|The following article is from a series for a local newspaper done by one of the site directors of the Association. It is not a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the War, but is concerned mainly with causes related to the Virginia frontier.|
Prelude to the
French and Indian War
Part 5: A Charming Field
for a Defeat
Tanacharison’s smashing the brains of Sieur de Jumonville was indeed a definitive action for which there would be a severe consequence. However, on that May 28th neither the wily Indian nor the young Virginia officer could imagine the extent of the consequence. For the Half King it was a fitting revenge; for the Frenchman’s family it also called for revenge. In the larger political arena it was a matter that would require an equally demonstrative response.
Fort Necessity Campaign - blue shows French places and line of advance; red shows British. Dashed line is Washington's 1753 winter trip to Fort LeBoeuf. map courtesy NPS
There was one man in England who realized what would happen. Upon receiving news of the Jumonville affair Horace Walpole, the British statesman, noted it was, “the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America that set the world on fire.” The Virginians would soon find out how right Walpole was.
For the moment Washington was at a loss as to what his actions should be. He met the immediate need for hustling the prisoners back to the authorities in Williamsburg. Then he had two jobs: the completion of the road to Redstone Creek where the Ohio Company had a storehouse and preparation for the French response that he know would come soon. He realized that Virginia needed a route to the Ohio River whether for settlement or for war, and he recalled the information he had received about a buildup of French forces at Fort Duquesne.
An Undexpected Promotion
Before he could begin either task he had to find supplies for his troops who were severely short of food, clothing, equipment and arms. Washington sent Christopher Gist off to Cumberland with a letter for Gov. Dinwiddie outlining the needs. Gist would find few supplies, but he did return with news of the death of Col. Joshua Fry, Washington’s superior; Lt. Col. Washington was now solely in command. Gov. Dinwiddie sent a commission making Washington the Commander and a full Colonel.
As Washington attempted to complete the road toward Duquesne, he was warned that the French were sending out a much larger force against him. He had to move back to safer ground, but his soldiers were too tired and horses in too short supply to effect a retreat to Wills Creek. He chose to return to Great Meadow and complete a fortification out of the necessity for defense. However, he chose a spot not well suited for defense. In a shallow valley surrounded by trees his weary troops labored to finish “Fort Necessity.” In a letter to Gov. Dinwiddie he noted that he had chosen a “charming field for an encounter.” He also boasted that he could defend himself against 500 men in this place. He had not long to wait to see how wrong he was.
At this point the French seemed to hold the upper hand. Fort Duquesne had just been bolstered by the arrival of Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers with over a thousand fresh troops. He was given the task of finding the British who had attacked Jumonville and of forcing them from French territory. Villiers just happened to be the older half-brother of the slain Jumonville. Now it was time for some French revenge.
As the French drew closer to the Great Meadow, the Half King and his followers began to get concerned. They scoffed at the British “fort” and could see that Washington’s army was weakening and was severely short of supplies. They also felt demeaned by the young Virginia officer’s refusal to take their advice. Finally, they considered all the options and then departed; they would wait elsewhere for better conditions to meet the enemy.
Washington’s situation was indeed critical. Although he was finally reinforced with recruits for the Virginia Regiment and by South Carolina Independent troops under Capt. James Mackay, the number of men fit for battle at Fort Necessity was less than 300. The lack of supplies and the labor of first trying to finish the road building task and finally completing the fort and its entrenchment before the arrival of the French had taken their toll; the troops were exhausted and severely malnourished. To make matters worse, the weather was miserable. On July 2nd it began to rain on the shallow valley.
On the morning of July 3, 1754 de Villiers arrived at Great Meadow with about 600 French troops and perhaps 100 Indians. Instead of advancing in the open against the fortification, the enemy scattered among the trees and began to pour fire into the shallow entrenchment where most of the British were caught in the cross fire. Only the sick, wounded and a few soldiers could squeeze into the small stockade. The rain became heavier filling the entrenchment and dampening the British powder. There were over 100 men dead or wounded. As nightfall approached and the officers were distracted by the seriousness of the situation many of the soldiers, fearing defeat and slaughter, found the rum supply and got drunk.
When finally at dark the French called out for a parley, Washington had no choice. He would have to consider terms for surrender.
Unfortunately for the young Virginia Commander, the terms for surrender were in French. He could not read French. Washington had to rely on his old fencing master, Jacob von Braam, to translate the document presented by the French. In the wet stockade by candlelight the Dutchman struggled to translate the terms. In the stress of the situation one important term missed his attention. The document had the British admitting that they had “assassinated” Sieur de Jumonville.
Everything else about the surrender terms were most generous in light of the situation. The French would allow the British the honors of war, and they would depart the country with their wounded and their supplies leaving only two hostages to be kept until the captured men of Jumonville’s party were returned. Washington had no choice; late that night he and Mackay signed the surrender.
Happy Fourth of July?
On the next morning, July 4th, Washington and his bedraggled army marched out of the fort with their flags flying; they headed for Cumberland as best they could. Everything seemed quite good in light of the overwhelming defeat. However, that one term in the surrender document would quickly come back to haunt George Washington for the rest of his career. He had allowed himself to be branded an assassin attacking the party of an ambassador. In effect, he was responsible for beginning the war.
After the British departed with the promise not to return to the area for at least a year, the French destroyed everything. They burned Fort Necessity, and destroyed both Gist’s plantation and the storehouse at Redstone. Then they set to work strengthening Fort Duquesne. They were determined to be the owners of the Ohio country. They were proud that their victory over the British had only cost them 2 dead and seventeen wounded.
For the colonists it was a serious and embarrassing blow. They had lost the favor of the Indians who now accepted French power. They were too short on men and supplies to take any further action alone. It would be some time before London would formulate a plan to take up what the “backward” colonials could not complete. However, London was determined to up the ante. By December they would appoint a new Commander for North America and equip two regiments of regular soldiers to take back what the colonials had lost. They never considered they might suffer the same fate that the untrained and ill-equipped American colonials had suffered.
A Charming Field for an Encounter is the popular booklet (64 pages) from the National Park Service that gives an introduction to the battlefield.
New Light on Washington's Fort Necessity: A Report on the Archaeological Explorations at Fort Necessity National Battlefield by J. C. Harrington; Eastern National, 1957 (reprint 2003). This report by the archaeologist who reinvestigated the site of Fort Necessity in the early 1950s has a very good section of historical background as well as appendixes that contain lengthy quotes describing the battle from contemporary accounts. Available from the Fort Necessity bookstore.
Every July 3rd Fort Necessity National Battlefield holds a commemorative celebration of the opening battle of the French and Indian War. For a schedule of events please check their website at: http://www.nps.gov/fone/.
© 2004 Col. Washington's Frontier
updated: July 6, 2004