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The War Before the Revolution

Back to 1754: Washington's luck runs out and he and his men are soundly defeated by the French and their Indian allies at Fort Necessity, in what is now Pennsylvania. Washington is forced to sign a capitulation letter. In the exhibit hall we see a life-size Washington, hunched over, his clothes muddy, his hand covering a weary brow as he reads a surrender document in which he admits to assassinating Jumonville. (But it was in French! Couldn't read it! Also they had the bad habit of writing the letter "s" as if it were an "f," which makes it hard to read words like "assassinate.")

"This is a private moment after he signed the capitulation letter. His public career is over almost before it's begun. To me, that is a very human George Washington," says exhibit curator Scott Stephenson.

This backcountry drama has global repercussions as news of the Jumonville affair reaches Europe. Britain and France are soon in a full-blown war, one that spreads around the globe.

"The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire," wrote historian Horace Walpole.

But right about this point is where the French and Indian War becomes fiendishly complicated. It is engulfed in the larger conflict known as the Seven Years' War. The exhibit shows how the fighting spreads to such places as the Caribbean, West Africa, the steppes of Russia, India and the Philippines. There's a painting in the exhibit of a great battle east of Prague between the Prussians and the Austrians. The modest war of George Washington gets globalized beyond recognition.

Even the name, the Seven Years' War, is a slap at America, since it supposedly begins in 1756, as though what happened in North America in 1753 and 1754 and 1755 didn't matter.

Thus, from our standpoint today, the French and Indian War has much to overcome. It's too complicated, geographically and geopolitically. From a marketing standpoint, it's unfortunate that the decisive battle in North America takes place in the city of Quebec and not in, say, Manhattan.

Americans prefer history to be about us. "Clash of Empires" is a necessary corrective, clarifying a fuzzy patch in our collective memory, recalibrating our sense of how we got here, and reminding us that American history didn't begin in 1776.

And as for what to call the war, the companion book to the exhibit is subtitled, "The British, French & Indian War."

Eventually we'll figure this thing out.

Clash of Empires runs through March 15 at the International Gallery in the S. Dillon Ripley Center. 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. Open daily except Dec. 25, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Free.

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