Military history


. . . And Stumbles


ON THE DAY that Ensign Ward and his men abandoned the Forks to Contrecoeur, Lieutenant Colonel Washington was still toiling up the eastern slope of the Alleghenies, marching his troops toward the Wills Creek storehouse. He had not been able to leave Alexandria until April 2, after failing to enlist the 200 men he had been commissioned to raise and conduct to the Ohio Country. When the news of Ward’s surrender reached Washington on April 20, the Virginia Regiment consisted of fewer than 160 untrained, poorly equipped, inadequately supplied, badly clothed soldiers. The only reason that most of the men had enlisted was Washington’s promise that, upon completion of their service, they would receive land grants near the fort they were going to defend. The pay they had been promised—eightpence per day, or only a bit more than one-third of a laborer’s wage—was certainly no inducement. Nor were the leaders of the expedition pleased with their own salaries. Washington himself complained to Dinwiddie of the paltriness of the pay and indeed only kept his company commanders from resigning over the issue by appealing to their sense of honor. Dinwiddie, who had no background as a military leader but who knew a contract when he saw one, remained unmoved by these “ill timed Complaints.” “The Gent[lemen] very well knew the Terms on w[hi]ch they were to serve & were satisfied,” he reminded Washington. If they had intended to object, their objections “sh[ould] have been made before engaging in the Service.”1

The governor underestimated the significance of the officers’ complaints, for pay was only one dimension of a larger, deeply disquieting picture that was coming into focus by the time the expedition reached Wills Creek. Dinwiddie had pressed forward on the operation with inadequate funds—the ten thousand pounds the Burgesses had appropriated was soon exhausted—and with little understanding of what it meant to launch even a small campaign in the backcountry. Given the governor’s background as a merchant and civil servant, this is perhaps not surprising; moreover, because Virginia had not raised a military expedition on its own since the end of the seventeenth century, there was no one to whom he could turn for advice. Thus an operation had been set in motion when no one, least of all Washington, knew what it would cost or require; nor did Dinwiddie and the Burgesses, obsessed with their own disagreements and determined to run the expedition on the cheap, care to find out. The consequences of inattention and amateurishness only became clear once Washington’s little force had left Wills Creek and had begun trying to accomplish its mission. The governor’s orders were clear enough: “You are to act on the Difensive, but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our Settlem[en]ts by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them.” As Washington would learn, however, it was one thing to take orders, and another to carry them out.2

For Contrecoeur had obstructed the works about as thoroughly as Washington could have imagined, even before the Virginians reached Wills Creek. Too few in number to intimidate the French, too poorly supplied with wagons and horses and clothes and provisions and ammunition to sustain a campaign, the Virginia Regiment had little hope even of harassing, much less killing and destroying, the French. Meanwhile the provinces, from South Carolina to Massachusetts, to which Dinwiddie had appealed for support, proved slow and grudging in their response. Despite Dinwiddie’s appeals for their help, no Cherokee or Catawba allies had appeared to join the expedition. On top of everything else, the empires of Great Britain and France were at peace, while Dinwiddie’s orders—issued on his own authority, without explicit direction from London—amounted to an invitation to start a war. Taking stock of this unpromising situation, a mature and self-confident commander might well have bided his time, awaited reinforcements, sought better intelligence, advised the governor of the state of affairs. Washington decided to advance.

He planned to push ahead to the Ohio Company’s fortified storehouse on Red Stone Creek, a spot less than forty miles from the Forks but more than twice that distance, over a narrow forest track, from his supply base at Wills Creek. Widening the road as they went to permit the passage of their wagons, Washington’s men made only two or three miles’ progress a day, a pace that at least allowed some hope that reinforcements would catch up to them before they reached Red Stone Fort. The Virginians, chopping and sawing their way noisily through the woods, could hardly have failed to attract the attention of Indian observers.

