Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington

“I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”[1]  — George Washington

Before his first brush with battle, three military adventures worked together to charm and inspire young George Washington’s fascination with the military and helped push him to pursue a career as a soldier in Virginia’s militia and then as commander of the Continental Army.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

The boy Washington was first charmed by the military service of his older half-brother Lawrence.  In 1739, the colorfully-named War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain began. Ostensibly sparked by the Spanish coast guard boarding a ship captained by Robert Jenkins and cutting off his ear, the war was another one of those conflicts over trade, colonies, and the spoils of the New World so often fought between Europe’s empires in the 18th century.

In June 1740, a commission from George II arrived in Virginia for Lawrence. He was made a captain in one of four infantry regiments of colonial Virginians being raised for service in the war.  On May 30, 1741, Lawrence wrote to his father Augustine describing his role in the Battle of Cartegena de Indias when the British launched an amphibious assault on the city of Cartegena de Indias in Colombia.

Lawrence reported to his father that the British “destroyed eight Forts, six Men of War, six gallioons and some Merchant ships” but “what number of Men they [the Spaniards] lost we know not; the enemy killed of ours about six hundred & some wounded, & the climate killed us in greated [sic] numbers.”  In the end, the British suffered a crushing defeat but more because of disease than battle casualties.

Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741 by Luis Fernández Gordillo

“Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741” by Luis Fernández Gordillo. Credit: Wikipedia / Naval Museum of Madrid.

Virginia’s regiments suffered greatly.  “Some are so weak as to be reduced to a third of their men,” Lawrence wrote but he also revealed that “vastly to my satisfaction” he had been serving “on board Admiral Vernon’s ship.” Vernon was the naval commander during the battle and was greatly admired by Lawrence. He was so admired, in fact, that Lawrence named the family’s Little Hunting Creek property bequeathed to him after Augustine’s death Mount Vernon.

NPG 881; Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1753 (NPG 881). Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lawrence ultimately concluded that “war is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination.” His experiences aboard an admiral’s flagship probably protected him some from the horrors of war.  War did not turn Lawrence off of military service.  He was awarded the post of Adjutant General for all of Northern Virginia’s militia along with the rank of major.

George was about 10-years-old when Lawrence returned home from war.  How many war stories did his older brother share with him?  We do not know but we do know that George and Lawrence were close, especially in the aftermath of their father’s death.  It seems a safe bet to conclude that Lawrence’s military service also likely influenced his effort in 1746 to have fourteen-year-old George join the Royal Navy.

George’s captivation with military adventure was further strengthened by the exploits of Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg.  On September 10, 1747, fourteen-year-old George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to a 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures, which would have been of great interest to a young man like Washington.  That George willing spent hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was with military exploits.

 

Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (1600s)

Portrait of Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (c. 1600s) Credit: Wikipedia.

We do not know the impact, if any, of Schomberg’s exploits upon George’s military thinking. One incident does stands out, however.  While in Ireland commanding the army of William of Orange, England’s new king, against supporters of James II, England’s old king, Schomberg decided that his raw and undisciplined troops would not fare well in battle.  As a result, he held his army behind defensive works instead of confronting the enemy and their superior numbers.  This much-criticized action bares notable similarities to Washington’s main strategy during the Revolutionary War.  Washington defeated the British because, overall, he did not fight the British. Instead, he maintained his “army in being.”  Washington wisely avoided confrontation, when possible, with the professionals who made up the best army in the world.  The American army was inexperienced and initially amateur but as long as the army existed, the newly independent United States would also exist.  The Continental Army had to survive even if that meant avoiding, instead of confronting, the British Army.

The final adventure that inspired a fascination with military things in young George Washington was his trip to Barbados.  In 1751, nineteen-year-old George and his older half-brother Lawrence traveled to that Caribbean island in the hope that the tropical climate would relieve Lawrence’s tuberculous.  This was George’s first and only trip away from the North American continent and to another part in Britain’s vast Empire.

 

Early in their stay, Washington made the first of several visits to Needham’s Fort guarding the south side of Carlisle Bay. He met Captain Petrie, the fort’s commander, and dined with him at the fort more then once.  The fortress seems to have impressed the teenage Washington for he recorded in his journal that it was “pretty strongly fortified and mounts about 36 Gunes within the fortifin and 2 facine Batterys.”[2]

Needham's Point, Barbabos by Reinhard Link

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

Furthermore, he and Lawrence stayed at the house of Captain Croftan, who commanded James Fort on the bay’s north side.  Even Croftan’s house, Washington noted, “command[ed] the prospect of Carlyle Bay & all the shipping in such manner that none can go in or out with out being open to our view.”[3]

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

On the return voyage to Virginia and Ferry Farm, George judged that because Barbados had “large intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an Enemy to Land” the island itself was essentially “one intire fortification.”[4]

As Jack Warren ably concludes, “George Washington’s encounter with the British military establishment in Barbados seems to have had a crucial impact on his aspirations . . . .  After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment– an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

washington-portrait-1772

Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

These three military adventures – Lawrence’s service in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the written exploits of Schomberg, and George’s trip to the heavily fortified imperial outpost of Barbados – all worked to inspire Washington’s fascination with military matters and drove him to eventually pursue the life of a soldier in the French and Indian War and then, most importantly, in the War for Independence.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, May 31, 1754, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0058 [accessed May 22, 2017].

[2] Washington in The Daily Journal of Major George Washington in 1751-2 Kept While on a Tour from Virginia to the Island of Barbadoes, J.M. Toner, ed., Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1892: 52.

[3] Washington in Toner, 47-8.

