Battle of Fort Necessity: George Washington Surrenders to French & Indians

 
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Battle of Fort Necessity: George Washington Surrenders to French & Indians

"A Charming Field for an Encounter" by Robert Griffing
British Regulars and Virginia militiamen deploy to meeting advancing French & Indians
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 3, 1754

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

This fight was the first military defeat suffered by George Washington, a colonel of militia at age 22, head-strong and perhaps overly sure of himself. He managed to alienate a friend, and signed a badly-translated statement that would haunt his military and political career for years.

Background

After his quick and easy victory at Jumonville Glen in late May of 1754, Washington probably sustained an exceptionally boosted ego. He felt that if he could not occupy the Forks of the Ohio himself, then a competing British fort would show the French that the British were serious about contesting French presence in the area. While making his plans for his attack on the French, he had been scouting the area south of Fort Duquesne, to the west of the Allegheny Mountains. Washington decided that a large, grassy high alpine meadow, which he had dubbed "Great Meadows," should be the spot to build a defense work for his small command. In a letter to Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie, he called Great Meadows "a charming field for an encounter."

On May 29, Washington directed the construction of the small fort he would name "Fort Necessity." A 14' x 14' storehouse for supplies was completed first, for it seems that it was built more to keep Washington's men from stealing provisions than to guard against French or Indians. A crude, circular palisade of seven-foot high logs was built around the storehouse. The fortification was built near the middle of the meadow, as Washington hoped it would provide a good field of fire for his men. [Though trained as a surveyor, Washington had little military experience. This was borne out by the fact that the fort was built in a depression and was too close to the existing tree line.] The fort was completed on June 3.

George Washington, oil on canvas by George Willson Peale (1772); He is wearing his Virginia militia uniform; In collection at Washington & Lee University, Lexington VA
George Washington, oil on canvas by George Willson Peale (1772)
He is wearing his Virginia militia uniform
In collection at Washington & Lee University, Lexington VA

At the same time as construction of the fort was taking place, Washington was also supervising parties of his men who were constructing a road from Wills Creek (present-day Cumberland, MD) to the Forks of the Ohio. The workmen were generally following an Indian hunting path called Nemacolin's Trail. Unfortunately, due to the heavily forested hills, streams and rivers, the men were only making about four miles a day. By late June they had reached Redstone Creek (present-day Brownsville, PA), the site of a large mound that was believed to have been an old Indian fort.

On June 9, a second contingent of Virginia militia arrived at Great Meadows, swelling Washington's available manpower to 293 officers and men. The new arrivals also brought additional supplies – some powder, shot and flour – as well as nine swivel guns. However, they also brought bad news/good news: during the march from Wills Creek, Colonel Joshua Fry, Washington's superior officer, had fallen from his horse, broken his neck and died. As a result, 22 year old George Washington was now acting colonel in command of the Virginia militiamen.

The next day help arrived from a neighboring American colony. An independent company of British regulars from South Carolina under the command of Captain James Mackay arrived. Almost immediately controversy occurred. Captain Mackay insisted upon being in command of the expedition. Although Washington carried the higher rank, his colonial commission was viewed as inferior to Mackay's. According to Washington Irving in his book The Life of George Washington, "The captain was civil and well disposed, but full of formalities and points of etiquette. Holding a commission direct from the king, he could not bring himself to acknowledge a provincial officer as his superior." Though the South Carolinians had been raised in the colonies, they were paid by the British crown. Eventually, the men agreed to a shared command. When the regulars made camp, it was not set up with the Virginians, but separate from them.

On June 11, Washington's men continued the approach to Fort Duquesne (which they had learned the name from some French deserters). Another aggravation for Washington occurred when Mackay's men refused to help build the road unless they were paid a shilling a day per man. Washington had neither the funds nor the inclination to reward them, so the Regulars were left behind to guard Fort Necessity. The Virginians continued their efforts, eventually reaching Christopher Gist's settlement (grandly referred to as a "plantation") located about 13 miles from Fort Necessity near present-day Uniontown, PA. On June 27, Washington received reports that reinforcements had reached Fort Duquesne, and that a large force would soon be sent against him.

Washington gathered his men at Gist's farm, ordered them to throw up entrenchments, and sent word to Captain Mackay to join him with all speed. The captain and his company arrived in the evening; while two foraging parties arrived the next morning. [Washington's Virginians were short of provisions throughout this campaign. A Pennsylvania trader who had been contracted to provide them with supplies had not honored his commitment.] A council of war was held on the evening of June 28. It was decided to return to Wills Creek and escape the French. Despite the earlier report, a force of 500 French militiamen and about 100 Indians, commanded by Captain Louis Coulon de Villier – Jumonville's brother-in-law – had left Fort Duquesne the same day as Washington held his war council.

