Myths of the American Revolution: George Washington rejected from the British army

May 2011
519
UK
This myth comes up often in the media and in writing about Washington.

There are two parts of this myth or misconception. The first part is that George Washington had an almost desperate ambition to gain a commission in the regular British army, which is only partly true. The second part of the myth is that George Washington was prevented from gaining a commission, he was rejected or that he could not gain a commission because he was born as a colonist.

Whilst it is true that George Washington for a time desire a commission in regular British army, the misconception comes from how he wanted to gain a regular commission.

Firstly lets dispel the notion that Washington could not become a regular officer. Gaining a commission in the British army would have been extremely easy for a man like Washington (who after the age of 26 was so wealthy he did not even need to work). He could have simply bought a regular commission in any number of the regiments or independent companies which were stationed in North America at the time. There was no bar on colonials or even bar on social status (contrary to popular myth), which would not have been a problem for gentleman planter Washington (who was closely connected with the Royal Governor) in any case. One prominent example of a colonist who bought a regular commission was Moses Hazen who simply bought an lieutenant's commission in the 44th regiment. Indeed historian Richard Holmes estimated by the 1760s approximately 2% of the British army officer class were North American born which rose to 10% during the American revolution.

There are a couple of problems which would have made this route to a commission for Washington, extremely unappealing. Firstly he would have had to buy in at a lower rank, possibly ensign or lieutenant. In the provincial service he held the rank of Major and later Colonel, he was paid more than a regular junior officer and he held a great deal of responsibility as commander of an entire regiment (more the size of a corps). Switching to the British army as a junior officer would mean he would lose his preeminence in the provincial service and he would join an organisation which operated on a global scale and as a junior officer he would have been liable for service anywhere in the world. Whilst serving in the militia he could not be called on to serve outside his own colony. A fact that made service in the British army officer corps unappealing to even the British aristocracy, as a result the financial cost of commissions in regiments overseas often did not carry any cost.

To address how Washington wanted to become a British officer. When General Braddock arrived in North America, he befriended Washington and offered to give him a regular commission in his expedition, probably as a lieutenant , Washington refused on the basis that as a junior officer he would be outranked by regular officers who he believed were previously equal to him as a provincial Major. Braddock persuaded Washington to change his mind on the basis he could join the expedition as a "volunteer" without rank and therefore would not be outranked by a regular officer. Washington saw his provincial rank as equal to the equivalent regular rank, it may have been a point of honour for him however he was clearly unwilling to just routinely join the British army in a junior officer rank.
Washington intended to gain a regular commission by having the Virginia regiment of which he was colonel be incorporated into the regular army, and therefore he would continue to hold the rank of Colonel as a regular officer. At the time this was quite common, many regiments raised by wealthy men in England for militia or home service would be numbered as regular regiments. And they would hold the rank of colonel. Indeed there is an example from the French and Indian war itself, Rogers' Rangers in 1756 were incorporated into the regular army as an independent company and Rogers was given a regular commission.

In 1757 the Earl of Loudoun briefly became British commander in chief in North America. It is primarily from this moment in time that the myth comes from the Washington was blocked from joining the British army. Washington exchanged correspondence with Loudon and met him personally, the correspondence mainly pertains to the activity and operations of the Virginia regiment and the desire of Washington for himself and the Virginia regiment to be given a more prominent role in the war. Washington did not believe the Virginia Regiment had been given the recognition it deserved which if you read his correspondence, you can see in his bristling affronted language. It is in the meeting with Loudoun that Washington likely proposed the Virginia regiment be renumbered as a regular regiment, which Loudoun quickly and coldly refused and instructed Washington to keep the Virginia regiment in it's role stationed on the frontier.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,785
Dispargum
I agree that by 1757 or '58 Washington saw himself as a colonel and was unwilling to take a demotion to lieutenant. The desire for a regular commission was earlier in his life. It started when he was a teenager and lasted into his early twenties (he was born in 1732). He still wanted that commission as late as 1754 and '55, but by then was probably hoping to bypass lieutenant or even captain. I agree that by the late 1750s he could have afforded to buy a commission, but that wealth was something of a surprise to Washington. He had not expected to be so wealthy even just a few years earlier.

George was the fourth of nine children. His father was well off, and young George expected to inherit considerable wealth and status. Then when George was 11, his father died. This set the family back somewhat. George's two older brothers had both gone to England for school, but after the father died, the family could not afford to send George. As a teenager, George realized that with the family living off of their father's dwindling estate, after it was divided between all of George's siblings there would be very little left. George began to think of the military as a way to maintain the status and lifestyle that he was used to. When he was about 14 he almost joined the navy, but his mother prevailed on him to stay at home. George taught himself surveying, in part because he thought it was a skill he thought he could parlay into an army career. However, George got lucky and his career unfolded in ways he had not anticipated. His older brother, Lawrence, married into the wealthy and influential Fairfax family. They got George appointed surveyor of Culpeper County which gave George the opportunity to acquire thousands of acres of land in the Shenandoah Valley. At the tender age of 21 the Fairfaxes got George appointed major in the colonial militia. When war broke out in 1754, George was perfectly positioned. Within a few years he was a colonial colonel. Also during the middle 1750s, his two older brothers died, consolidating the family wealth once more. This is how George became the wealthy owner of Mount Vernon.

So George lost interest in an army career for a couple of different reasons: 1) he had already gained considerable rank and fame so that he was unwilling to start over again as a junior officer, and 2) he had become a wealthy gentleman and no longer needed the army to establish his status and get ahead.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,536
Washington was a full colonel of militia in command of the entire Virginia militia in heavy fighting against the Indians towards the end of the Seven Years War / French and Indian War. It was that experience combined with being viewed as a hero of Monongahela as an aide de camp after Braddock was mortally wounded that made him a natural choice as Commander of the Continental Army.

He had a plantation and was probably not interested in a full time military career.

He was from good family, but started out with not much as a younger son. He was successful based on his and his brother's marriages, political skill, and land speculation.