Monday, August 22, 2016

Oh George...what have you done?

On our way back from Delaware, we stopped at Fort Necessity...the place where the French and Indian War began, though it took awhile for Europe to erupt into the Seven Years' War. And at the heart of it all? G. Washington, a brash young Virginia militia officer barely in his 20s. The story goes something like this: The royal governor of Virginia and a group of investors known as the Ohio Company had keen interest in the area that is now part of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. Specifically, they were interested in the upper Ohio Valley. They set up a base of operations at what is now the city of Cumberland, Maryland. In 1750, the Ohio Company sent Christopher Gist (at that time a neighbor of Daniel Boone's down in the Yadkin River Valley of North Carolina) to explore the area. On his first trip, he traveled the Ohio all the way to its falls at present-day Louisville, then headed back overland. On his second trip, he explored the area in which the drama of Fort Necessity would play out.

In late 1753, Gist again headed to the Ohio Valley, this time as a lieutenant of militia accompanying young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington on a diplomatic mission. The French had been aggressively expanding their presence up the Ohio and down the Allegheny in what is today Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania, then generally referred to as the Ohio Country. Several British colonies had tried to establish claim to the area, but the French disputed any such British claims. Thus the Royal Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent Washington up the Allegheny to tell the French to bugger off. In the process, as the story goes, Gist twice saved Washington's life, the first time from a Native American assailant and the second when Washington fell off a raft into the frigid waters of the Allegheny. The Virginia delegation delivered its message, but it had little influence on the French, who not only refused to leave, but reportedly taunted the silly English knights with the words "your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries"...that is, the French, instead of leaving, continued to build forts, tightening their grip on the valuable Ohio country and the all-important Allegheny and Ohio river system.
Washington and Gist crossing the Allegheny on a raft (Public Domain)

And so it came to pass that, in early summer, 1754, Washington and Gist were again united. The issue was control of the forks of the Ohio. If the British could build a fort that dominated the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela converged, then they could deny the French up the Allegheny use of the Ohio as a commercial waterway. Also, they could begin settling the Monongahela River Valley, etc. The demand for farmland on the frontier had greatly increased as growing numbers of German-speakers and Ulster Irish came to the colonies seeking opportunity and/or escape from desperate circumstances back in Europe. The Ohio Company worked in cooperation with Dinwiddie to begin construction of a fort at the forks, to be named Fort Prince George, while Gist remained at the settlement he had founded near present-day Uniontown, PA, in conjunction with the Ohio Company. But the French got word of their shenanigans and sent an overwhelming force to taunt the English a second time. As the small party of workers at Fort Prince George had no chance of winning a fight with a force at least 15 times their strength, they accepted the French rebuke and surrendered. The French sent the Virginians home, then knocked down the Company's handiwork and began construction of what they named Fort Duquesne.

The French plans for Fort Duquesne were quite elaborate, as opposed to the small outpost fort the Ohio Company had been building. After all, this was a vital river confluence. But their decision to build at the point of the confluence, as opposed to building on high ground overlooking the confluence, meant that all their work would be wasted if a large British force came calling and gained control of the high ground across the Monongahela. But really, that is another story, connected to this one only because the French weren't the only ones who chose less than suitable ground for a fort.
Model of Fort Duquesne complex (Wikipedia)

Regarding now Colonel Washington of the newly formed Virginia Regiment of back-country militia, well, he was assigned to oversee construction of an 80 mile road northwest from Fort Cumberland, past Gist Plantation, and on to Redstone Creek and the Monongahela. From there supplies could be ferried to the ill-fated Fort Prince George. He began work, but in short order events changed dramatically. First, well, the French came and knocked down the fort to which he was building a road. Second, as Washington was working his way through the Alleghenies, he received word from the leader of the ill-fated fort-building expedition that the French were scouting in the area. Undaunted, Washington decided to establish a British presence in the area and await the arrival of his superior, Joshua Fry, and the bulk of the Regiment from Fort Cumberland. On May 24th, he found an open space, called Great Meadows, less than 40 miles from Fort Duquesne, which seemed an inviting place for a forward encampment. There was fresh water, an alpine meadow in which to set up tents, let the horses feed, etc. It was a nice place for an encampment, but like Fort Duquesne, had vulnerabilities: the spot he had chosen lay in a soggy bowl, surrounded by forested hills.
Washington called Great Meadows "a charming field for an encounter."

