Ruth Ann Dailey: The great George Washington history lesson

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When things are looking grim -- and when, since 9/11, has the world not looked grim? -- it is some consolation, though perhaps not much, to remember "it has ever been thus."

It's more reassuring to remember we have successfully navigated treacherous waters before -- though only with a great leader, one who can transcend personal pride, prejudice or humiliation.

One such leader emerged after being schooled by events that unfolded 260 years ago this month. George Washington was a 22-year-old officer, an experienced frontiersman from his days as a surveyor, but untested as a military man.

As France and England's battle for the New World escalated, Virginia's lieutenant governor had sent Washington as an emissary to Fort Le Boeuf, Pa., in late 1753 to advise the French to leave "Ohio Country."

The French had politely declined. Although the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania had claimed the Ohio River valley, the French needed this region to link New France (Canada) with their Louisiana Territory.

In March 1754, Washington was again sent to southwestern Pennsylvania, this time with almost 2,000 troops, to finish a fort at present-day Pittsburgh to protect British interests.

En route, however, Washington heard that this fort at the head of the Ohio River had already fallen to the French. So he set up camp at the Great Meadows, a natural clearing some 40 miles to the east, and he waited.

It wasn't long before "Half-King," the Seneca (or Mingo) chief Washington had met months earlier on the way to Fort Le Boeuf, brought him news that a small French military group was now approaching by stealth.

Washington and Half-King agreed to ambush the French together. Or maybe they went out to reconnoiter -- it was, after all, a very small contingent they took. (Another frustration, or consolation, of studying history is realizing how hard the truth is to pin down.)

In any event, the colonists and Mingo warriors came upon the French and a 15-minute battle ensued.

Historians do agree that no one knows who fired the first shot, that the French were surprised (whether that was Washington's intention or not) and that when the skirmish was over, a dozen or so Frenchmen were dead, another 21 were captured and one had escaped to alert the troops back at Fort Duquesne.

Among the dead was the French leader, a nobleman named Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. Again there is uncertainty, but some soldiers reported that Half-King killed and scalped Jumonville in cold blood; other accounts said he was shot while negotiating with Washington.

Jumonville's older brother Louis was back at Fort Duquesne to receive the worst version of this news.

Washington returned to the Great Meadows and spent early June constructing the aptly named Fort Necessity with the Mingo tribe's help. But the native tide was turning toward the French, it seems, and Half-King deserted Washington.

On July 3, 1754, a French-Indian force from Fort Duquesne attacked Fort Necessity and vanquished the British colonial forces.

That same day the elder Jumonville sent Washington a document of surrender. Washington did not speak or read French; a translator of apparently limited skill read it to him. One way or another, Washington -- colonial Virginia's young hotshot -- signed a document in which he confessed to the "assassination" of Jumonville.

Historians do agree that Washington's fatal encounter with Jumonville precipitated the French and Indian War. Washington forever protested his innocence -- to no avail with the French, of course. That's quite a burden for a 22-year-old to bear.

The war ended in 1763 with the still-British colonies' victory, but by 1775, Washington was leading colonial troops against the British. And by 1778, the French -- our former enemies -- were rescuing the American colonists' failing effort.

For France, certainly, our Revolutionary War was a chance to avenge their 1760s loss: If France was going to be driven from North America, then, sacre bleu, they'd see to it the British were, too!

But the history of a people is still the history of her leaders. The young Washington, falsely accused at 22 of assassinating a Frenchman and starting a trans-Atlantic war, became the general who, 46 years old in 1778, embraced France's assistance delivered via the 21-year-old Marquis de la Fayette, whom he dubbed "friend and father."

In 1783, the county where Americans battled the French at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity was named for the Marquis de la Fayette.

In 1799, two years after his presidency ended, George Washington died.

Lafayette returned to America in 1824 for an all-24-states victory lap, accompanied by his son, George Washington de la Fayette.

It's complicated. Great people -- and great peoples -- straddle these divides.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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