By Stephen Yoch
We all think of George Washington as the old guy with wooden teeth and a powdered wig. (By the way, he didn’t wear a wig and his teeth were not made of wood.) But as a young man, Washington was America’s first “action hero.”
At age 21, Washington led an intrepid group of men across 250 miles of frozen wilderness to deliver a diplomatic pouch to the French demanding they leave the country. Upon Washington’s return, the Governor of Virginia ordered George to record his experiences. In a 7,000-word journal, the insightful young Washington identifies for the first time the confluence of the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers as an excellent location for a fort, noting that the land was “extremely well situated” with “absolute command of both rivers.” That location would become the French-built Fort Duquesne, later renamed by the Americans Fort Pitt, and ultimately, modern day Pittsburgh.
On his harrowing journey, Washington was forced to negotiate with hostile French, attacked by a rogue Indian in the aptly-named Murderingtown and almost drowned in the frozen Allegheny River. His journal was published throughout the Colonies and England and made him an instant celebrity. This renown led directly to his promotion as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia.
By age 22, Washington was a full colonel in charge of the entire Virginia militia. In May 1754 he led a small party that attacked the French, starting the French and Indian War. With a bravado and the excitement of youth, he wrote his brother after the battle, “I fortunately escaped without a wound, though the right wing where I stood was exposed to and received all of the enemy’s fire and was the part where a man was killed and the rest wounded. I can, with truth assure you, I heard the bullets whistle and believe me there is something charming in the sound.” When this letter was published in London, King George quipped: “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.”
A year later, Washington would fight and survive a battle in which the British General Braddock’s army was almost completely annihilated. Washington remained steadfast and brave throughout, making him one of the most famous men in America. Writing to his brother after the battle, Washington emphasized how close he came to death, “I take this early opportunity of contradicting [accounts of my death] and of assuring you that I [am still in the land] of the living by the miraculous care of providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation . . . I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot from under and yet escaped unhurt.”
Washington would continue to lead his men for four more years through the recapture of Fort Duquesne from the French. At the end of the war, upon taking his seat in the House of Burgess in Virginia, a unanimous resolution honoring him was passed that said, “Thanks of the House be given to George Washington, Esq. a member of this House, late Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment, for his faithful services to His Majesty and this Colony, and for his brave and steady behavior, from the first encroachments and hostilities of the French and their Indians, to his resignation, after the happy reduction of Fort Duquesne.”
Washington’s reputation and bravery as our first “action hero” would cement his national reputation and make him the logical choice to lead the Revolution two decades later.