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How self-honesty helped a young man become a general

Ned Jilton II • Nov 14, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Have you heard the story about the young officer in the Virginia militia who started a war between England and France?

This was back in the days when we were all British subjects loyal to king and country.

In an effort to improve himself, the young man had the idea of being an officer in the British army. Such a position would mean excitement, adventure and elevated social standing in polite society. Something he saw as a path to success.

Using the family name, he got a commission as a major in the Virginia colonial militia, which served as an auxiliary to the British army, and he hoped that this would provide the opportunity he was looking for.

His first chance to prove himself came quickly as the French were moving into an area that the British claimed. In 1753, British Colonial Administrator Robert Dinwiddie gave the major a notice to deliver to the French from the king of England. They were encroaching on British territory and were to withdraw.

After being shot at by one of his Native American guides, almost drowning when he fell into the Allegheny River and nearly freezing to death, the major successfully completed his mission and brought the French’s reply to Dinwiddie.

The French were staying.

Dinwiddie, impressed with the major’s efforts, promoted him to lieutenant colonel and returned him to the region with a large detachment of militia to keep the French from moving any farther into British territory. A detachment of British regulars and their colonel would follow.

Before the colonel with his regulars could arrive, our officer received word from local natives that French soldiers were camped nearby.

His response was swift. He marched his men through the night and attacked the French the next morning. The battle lasted only 15 minutes and our officer had his first victory.

He quickly marched his men back to camp and begin building defenses for the French counter-attack he was sure was coming. During those preparations, he received startling news: The colonel who was to take charge had died. Our young officer now had a field promotion to colonel and commanded a company of British regulars in addition to the militia.

The French did attack and everything our newly promoted colonel had done was wrong. He had built his defense on low ground, not high ground. He had failed to clear the trees beyond the range of weapons fire. This meant the French had cover right up to the defenses.

It was a quick, humiliating defeat. After suffering more than 100 casualties, our colonel surrendered.

When he returned to Williamsburg, he learned that even his victory was a problem.

What our young officer had attacked was a diplomatic mission, exactly like the one he had conducted the previous year, killing the diplomat. Making matters worse, there was no official state of war between France and England. By firing on French troops, our officer had fired the first shots of what would be known as the French and Indian War.

The one thing our young man had was the capacity to be honest about himself — something we could all probably use more of. He acknowledged his failures, his lack of a military education and his unreadiness for command.

He resigned from the Virginia militia and instead went to British Gen. Edward Braddock and volunteered to be his aide.

He would take care of the general’s horse, clean the general’s uniform and even fix the general’s tea if Braddock would only teach him what he needed to know.

The general agreed and a few months later our general’s aide was riding alongside Braddock as he led a large force into the Ohio Territory to drive the French out of the region.

But the French were waiting along with their Native American allies and ambushed the British when they reached the Monongahela River.

The British were quickly overwhelmed and Braddock was killed at the beginning of the fight. As confusion reigned, into the void of command stepped our young general’s aide. He had been in a desperate fight before, so he had combat experience. Now he also had education to go with his experience.

He quickly gave orders to remove the general’s body along the wagons to the rear and organized a defense before successfully saving what was left of the British force with a skillful retreat. All the while bullets whizzed around him, putting a dozen holes in his coat, but leaving not a scratch on him.

When the story of our hero’s coolness under fire reached Dinwiddie in Williamsburg, he was again impressed.

The loss of the British force meant the Virginia militia would be pressed into service guarding the frontier until the British troops lost at the Battle of the Monongahela River could be replaced. Dinwiddie quickly made our young general’s aide a colonel in the militia commanding a regiment.

Under our colonel’s command, the regiment became one of the best in the colonies, defending the western part of Virginia and eventually joining with British regulars to defeat the French and secure the Ohio Territory.

In 1758, with the war over, our colonel retired from military service at the age of 26 and returned to get married and run the family farm.

At this point in a normal story, I would say something like “and everyone lived happily ever after” but our story is not quite over.

You see, 17 years later, the colonies needed someone to be general of the army in their rebellion against England, and they asked our colonel turned farmer to take command.

So now you know how Gen. George Washington learned the lessons that enabled him to lead our Colonial Army to victory in the American Revolution.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@ timesnews.net .

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