When the Fourth of July wasn’t something to celebrate

Colonel George Washington of the First Virginia Regiment

During the French and Indian Wars George Washington participated as an officer of  Virginian colonial troops, although he was occasionally given nominal command over small units of British regulars. The French and British had both claimed sovereignty over the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, the site of present-day Pittsburgh, and tensions eventually led to the Battle of Jumonville Glen in May of 1754. The battle and the glen got their names from Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the commander of the French forces.

Washington had been sent to the area to enforce British claims, and had begun construction on a small fort at Great Meadows, waiting there for further news or instructions. Jumonville, along with a force of 35 soldiers, was dispatched to investigate the situation and to tell the British to get out. When Washington’s friend

Tanacharison, Half-Chief of the Mingo

and ally, the Mingo leader Tanacharison, located the French force, the two agreed to attack, Tanacharison leading a group of a dozen warriors, while Washington sent a group of forty men.

The battle that ensued had almost as many versions as it had participants, but the facts that everyone agrees on are that Jumonville wound up dead, and the battle became the first of the French and Indian War. Afterward Washington returned to the fort he was constructing naming it Fort Necessity. Washington received a promotion from Major to Colonel, due to the death of another officer, as well as reinforcements. Tanacharison was unable to convince the local chiefs to join the British and regretfully informed his friend that he could not participate.

Louis Coulon de Villiers

Meanwhile, a force of 600 French soldiers and 100 Indians had been dispatched under the leadership of Louis Coulon de Villiers, the dead Jumonville’s brother. They arrived at Fort Necessity on July 3.

Washington’s men were low on supplies and a torrential rain had turned the trenches he had ordered dug into streams. Despite this Washington was determined to hold. The battle proper began when de Villiers moved his troops into a nearby woods, within easy musket range of the fort. Knowing the French had to be shifted or he would lose defenders piecemeal, Washington sent his entire force to attack. When de Villiers counter-attacked, the British regulars held their ground, but the Virginian colonial troops fled back to the fort. Washington had no choice but to order a retreat. To add to his troubles a heavy rain again began to fall, leaving Washington’s troops with wet powder.

At this point de Villiers, who was uncertain if and when British reinforcements might arrive, sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate. Washington sent out two men to parley, but while he was thus distracted, the Virginian colonial troops broke into the Fort’s supplies of rum, getting drunk. Whether this was the straw that broke the camel’s back I don’t know, but when offered the terms that the garrison could leave peacefully leave after surrendering, Washington accepted.

On July 4, 1754, Washington and his troops abandoned Fort Necessity. I’ve often wondered if, 22 years later, on July 4th, 1776, Washington spared a few seconds to remember that less glorious July 4th earlier in his career.

Reconstruction of Fort Necessity

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