The Father of His Country: George Washington

George Washington with Martha and grandchildren Courtesy Library of Congress

George Washington was born on 22 February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia to Augustine and Mary (Ball) Washington. George was tall for his time and noted for being a good dancer. He was thoroughly trained in etiquette, referring to a list he had made up titled “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation”. In April 1743 Augustine died. The family home, Ferry Farm, fell to George’s possession. After his father’s death George formed a bond with his older half-brother Lawrence Washington. George was eventually employed by William Fairfax, Lawrence’s father-in-law to survey his land. At the age of 17 George became the official surveyor of Culpeper County. In 1752 Lawrence died of tuberculosis.  With his death George began running his brother’s plantation, Mount Vernon.

By 1754 Washington was serving as an officer with the Virginia militia. His mission was to build a fort, as the British (which included Washington) prepared to drive the French out of the land they and the French claimed. In late May Washington arrived in Great Meadows to build Fort Necessity. Sometime after their arrival Washington and his Indian allies ran across a group of Frenchmen. A fight ensued and when all was said and done Joseph Coulon de Jumonville lay dead. The French would later say that de Jumonville had been on a diplomatic mission. The whole incident was murky, but what would become clear was that Washington had touched off a war. In response to the killing the French forces attacked Fort Necessity where Washington and his troops were holed up. The French had the upper hand, but released Washington after he confessed he had ‘assassinated’ de Jumonville. Back in Williamsburg Washington was lauded as a hero. When restructuring took place in the militia, meaning Washington would be demoted, the proud Virginian resigned. He took up residence at Mount Vernon after his sister-in-law leased the property to him.

Washington returned to duty in 1755, becoming aide-de-camp to Major General Edward Braddock. At the Battle of Monongahela, the British troops panicked and fled after being ambushed. Braddock was mortally wounded and all other officers were  wounded or dead. As the only officer left standing, Washington took command. A dying Braddock was carted away while Washington organized a retreat. Back home, news leaked back to the family that Washington had been killed in action. He set the record straight, no doubt much to their relief.

When the French burned Fort Duquesne and escaped, the French no longer posed a threat in that area. This put an end to Washington’s military days for the moment. He returned home to marry Martha Custis, a wealthy widow with two children, who he had become acquainted with earlier. Washington settled down investing much time and effort into building up Mount Vernon, which he now owned.

George Washington Courtesy Library of Congress

When the American Revolution erupted, Washington was unanimously voted commander-in-chief of the American army by the Second Continental Congress. Washington readily accepted. He traveled from Philadelphia to Boston to find his ill-kept and rowdy troops. Washington nevertheless set out to make as proper a soldier as possible out of them. Throughout the years Washington would not only fight his battles with the British, but also within his own ranks. There was always someone looking to oust him. Plus the general was continually bombarded with the fact that the Continental Army could be reduced to nothing when enlistments ran out. Considering the burden Washington bore, it’s a wonder he didn’t crack under the strain.

When the British were chased out of Boston, Congress awarded Washington a gold medal for his services. But disappointment followed closely behind. New York was lost  to the British. After that defeat, Fort Washington fell to the British at a huge cost to the Americans. When angry Hessians slaughtered some of their American prisoners, the normally stoic Washington was clearly affected at the sound of the screams.

By December 1776 enlistments were soon up. Washington decided to attack Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day. He and his troops crossed the cold Delaware River and trekked to Trenton. There they surprised the Hessian troops, taking many prisoners. Washington was a success. With this victory and promise of pay, troops reenlisted. More defeats came, with victories here and there.

The real test came at Valley Forge where Washington had to hold his troops together against terrible odds. The rate of desertions ran high, while other troops starved, froze or succumbed to disease. In all the death toll numbered somewhere around 2,500 souls. When Nathanael Greene became the quartermaster general and German Baron von Steuben began training the Continental troops, things began to look up. The army pulled through the winter renewed.

By Fall of 1781 Washington was in Yorktown, Virginia with America’s French allies. With the joint Franco-American troops surrounding the small town, Lord Charles Cornwallis and his soldiers within were trapped. Even a fleet of British ships hadn’t been able to save him. With Comte de Rochambeau’s  expertise, the siege began to take shape. On October 9 Washington fired the first shot for the Americans. Eight days later, Cornwallis sent an officer out to begin negotiations. At the surrender, Cornwallis pleaded sick and had his subordinate Charles O’Hara, take his place. O’Hara presented his sword to Rochambeau, who directed O’Hara to Washington. Rochambeau knew an insult when he seen it. When O’Hara handed the sword to Washington, Washington pointed him to General Benjamin Lincoln. Lincoln accepted the sword before handing it back to O’Hara. The surrender was official.

