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Book Review: George Washington’s First War

By Thomas Fleming
2/8/2011 • MHQ Reviews, Reviews

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George Washington’s First War His Early Military Adventures
By David A. Clary. 352 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2011. $27.
Reviewed by Thomas Fleming


This is David Clary’s second book on George Washington, a follow-up to his 2007 Adopted Son, about the general’s friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s an often unflattering portrait of Washington’s early military career, covering chiefly the French and Indian War. “He was not incompetent,” Clary argues, “just young, a boy struggling to become a man.”

Clary presents a good account of the 21-year-old major’s winter journey before the war through the western wilderness to warn the French to abandon their plan to seize control of the Ohio River valley. The exploit wins Washington command of a makeshift force of 300 Virginians to oppose six times that number of French and Indians.

Nothing seems to go right. But Clary’s denigration of Washington’s performance isn’t quite convincing. We grow weary of being told of Washington’s “boyish” or “adolescent” handling of military and political problems; it’s hard to think of a twentysomething as a boy, particularly in the 18th century. Nowhere does he compare Washington to other colonial officers in the war. Was he worse than the blunderers in New York, who wandered into hideous ambushes and surrendered fort after fort? The first three years of this war was a series of disasters for the British and Americans. The colonial governments and the British all halfheartedly supplied their commanders with men and money.

Only when Major General Edward Braddock enters the drama in 1755 does Clary put aside his inexact adjectives and write good history. He captures young Washington’s affection and admiration for this short-tempered father figure, and tells a tragic, deeply moving story of the Battle of Monongahela, where two-thirds of Braddock’s force were wounded or killed despite vastly superior numbers.

But after Braddock’s death, we slog through far too many pages of Colonel Washington’s struggle to defend Virginia’s 300-mile frontier in a war whose center of gravity had shifted north. At one point, Clary admits Washington was mostly “shadowboxing” with random raiders.

This part of the narrative tells us little we don’t already know about Washington the soldier and almost nothing about his private life, beyond a perfunctory account of his 1758 visit to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis and their seemingly sudden decision to marry. Near the close of this section, Washington receives a teasing letter from Sally Fairfax, the flirtatious wife of his friend George William Fairfax. Clary asserts that Washington answered with harmless teasing of his own; the exchange had “no meaning,” he says. Other historians, including this writer, disagree. Clary seems unaware that in 1797, Washington wrote Sally Fairfax, telling her that the hours he had spent with her were the happiest of his life. While this side of Washington is not directly related to his early military exploits, it is critical to understanding how the man conducted himself.

The final chapter sums up Washington’s leadership in the Revolution and attempts to show how much he had learned from his early career. Yet Clary makes one dubious statement after another. He says Washington always accepted Congress’s opinions. On the contrary, the general became a master politician who manipulated Congress to get what the army needed to survive. Clary accuses Washington of demanding too much of his junior officers, citing his quarrel with Alexander Hamilton in 1781—a dispute that Hamilton invented to force Washington to give him command of a line regiment. Clary finds in this feud evidence of the “boy colonel of 1759”—the year the 27-year-old Washington married Martha Custis. Neither Martha nor Sally Fairfax thought she was dealing with a boy. Surely by that time George Washington had grown up.

Thomas Fleming is the author of Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge and several other books about the American Revolution.

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