For this month’s piece, I have decided to focus on George Washington’s early military experience as a member of the Virginia militia. It did not begin auspiciously. Although Washington had been able to persuade Governor Dinwiddie to entrust him with a mission to inform the French to vacate the Ohio country, his attempt to coerce the French into leaving did not succeed. On his return to Virginia, Washington was almost shot by a treacherous Indian guide and later almost drowned when he fell into a freezing river. Nonetheless, Washington’s courage and skills at observation were praised by Governor Dinwiddie who had Washington write a report of his actions. The governor also promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to raise and train militia to march to the Forks of the Ohio (modern-day Pittsburgh) and establish a fort.
In April of 1754, Washington marched westward with 160 mostly raw recruits toward the French fort named Duquesne, which had been taken by a large force just days earlier. Washington’s commander, Joshua Fry followed with a small force of about 100 men. Combined the two forces would not be enough to defeat the French force and so they waited for reinforcements to arrive. In late-May, Washington heard that a French detachment was less than twenty miles away from his force and he decided to build a defensive outpost at a place called the Great Meadows. Here he waited until the night of May 27, 1754. On that night, having heard from Christopher Gist, his guide the year before, and his Indian ally, Half-King, that a small French force was located only seven miles away, Washington and 40 men along with about 30 Indian allies, marched through the night toward the encampment. Washington believed this force was hostile and determined to attack and defeat the enemy force. Early the next morning, Washington and Half King’s force surrounded the 35 Frenchmen who were in a low lying area surrounded by boulders. Washington claimed later the French had fired first after spotting his forces, but Washington had the advantage of firing from above and in a bloody fifteen minute long struggle, 10 Frenchmen were killed and 21 wounded before the French surrendered. It was here that things began to get murky. One of the Frenchmen was Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villers, the Sieur de Jumonville. The French later claimed that Jumonville was a diplomat who had come to demand the British evacuate the Ohio territory. Washington thought he was a spy. Either way, Jumonville was killed after the surrender; one account has him struck between the eyes by a tomahawk wielded by the Half King himself. Whatever truly occurred, things would now begin to go downhill for young George Washington.
With the murder of Jumonville, the French were eager for retribution. Washington ordered his men to build a stockade along with trenches and pointed stakes at the Great Meadows. He would dub this site Fort Necessity. As his troops were preparing for attack, Washington received shocking news that his commander, Joshua Fry, had fallen off his horse and died, leaving the 22 year-old Washington as commander of the Virginia Regiment. Young and immature, Washington would clash with colonial officers over rank and write a letter to Governor Dinwiddie complaining about pay, instead of focusing on the true problem at hand; the French. On July 3, the French arrived and immediately it became evident that Washington did not have experience in warfare. Fort Necessity had been sighted in a low lying area prone to flooding and had failed to cut down the trees close to the fort, giving the French a convenient shelter to fire behind. The battle took place in a steady downpour, flooding the trenches of the defenders and wetting the powder of Washington’s troops, making their weapons almost worthless. The British and colonial soldiers became easy targets for the French marksmen. Within twenty-four hours, it was all over; Washington had been thoroughly defeated, losing more than one-third of his entire force against less than 20 French casualties. In the wet conditions, the capitulation documents were blurry, and what Washington signed meant something different to the two sides. The document had been translated by Jacob Van Braam, a Dutchman who was supposed to be fluent in French but may not have known as much as he claimed. Washington thought he signed that the battle had taken place because of the death of Jumonville; the French, on the other hand, had written that Washington had assassinated Jumonville. The different word choices gave another victory to the French, as now Washington could be blamed for starting the French and Indian War. Sir Horace Walpole agreed; “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”George Washington had made many mistakes in his first campaign; a
Attacking when he should have been defending, sighting his fort in an indefensible area and alienating his own Indian allies, yet there were signs that Washington had what it took to be a good soldier. He was courageous, determined and bold, and even when surrounded at Fort Necessity, showed no fear. Washington made mistakes but he would learn from them. He would not repeat the same mistakes in future.
Fort Necessity National Battlefied is preserved by the National Park Service