Did George Washington’s Colossal Incompetence Start the French and Indian War?

Spoiler Alert: Yes. Yes it did.

Before starting this presidential biography project, one of the only pre-Revolution facts I knew about Washington was that he became famous in the French and Indian War. What I didn’t realize is how much of that fame was due to his own incompetence and inexperience, and how he turned a cold war into a hot, bloody catastrophe.

It’s remarkable such an astonishing career and legacy began with such missteps. And it’s a damn shame George Washington didn’t know French.

Let’s take a look at the ways the Father of His Country started a war with France when he was 22 years old.

1.  He was totally unqualified for his post.

Just 20 years old and an imposing six-foot-two (which is like 7 feet with inflation), George was an experienced surveyor who wanted nothing more than to be part of the British Army. He had no formal education beyond elementary school, but he had friends in high places. By schmoozing the right people, he became a major in his local militia company, which was more like a drinking club. He had zero military training, but he knew the woods like nobody’s business.

It turns out Ohio has always been a battleground state, well before it was a state. Back in 1753, the British and French both said they owned it, and the Indians just wanted to be on the winning side. The royal governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, heard the French were encroaching on the fledgling Ohio Company (which he owned stock in), and he needed someone to tell them to back off. The problem was the 500 miles of wintery mountains, rivers, and forests full of Indians in between. He needed someone with the skills to make the journey who was also respectable enough to represent the British Empire. Enter young, unqualified Major Washington.

Ultimately Washington’s alliance with the Half-King was a bust.

All the “major” had to do was find where the French were camped and ask them to politely back off. This first mission went surprisingly well. Washington teamed up with the Mongo Indian chief Tanacharison, known by the British as the Half-King. Together they journeyed through dangerous terrain to Mordor Fort LaBoeuf, the French camp. Washington successfully delivered his “please back off” message from King George II to the old Frenchman Legardeur St. Pierre who replied, “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.”

That’s where everything went to hell. Dunwiddie wanted Washington to lead an army of 300 to oversee the building of a fort at the forks of the Ohio River to keep the French out. Washington insisted he wasn’t qualified and requested to be second in command instead. Dinwiddie agreed. But then the first in command didn’t show up and Washington had to take over. What was the worst that could happen?

2.  He assassinated a Canadian diplomat.

Washington’s instructions were to act on the defensive – keep the French out of the British territory, take them prisoner if they resist, and attack if they aggress. Word reached him that a group of French-Canadians were approaching. His trusty ally the Half-King took Washington and about 50 men to the Canadian camp. Standing outside the camp with no military training, no business leading such a mission, and no knowledge of the language the other side spoke, what would he decide?

He decided to kill the shit out of the Canadians. Washington’s men shot at least ten to death and took the rest prisoner in a bloody 15-minute battle. If he knew French, he might have understood their cries that they were on a peaceful mission to ask the British to back off, essentially the same purpose as Washington’s earlier journey.

Among the slaughtered was the Canadian ambassador, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Reports vary, but one reliable second-hand not-at-all-racist account claims the Half-King himself tomahawked Jumonville’s head, washed his hands with his brains, and scalped him. Other accounts claim it was British musket fire that killed the ambassador.

The fact remains that young George Washington, unprovoked, attacked and killed a French ambassador who was on his way to deliver a message. Biographer James Thomas Flexner referred to it as “a clumsy entrance to the world stage.”

Clumsy? A clumsy entrance would be if Washington lost his footing mid-curtsy at his debutante ball. The man launched a preemptive strike on some sleeping Canadians and let the Half-King chop into their leader, and he expressed no remorse when he found out what he had done. He insisted the Canadians’ intentions were hostile and said of his first battle, “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

National Park Service painting of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, where young George Washington learned to love a good bullet whistle.

It was young George’s first battle and first taste of victory, though victory is a strong word considering it was a surprise attack on a group who didn’t know they were at war. All he knew of war at this point was winning, but his haphazard actions were about to get the undefeated Washington into a real battle for which he was woefully unprepared.

