July 3rd, 2021


George Washington at Fort Necessity

On July 3, 1754 (267 years ago today), a young George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity to the French, in an auspicious start to what would go on to be a stellar military career. Washington's first defeat occurred during the war between the French and English in their mid 18th century battle over North America. Ironically, Washington was fighting on the side of his future enemy, the British, against his future allies the French.

France had began colonizing North America in the 16th century, and by the mid 1700s it had between only 75,000 and 90,000 colonists living in land it dubbed "New France". France was able to control large colonies of in parts of modern-day Canada as well as the Louisiana Territory with relatively few military personnel. It did so by controlling waterways (especially the Saint Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River). The French also developed strong political and economic alliances and relationships with powerful Native American first nations.

The Ohio Country, an area located between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, became strategically important to the French, as more settlers moved from Montreal, Quebec, and other established French settlements along the St. Lawrence to the newer Louisiana colony. Ohio was an important connection between New France and Louisiana. But this led to conflict with British settlers, who were also expanding into the Ohio Country. The British in the region greatly outnumbered the French by a ratio of nearly twenty to one. British settlers were eager to move over the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio Country and further west. The British traders considered the Ohio Country to be unsettled and therefore unclaimed land. Their larger population gave British traders the ability to offer Native Americans a larger market, as well as a greater selection of cheaper, higher quality goods. The French could bot compete and therefore wanted to keep the British out of the Ohio Country. The French became more aggressive in their efforts to expel British traders and colonists from this region. In 1753 they began construction of a series of fortifications in the area.

The French actions upset not only the British, but also the Indian tribes in the region. British traders were able to convince some Indians tribes to trade with them in preference to the French. Tanacharison, Chief of the Mingo nation (known as the "Half King"), became a British ally and tensions developed between the French and the Mingo.

Virginians believed that their colonial charter, the oldest in the British colonies, gave them claim to the Ohio Country. In 1748, wealthy Virginians formed the Ohio Company with the aim of solidifying Virginia's claim. Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the royal governor of Virginia and founding investor in the Ohio Company, sent a twenty-one year old Virginia colonial Lieutenant Colonel named George Washington to travel from Williamsburg to Fort LeBeouf in the Ohio Territory (a territory claimed by several of the British colonies, including Virginia) as an emissary in December 1753. Washington was instructed to deliver a letter from the Governor, demanding that the French vacate the region. Washington's older brothers Lawrence and Augustine had been instrumental in organizing the Ohio Company, and George Washington knew the Ohio Company because he had surveyed in the region with his brothers as a young man.

The journey for Washington and his party was a difficult one. Ultimately, he arrived at at Fort Le Boeuf and met with the regional commander, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. Saint-Pierre was polite, but he told Washington that he was there pursuant to orders, and Washington's letter should de delivered to his commanding officer in Canada.

Washington returned to Williamsburg and informed Governor Dinwiddie that the French refused to leave. Dinwiddie ordered Washington to raise a militia regiment to hold the Forks of the Ohio, (present-day Pittsburgh). Washington had identified this area as the best location for a fortress.

Unlike the French, Washington and his regiment could not reach the Forks by river. Dinwiddie also issued a captain's commission to Ohio Company employee William Trent, with instructions to raise a small force capable of moving quickly through the wilderness and virgin forest that lie between Williamsburg and the Forks. Once there, they were to immediately begin construction of a fortification on the Ohio. Dinwiddie issued these instructions on his own authority, without asking for funding from the Virginia House of Burgesses (which he later received until after the fact.)

Trent's company arrived on site in February 1754, and began construction of a storehouse and stockade with the assistance of Tanacharison and members of the Mingo nation. Learning of this, the French sent a force of about 500 men, French, and Indiansm commanded by Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur. On April 16, they arrived at the forks. Trent's force of 36 men agreed to leave the site. The French tore down the British works, and began construction of the fort they called Fort Duquesne.

In March 1754, Governor Dinwiddie sent Washington back to the frontier with orders to resist any attempts to obstruct any construction or fortifications or otherwise defend their settlements. Dinwiddie's instructions were issued without the knowledge or direction of the British government in London. Washington was ordered to gather as many supplies and paid volunteers as he could along the way. By the time he left for the frontier on April 2, he had gathered 186 men.

Contrecœur was under orders not to attack the British unless provoked. On May 23, he sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville with 35 men to see if Washington had entered French territory, with a summons to order Washington's troops to leave. By this time Washington had met at Winchester with Captain Trent, who brought news of the advance of the French force under Jumonville. Trent was accompanied by Tanacharison, who promised warriors to assist the British. Washington decided to build a fortification 37 miles south of the forks and await further instructions.

