Military history

CHAPTER 4

Washington Steps onto the Stage . . .

1753-1754

THROUGH THE untimely deaths of his father and older half brother, George Washington had recently become the master of substantial plantation holdings in the Northern Neck and gained a somewhat firmer social footing. His father, Augustine, had stood solidly enough within the ranks of the Virginia gentry but made no pretext of equality with the province’s grandees. Washington’s own connections with the greatest of the Northern Neck families, the Fairfaxes, had been strong enough to get him invited, five years before, to help survey Fairfax holdings in the Shenandoah Valley, and thus to begin acquiring the knowledge that had launched him on the complementary careers of surveyor and land speculator. Fairfax connections had also secured two modest public offices, as adjutant general of militia and as surveyor of Culpeper County, which conferred a modest income and, more important, a degree of public status. Yet however highly Thomas, Lord Fairfax, may have regarded the young neighbor with whom he rode to the hounds, Washington never really amounted to more than a protégé.

His schooling had been haphazard, and much of what he knew beyond the basics that his tutors could provide—for example, his knowledge of surveying, of military tactics and strategy, of English literature, of polite manners—he had taught himself by reading. He had always been, and would remain, an eager self-improver; but he lacked polish, and he would lose his sense of social unease with agonizing slowness. Certainly he had not lost it at age twenty-one, when he was still recognizably related to the adolescent who practiced his penmanship by copying out dozens of maxims from a comportment manual. “When in Company,” one admonished, “put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered”; “Spit not in the Fire,” warned another, “especially if there be meat before it.” By 1753, the boy who had once found it necessary to remind himself to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, [and] if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it,” had grown to a towering height (six feet, two inches) and become a superb horseman. But he had yet to develop self-assurance to match his stature. Perhaps in compensation for the awkwardness he felt socially, and perhaps also in an attempt to govern a dangerous temper, Washington had already begun to cultivate a reserved, even aloof manner. He had few close friends and evidently wanted no more. Rather than companionship he yearned for public recognition, “reputation,” fame. Surely this ambition was what overrode whatever doubts he may have had when Dinwiddie asked him to carry the letter to the French, for to decline such a mission would have jeopardized his reputation as a public-spirited gentleman. Moreover, the opportunity to see for himself a region in which he had lately acquired a speculative interest was too good to pass up.1

Thus as soon as his instructions and the letter he was to carry to the French commandant at Fort LeBoeuf were complete, Washington left Williamsburg for the Ohio Country. At Fredericksburg he picked up Jacob Van Braam, a Dutch friend of the family who had once taught him fencing and who spoke French more or less reliably. At Wills Creek he hired the Ohio Company’s agent, Christopher Gist, to guide him into the valley, and retained four other backwoodsmen to accompany them as hunters, horse-wranglers, and bodyguards. 2 As the party descended the Youghiogheny to the Monongahela and the Ohio, Washington examined the country with a surveyor’s eye. He found that the Forks of the Ohio would indeed furnish an ideal site for a fort with “the entire Command of the Monongahela,” which would also be “extremely well designed for Water Carriage, as [the river there] is of a deep Still Nature.” Gathering intelligence as they went—from the refugee trader John Fraser at his new post on the Monongahela, from a group of French deserters at Logstown—the party learned that the French were in earnest about securing control of the valley. Perhaps even more disturbingly, they also learned that the Ohio Indians were anything but eager to help the English resist France’s designs. After considerable parleying with Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo chiefs at Logstown, Washington and Gist failed to secure a sizable escort to accompany them to their meeting with the French. When they left for Fort LeBoeuf on November 30, only Tanaghrisson and three other Mingos went along: hardly a large or diverse enough group to impress the French with the solidarity of Anglo-Indian interests in the west.

And indeed the French at Fort LeBoeuf, although they were impeccably polite and hospitable to the bedraggled party that arrived in the midst of a snowstorm on December 11, were anything but impressed. The rugged fifty-two-year-old commandant, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre (“an elderly gentleman with much the air of a soldier,” Washington thought, missing the measure of a man who had served his king at posts from Beaubassin in Acadia to Fort Assumption on the site of today’s Memphis, Tennessee, to Fort La Jonquière, 350 miles northwest of modern Winnipeg), looked upon Dinwiddie’s letter and the solemn young man who presented it with equal parts amusement and concern. “The lands upon the River Ohio,” he read in the governor’s letter, are so notoriously known to be the property of the Crown of Great Britain that 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, within his Majesty’s dominions.

The many and repeated complaints I have received of these acts of hostility lay me under the necessity of sending . . . to complain to you of the encroachments thus made, and of the injuries done to the subjects of Great Britain. . . . I must desire you to acquaint me by whose authority and instructions you have lately marched from Canada with an armed force, and invaded the King of Great Britain’s territories, in the manner complained of; that according to the purport and resolution of your answer I may act agreeable to the commission I am honored with from the King, my master.

However, sir, in obedience with my instructions, it becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure; and that you would forbear prosecuting a purpose so interruptive of the harmony and good understanding, which his Majesty is desirous to continue and cultivate with the most Christian King.

While Legardeur and his officers retired to compose a reply, Washington made notes on the dimensions and defenses of the small square palisade and the barracks that lay outside its walls and sent his men to count the large numbers of canoes (some 220, “besides many others which were blocked-out”) being readied “to convey their forces down in the Spring.” The French clearly meant business; and the reply that Legardeur gave Washington to carry back to Dinwiddie made it clear that they were in no mood to abandon their enterprise.3

The “rights of the King, my master,” Legardeur had written, “to the lands situated along the Ohio,” were “incontestable,” but it was not his job to argue the point. He would forward Dinwiddie’s letter to the marquis Duquesne, so that the proper authorities could decide what to make of “the pretensions of the King of Great Britain.” In the meantime, “as to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it. Whatever may be your instructions, mine bring me here by my general’s order; and I entreat you, Sir, to be assured that I shall attempt to follow them with all the exactness and determination which can be expected from a good officer.” To Washington’s chagrin, Tanaghrisson and his Mingos decided to stay and confer further with the French, but the Virginians had seen and heard enough. They left on December 16. A month later, after risking—and twice nearly losing—his life in a headlong return, Washington rode into Williamsburg, reported directly to the governor, and handed him the French reply.4

Convinced by Washington’s report that Virginia was now facing a crisis in the west, Dinwiddie asked the weary major to produce an account of his journey for publication and immediately summoned the provincial council. The members of the upper house, more tractable than the Burgesses, listened to Washington’s account, read Legardeur de Saint-Pierre’s letter, and agreed with Dinwiddie. The French, by refusing to “desist” from building forts and by declining to evacuate the Ohio Country, had committed “an hostility” within the explicit meaning of Holdernesse’s instructions; thus it had become Dinwiddie’s duty to drive them out, or at least to prevent them from proceeding further, by force of arms. With the council’s consent, Dinwiddie therefore ordered the raising of two hundred men, who would proceed under Washington (now promoted to lieutenant colonel) to the Forks of the Ohio and defend Virginia’s interests against further French encroachments. At the same time, the governor sent military commissions to the Indian traders and Ohio Company agents already in the region, thus giving the construction of the company’s strong house at the Forks the color of an official act. To William Trent—the brother-in-law and former business partner of George Croghan, now an Ohio Company factor in charge of fort and storehouse building—Dinwiddie sent a commission as a captain of Virginia militia, with orders to raise a company of men “to keep Possession of His Majesty’s Lands on the Ohio; & the Waters thereof.”5 John Fraser, whose storehouse and smithy the French had taken over as the nucleus of their fort at Venango, became his lieutenant; while Edward Ward, a third refugee from Pennsylvania and George Croghan’s half brother, was commissioned as the company’s ensign. Construction of the fort at the Forks, which would otherwise have started in the spring, was pushed ahead to begin immediately, in the hope of forestalling the French from seizing the site once the rivers became navigable. Finally, Dinwiddie notified the governors of provinces from Massachusetts Bay to South Carolina of an impending crisis in the backcountry and asked them to stand ready to come to Virginia’s assistance.

Only then, after all these preparations were well under way, did the governor call the House of Burgesses into special session and ask for the money necessary to pay for everything. Faced when they convened on February 14 with the fait accompli of war measures already undertaken, the Burgesses did their patriotic duty and appropriated ten thousand pounds, but only after attaching provisions that guaranteed them strict oversight of all expenditures. A war may have been in the offing, but the legislators were not such fools as to forget that the threat to their own authority (and even perhaps to their rights as Englishmen) came not from the French but from the rotund Scot who demanded that they outfit an expedition to the Ohio Country. The last thing they intended to do was to give an unpopular governor carte blanche to start a war that, for all they knew, would be no more than a pretext to expand the scope of the prerogative in Virginia government while enriching himself and his Ohio Company cronies at public expense.6

As Dinwiddie and the wary Burgesses circled one another at Williamsburg, fort-building proceeded apace at the Forks. Captain Trent’s company of volunteers arrived to begin construction on February 17—much to the relief of Tanaghrisson, who at last could point to evidence that the English intended to do more than just talk about resisting French incursions in the valley. Indians from up the Allegheny had already brought word that the spring floods would bring a strong French force to take possession of the Forks. The arrival of Trent, who brought a large present from the governor of Virginia as well as men, arms, and tools, meant that the Half King now had some hope of rebuilding his eroded influence over the Ohio Indians. Tanaghrisson himself laid the fort’s first log in place, declaring (through the translation of George Croghan, lately arrived to investigate whatever commercial opportunities the situation might afford) that the fort would belong to the Indians as well as to the English. Together they would make war on the French, he said, should the French try to intervene. These brave words had little to do with a current state of affairs in which the Shawnees, the Delawares, and most of the Mingos were already ignoring him. In the midst of a hard winter, with uncertain prospects for the future and with no reason to trust the English, they had no intention of doing more than biding their time and then pursuing their own interests in whatever Anglo-French confrontations might ensue.7