Despite the hot weather and a lack of horses to provide transport, Washington's men managed to drag their supplies, including the swivel guns, back to Fort Necessity. The Virginia militiamen were still suffering greatly from hunger. The Regulars, again enforcing their prerogatives as "king's soldiers," refused to help with the supplies, "sauntered along at their ease; refusing to act as pioneers, or participate in the extra labors incident to a hurried retreat."

Prelude to the Battle

Washington's men reached Great Meadows on the 1st of July. Here the Virginians, exhausted by fatigue, hunger, and generally ticked off, declared they would carry the baggage and drag the swivel guns no further. Washington decided to further fortify Fort Necessity and await the arrival of the French force. In the meantime, he sent urgent requests to Wills Creek to hasten supplies and reinforcements to his command. Meanwhile, Washington and his men worked to enlarge and strengthen Fort Necessity, as Capt. Mackay and his men had done nothing while they were encamped there. In the course of two days, the Virginians dug shoulder-high trenches, chopped down some trees and used the trees to make breastworks. Washington shared the labors of his men, leading them by example.

It was at this critical point Washington was deserted by his Indian allies, about 40 all told. Throughout the past month, Washington had met with various Indian chiefs, giving them gifts in elaborate ceremonies to draw them into an alliance with him. Even Tanacharison, the Half-King, left him at this time. He later claimed that he was disgusted with Washington for not making better preparations to oppose the French, that the Virginian had not listened to his advice, and that his warriors disliked being subjected to Washington's military discipline. The true reason for Half-King's departure likely was a desire to put his wife and children in a place of safety. Most of the Half-King's warriors followed his example. A few, probably those who had no families at risk, remained in the camp.

Battle of Fort Necessity (aka "The Battle at the Great Meadows")

On the morning of July 3, Washington and his men were still working on the fort. About 9 am, a sentinel came in wounded and bleeding, having been fired upon. Other scouts brought word shortly afterwards that the French and their Indian allies were in force, about four miles off. Washington ordered his command to form up on level ground outside of the works, to await their attack. [For once, the Regulars obeyed Washington's command.]

Battle of Fort Necessity, July 3, 1754; Image courtesy of https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory.htm
Battle of Fort Necessity, July 3, 1754
Image courtesy of https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory.htm

Shortly after 11 am, three columns of French and Canadian soldiers emerged from the woods, with a separate group of Indians charging the fort. At first, Washington and Mackay ordered their men to countercharge the enemy. Then, the colonials stopped and fired a musket volley at the attackers. In addition, the Regulars had two swivel guns of their own, which they directed at the Indians, causing several casualties. Captain Villiers ordered his men back into the woods. Washington's and Mackay's men stood in formation, hoping to draw the French out of the woods again. However, the Virginians soon ran back to their fort, with the Regulars soon following suit.

For the rest of the day, a steady fire from the woods harassed the colonials. During the afternoon, a heavy rain began to fall, turning the trenches into quagmires and disabling many of the men's muskets. The French and Indians continued firing on the fort and its entrenchments from the cover of the woods, at some places as close as sixty yards. Ammunition and powder began to run low, the men were tired and starving, and morale hit rock bottom.

About eight at night the French requested a parley. Washington was concerned it might be a stratagem for a spy to gain entrance into the fort. The request was repeated, with the addition that an officer might be sent to treat with them. Unfortunately the only officer of Washington's command who could speak French correctly was wounded and disabled. Washington was forced to send Jacob Van Braam, his former fencing master and interpreter with the rank of captain. The ramifications of this act were to haunt Washington for many years.

"The Night Council at Fort Necessity," artist unknown (1856); Cropped image courtesy of Art & Picture Collection, New York Public Library
"The Night Council at Fort Necessity," artist unknown (1856)
Cropped image courtesy of Art & Picture Collection, New York Public Library

Van Braam returned twice with verbal terms, in which the garrison was required to surrender; both requests were rejected out of hand. He returned a third time, with written articles of capitulation, which were in French. Van Braam attempted to translate them by word of mouth. A candle was brought, and held close to the paper while he read. The rain continued to fall in torrents, making it difficult to keep the light from being extinguished. The Dutchman rendered the capitulation, article by article, in broken English, while Washington and his officers stood listening, trying to understand the meaning. One article stipulated that on surrendering the fort they should leave all their military stores, munitions, and artillery in possession of the French. This was objected to, and was readily modified.