Washington sent out Captain Hog with 75 men to pursue French troops who had threatened to destroy his house and property. Shortly after Hog left, Washington called together some Mingo warriors and told them that the French had come to kill Tanacharison. They also left to pursue the French. That evening, Washington received a message from Tanacharison, who said he had found the French encampment. Washington decided to attack. He brought 40 soldiers with him towards Tanacharison's camp.

That morning, they met with Tanacharison's 12 warriors. Washington and Tanacharison agreed to attack the encampment. Washington ambushed the French, killing 12, wounding 2 and capturing 21. Among the dead was Jumonville. According to one account, Jumonville was killed by the Half King while he was reading the summons he was ordered to deliver. cessity

Washington expected to be attacked. Tanacharison attempted to convince the Lenape, Shawnee and the Mingo nation to join the Virginians at Great Meadows. With about 150 Virginians at Great Meadows, they began to construct a fort, which Washington named Fort Necessity. The fort was completed on June 3. By June 9, the rest of the Virginia Regiment arrived at Great Meadows. Colonel Joshua Fry was not with them, as he had fallen from his horse, broken his neck and died. Washington took his place as colonel. A few days later, 100 British regulars under the command of James Mackay arrived, but camped separately outside the fort.

Washington's intelligence told him there were 500 poorly supplied French troops at Fort Duquesne. He led the 300 Virginians out of Great Meadows on June 16 to widen the road. He did so without the support of many of the first nations he had counted on. On June 28, after a council of war, Washington ordered the withdrawal to Great Meadows. That same day 600 French and 100 Indians left Fort Duquesne led by Jumonville's older brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers. In order to keep ahead of the French force, the Virginians had to abandon most of their supplies. On July 1, they reached Fort Necessity.

At Fort Necessity, there was little shelter as heavy rain had started to fall on the 2nd. This turned the trenches that Washington had ordered to be dug into streams. Washington realized that he would have to defend against a frontal assault because the woods were less than 100 yards away, within musket range, making it possible for the French attackers to pick off the defenders. To improve the defense, Washington ordered his men to cut trees down and to make them into makeshift breastworks.

Coulon approached Fort Necessity using the road the Virginians had built. He arrived at Jumonville's Glen early on the morning of July 3, where he found several scalped French bodies. He immediately ordered their burial.

By 11:00 am on the 3rd of July 1754, Coulon arrived at Fort Necessity as the Virginians were digging a trench in the mud. The pickets fired their muskets and fell back to the fort. Three columns of French soldiers and Indians advanced downhill towards the fort. Coulon moved his troops into the woods, within easy musket range of the fort. Washington ordered an assault with his entire force across the open field. Seeing the assault coming, Coulon ordered his soldiers, led by Indians, to charge directly at Washington's line. Washington ordered the men to hold their ground and fire a volley, but Mackay's regulars obeyed Washington's command, and fired at the oncoming Indians. The Virginians fled back to the fort, leaving Washington and the British regulars greatly outnumbered. Washington ordered a retreat back to the fort.

Coulon's men reformed and kept up heavy fire on Fort Necessity. Washington ordered his troops to return fire, but they inflicted few casualties. Heavy rain began to fall that afternoon, and Washington's troops were unable to continue the firefight because their gunpowder was wet.

Coulon was concerned that British reinforcements might arrive. He sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate. Washington did not want the French officer near the fort so he sent two of his own men, including his translator Jacob Van Braam, to negotiate. As negotiations were taking place, some Virginians broke into the fort's liquor supply and got drunk. Coulon told Van Braam that all he wanted was the surrender of the garrison, and the Virginians could go back to Virginia. He warned that if they did not surrender now, the Indians would storm the fort and scalp the entire garrison. Van Braam brought this message to Washington, who agreed to these basic terms. Washington could not read French, had Van Braam translate the document of surrender to him. It said that Jumonville had been "assassinated". Both Washington and Mackay signed the surrender document.


On July 4, Washington and his troops left Fort Necessity, marching away with drums beating and flags flying. The Indians and the French began to loot the garrison on their way out, which Washington was powerless to stop. Washington and his troops arrived back in eastern Virginia in mid-July. On the 17th, Washington delivered his report of the battles to Governor Dinwiddie. He expecting a rebuke, but instead received a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses. Dinwiddie blamed the defeat on poor supply and the refusal of aid by the other colonies.