Three days later, Washington received word from Christopher Gist of a French scouting party less than ten miles from the Great Meadows encampment. He and about 40 of his frontiersmen set off for the camp of a friendly Seneca chief, Tanacharison, whom the Virginians called the Half King. Half King's scouts led Washington to the ravine where the French party had camped, and that's when things get really muddled. The Virginians said that a French soldier fired the first shot. The French said that they were attacked at dawn with no warning. Mind you, Washington had been told by Governor Dinwiddie not to do anything that might ignite a war. The whole purpose for Fort Prince George had been defensive. The French had politely let the Ohio Company workers go home. No harm, no foul, as they say in basketball....until the morning of May 28, 1754.
The glen where the first shots of the French and Indian War were fired, 
today known as Jumonville Glen (Public Domain)

A detachment of French soldiers, led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, had been sent out to locate Washington and determine whether or not he had invaded French territory. I am conflating French soldiers with Canadian recruits here...there were both in Jumonville's company, because a difference which makes no difference is no difference. The Virginians represented British interests, the Canadians represented French interests. So there. Anyway...whatever happened to start the fighting, accounts agree that the battle was over quickly and that the thirty-plus man French unit had been overwhelmed, with almost all being either killed or captured, or assassinated, or some combination of the above. I do not mock the dead's just that the various accounts differ as to what really happened. Washington tersely reported that his company advanced toward the French camp, they were spotted, and the shooting started. He noted that Jumonville, the French commander, was killed in the brief engagement, along with nine other Frenchmen. He counted one Frenchman wounded and twenty-one prisoners taken. His own losses were one killed and two wounded.

One of the Frenchmen got away and reported back to the French commander at Fort Duquesne. He stated that, while he had not seen Jumonville die, he had been there when the fighting started. He said that the glen was surrounded by the Virginians on one side and Native Americans on the other. He noted that the Virginians had fired two volleys into the French camp, but the Native Americans had not fired. Jumonville then called for a cease fire so he could read the summons he carried, ordering the Virginians to vacate French territory. A second source, a Native American, recounted to the French commander that it had been while Jumonville was reading the summons that he was shot in the head by one of the Virginians. At that point, he said he and his party rushed forward to protect the Frenchmen from being butchered by the Virginians.

The French based their next actions on what they knew from these two witnesses. After the fact, one of Washington's privates, John Shaw, gave a sworn statement that, based on what he had learned from those who participated in the attack, the Virginians had approached the camp at dawn, that their Native American scouts had circled around to the other side, and that one of the Frenchmen, hearing or seeing something, had fired the first shot. Washington then ordered his militia to fire, and the French, some of whom were still in their blankets, were overwhelmed. The ones who tried to flee were cut off by the Native Americans, and so they reportedly ran back and surrendered to Washington. At that point, according to Private Shaw, the Half King and his warriors approached the probably wounded Jumonville. Half King reportedly asked someone standing guard if the man before him was English or French, and upon learning he was French, he split Jumonville's head open with a tomahawk and did a couple of other things I'll leave out. Mind you, Shaw did not see any of this. He got his intel by talking to those who had participated in the battle.

Washington, believing that the French would come for him in force, rushed back to Great Meadows and ordered the construction of what he would call Fort Necessity. A few days later, he got word that Joshua Fry had fallen off his horse and died of his injuries. The 22-year-old Colonel Washington was now in command of the entire Virginia Regiment.Washington's men set to work digging outer trenches and building an inner "keep" of logs, with a surrounding stockade. On a cleared hill, these defenses would have proven useful, but in the meadow, not so much. A major problem was the high water table. Even in dry weather, the ground is soggy and even swampy in many places. And when it rains, well, there's nowhere for the water to go. And it rains a lot in the Alleghenies in summer.
The inner stronghold

Washington and his men received reinforcements on June 9th, 
when the rest of the Virginia Regiment arrived. 
They brought with them supplies and nine swivel guns.

With about 300 Virginians and roughly 100 South Carolina militia, Washington felt secure enough to continue working on the road toward Gist Plantation, as the frontier settlement was called. But in late June, the French and their Native American allies finally sallied forth from Fort Duquesne, led by Jumonville's older half-brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers. Washington had failed to secure the support of the Half King and others, so his band of about 400 would have to hold out against at least 600 French troops and around 100 Native American warriors. Still, he had the advantage of defense, and an open meadow with a clear field of fire...or so he thought. His men worked frantically as the French approached, improving the trenches in an effort to gain more protection.
The French view from where the tree line would have been then...too close.

Washington hoped for a direct attack, which he was suitably prepared to repel. Instead, the savvy French fired a few volleys then took up positions in the woods, choosing to fire from cover and keep Washington's force pinned down. A steady rain proved to be the final undoing of the young Colonel. The French could remain relatively sheltered in the trees and keep up sporadic fire, inflicting casualties. Washington's men lay in trenches that filled with water, their powder got soaked, and though the rounds they did fire occasionally found their mark, by the end of the day the Virginians had taken more casualties, and both sides knew Washington's position was untenable. The French commander called for a truce to discuss terms, and Washington reluctantly accepted.

Following the late-night negotiation of  terms, Washington's men were allowed to withdraw with military honors, bearing their flag, arms, and baggage, except for the valuable swivel guns. So the Virginia Regiment and the South Carolinians marched back to Fort Cumberland, and from there back to Virginia. The French destroyed Fort Necessity, marched to Gist Plantation and destroyed the storehouse and Gist's home, then returned to Fort Duquesne with the belief that they had purged their neck of the woods of the British and their colonists.
Being unsuitable for typical farming because of the high water table, the meadow generally remained an alpine meadow. Today it is filled with wild flowers and surrounded by beautiful woodlands.