In 1783 Washington effectively quelled a rebellion, with a simple action. When disgruntled officers ‘created’ the Newburgh Conspiracy, Washington presented himself at their meeting. He tried reasoning with them to change their minds. What really did it though, was when he began to read a letter to them. Having trouble reading it, he took out his eyeglasses, saying “I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” The officers were thoroughly touched. When Washington took his leave they ended the ‘conspiracy’.

Washington delivering his inaugural address Courtesy Library of Congress

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Revolution ended. Washington returned to Mount Vernon, bidding farewell to his comrades-in-arms. At home Washington welcomed his peace. But it was not to last. When the federal government was organized, Washington was unanimously elected president of the United States of America. His inauguration took place on 30 April 1789 in New York. The new president would go on to serve another second term (although he didn’t want to) before returning home to Mount Vernon. He was going to be elected for a third time, but refused. He retired to Mount Vernon where he died on 14 December 1799. Washington had been visiting around Mount Vernon in cold and wet weather. He is thought to have of died pneumonia.

Source: Vickery, Paul S. Washington

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31 thoughts on “The Father of His Country: George Washington

  1. Love this post! A lot of people don’t understand how great of a leader George Washington was. They think oh,that’s the guy on the dollar bill,the first president,but he was so much more! He truely was the father of our country,and I think people should sit down learn more about him,the good and the bad,to truely learn about our history,people should learn more of the Revolution,because that’s what started the big ball bouncing! But then,if it was me,I would have everybody reading a book 24 hours a day! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this with every one,and I hope it makes them want to know more about our awesome first president!

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    • I know, there’s so much information regarding Washington. Just couldn’t fit in everything I would have liked to, in this post. For instance I failed to mention his temper, which you probably already know, flared up very infrequently. It’s so difficult to fathom how much Washington was involved in and all the history wrapped up around him!

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  2. Wonderful post! George visited Salem on October 29, 1789. He is said to have been entertained at Hamilton Hall on Chestnut ST and stayed at a home on Washington Street that is still standing and is said to be haunted. He was also honored at the Salem Common by a wooden archway.

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  3. Thanks for this illuminating post as I knew nothing about him before becoming president. I’m guessing many military commanders have similar problems – fighting without, and fighting within. He was 67 when he died? An action packed life without a doubt, he certainly deserved a longer retirement.

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    • “I’m guessing many military commanders have similar problems – fighting without, and fighting within”

      Yes, makes it kind of tough on people like Washington though. One of the main culprits was General Horatio Gates. As I recall Gates wasn’t very popular with the common soldier, snobbish I’ve heard. He must’ve been power hungry or itching for more glory. Probably the latter, at the Battle of Saratoga he would steal the glory from a talented officer, Benedict Arnold.Oops! Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent.

      Yes, it is a shame Washington didn’t live longer. Perhaps if he had changed out of his wet clothes when he got home instead of continuing to wear them, he wouldn’t have fell ill.

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  4. I’m working on a blog series regarding the faith of the founders. I have not published any yet. I was in for a surprise when I got to Washington. Great post as always.

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  5. I read a biography of George Washington via an iPod (I walk and read at the same time). One day I came home in tears. My husband asked me what was wrong. I told him that George died. He asked, “George who,” and I told him George Washington. When he reminded me that I knew that was how the story ended, I said, I knew, but he wish he hadn’t died…What an amazing life!

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  6. This is a wonderful post, J.G., on my favorite president. I truly feel he was an innovative leader and it always makes me feel good to walk in his footsteps down at the corner of Wall and Broad, visit St. Paul’s Church to see his pew, and think about he and Martha walking to church every Sunday to that “suburban” house of worship that sits in a stone’s throw from the rising WTC 1.

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    • I’ll bet that’s a great experience ( walking in Washington’s footsteps). I’d like to be able to visit so many of those historic areas along the East Coast. Thanks for your comment!

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    • I remember reading that Washington wrote poetry either to Martha or someone else before his marriage. If I recall correctly the author, of whichever book it was, said Washington’s poetry was horribly written. Poor George! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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