And indeed Captain Contrecoeur, at the Forks, was following reports of their progress closely as he pondered his options. It was clearly unwise to allow an armed and presumably hostile force to approach his unfinished fort. Yet he dared not strike preemptively, for his orders forbade him to attack without provocation. Eventually he decided to send an emissary to the English force and learn its intentions. Choosing as his representative the scion of a distinguished military family, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, Contrecoeur instructed him to determine whether the party had reached French territory. If it had, he was to send word back to Fort Duquesne, then seek a conference with the commander and instruct him to withdraw immediately from the domains of Louis XV. Jumonville left on May 23 with an escort of thirty-five men. Since Contrecoeur’s Indian informants had described a force several hundred strong, he clearly intended Jumonville’s small party to do no more than gather reliable intelligence and deliver his message.3

Washington, of course, knew nothing of Contrecoeur’s intentions or of Jumonville’s orders when he learned, four days later, that a party of French soldiers was scouting his position. Since May 24 his men had been encamped in Great Meadows, a marshy clearing perhaps a mile long by a quarter mile wide, tucked between the hills that flanked two imposing mountains, Laurel Ridge and Chestnut Ridge. Because Great Meadows halved the distance between Wills Creek and Red Stone Fort, because a constant stream ran through it, and because its grasses could feed the expedition’s draft animals, Washington planned to erect a fortified post there. The Virginians were accordingly entrenching, clearing brush, and preparing to build a stockade on the morning of May 27 when Washington’s old guide Christopher Gist rode into camp. At noon on the previous day, Gist said, a party of French troops had passed his trading post, a way station twelve miles to the north. He had seen signs of their march while riding to Great Meadows. The tracks were less than five miles away.4

Washington, concerned about a surprise attack, ordered Captain Peter Hogg to take seventy-five men and intercept the French between the meadows and the Monongahela, where they presumably had left their canoes. His concern changed to alarm after sunset, however, when a warrior arrived with a message from Tanaghrisson, who had encamped with a small group of Mingos a few miles away: the Half King himself had located the French camp just beyond Laurel Ridge, about seven miles northwest of Washington’s position. Washington, realizing that he had sent half his troops off in the wrong direction, decided that he had to take action. Setting off before ten o’clock “in a heavy Rain and a Night as dark as Pitch” with forty-seven men (half of the number left at Great Meadows), Washington made for Tanaghrisson’s camp. When the Virginians arrived at “about Sun-rise,” Washington and Tanaghrisson conferred, then “concluded that we should fall on them together.” Washington’s men, together with the Half King and several warriors, set off toward the hollow where the French had camped, then paused a short way off while two Indians went ahead “to discover where they were, as also their Posture, and what Sort of Ground was thereabout.” Then, as Washington described it in his diary, we formed ourselves for an Engagement, marching one after the other, in the Indian Manner: We were advanced pretty near to them, as we thought, when they discovered us; whereupon I ordered my company to fire; mine was supported by that of Mr. Wag[gonn]er’s, and my Company and his received the whole Fire of the French, during the greatest Part of the Action, which only lasted a Quarter of an Hour, before the Enemy was routed.

We killed Mr. de Jumonville, the commander of that Party, as also nine others; we wounded one, and made Twenty-one Prisoners, among whom were M. la Force, M. Drouillon, and two Cadets. The Indians scalped the Dead, and took away the most Part of their Arms....5

This was hardly a detailed account of the action, but it was the one that Washington was prepared to stand behind. He so nearly replicated it on May 29 in his official reports to Dinwiddie, and again (with flourishes appropriate for a kid brother’s consumption) in a letter to Jack Washington on May 31, that one might reasonably assume that he made his diary entry as a memorandum of record. His account was not, however, the only version of the skirmish.6

In the confusion of the firing, one of Jumonville’s soldiers managed to hide in the woods, where he watched the fight and part of its aftermath before slipping away to make his report. Contrecoeur described it in a letter to Duquesne on June 2: Contrecoeur, however, had a conclusion for the story, provided by another witness. An Indian from Tanaghrisson’s camp had come to Fort Duquesne and informed him “that Mr. de Jumonville was killed by a Musket-Shot in the Head, whilst they were reading the Summons; and the English would afterwards have killed all our Men, had not the Indians who were present, by rushing between them and the English, prevented their Design.”7

One of that Party, Monceau by Name, a Canadian, made his Escape and tells us that they had built themselves Cabbins, in a low Bottom, where they sheltered themselves, as it rained hard. About seven o’Clock the next Morning, they saw themselves surrounded by the English on one Side and the Indians on the Other. The English gave them two Volleys, but the Indians did not fire. Mr. de Jumonville, by his Interpreter, told them to desist, that he had something to tell them. Upon which they ceased firing. Then Mr. de Jumonville ordered the Summons which I had sent them to retire, to be read. . . . The aforesaid Monceau, saw all our Frenchmen coming up close to Mr. de Jumonville, whilst they were reading the Summons, so that they were all in Platoons, between the English and the Indians, during which Time, said Monceau made the best of his Way to us, partly by Land through the Woods, and partly along the River Monaungahela, in a small Canoe. This is all, Sir, I could learn from said Monceau.

