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You Can't Always Get What You Want

We all make mistakes in our 20s, whether it's sleeping with the wrong person, taking the wrong job or clinging to our teenage selves. George Washington started a world war. He probably also made out with some uggos, but the world war is what we're focusing on right now.

The year was 1754, and the French and British had been arguing about who controlled the land around the Ohio River. The French had recently built a fort near modern-day Pittsburgh, which meant that brunch places and topless cabaret theaters were on the horizon -- and under international law, any country establishing such institutions would have a morally superior claim to a region. So Washington was put on road-building detail, to help Virginians populate the savage hinterlands of Pennsylvania as quickly as possible. Riding ahead of the bulk of his troops, he heard rumors of a small French force in the vicinity of the "Great Meadows" region. A helpful Seneca chief led him to the Frenchmen, who were resting peacefully at the time.

George did exactly what you'd expect of a man with his noble character. Since the French and British were not at war, he gathered his men, surrounded the French position, and tried to slaughter them all where they lie.

Ah, youth!

You were probably expecting more from a man with so many mattress sales in his honor, but sometimes the natural order of things can't be denied: not even George Washington could overcome the biological impulse to be a huge d-bag in his early 20s. Sure, he had his reasons for attacking, in the same way that you might have your reasons for ending a four-year relationship via text message. They weren't particularly great reasons.

Even so, murder ended up being a great career move for George, in a roundabout way. Among the French dead was their commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. Jumonville's officer brother was stationed nearby, and within a few days he was cranked up for revenge. Washington, who was extended way past any significant reinforcements, came to the logical conclusion that some s*** was about to go down. He had his troops build a palisade at Great Meadows, dubbed it Fort Necessity, and hoped for the best.

You can now visit a replica of that fort, which is a great reminder of how ridiculously small America used to be. It's a circular structure, which isn't much more than a bunch of unfinished logs driven into the dirt; there's a small cabin in the middle which was meant to hold food, booze and weaponry. There were a few trenches nearby which held the bulk of Washington's 400 or so troops. When the French showed up with 700 guys on July 3, they set up in the trees around the fort (Washington built it too close to the edge of the woods) and sniped at the British all day in a steady rain.

George surrendered late that night and, unwittingly, signed a document where he admitted to assassinating Jumonville -- apparently he didn't have a good translator on hand. Under the terms of the surrender he had to take his remaining men and march them back to Virginia. This is often considered the precipitating event of the Seven Years' War, a conflict that spanned a whole bunch of continents. England and France had been pissy with each other a few years, and something was going to set them off; Washington's backwoods massacre seemed to do the trick.

And it all worked out for Washington. About a year later, he was the Virginia militia officer riding along with Gen. James Braddock, who was supposed to be capturing Fort Duquesne. Braddock got ahead of his reinforcements, was ambushed by the French and took a bullet. Washington took over on the battlefield and kept his troops organized throughout the retreat, and his bravery that day became the foundation for his future military career. He had Braddock buried in the middle of the road that he had started the year before, in an unmarked grave. The remains were eventually moved to the side of the road (which is the modern-day U.S. 40) and topped with a nice marker; it's about a mile away from the rebuilt Fort Necessity.

The moral: Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Washington was looking to make a name for himself, and to do it, he was willing to gun down a bunch of guys in the woods. That made his overwhelming defeat at Great Meadows possible and started the world war that would allow him to become a military hero -- by leading a retreat from another awful loss. And as a military hero, he was able to lead the American Revolution and enter our national folklore as the kind of guy who would never, ever gun down a bunch of guys in the woods. Fortune favores the bold. Put another way:

I don't know about you
But I'm feeling 22
Let's massacre some Frenchies
Make them say sacrebleu

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