George Washington: American Hero

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• Part 2: War Hero
Part 3: Long List of Firsts

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Part 1: Humble Beginnings

George Washington grew up on a plantation worked by enslaved African-Americans. He completed only seven or eight years of schooling, during which his favorite subject was arithmetic. What he lacked in school education he made up for in outdoor learning: He learned to ride horses, fish, hunt, and boat--all skills that would help him immensely in the Revolutionary War years. At age 15, he began apprenticing to surveyors and got to see much of the country this way.

By the time he was 20, he was commissioned in the Virginia Militia. When he was appointed to lieutenant colonel he found out that his standing as a non-British-born officer afforded less pay than his fellow British officers of equal rank. It was his first glimpse of British treatment of Americans and a lesson he would not soon forget. Nonetheless, he carried the British flag into battle against the French and Native Americans in what we in America call the French and Indian War.

He went on British missions three different times to try to take the French-held Fort Duquesne. All three missions ended in defeat. The first mission never even reached its destination, stopping 60 miles south and building a fort of its own, Fort Necessity, which it then surrendered after a furious bombardment by French troops. Washington was allowed to march out of the fort and return to Virginia, where he was told that all colonial officers were being forced to drop a rank; he resigned. The second mission was with Gen. Edward Braddock, but the result was the same and the consequences even greater: The French routed the British again, and Braddock was shot dead. Finally, in 1758, British and American troops set out again to take Fort Duquesne. Ambushed and decimated along the way, the British contingent straggled into Fort Duquesne late that year, only to find it burned to the ground by the retreating French.

After each engagement, Washington gave up his commission and returned to his home of Mount Vernon, but we was persuaded to return twice, once as an unpaid adviser to Braddock and again at his insistence. After the final, empty attack, returned home, where he stayed for the rest of the war, which the British ended up winning in 1763. In his years in the field, he learned one important fact: The British could be beaten.

In 1758, Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, one of the colonies' first representative governments. He was re-elected many times, serving 15 years in all, but rarely spoke or introduced legislation, preferring to observe the positives and negatives of representative government.

In 1759, he married Martha Custis. Their wedding and reception took place in Martha's plantation home, which was called the White House. They enjoyed many happy years together before war came again.

Washington was elected to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was later named Commander in Chief of the armed forces. When war began, he was the most experienced and most revered officer the new Continental Army had.

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