Here, then, is a different event from the one in Washington’s diary. In Washington’s narrative the action occurs cataclysmically: the Virginians, in self-defense, unleash a deadly fire that leaves ten men dead and one wounded. The Indians take no active part until the skirmish is over, then scalp and despoil the enemy dead. Monceau’s version agrees with Washington’s only insofar as Indians are present but take no direct role in the combat. It differs in that the English fire first, in two volleys, after which the action breaks off: Jumonville calls for a cease-fire to allow the “summons” to be translated, and the French gather around him, flanked by Indians on one side and English on the other. Monceau slips away with Jumonville still alive and the summons being translated, sees no more, and hears no more shots. The denouement, provided by a witness from the Half King’s camp, describes Jumonville as the victim of an English coup de grâce administered before he can finish explaining his mission. Only the timely interposition of Tanaghrisson and his warriors save the French from being slaughtered by the English barbarians. As Contrecoeur understood it, then, what happened was not a battle, but an ambush followed by a massacre.

The disparity between these accounts, unsurprising insofar as the French and English governments both insisted that their troops were innocent of aggression, leaves everything significant in dispute. Was it a fair fight or a massacre? If only Washington’s and Contrecoeur’s narratives existed, we could never know. But two other accounts also survive, and between them it becomes possible not only to understand what happened, but why.

The most plausible, relatively complete version of the encounter in English was rendered by an illiterate twenty-year-old Irishman from Washington’s regiment who was not in fact a member of his detachment on the morning of May 28. Private John Shaw, however, heard detailed accounts of the engagement from soldiers who had been present, and he recounted them in a sworn statement before South Carolina’s governor on August 21:

That an Indian and a White Man haveing brought Col. Washington Information that a Party of French consisting of five and thirty Men were out [scouting] and lay about six miles off upon which Col. Washington with about forty Men and Capt. Hogg with a Party of forty more and the Half King with his Indians consisting of thirteen imediately set out in search of them, but haveing taken different Roads Col. Washington with his Men and the Indians first came up with them and found them encamped between two Hills[. It] being early in the morning some of them were asleep and some eating, but haveing heard a Noise they were imediately in great Confusion and betook themselves to their Arms and as this Deponent has heard, one of [the French] fired a Gun upon which Col. Washington gave the Word for all his Men to fire. Several of them being killed, the Rest betook themselves to flight, but our Indians haveing gone round the French when they saw them imediately fled back to the English and delivered up their Arms desireing Quarter which was accordingly promised them.

Some Time after the Indians came up the Half King took his Tomahawk and split the Head of the French Captain haveing first asked if he was an Englishman and haveing been told he was a French Man. He then took out his Brains and washed his Hands with them and then scalped him. All this he [Shaw] has heard and never heard it contradicted but knows nothing of it from his own Knowledge only he has seen the Bones of the Frenchmen who were killed in Number about 13 or 14 and the Head of one stuck upon a Stick for none of them were buried, and he has also heard that one of our Men was killed at that Time.8

As in Washington’s account, the French fire first, the English shoot back, and the Indians take no part in the battle except to block the retreat of the French and drive them back to the glen. As in Monceau’s narrative, a pause follows the firing; and, as in the conclusion furnished by Contrecoeur’s Indian informant, a massacre ensues, in which Jumonville dies of a head wound. But this time his assassin is not a savage Virginian but the Half King himself.

