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Washington’s Military Career

Military Training

When George Washington was eight, he watched his older step-brother, Lawrence join the British Navy and become a commissioned captain. With excitement and admiration young George watched the drilling and preparations his brother and his comrades at arms made for war. Washington's enthusiasm for the military developed and strengthened. In 1742, when George was ten, Lawrence returned to Virginia and became adjutant of his district with the rank of major. In between surveying trips, Washington studied fencing and military science with his brother and guardian Lawrence. Washington's official career in the military began in 1752 when Governor Dinwiddie appointed him as a district adjutant of the militia with the rank of major. The governor recognized that even though Washington was young he had the ability to handle the job. Governor Dinwiddie observed that George Washington was efficient, dependable, and courageous.

French and Indian War

During this time, the French and the English were both determined to gain ownership of the Mississippi River Valley. It soon became obvious that there would be military conflict between the two countries. In an attempt to avoid military conflict, the governor sent Major Washington with a letter to the French commander. Because of his success on this mission, the governor promoted Major Washington to Lieutenant Colonel on March 15, 1754. The governor gave Lieutenant Colonel Washington command over several hundreds of soldiers and sent him back to keep the French out of their colony. Washington fought the French and the Indians for four years. During the four years, Washington distinguished himself as a soldier and an officer and was promoted once more to colonel in 1755. Eventually, Washington was made commander of all the Virginia militia. He also helped defeat the French and capture Fort Duquesne which the British would rename Fort Pitt in 1758.

During his years of service in the British militia, Washington grew to resent the attitudes of the British officers. He also observed that the British were ignorant of the conditions of colonial warfare. They were also arrogant towards the colonial leaders, like Braddock was towards Washington when he tried to advise Braddock on avoiding the French and Indians. When Washington asked to join the British regular military service, he was refused. At the end of the war, Washington resigned his commission in the militia and returned to Mount Vernon.

Revolutionary War

In June of 1775, the Second Continental Congress unanimously elected Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Although his appointment may have largely been to gain the support of the people of the Virginia colony, it was the best decision, the Second Continental Congress could have made. Washington took control of the continental forces that were surrounding the British army in Boston in July. Even though, Washington only had experience commanding a militia, he had excellent strategic awareness. His first tactical move was to occupy Dorchester Heights where he brought artillery from Fort Ticonderoga and forced the British to evacuate Boston. Throughout the war for Independence, Washington continued to make smart tactical decisions, such as the surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton. Congress was unable to provide Washington’s troops with enough food or supplies. At the beginning of the war, Washington's army was no match for the large, trained British army and Washington knew that if he tried to fight the British head on, he would fail. Instead he chose his battles carefully, attacking only where he thought his army could fight successfully. Washington also realized that he did not know a lot about the formal military operations and was willing to seek and accept professional advice perhaps because of his experience with the British officers during the French and Indian War. There were many attributes of George Washington that made him a good general and commander-in-chief. Washington was a good organizer, paid attention to details, and required hard work and discipline from his soldiers. Washington was also willing to lead his army from the front lines. During the entire war, he visited his home a total of only 10 days during the war and he stayed at Valley Forge during the whole hard winter. His wife, Martha, would even travel with the army when they were not fighting in order to stay with George. Once, when trying to feed his army, Washington wrote a letter to the residents of some of the colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and asked them help the cause of liberty by giving cattle to feed his army.

The Treaty of Paris officially ending the American War for Independence was signed on September 3, 1783. By the end of the war, Washington was a celebrated hero. Because Congress had granted Washington powers that were equivalent to those of a dictator, he could have taken solitary control of the newly founded nation. Instead, on December 23, 1783, only a couple of months after the treaty of Paris was signed, Washington resigned. His resignation was a mark of a true leader. He did not want to have that kind of control because it was exactly what he had spend the last nine years fighting against. It also officially made the war of Independence into a Revolutionary War.

Quasi War

During Washington’s time as president, England and France entered into a war with each other. Washington signed a neutrality agreement stating he would not get involved in the war between the two countries. Later that year, France sought the help of the Americans and sent an emissary to the United States which undermined the neutrality agreement. The emissary also tried to circumvent the American government by landing in South Carolina instead of the capital, Philadelphia at the time, and recruiting privateers instead of going straight to the President. When the emissary did reach Philadelphia, he was denounced by Washington, any support to France was refused, and a controversial treaty, the Jay Treaty, with England was signed. The Jay Treaty settled some of the residual issues from the Revolutionary War, declared friendly diplomatic and trade relations with England. The Jay Treaty angered the French. They began harassing the American vessels at sea. During this time, John Adams was elected as president and Washington retired to Mount Vernon. When the conflict began John Adams reinstated General George Washington as the Commander-in-chief. John Adams also sent some ambassadors to France. Although war was never declared, for two years the French Navy interfered with the Americans, harassing and capturing American ships and hindering trading between America and Britain. The Quasi-War was officially ended with the convention of 1800.

The Military Career and Ranks of George Washington
Years War Rank Fought Against Fought With Commanded
1752-1758 French and Indian War
(Seven Years War)
1752-1754 Major
1754-1755 Lieutenant Colonel
1755-1758 Colonel
The French Army and
Native Americans
The British and their Colonists
1752-1754 Province of Virginia Militia
1754-1758 Virginia Regiment
1755-1783 The War of Independence Major General (2 stars)
Commander-in-Chief
The British The Americans
and their
French Allies
Continental Army
1798-1800 Quasi War Lieutenant General (3 stars)
Commander-in-Chief
The French Navy The Americans United States Army
1976 Posthumous Promotion General of the Armies of the United States (6 stars) United States Army