The depth and consequences of the Ohio Indians’ indifference became clear in March when the fort-builders began to run low on supplies, for the Delawares who lived in the vicinity of the Forks refused to hunt to feed the Virginians. Despite Trent’s willingness to pay well (“even Seven Shill[ing]s & six pence for a Turkey”), the construction party soon found itself living on Indian corn and flour. Thus even though everyone knew that the French would soon arrive, the shortages forced Captain Trent to return east of the mountains for provisions. Ensign Ward stayed on to direct construction, which was nearing completion on April 13 when word reached the Forks that a large French force was descending the Allegheny. Ward rushed the news to Lieutenant Fraser, who had been staying at his trading post, about eight miles up the Monongahela. Would Fraser come down immediately and assume command, until Trent could return and organize defenses? Fraser’s reply—that “he had a shilling to loose for a penny he should gain by his Commission at that time. And that he had Business which he could not settle in under Six Days”—was not exactly what Ward had hoped to hear. Still the plucky ensign declared that he “would hold out to the last Extremity before it should be said that the English retreated like Cowards” and urged his men on to finish the stockade. They had just hung the gate on April 17 when at least five hundred French troops appeared on the river in canoes and pirogues, carrying with them eighteen cannon. Beaching their boats near the fort, the troops arrayed themselves in ranks, marched to within musket shot of the walls, and demanded a conference with the English commander.8

The commanding officer of the French force, Captain Claude-Pierre Pécaudy, seigneur de Contrecoeur, was Legardeur de Saint-Pierre’s successor as commandant of the Ohio Country. Like Legardeur, Contrecoeur was a tough old veteran of frontier service. Governor-General Duquesne had ordered him to take advantage of the spring freshets and move his command from Fort LeBoeuf down to the Forks, where he was to lose no time in establishing the final fort in the chain that would secure the valley to New France. When Contrecoeur’s spies in the region reported that the English had begun building a fort on the site, he had moved quickly, and now he was undisposed to negotiate. He bluntly informed Ensign Ward that he could choose between immediate surrender and having his post seized by force. Ward weighed the odds—forty English volunteers and carpenters with next to no food in a hastily completed palisade, against a force of professional soldiers that looked to him at least a thousand strong, wielding enough firepower to blow his fort to matchsticks—and chose the better part of valor. Once it became clear that Contrecoeur would allow him and his men to leave the post with their honor and possessions intact, Ward made no further protest. That evening, as if to show there were no hard feelings, Contrecoeur treated Ward and his men to a handsome, and welcome, dinner.

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This Plan of Fort Le Quesne, the first accurate depiction of the French fort to be published in Britain, was based on a diagram drawn in 1754 by a Virginian prisoner, Captain Robert Stobo, and smuggled out of the fort by the Delaware chief Shingas. The cross-section to the right of the diagram depicts southeast and northeast walls, which were ten to twelve feet thick at the base and made of horizontal logs infilled with earth and rubble. The walls facing the rivers, less likely to be cannonaded, consisted only of a log palisade. The two ravelins— the arrowhead-shaped structures in front of the land-side walls—were designed as defensive outworks but, because of the small size of the fort, eventually came to house a hospital, living quarters, and a storage magazine. The stockaded barracks (hornwork) in which most of the troops lived, is not shown here. It lay northeast of the fort, a one-hundred-by-four-hundred-foot rectangle in line with the right-hand ravelin. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

At noon on the following day the Virginians quietly took their leave while Tanaghrisson “stormed greatly against the French . . . and told them that he order’d that Fort, and laid the first log of it himself.” His rage, fueled by the knowledge that French control at the Forks spelled the end of his regency over the Ohio Indians, was of interest mainly to himself. Contrecoeur ignored his complaints, surveyed the pitiable stockade that the Virginians had just finished, and decided to build in its place a fort worthy to bear the name of the governor-general of New France. The post that Contrecoeur’s men would erect at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny would be no mere palisade but a compact square measuring 160 feet between the points of its four bastions. Flanked by two ravelins and surrounded by a dry moat, the log-and-earth walls of Fort Duquesne eventually enclosed a small central parade ground, a guardhouse, officers’ quarters, supply and powder magazines, a hospital, a blacksmith’s shop, and a bakery. At first its bastions mounted eight cannon; more would be added later. The better to withstand a siege, the fort was outfitted with an interior well and a pair of latrine aqueducts to convey the defenders’ sewage impartially to both rivers. Although Fort Duquesne was never large enough to house its entire garrison—a stockaded barracks, or hornwork, had to be built nearby for that purpose—it could accommodate two hundred men in case of attack.9

Apart from Detroit and Niagara, it would be the most impressive military installation in the interior of the continent. One look could tell the story: the French had come to stay.

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