Several features commend this version, despite the fact that Shaw was not an eyewitness. Much of what can be verified in Shaw’s account is in fact more accurate than Washington’s elliptical, compressed narrative. He states the size of Jumonville’s command correctly: Contrecoeur’s official report noted that the party consisted of Jumonville, another ensign, three cadets, a volunteer, an interpreter, and twenty-eight men—a total of thirty-five. Shaw correctly describes the division of the English command into parties commanded by Hogg and Washington; he gets the size of Washington’s party and its Indian escort exactly right and the distance from Great Meadows to the glen approximately so. As in Monceau’s version, the French are eating breakfast when they discover that they have been encircled; and as in the anonymous Indian witness’s account, Jumonville is murdered in cold blood. Shaw gives a more accurate tally of the French dead than Washington—“thirteen or fourteen,” he says, as opposed to ten—a particularly significant detail since he takes care to note that he himself saw the remains. Even his comment that Tanaghrisson “took out [Jumonville’s] Brains and washed his Hands with them” makes good, if gruesome, sense. Once the tough meningeal membrane that enclosed the brain had been breached, as it would have been by the edge of a hatchet and the many sharp shards of bone driven into the wound, Tanaghrisson could easily have scooped out the exposed brain with his bare hands. Because the gray matter would have been the consistency of thick, wet plaster, the Half King could in fact have squeezed it between his fingers, seeming, as Shaw said, to wash his hands in the tissue. Most of all, however, Shaw’s version makes the best sense of Tanaghrisson’s role in the encounter.9

The Half King had compelling reasons to kill Jumonville in a public, spectacular way. After Ensign Ward surrendered the fort, Tanaghrisson had “stormed greatly against the French,” but the Delawares and Shawnees had paid him no heed. Soon thereafter he left the Forks as a refugee. His party, encamped near Great Meadows, consisted of about eighty people, mostly women and children, virtually all of them Mingos. Only about a dozen warriors had followed him. Everything about the group suggested the flight of a man, his family, and his immediate supporters. If he cherished any hope of reestablishing his (or the Six Nations’) authority on the Ohio, Tanaghrisson would have known that he could do it only with British support. The colonies with which he had previously dealt, Virginia and Pennsylvania, had proven so vacillating that he had good reason to believe that only severe provocation to the French—enough to cause them to retaliate militarily—would galvanize them into action.10

Tanaghrisson, then, had ample motive to murder Jumonville—and good reason, thereafter, to send word to the French that the English had killed him, then attempted to massacre his men. But what can we make of Shaw’s puzzling comment that the Half King split Jumonville’s skull only after first “haveing asked if he was an Englishman and haveing been told he was a French Man”? The final account of the battle, which Contrecoeur obtained more than three weeks after his initial report to Duquesne, holds the key to that riddle.

Contrecoeur’s informant was one Denis Kaninguen, a deserter “from the English army camp” whose name suggests that he was a Catholic Iroquois and thus most likely a member of Tanaghrisson’s party. Lieutenant Joseph-Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, commandant at Fort Presque Isle, transcribed Contrecoeur’s summary of Kaninguen’s statement before he forwarded it to Montréal.

[ July] The 7th, Sunday, at midday, a courier arrived from the Ohio [la Belle Rivière]. Monsieur de Contrecoeur . . . sends the attached deposition of an English deserter.

Denis Kaninguen, who deserted from the English army camp yesterday morning, arrived at the camp of Fort Duquesne today, 30 June.

He reports that the English army is composed of 430 men, in addition to whom there are about 30 savages. . . .

That Monsieur de Jumonville had been killed by an English detachment which surprised him[T]hat that officer had gone out to communicate his orders to the English commander [N]otwithstanding the discharge of musket fire that the latter [Washington] had made upon him, he [Washington] intended to read it [the summons Jumonville carried] and had withdrawn himself to his people, whom he had [previously] ordered to fire upon the French [T]hat Monsieur de Jumonville having been wounded and having fallen[,] Thaninhison [Tanaghrisson], a savage, came up to him and had said, Thou art not yet dead, my father, and struck several hatchet blows with which he killed him.

That Monsieur Druillon, ensign and second in command to Monsieur de Jumonville, had been taken [captive] with all of the detachment, which was of thirty men[.] Messieurs de Boucherville and DuSablé, cadets, and Laforce, commissary, were among the number of prisoners [T]hat there were between ten and twelve Canadians killed and that the prisoners had been carried to the city of Virginia [Williamsburg].

That the English had little food with them.

That if the French do not come into the territory of the English, the latter will no longer want [to] come into the land of the former.

That the said Denis Kaninguen had been pursued in leaving the English camp by a horseman, whose thigh he broke with a gun shot, [and that he] had taken his horse, and had ridden at full speed to the French camp.11

Here again is an exchange of shots followed by a cease-fire during which Jumonville tries to convey his message to Washington; and again violence cuts short the effort to communicate. But unlike John Shaw’s informant, who evidently inferred that the French words Tanaghrisson spoke to Jumonville were a question—Are you English?—Denis Kaninguen understood exactly what Tanaghrisson had said, and why he said it. The last words Jumonville heard on earth were spoken in the language of ritual and diplomacy, which cast the French father (Onontio) as the mediator, gift-giver, and alliance-maker among Indian peoples. Tanaghrisson’s metaphorical words, followed by his literal killing of the father, explicitly denied French authority and testified to the premeditation of his act.

All of this enables us, at last, to understand Washington’s behavior and attempt to conceal the truth of what happened in Jumonville’s Glen. Despite his rank as a field officer, Washington had never before led troops in battle. Commanding a body of men about the size of a modern infantry platoon, he seems to have behaved like any ordinary second lieutenant in his first firefight. Excited and disoriented by combat—he later described the hiss of passing bullets as “charming”—and in the midst of more confusion, smoke, and noise than he would ever have experienced before, he could hardly have been in full control of himself and his men, let alone of the Half King and his warriors. The effect upon Washington of seeing Jumonville’s cranium shattered is impossible to calculate, but it seems likely that the sight would have unmanned him long enough to allow the Indians to kill most of the wounded prisoners.12

That a massacre followed Jumonville’s murder, moreover, is the only explanation consistent with the casualty figures that Washington himself gave. Shots fired in battle almost invariably produce two to four times as many wounds as deaths, as the three-to-one ratio among the Virginia casualties attests. The scanty training of Washington’s men, no less than the inaccuracy of their Brown Bess muskets and the fact that men firing downhill will always overshoot their targets unless they have been instructed to aim low, makes it impossible to believe the Virginians killed thirteen men (or even, as Washington maintained, ten) while wounding only one. That a massacre followed the surrender of the French also makes sense of Washington’s abbreviated account, which collapsed events to make it seem as if all of the French soldiers had been killed in battle. It also explains Washington’s insistence that the French were spies and his repeated urgings to Dinwiddie to believe nothing of what the prisoners said. 13

Finally, such covering-up of the truth would have been consistent with Washington’s concern to protect a fragile reputation for military competence. The anxious undertones of the letters he wrote following the skirmish belied their veneer of bravado. On one hand Washington boasted that he had the physical stamina and courage to face whatever challenges lay ahead: “I have a Constitution hardy enough to encounter and undergo the most severe tryals,” he wrote to Dinwiddie on the day after the encounter, “and I flatter myself [that I have] resolution to Face what any Man durst, as shall be prov’d when it comes to the Test, which I believe we are upon the Border’s off.” On the other hand, the future left him worried about his capacities as a commander. Two weeks after the murders of Jumonville and his men, Washington would write that he “most ardently wish’d” to be “under the Command off an experienced Officer.”14

Thus on the day of the massacre Washington returned to Great Meadows and carefully composed his diary account. The next day, May 29, he wrote his official letters to describe the incident in ways just technically shy of falsehood and sent the prisoners (or, as he said, spies) under guard to Dinwiddie, along with an urgent request for more supplies and reinforcements. Concerned that a French and Indian attack would ensue, he also began pushing his men to finish the fortifications. By June 2 their small circular palisade, aptly named Fort Necessity, was complete, and Washington had prayers read within its walls.15

Prayer was certainly in order. Consisting only of a seven-foot-high circular stockade of split logs enclosing a shelter for storing ammunition and supplies, Fort Necessity was about fifty feet in diameter and thus big enough to hold only sixty or seventy men. Trenches had to be dug around its perimeter to shelter the rest of its defenders in case of an attack. Moreover, the situation of the fort and its entrenchments on the valley floor, overlooked by hills, made the position dangerously vulnerable to enfilading fire. So poorly sited and so dubiously constructed was this fort that only an amateur or a fool would have thought it defensible; the Half King, who was neither, tried to explain the ways in which “that little thing upon the Meadow” could prove a death trap. Washington, unfazed, brushed off the criticism in full confidence that the fort could withstand “the attack of 500 men.” The facts that he had never before built a fort or come under attack by any number of men at all did not shake his opinion.16

Washington’s behavior over the next month suggests that it was not merely foolish self-confidence that made him unwilling to invest more than minimal effort and time in the construction of Fort Necessity. Rather, it would seem, he neglected to take adequate defensive measures because he had no intention of making a stand at Great Meadows. He intended instead to advance and carry the campaign to the gates of Fort Duquesne itself.

Given what Washington knew about the French strength at the Forks—next to nothing—and what he thought was happening back beyond the mountains—that an intercolonial effort to supply and reinforce him was under way—his intention to take the offensive may not have been quite as deranged as it looks in retrospect. During the second week of June two hundred more troops arrived from Virginia, bringing with them nine swivel guns (small cannon capable of firing a two-pound projectile). Three days later one of the South Carolina independent companies marched in, adding about a hundred British regulars and forty beef cattle to the expedition’s effective strength. Washington had also been getting assurances from George Croghan, whom Dinwiddie had appointed as a supply contractor and who was with the army at Fort Necessity, that a great pack train would deliver fifty thousand pounds of flour by the middle of June. He had hopes of using Tanaghrisson and Croghan as intermediaries to attract Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos to the cause of expelling the French. How could he know, in the middle of June when he had four hundred men on hand and when things looked as if they would continue improving, that he had already received his last reinforcements, that no further supplies would ever arrive, and that the Ohio Indians had no intention of acting against the French?

A more cautious commander might have expected the worst and planned for it, but Washington was too inexperienced to see prudence as a virtue. On June 16, leaving the independent company to garrison Fort Necessity (Captain James Mackay, commissioned by the king, refused to place himself under command of a lieutenant colonel commissioned by the governor of Virginia), Washington marched his three hundred Virginians down the trail toward Gist’s settlement, Red Stone Fort—and Fort Duquesne.17

Over the next two weeks, as his men and horses struggled to move their baggage, supply wagons, and the nine heavy swivel guns over unimaginably bad trails, Washington began to learn the value of planning for the worst. Wagons broke down constantly, and horses died at an appalling rate. Every wagon abandoned and every horse destroyed meant that more of the army’s baggage and artillery had to be hauled by the men themselves. Each mile the column traveled became a slower, more exhausting mile than the last. When the expedition reached Gist’s settlement, Washington, Croghan, and Tanaghrisson met for three days with Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo representatives and tried to convince them to join the expedition against the French. They would have nothing to do with the plan.18

Tanaghrisson now knew that the situation was hopeless, for the refusal of the Indians who remained on the Ohio to follow his lead was clearly hardening into something much more like a willingness to take up the hatchet on behalf of the French. He could easily understand why. For the Ohio Indians to join the English would require them to abandon the valley and move their families, for safety’s sake, to the white settlements of Pennsylvania or Virginia, where they would live as refugees as long as the war lasted. Meanwhile their young men would risk their lives as warriors in the service of a government that had never yet shown itself to be a reliable ally, cooperating with a force commanded by a man who had yet to show himself to be competent; and for what? To enable the English to secure control of the Ohio Country, into which their settlers and their animals would move, like so many locusts, as soon as the French had been expelled. It was clear to Tanaghrisson that his position was now hopeless, and nothing could be gained by remaining with Washington’s force. When the conference broke up he quietly returned to Great Meadows, gathered his family and all but a few of his followers, and left for Aughwick (now Shirleysburg, Pennsylvania), George Croghan’s frontier trading post. There he would die, on October 4, the victim of a disease that his followers suspected was witchcraft. Before he died he would be heard to say that Washington was “a good-natured man, but had no Experience,” and that despite his utter lack of familiarity with woodland warfare and with Indians, he was “always driving them on to fight by his Directions.” 19 Who in his right mind would fight for such a man?

