The flawed young man who became a great leader
George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures
(Simon & Schuster, 2011),
It can be hard to imagine George Washington as anything other than the still-life figure on the U.S. dollar bill. When we think of Washington, we think of him as elder statesman, president, father of a nation.
But Washington was once a young man, and a complicated one at that. According to historian David A. Clary, his early years and military experience, critical to understanding the man he became, have been neglected by historians.
In George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Clary chronicles Washington’s adventures from 1753, when he became embroiled in Britain’s New World conflict with France, through the defeat of the French at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) in 1758.
Clary combs through journals and letters written by Washington and others to reconstruct a picture of a young man who was in way over his head, who had too much ambition and too little experience, and who often faltered under the weight of his circumstances.
“Americans have always wanted their history sanitized,” Clary writes. The young Washington he introduces is insubordinate, ambitious, headstrong, and unwilling to admit mistakes even when they cost hundreds of lives.
Washington was desperate for a royal commission with the British Army, which he never got. The young colonel and commander of Virginia’s military regiment also heaped contempt on his Native American allies and enemies – and paid a military price for it as he disregarded their advice. Clary even finds evidence of Washington recasting his version of events to shift blame to those around him.
Yet the book is not meant to be an exposé. In laying out the true story of Washington, Clary has done us a service. Washington made many mistakes. But he learned from them, and those lessons were crucial in transforming him into the great man he finally became.