3.  He positioned his army in the worst fort ever.

The French got word of this little unprovoked massacre and felt rather provoked about it. Washington and his crew of 300 prepared for battle. In the worst fort ever. It was actually built as a storage shed to keep supplies from being stolen by Washington’s own men — it was never intended to withstand an oncoming French army 700-strong.

At least he’d have his trusty homicidal Indian friend and his tribesman to assist though, right? Actually, after helping him get into this mess in the first place, the Half-King decided he didn’t like the looks of Washington’s shoddy fort (or his odds) and he got his Mongos out of there.

The Half-King was right about the fort. “Fort Necessity” was too small to hold the men, it was completely exposed to attacks from higher ground, and it was quickly filling with water as rain poured down. These were the conditions when 600 Frenchmen and 100 of their Indian allies came for Washington’s army. To put a nice personal touch on the battle, the French were led by Louis Coulon de Villiers, the dead diplomat’s brother. That’s what the French call being merde out of luck.

Model from the Fort Necessity Learning Center

It was a long and drawn out battle not because Washington’s men stood much of a chance, but because even sitting ducks take a while to hit with muskets. With his gunpowder stash ruined by the rain, one third of his men dead and the rest standing in bloody water, what did the brilliant military leader and future father of his country do? He broke out the rum and got his surviving men good and drunk. This actually says a lot about why he was a popular leader.

4.  He signed a confession he couldn’t read.

As the battle raged on and the French’s ennui set in, they offered to accept an American surrender and agreed to let Washington’s men go if he signed a paper. If only he knew French, he might have realized he was signing a confession stating he assassinated Jumonville. It ended the bloody battle, but it made him look like an embarrassing backwoods fool in the mother country.

His attack on the Canadians led to France declaring war on Britain, and his loss at Fort Necessity led to the Indians en masse switching sides to support the French. A clumsy entrance to the world stage, indeed.

Somehow, still a hero.

Assassinating an ambassador and getting your ass handed to you by the French might look like a failure to some, but not to Virginia. Washington was victorious for his win in the opening ambush, and he was a hero for surviving and bringing home (some of) his men after facing such a superior enemy. Thus began Washington’s legend as a bulletproof leader whose amazingly good luck must be divine.

In a nutshell, George Washington set off a chain of events that started the French and Indian War, which hurt England’s economy so much it decided to raise the American colonies’ taxes, which led to the Revolutionary War, which was followed by America’s independent new government electing none other than George Washington as its leader. And he did it all without ever learning French.

Well played, George. Well. Played.


Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner



  1. Andy K(imble)
    March 16, 2014 / 11:33 pm

    As I am currently reading this book as well, I'm somewhat perturbed that you neglected to mention Washington's journey with the 300 soldiers was later immortalized in a graphic novel by Frank Miller and made into an Academy-Award winning film by Zach Snyder.

  2. Jantique Fielding
    May 28, 2018 / 3:49 pm

    Wow! I did not know that! Fate moves in mysterious ways indeed! As for "no formal education" – true, but that unsupported statement makes him sound like an ignoramus. He was home-schooled by private tutors, which is a very different thing. Not knowing French would hinder him then and later in life, which was one reason why he put Hamilton and Laurens on his staff, as they were both fluent en francaise. But other than languages, he did receive a respectable education for a young gentleman of his time.

  3. Lissa
    October 17, 2018 / 2:05 pm

    This site is awesome and my newest obsession. Fun and well-written history blogs are such a joy to find. Thank you!

    • Howard Dorre
      October 17, 2018 / 3:06 pm

      Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Aaron
    February 22, 2019 / 9:31 am

    You can take it even further as the French and Indian war as it is known in North America spread into fighting in Europe and beyond where it is a part of the Seven Years war.

    The Seven Years war was fought in 5 continents from Europe, North America, West Africa, as well as India and the Philippines by two collations of the super powers of the time.

    In hindsight, you can call the combination of the Seven Years wars and French and Indian wars a global conflict.
    So you can say that Old George started what should be referred to as World War 1.

Leave a Reply