not military, orders. For his part, Washington maintained the diplomacy claim was just a ruse, and that his attack was justified to defend his forces from French aggressions.

It’s unclear whether Washington had much of a strategy. Looking at the different first-hand accounts of the skirmish, “I frankly see a young man seeing his first command unraveling before his eyes,” Calloway says. “This was a disaster, and I think very quickly thereafter, he’s kind of trying to cover it up.”

READ MORE: 11 Key People Who Shaped George Washington’s Life

The French retaliated in the Battle of Fort Necessity

George Washington in the midst of fighting during the French and Indian War.

Technically, the skirmish was a military victory for Washington—but a diplomatic loss. The fact that he had attacked France, a country with which Britain was not at war, gave France a huge propaganda advantage. It also angered Jumonville’s half-brother, a French military leader named Louis Coulon de Villiers, who, just over a month after his brother was killed, helped lead an attack on Washington’s Virginia Regiment at Fort Necessity.

Unlike the Jumonville affair, the Battle of Fort Necessity was a military and diplomatic disaster for Washington. On July 3, a mix of French, Huron, Odawa and Iroquois fighters overwhelmed Washington’s men at their recently built fort. The Virginia Regiment, unable to …read more


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