[4] Washington in Toner, 62.

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Ten Pivotal Moments in George Washington’s Boyhood

George Washington did not experience what we would now consider a normal childhood.  Life at Ferry Farm was filled with excitement, sadness, intrigue, and tragedy for young George. Here we present a list of “Ten Pivotal Moments of George Washington’s Boyhood.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each of these events definitely helped shape Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

Moving to Ferry Farm

chapman_GW HOME_overlay3_day1

“View from the Old Mansion House of the Washington Family Near Fredericksburg, Virginia” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman modified to depict the location and approximate appearance of the Washington family home, which was actually a complete ruin when visited and painted by Chapman in the early 1830s.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his family to Ferry Farm.   He appears to have chosen this plantation situated across from Fredericksburg to be nearer to his iron ore interests located about seven miles away.  Ferry Farm was very different than the other Washington properties.  The proximity of Fredericksburg made it more urban.  Ferry Farm was also surrounded by transportation routes including the Rappahannock River, and two roads that crossed the plantation.  The bustling nature of Ferry Farm and its surroundings played a critical role in George’s development.

strother-ad

Announcement in the Virginia Gazette in April 1738 advertising “100 acres, lying about 2 miles below the Falls of Rappahannock . . . with a very handsome Dwelling house.” The property was being sold by  William Strother’s estate, would be purchased by Augustine Washington, and eventually come to be know as Ferry Farm.

The Death of Mildred and Augustine
George’s youngest sister Mildred was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm.  She lived only 18 months, and her death when George was just seven years old was the first significant death of his youth, but not his last.

Augustine Washington, George’s father, followed Mildred in death on April 11, 1743. George inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves from Augustine. His mother, Mary, managed this inheritance until George turned 21 years old. Augustine’s death began a period of financial hardship for the family and probably prevented George from being educated in England, a lost opportunity he remained self-conscious about for the rest of his life. It also meant George had to scramble to find a mentor to introduce him to the complex requirements associated with gentry life.

rules-of-civility

George Washington’s handwritten copy of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
Young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a guide to gentlemanly behavior in polite society, probably as a school assignment. This combination etiquette manual and moral code taught young George how to interact with his powerful and influential neighbors. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.

His Gentry Education
Washington’s diaries and accounts reveal how he mastered the pastimes of the gentry as a young man. He played for stakes at popular card games, took fencing lessons, and paid for his own dancing lessons. He frequented the theater in both Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. In a society obsessed with horse racing, equine bloodlines, and fox hunting, Mary Washington was well versed in horses and riding and appears to have been responsible for teaching George about riding.  By the time George was an adult, he was renowned as a “superb horseman.”  All of these skills, which remained with George for a lifetime, were acquired while he grew up at Ferry Farm.

The Royal Navy Episode
Following Augustine’s death, George’s eldest half-brother, Lawrence, took an interest in his future.  Lawrence conspired with Colonel William Fairfax, some of Augustine’s business associates, and George himself to convince Mary to allow 13-year-old George to join the Royal Navy. Mary eventually rejected the plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George turned to a career as a surveyor instead.  Imagine the future commander of the Continental Army serving on a King’s ship!

schomberg-portrait

Portrait of Frederick Herman  von Schomberg attributed to Adrian van der Werff. Public domain. Credit: Hampel Auctions / Wikipedia.

Introduction to Military Adventurers
On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to the 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures which would have been of great interest and fascination to a young man of fourteen.  That George was willing to spend his hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was by this subject.

turnip-patch-survey

“A Plan of Major Law. Washington’s Turnip Field as surveyed by me this 27 Day of February 1747 GW” Credit: Library of Congress

Surveying: His First Job
George Washington began surveying at about age 15. His father’s probate inventory included a set of surveyor’s instruments. In 1748, at age 16, George went with Lord Fairfax’s surveying party on his first expedition into the wilds of western Virginia.  At age 17, George Washington was appointed to his first public office as surveyor of nearby Culpeper County. Surveying, like his skills in mathematics and keeping accounts, helped him manage his properties profitably throughout his life.

1749 – More Hard Times
The financial safety net set up for Augustine’s wife and minor children had almost completely collapsed by 1749.  Before the monetary struggles were over, half of Ferry Farm would have been sold, and Mary’s land near the Accokeek Iron Furnace had been lost for failing to pay taxes.  George Washington in a letter to his brother wrote “…my Horse is in very poor order to undertake such a journey, and is in no likelihood of mending for want of Corn sufficient to support him…” He remembered these hard times well into adulthood writing in 1788, during another period of financial stress, that “I never felt the want of money so sensibly since I was a boy of 15 years old as I have done for the last 12 Months.”

washington-barbados-painting

“George Washington” (1997) by Walter Kerr Cooper

Trip to Barbados
In 1751, George Washington made his only trip abroad, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, hoped the warm climate would prove beneficial to his health. He died from the illness, however, just a few months after his return to Virginia. Lawrence’s death set up the eventual inheritance of Mount Vernon by George.  The tropical island did little good for George’s health either.  He contracted a severe case of smallpox that left his skin scarred for life.

 

 GWs Request to be Appointed as the Virginia Militia Adjutant

washington-portrait-1772

Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

In 1752, George Washington wrote a letter from Ferry Farm requesting that the Governor of Virginia appoint him as the militia adjutant position vacancy created by his half-brother Lawrence’s death.  The governor declined at this time, but one year later he did appoint George.  The 21-year-old Washington had no military experience at the time of his appointment.  This appointment eventually resulted in Washington igniting the Seven Years War between Britain and her colonies and France.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs