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17th-18th Century Articles
Return of Rogers' Rangers
Betrayed by a Mason?
Benedict Arnold in Canada
The Success of Napoleon
Battle of Great Bridge
Frederick: Battle of Leuthen
G. Washington and J. Monroe
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
The Raid on Thurso, 1649
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
The Battle of Cowpens
War Comes to the Islands
The Battle of Dunbar
Governor Kieft's Personal War
Philip's War
Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun

Bruce Brager Articles
Book Review: Midnight Rising
Cuban Missile Crisis
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Flip Side of Containment
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
Winter Warfare
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A Cold War Retrospective
Blowback
John Paul Jones & Asymetric Warfare
Early Texas Military History
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Yalta
The Battle of St. Etienne

Book Reviews
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Books by Bruce L. Brager 


The Texas 36th Division


John Paul Jones America's Sailor


There He Stands: The Story Of Stonewall Jackson


The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe


Recommended Reading


Crucible of War


His Excellency: George Washington


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The Start: Jumonville's Glen and Fort Necessity
The Start: Jumonville's Glen and Fort Necessity
by Bruce L. Brager

"We have just finish'd a small palisado'd fort, in which, with
my small numbers, I shall not fear the attack of 500 men."
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, June 3, 1754 [1]

George Washington once touched off a world war. He did not start the war. The powder was piling up, just waiting for a spark. However, by bad planning, by losing control of some of his men, by signing a document he did not understand, and by trying to cover up his errors -- behavior dramatically unlike that for which he became noted later in his life and career -- Washington jumped into a dangerous context and provided the spark that started a major explosion, a world war.

The focus of the increasing tension was the area known as the Ohio River Valley, occupied by American Indians, claimed by the French, and coveted by the British. Particularly important was the strategic triangle of land where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River joined to form the Ohio River. This is the modern site of the city of Pittsburgh. On a previous journey to the area, in 1753, Washington had noted the strategic importance of this area and suggested the British build a fort at the location. The French also noticed its strategic importance, discovered the British had started to build a fort, and threw out the British.

A British colonial force was already on the way when the French took over the incomplete British fort. Washington was second in command of the total British force.  He was second in command of a small group of men operating independently from the overall force.  In late May, Washington learned of the fort's fall to the French on April 18, 1754. On May 27, continuing to push westward, Washington learned of a small French force seven miles from his location. When the French camp was found, Washington, with 47 militiamen and some Indian warriors, attacked the French camp. According to Washington's diary, his men fired only when discovered by the French. He mentions that the fight took 15 minutes until the smaller French force was defeated. The leader of the French force and nine others were killed. Washington later wrote "the Indians scalped the dead."[2] Washington continued to state that he thought the French might have been faking a diplomatic mission as an excuse to attack the English. Washington's report to Dinwiddie conveyed basically the same information, simply that the Indians had scalped the dead, with no mention of how they got to be dead.

The French claimed that their dead were killed, after trying to surrender, by Washington's men or by his Indian allies. French claims were partly based on uncertain evidence, though Washington's diary lends some credence to the idea that he might have lost control of the Indians with his party.

What most likely happened is that a firefight started when the Virginians reached the French camp, though each side later claimed the other fired first. After a few minutes, the wounded French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, asked for a cease fire. He tried to explain his mission to Washington, but in the middle of the explanation the Indian leader, Tanaghrisson, known as the "half-king" because though he was a Seneca chief he worked for the major Indian power known as the Iroquois Confederation, walked up to Jumonville. He called out "you are not yet dead, my father," invoking the powerful but kind role representatives of the French king claimed in dealing with the Indians. He then raised his hatchet and smashed it into Jumonville's skull. Before Washington could stop them, the Indians had killed the other wounded Frenchmen.

Tanaghrisson was probably motivated by a desire to regain personal power he had lost over the past few years by returning to the Iroquois with his new British allies. Washington did not know it, but he had been given a lesson in the importance of the Indians in the rivalry between Britain and France in North America.

Immediately after the Jumonville Glen incident, Washington and his men returned to their camp a few miles to the east, at Great Meadows, about 50 miles southeast of what is now Pittsburgh. Washington anticipated French retaliation. He ordered his men, and reinforcements who had arrived after the Jumonville Glen incident, to build a wood stockade, which he named Fort Necessity. Washington thought this was a good fort. "We have just finish'd a small palisado'd fort, in which, with my small numbers, I shall not fear the attack of 500 men."[3] Washington might have been right, had the French not shown up with twice that number.

A force of 700 French and French Canadian soldiers, and 350 Indian allies, led by the half brother of Jumonville, attacked Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. Washington had 180 men. Never much for lost causes, his Indian allies, including the Half King who had started the whole mess, had left the scene. A few hours of intense fighting followed, in a driving rain. Washington had only cleared a 60 yard "field of fire" between the fort and the woods, less than the killing range of the weapons of the day. The French forces were able to take shelter in the woods, and shoot down into Fort Necessity.

Fort Necessity soon became flooded, ruining most of the Virginians' gunpowder. Roughly one third of the British colonial force was killed or wounded compared to only a handful of enemy casualties. Later that evening, the French commander offered Washington the chance to surrender. Since the British and French were not at war, Washington and his men would be permitted to return to Virginia. All Washington had to do was sign the terms of capitulation.

Washington, due to a mistranslation, thought he was confirming that his men killed Jumonville, or so he insisted the rest of his life. The actual French word, "l'assassinate," was more loaded, meaning murder rather than just kill. To make things worse, the document also mentioned that Jumonville had been on a mission to deliver a communication from the French government to the British government; in other words, a diplomatic mission. Washington might have learned this earlier, had Jumonville's letter been fully translated before Tanaghrisson acted, and been able to restrain the Indians. Tanaghrisson, who seems to have understood French, probably realized this.

After signing this document, at little before midnight on July 3, Washington and his men were permitted to head for home. George Washington touched off a near unbelievable chain of events. Within not much more than a century of Washington's errors, aided by the "force multiplier" of additional errors and bad judgment, and by opportunities not missed, good judgments made, correct decisions correctly carried out, and the lessons of experience learned, five of the six major players in the North American continent were destroyed, or had left the scene, or were substantially reduced in power and influence.

Historians can't even decide what to call the war for which Washington provided the spark. In the world at large, it gets called the Seven Years War, an odd name for a war where the fighting began in 1754, and was ended by treaty in 1763. But Britain, and France, the main European powers in America, did not actually declare war on each other until 1756. So the American colonies get dealt out of the picture, at least in the name. The "dispute" over the name, and the new "British, French and Indian War," alternative, raises the issue of the great complexity of this relatively unknown conflict. Of course, the best name for a conflict which ranged from just east of modern Pittsburgh, to modern day Canada, to the Philippines and India, by way of Cuba, is already taken – World War One.

In 1754 George Washington was an inexperienced and overeager 21-year old colonial militia officer, seeeking military glory as a way to enter the upper reaches of Virginia social society.  He did not, however, wake up one morning and decide to do something rash and ill-planned.  Washington, barely appreciating what he was doing, stepped into a long and bitter rivalry between Britain and France.

There would seem to have been little inherent conflict between British and French interests. Britain, with a relatively small home territory, considered itself a maritime power and concentrated its expansion overseas. France was primarily a continental power. However, there were significant areas of tension. The British royal house had been imported from Hanover; part of what is now Germany. King George II still also ruled Hanover, and wanted to defend that flat and easily invaded area.

Had anyone created a demographic map of America in 1748 they would have found a relatively large British colonial population, estimated in 1743 as 1.5 million, compared to a total French population in North America of fewer than 45,000,[4] between what are now Georgia and Maine. This population stretched a few hundred miles inland towards the Appalachian Mountains. This territory was surrounded on land by territory controlled but sparsely settled by the French, except for Spanish territory to the south.

The French feared being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The British saw the need to neutralize the potential danger from French Canada. The British thought that if another war broke out, the French might use their forts on Lake Champlain as jumping off points for a thrust aimed at penetrating the British colonies and reaching the Atlantic. The British colonies would be split in two. One can see why neither side was happy with the situation as it stood in 1748.

The latest in a series of wars had ended in 1748, in the European main theater and the North American sideshow. With the end of that war, Anglo-American colonists, feeling the need for new land, resumed a slow westward expansion - into French-claimed areas of the Ohio River valley. The French, from their main North American colony of Canada, were seeking to stop that expansion and to secure their lines of communication with their colony of Louisiana.

The French government of Louis XV decided to stop what they saw as British encroachment on French territory. Unfortunately for them, the military resources available to the British in America were far stronger than those available to the French in America. The superior British Royal Navy could dominate the Atlantic Ocean, and seal off French territories from reinforcement and supply from France. In Europe, the French could confront the British where the French were stronger. The French, however, felt they had no choice but to actively resist British encroachment in America as well as to resist Prussia, Britain's aggressively minded chief ally and proxy, in Europe.

The French Act, the British React

In 1749, the military commander of New France sent an expedition to the Ohio Valley. Its primary function was to plant a series of lead plaques announcing French claim to the territory. These cute no trespassing signs were soon backed up by more concrete measures. The French began building a series of forts at strategic locations. The British began to build their own forts. Attempts to settle differences by means of a commission proved unsuccessful.

With the failure of the commission, the French then sent a new governor-general to New France, with specific instructions to take possession of the Ohio Valley, and to remove all British presence from this area. In 1753, he had several forts built in the eastern portion of this area, in what is now western Pennsylvania. In response, Robert Dinwiddie, lieutenant governor of Virginia, sent a young officer in the Virginia militia to deliver a letter demanding the French leave. (Political disputes in Pennsylvania had prevented that colony from acting to meet the threat to its territory.)

The young Virginia militia officer, George Washington, read Dinwiddie's impressive-sounding letter to the commander of a French fort. The letter declared that the lands of the Ohio River were "known to be the property of the Crown of Great Britain," and "it is a matter of equal concern and surprise to me, to hear that a body of French forces are erecting fortresses and making settlements upon that river. . ."[5] Dinwiddie demanded to know by whose authority and under whose instructions the French were acting. He ended by requiring the peaceful and, one presumes, immediate departure of the French and that the French "forbear prosecuting a purpose so interruptive of the harmony and good understanding, which His Majesty is desirous to continue and cultivate with" the king of France.[6]

The French responded the next day, showing how little they were impressed by the letter or its deliverer. The French commander would forward Dinwiddie's letter to the governor-general. However, until instructions were received from his boss, the French commander was not leaving and would defend his position.

Washington took the French response back to Dinwiddie. On the way back, Washington noted, and later suggested to Dinwiddie, that a piece of land, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met to form the Ohio, would be a good location for a fort. Dinwiddie responded by sending an expedition to build the fort Washington had suggested. Superior French forces soon arrived at the construction location, and threw the British out. The French finished the fort.  Washington's expedition, which failed so dramatically, was part of a British force sent to regain control of the area.

In a historical irony, Washington and his men left Fort Necessity on July 4th. Indications are that Washington later would appreciate the irony. On July 20, 1776, while awaiting the British attack on New York, Washington wrote a friend and former colleague from the Virginia militia. After describing his current crisis, he ended by remarking that "I did not let the Anniversary of the 3d or 9th of this [month] pass without a grateful remembrance of the escape we had at the Meadows and on the Banks of the Monongahela. .. "[7]

By July 9, 1754, Washington and his men, burdened with carrying his wounded, had only covered 50 miles east, to the place called Willis Creek. He reported his defeat and capitulation to Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who had dispatched his expedition in the first place. He presented the defeat not as a near total disaster, but as a stalemate in which the Virginian and British forces held out as long as they could against superior French forces.

Washington appears to have put at least some focus to the minor parts of the battles, as well as to his own reputation. In a letter home written between the two battles, to his brother John Augustine Washington, Washington did not mention the earlier massacre of the French prisoners. He did write his brother that "I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the Sound."[8] The remark made it into the Virginia newspapers, and even reached London. None other than King George II is supposed to have commented "He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many."[9]

Dinwiddie then got a taste of the lack of colonial unity, or of concern for the "French menace" in what was then called the west. He quickly reported to the government in London about events at Fort Necessity. He urged Washington to resume the offensive, and tried to raise reinforcements to send to Willis Creek. Dinwiddie asked for funds from the Virginia House of Burgesses for another campaign. He also sent urgent messages for help to the governors of nearby colonies. North Carolina was the only colony to respond, and then with the limitation that appropriated funds be spent only in North Carolina. This offer was of little practical value.

The French, however, had been provided a dandy tool should they wish to escalate the fighting. The Marquis Ange Duquesne de Menneville, the French military commander in North America, commented after reading Washington's confiscated diary that "He lies very much to justify the assassination of the sieur de Jumonville, which had turned on him, and which he had the stupidity to confess in his capitulation. . . There is nothing more unworthy and lower and even blacker than the sentiments and the way of thinking of this Washington."[10]

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
bbrager@juno.com.

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 11/17/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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