Although the French initially hoped this had been a decisive victory, British rumblings began almost immediately. The Virginians under Fry and Washington had failed, so if diplomacy failed to resolve the Fort Duquesne issue, British Regulars would be dispatched to the frontier to drive back the French. Diplomacy failed, and both Britain and France rushed soldiers to North America. A big part of the reason negotiations failed seems to have been reports regarding a certain Virginia militia commander and his actions regarding the "diplomat" de Jumonville. So in the end the British chose the military option, invading Acadia and staging an army out of Virginia to deal with the French in the Ohio Country. At the same time, other European powers were moving to a war footing, forging alliances with either Britain or France when it benefited them.

Sixty year old General Braddock, veteran of numerous European campaigns, would lead the push into the back country, improving on Washington's route of advance by building a proper wagon road, with the intent of capturing Fort Duquesne. The British also planned to attack the forts up the Allegheny. In April 1755, Braddock began his advance with a force of about 2400 Regulars, supported by colonial militia, which he didn't intend to use if he could help it. No, the Regulars and this very experienced field commander would deal with the French. Growing impatient with the tedious road improvement project, Braddock split his force, choosing to advance with about 1300 men while the rest continued to work on the road and follow as fast as they could. Still, Braddock had twice the number of men the French could field, and he brought some of his artillery with him. His lead column made it to within eight miles of Fort Duquesne. They would go no further. What they initially thought to be a delaying force of French turned out to be a clever tactic to draw Braddock into a trap. As the French units blocking the trail slowed the column's advance, combined forces of French and their Native American allies enveloped it. The resulting battle on July 9, 1775, proved catastrophic for Braddock and his men.
On the map one can see Braddock''s force literally walking into the French and Indian trap. Of his 1300 men, about 900 were killed or wounded, including the vast majority of officers. The General himself was mortally wounded and evacuated by the survivors.
(Public Domain)
Braddock being removed from the battlefield (Public Domain)

 And what of young George Washington, now all of 23? He had become a very controversial figure after his surrender at Fort Necessity. He had signed terms that were ambiguous to him, both because they were in French and because they were a wet mess from the rain. He had to rely on an interpreter, and his interpreter had to try to read the final document, ink smears and all. The result is that, once again, multiple accounts emerged. While the British were disinclined to give Washington an officer's commission in the Regular Army, they thought that he had been accorded the honors of war by the French after his surrender, and so he and his men were welcomed back to Virginia by the governor. 

But the French eventually raised a ruckus about young George. They said he was a fugitive from justice, as he had signed a confession stating that he took full responsibility for the assassination of Jumonville! Therefore the Royal Governor of Virginia was guilty of harboring a fugitive. It makes for interesting reading and surely gave the French some justification for going to war, but it is likely that by 1756 Europe would have erupted anyway, and surely North America would still have been a major theater of that war. Still,tradionally this is the sort of international incident that could ignite another war between Britain and France, with every other major European power save the Ottomans joining in. The  unresolved conflicts in Europe, coupled with Atlantic trade policies, the North American back country, Caribbean sugar islands, African outposts, and even contested holdings as far away as India and the Phillippines, would lead to what some have called the Great War for Empire.

General Braddock, though he could not give him a commission, took Washington along as an advisor with no official capacity, and it was Washington who managed to rally the remnants of Braddock's column and begin a retreat. Before they reached Great Meadows, Braddock died of his wounds. Washington chose to bury him in the middle of the road, and then he and the remnant of Braddock's column intentionally marched over the grave to hide it and thus thwart potential desecration. By 1756, the world, as Europeans understood it, was aflame in what Churchill much later called the first world war: The Seven Years' War. If Washington had not necessarily detonated the powder keg of war, he had managed to strike the spark that lit the fuse at Fort Necessity, never mind the rain.

Washington served as a back country commander of Virginia militia in the war Americans would eventually dub the French and Indian War, and, while things initially went poorly for the British in North America, William Pitt's bold strategy of taking the fight to the French paid off. In 1758, the British forced the French garrison to evacuate Fort Duquesne, which they wrecked on their way out. By 1760 the British were poised to defeat the French and seize the Canadas from them, which they did. In 1763, the French ceded control of the Canadas, the Ohio Country, and lands all the way to the Mississippi Valley (including settlements in Illinois) to the new British monarch, King George III. And that is when Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt. And there was much rejoicing...not really, there was much bitterness, especially regarding new British policies limiting back country settlement, regulating maritime trade and a growing list of other things, all of which would result in George Washington becoming commander of a new creation: the Continental Army. We'll catch up with G. Washington, Esq. later, in the crucible of Valley Forge.


The Bug said...

Can you imagine putting all of this responsibility on such a young person today? Although I guess if you join the army right out of high school, you'll be an old hand by 22...

Lowandslow said...

It is interesting to learn the methods of warfare back in that time. Thanks for sharing.

NCmountainwoman said...

Interesting history told quite well. Thanks.