Washington regretted Tanaghrisson’s departure and sent a messenger to try to persuade him to return; but he had never been convinced that Indians could make a decisive difference in European-style military operations and therefore did not depart from his earlier plans to press on toward the French. If he would not be able to count on the Indians to help him attack Fort Duquesne, he could still advance to Red Stone Creek, build fortifications around the Ohio Company blockhouse, and await the reinforcements that he knew were on the way. Thus, despite dwindling food supplies and the steady loss of horses and wagons, he drove his men on, by sheer force of will, to improve the road from Gist’s settlement to Red Stone. His resolve held until June 28, when Indian informants brought word that a powerful French force had left Fort Duquesne with the intention of driving the Virginians back beyond the mountains. After pausing for a day to consider making a stand at Gist’s settlement, Washington and his officers decided to retreat.20

It was a wiser decision than Washington knew, for he and his men were in no condition to meet the force that was advancing from the Forks. Soon after word of Jumonville’s defeat and death reached Contrecoeur, his garrison had received a great reinforcement of more than a thousand men from Canada. Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Ensign Jumonville’s older brother, commanded this detachment and begged Contrecoeur to allow him to lead an expedition to punish Washington and his men. Contrecoeur had already begun to outfit a force of six hundred French regulars and Canadian militiamen, together with about a hundred Indian allies, and he readily agreed. Thus when Coulon de Villiers set out from Fort Duquesne in late June, he was at the head of the most formidable military force for a thousand miles in any direction. Traveling light, they quickly ascended the Monongahela Valley toward the Virginians.

Meanwhile Washington’s retreat had become a nightmare. So many draft animals died that the men themselves were forced to drag or push wagon loads of supplies and cannon a distance of about twenty miles in two days’ time. When the force reached Fort Necessity on Tuesday, July 1, further retreat would have been out of the question, even if anyone had proposed it. The men were too exhausted to continue, and reports from Indian scouts suggested that the French were not far behind them. Washington’s Virginians and the independent company therefore did what they could to improve their defenses and waited for the attack.21

On Wednesday night it began to rain. The luckiest of the men slept, if they slept at all, in leaky tents. Most lacked shelter of any sort. Long before dawn the valley floor had become a bog and pools of water lay deepening in the trenches that flanked the fort. At roll call on Thursday morning, only three hundred of the four hundred men at Fort Necessity were fit for duty.22

The French attack came at about eleven o’clock. Washington seems initially to have thought that his adversary would fight in the open, and he marched his men out to give battle on the meadow. Coulon de Villiers, a veteran of the previous war and able to spot the terrain that would give him the greatest tactical advantage, preferred to disperse his men along the forested hillsides that overlooked the fort. Realizing his mistake as the French force began to rake his formations with musketry, Washington ordered his men back to the stockade and its outworks. There they stayed, for eight hellish hours, while their enemies fired down into shallow trenches that offered little cover from musket balls and none at all from the rain. Sheltered under trees, at ranges as close to the British lines as sixty yards, the attackers had every advantage, including the ability to keep their muskets dry enough to fire. Since their firing mechanisms were not watertight, the English muskets exposed to the rain rapidly became useless; they could be restored to service only by the tedious process of extracting their balls and powder charges, then cleaning and drying their barrels and locks before reloading. Since the Virginians and the independents between them had “only a Couple of Screws”—the implements needed to extract the useless charges—by midafternoon almost none of their muskets still functioned. Trapped in trenches only two or three feet deep and half-full of water, exposed to relentless musket fire and unable to shoot back at the enemy even when they could see them clearly, the defenders of Fort Necessity made a compact, helpless target. By the time darkness fell, a third of them were either dead or wounded.

As the light faded, discipline disintegrated—unsurprisingly, since the troops, who had already endured enormous stress, now had every reason to think that the French and Indians would soon be slaughtering them like hogs—and men broke into the fort’s rum supply. “It was no sooner dark,” wrote one of Washington’s company commanders, Captain Adam Stephen, “than one-half of our Men got drunk.”23 Washington must have known that even if the rain stopped, his men would be unable to defend themselves against another attack. His first battle had ended in massacre when he had been unable to protect the French from Tanaghrisson and his warriors. Now, with his own men out of control, it looked as if his second battle would end in a massacre of another sort.

Then, at eight o’clock, as the firing from the French lines tapered off in the gloom of dusk and rain, relief came from an unexpected quarter. A voice called out from the tree line inviting the English to negotiate; Captain de Villiers was offering safe conduct to any officer who wished to discuss terms. Washington hesitated—was it a ruse?—then sent his old companion and interpreter Jacob Van Braam off to meet with the French. Captain Van Braam, who had been commanding a Virginia company, realized how very poor the chances of extricating the English troops were. He was therefore probably even more surprised than relieved to learn that Coulon de Villiers was offering a chance to withdraw from the field of battle with honor. He had come, the French commander explained, to avenge the death of his brother and his brother’s men. That he had done. If the English were now prepared to sign articles of capitulation, to withdraw from the Ohio Country and pledge not to return within the space of a year, to repatriate the prisoners they had taken, and to leave two officers as hostages at Fort Duquesne to guarantee the fulfillment of the surrender terms, he would allow them to march off the next day carrying their personal possessions, their arms, and their colors. But if the English did not agree to these terms, Coulon assured the Dutchman, he would destroy them.

Van Braam returned to the stockade with an account of the French offer and a rain-soaked copy of the capitulation terms for Washington to sign. He evidently did not understand, or at least did not say, that the nearly illegible document fixed responsibility on Washington for the “assassination” of Ensign Jumonville. No one within the stockade realized what Washington was admitting when he signed the terms, or understood how great the value of the admission could be to the French if a war should ensue. Nor did Washington, or anyone within his command, have any idea why the French were prepared to offer the terms they did. No one knew that the attackers were low on provisions and almost out of ammunition; no one could have guessed that Coulon de Villiers both feared that the fort would soon be reinforced and doubted that he had any right to take prisoners of war in a time of peace.

Inside the fort’s leaking storehouse, puzzling over a document they could not read by the light of a guttering candle, Washington and his officers knew only that they were being offered a way out, and they took it. Van Braam and another company commander, Robert Stobo, volunteered to remain with the French as hostages, and a few minutes before midnight Washington signed the instrument of surrender. At ten o’clock the next morning—July 4—the demoralized, exhausted, hungover survivors of the battle straggled out of Fort Necessity and prepared to drag themselves back to Wills Creek. Only then did they realize that the Indians who had taken part in the attack were not Ottawas or Wyandots, traditional allies of the French. With a shock, as one witness wrote, “what is most severe upon us” suddenly became clear: “they were all our own Indians, Shawnesses, Delawares and Mingos.”24

The Anglo-American forces had lost thirty killed and seventy wounded (many severely) out of about three hundred combatants on July 3. The members of the French and Indian party had suffered only three deaths in addition to an indeterminate number of wounds, most of which were minor.25

It was July 9 before Washington’s force had limped the fifty miles back to Wills Creek, carrying the worst of the wounded on makeshift litters. Washington made his first report of the defeat to Dinwiddie and requested that an additional surgeon be sent to help his regimental doctor perform amputations on the wounded men who could still be saved. His soldiers began deserting immediately and continued to do so, in groups as large as sixteen at a time, through the next two months. Those who remained, whether due to loyalty or mere lack of the physical capacity to desert, did not cease to suffer. “The chief part” of his men, Washington wrote on August 11, “are almost naked, and scarcely a man has either Shoes, Stockings or Hat.” It was no wonder that “they will desert whenever they have an opportunity. There is not a man that has a Blanket to secure him from cold or wet.”26

Defeated in spirit no less than in the flesh, Washington’s Virginians were incapable of further action. The triumphant French, in contrast, paused only long enough to destroy Fort Necessity, then marched for the Forks. By July 6 they had burned down the last vestiges of English occupation in the Ohio Country, Christopher Gist’s trading post and Red Stone Fort. Coulon de Villiers and his men entered Fort Duquesne to volleys of musketry and cannon salutes, welcomed as heroes who had completed the task Céloron had begun five years before.

The marquis de Duquesne, delighted to receive Contrecoeur’s report that the Ohio Valley was secure at last, ordered the garrisons of the Ohio forts to assume a strictly defensive posture, reduced their strength to a total of five hundred men, and directed that a subsidized trade be begun to insure that the Ohio Indians would not be drawn back into Britain’s commercial orbit. Confident that he had accomplished his mission, he wrote to the minister of marine, resigning his post as governor-general and asking that he be posted once again to the navy. In October, while he awaited the opportunity to return to France, he performed one of his final diplomatic duties, a task in which he probably took more than usual satisfaction. An Iroquois delegation had come from Onondaga to mend relations with the French. Far from being dead, as Tanaghrisson had wished, Onontio had become the overlord of the Ohio Country. 27

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