The main articles of surrender, as Washington and his officers understood them, were:

  • That they would be allowed to return to Wills Creek without molestation from French or Indians;
  • That they could march out of the fort with the honors of war, drums beating and colors flying, and with all their effects and military stores except the artillery, which would be destroyed;
  • That they would be allowed to deposit their effects in some secret place, and leave a guard to protect them until they could send horses to bring them away, their horses having been nearly all killed or lost during the battle;
  • That they would give their word of honor not to attempt any buildings or improvements on the lands of the king of France, for the space of a year; and,
  • That the prisoners taken in the skirmish of Jumonville Glen would be returned, and until their delivery Van Braam and Captain Robert Stobo would remain with the French as hostages.

Buried in the terms of surrender was a clause that Van Braam had either misunderstood or glossed over, which would dog Washington's career. The clause read, "…our intention had never been to trouble the peace and good harmony which reigns between the two friendly princes [the kings of France and Great Britain], but only to revenge the assassination which has been done on one of our officers [the Coulon de Jumonville]…" The old fencing instructor had translated the word "assassination" as "the death of." Had he given a true translation, Washington would never have signed the surrender document. The document was signed at about midnight by Washington, Mackay and Villiers.

Aftermath

The next morning, the 4th of July, Washington and his men marched out of their forlorn little fort with the honors of war, bearing with them their regimental colors. Scarcely had they begun their march, however, when in defiance of the surrender document, the Virginians and regulars were beset by a large body of Indians who began plundering the baggage, and committing "other irregularities." [We can assume the native warriors may have attempted to tomahawk and scalp the withdrawing militiamen, and that some of the French-Canadian soldiers were looting the colonials' baggage.] The French did not, or could not, restrain their allies. Washington then ordered all baggage that could not be carried by his men to be destroyed, as well as the artillery, remaining gunpowder, and other military stores. Finally, at about ten o'clock, the march resumed.

In this fight, the Virginia militia, consisting of 305 officers and men, suffered 31 killed and 70 wounded. The number killed and wounded in Captain Mackay's company is unknown. The loss of the French and Indians is also not known, but was probably very light.

Footnote #1: Washington's men reached Wills Creek about July 15, after a march of 70 miles. Washington and Capt. Mackay rode to Williamsburg to make their reports to Governor Dinwiddie. The surrender document was given to the House of Burgesses (Virginia's colonial legislature), with some explanations. Despite the unfortunate outcome of the campaign, the conduct of Washington and his officers was properly appreciated, and they received a vote of thanks for their bravery, and gallant defense of their country. The burgesses also voted that a sum of money be appropriated for distribution among the militiamen who had been in action.

Footnote #2: Less than a year later, George Washington was back in western Pennsylvania, serving as an unpaid aide-de-camp to British General Edward Braddock. His expedition to capture Fort Duquesne by force failed. In the battle of the Monongahela (also known as "Braddock's Defeat"), Washington had four bullets pass through his coat, as well as two horses shot from under him. Gen. Braddock died during the retreat, and was buried in the middle of the road which Washington's men had constructed a year earlier.

Reconstructed Fort Necessity, Farmington PA (note swivel gun left of center)
Reconstructed Fort Necessity, Farmington PA (note swivel gun left of center)

Footnote #3: Fort Necessity National Battlefield, establish in 1931, is located in Fayette County, PA near Uniontown. The ruins of the fort were excavated in the 1960's and a reconstructed fort has been open to the public since the 1970's. It is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. About a mile northwest of Fort Necessity, and part of the battlefield's jurisdiction, is General Braddock's grave. The Jumonville Glen site is also under the jurisdiction of the NPS.

Footnote #4: In 1972, the public TV series NET Playhouse presented a Washington biography entitled "Portrait of the Hero as a Young Man." It presented the events leading up to the Battle of Fort Necessity. Portraying Washington was a little-known actor named Rene Auberjonois, who would later in his career appear in the TV series Benson and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He has also done extensive voice-work in animated shows and movies, as well as hundreds of guest-starring roles on other TV shows.

Footnote #5: Popular American culture has also conspired to keep alive the memory of Fort Necessity. In the opening episode of the second season of The Simpsons, entitled "Bart Gets an F," Bart must take a history test to avoid repeating the fourth grade. Despite studying hard, when he fails the test by a single point, Bart bursts into tears. Then he says, "Now I know how George Washington felt when he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in 1754." Astounded by his use of applied knowledge, Bart's teacher gives him a bonus point, giving him a D- and allowing him to pass the fourth grade. This episode was voted 31st on Entertainment Weekly's 2000 poll of "100 Greatest Moments in Television/1990's." In 2010 the BBC named "Bart Gets an "F"" as one of the ten most memorable episodes of the show, calling it "insightful and poignant."

Footnote #6: Despite his defeat and surrender to the French, Washington believed he had found his calling in life. On May 31, 1754, 3 days after the Jumonville Glen incident, Washington wrote to his younger brother Jack, "I heard bullets whistle, and there is something charming in the sound."

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