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French and Indian War: "The Night Council at Fort Necessity." Ilustration (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

The First “Teflon” Hero

What July 4th, 1754 reveals about George Washington’s survival skills

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The Other July 4th, or "Washington's Confession"
Adapted from Chapter 3 of American's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis.

Church bells pealed and bonfires blazed as a celebratory mood swept over Philadelphia following adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Days later in New York, the still-green army that had forced the British from Boston a few months earlier would gather for a reading of the historic document by order of General Washington.

But for Washington himself, the triumphal spirit of that epochal July 4th must have been tempered by bitter memories. On that date, more than 20 years earlier in 1754, the strapping, twenty-two-year-old militia commander had surrendered to an enemy for the first and only time in his career. Then he signed a murder confession.

The incident began in late May 1754, with England and France in a brief respite from years of relentless war. Relying upon knowledge garnered from reading military manuals, the wet-behind-the-ears Washington was in command of a crew of militiamen dispatched to build an outpost in western Pennsylvania's contested wilderness.

Encountering a detachment of French soldiers, Washington followed the advice of an ally he barely trusted—an Indian chief known to the English as the Half King. Tossing caution to the wind, the untested Washington defied orders and ambushed the French. When the smoke cleared, one Virginian and several Frenchmen lay dead or wounded; the rest were taken prisoner. "I heard bullets whistle," Washington later told his brother, famously adding that the sound was "charming."

What happened next was anything but charming. A wounded French officer frantically waved some papers at Washington. He was, in fact, a diplomat, carrying letters to the British. But before Washington could make sense of this, the Half King buried his tomahawk in the Frenchman's brain. The Indians fell on the other captives, leaving few alive.

Following this massacre, a French army set off in hot pursuit of Washington. Outnumbered, Washington's men cobbled together a small wooden shed, surrounded by sharpened stakes, in a meadow about 60 miles south of what is now Pittsburgh. It was called "Fort Necessity" but "Desperation" would have been more fitting. The Half King's warriors took one look and beat a hasty retreat.

On a rainy July 3rd, the French surrounded Fort Necessity and poured gunfire down on Washington's hapless troops. Their powder wet, their trenches filling with mud and gore, some of the Virginians ransacked the rum stores. By the morning of the 4th, Washington had no choice. Fortunate he wasn't shot on the spot, he accepted terms. Among them was signing what amounted to a murder confession. His admission sparked the Seven Years' War, history's first true "world war." (The North American phase was the French and Indian War.)

Insubordinate, incompetent, an admitted murderer who had surrendered in abject defeat—Washington should have been done in by any of these blows to his reputation. But instead, he flourished. The first "Teflon" hero in American history—nothing stuck to the young George Washington.

Clearly, he possessed uncanny survival skills. He had proven that in 1753, during a dangerous trek through the Ohio River Valley wilderness when he was shot at by an Indian and later plunged into an icy river. By all rights, Washington should have died of exposure. But he lived to tell the tale and made a name for himself.

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