Battle of Fort Necessity

The burgesses had shown themselves indifferent to the alleged dangers from the French; and the chief magistrate and his advisers determined not to wait for the assembling of the legislature. Under the general instructions from the king, they authorized the enlistment of two hundred men to march to the Ohio River and build two forts there before the French could descend that stream or its tributaries in the spring. Major Washington was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel, and placed in chief command of the troops to be raised; and the journal of his mission to the French commander was published to arouse the people to action. Washington made his headquarters for recruiting at Alexandria, and authorized Captain Trent to enlist men among the traders and frontier settlers.

Governor Dinwiddie now convened the legislature, and sent an appeal to the other colonies for help in the work so gallantly begun by Virginia. All hesitated excepting North Carolina, whose Assembly immediately voted men and money for the purpose. The royal governors and colonial assemblies were then wrangling fiercely about the supremacy of parliament and the rights of the Americans. The former insisted upon the exclusive right of parliament to fix quotas, direct taxation and disburse moneys through the agents of the crown in the colonies; the latter insisted upon their right to do these things themselves in their own way. Universal jealousy produced perilous procrastination. The danger was imminent. The warm spring days were approaching, when the snows and ice would disappear, and the French might be seen upon the waters of the "Beautiful River."

After much debate, the Virginia House of Burgesses, who, as Dinwiddie complained, were "in a republican way of thinking," voted men and money. They authorized the raising of a regiment of six companies, and appointed Joshua Fry, an English-born gentleman, colonel, with young Washington as his lieutenant. To stimulate enlistments, Dinwiddie was authorized to offer as a bounty two hundred thousand acres of land on the Ohio, to be divided among the soldiers who should engage in the expedition.

Alexandria was made the place of military rendezvous. On the recommendation of Washington, the Forks of the Ohio--the site of the city of Pittsburgh--was chosen the place on which to build the first fort; and Captain Trent was instructed to employ his recruits in its construction. As the spring was passing away, Washington, who was yet at Alexandria, was ordered to join Trent with the advance of the military force and assist in the speedy completion of the fort. He was instructed to "drive away, kill and destroy, or seize as prisoners all persons not the subjects of the king of Great Britain, who should attempt to take possession of the lands on the Ohio or any of its tributaries."

Early in April, Lieutenant-Colonel Washington left Alexandria with a small force, and reached Will's Creek (now Cumberland) on the 20th. On the way he was met by a swift runner sent by the friendly Half-King on the Monongahela, bearing a wampum-belt and this message from the chief: "Come to our assistance as soon as you can; come soon or we are lost, and shall never meet again. I speak it in the grief of my heart." The French had been seen embarking on the Alleghany at Venango, and news of the movement had spread alarm among the barbarians friendly to the English. After giving the heated Indian runner food and a flask of rum, Washington sent him back with a belt and the words: "Your friend and brother is coming; be strong and patient."

As he approached Will's Creek, Washington was met by another runner, who said the French were at the Forks; and the next day an ensign from Trent's company came with the startling news that the French, a thousand strong, with eighteen cannon, sixty bateaux and three hundred canoes, had come down the Alleghany, under the command of Captain Contrecoeur, and taken possession of the unfinished fort. These numbers were exaggerations, but the fact remained that the French were occupying the important position at the Forks of the Ohio. They immediately finished the fort on a stronger plan, and named it Duquesnein honor of the governor of Canada.

Colonel Fry had not yet joined the advance. The young lieutenant-colonel assumed the responsibility of pressing forward with his handful of raw recruits--not more than one hundred and fifty in number--and a few pieces of light artillery. Leaving the borders of civilization on a cool morning in April, these pioneers penetrated the wilderness in the direction of the Ohio. Without shelter from cold and rain; in scanty clothing and with a small supply of provisions, they dragged the cannon over the great wooded hills; felled trees; bridged streams; made causeways over marshes, and removed rocks, to make the march of the main army easier; and late in May they stood on the banks of the Youghiogany, within forty miles of Fort Duquesne. There Washington received a message from Half-King, saying: "Be on your guard. The French are near, and intend to strike the first English whom they shall see." On the same day this report was confirmed. Ignorant of the number of the French, Washington fell back to a fertile plain which he had crossed, called the Great Meadows, and there built a stockade and named it Fort Necessity. It was near the modern national road between Cumberland and Wheeling, in the southeastern part of Fayette county, Pennsylvania. There Mr. Gist, who had a settlement near, came to him and reported that he had discovered the tracks of the French within five miles of the Great Meadows.

At about nine o'clock in the evening of the same day, a message came from Half-King, who was about six miles distant, saying that a party of armed Frenchmen were lying in ambush not far away. Notwithstanding the night was intensely dark and the rain was falling copiously, Washington immediately set off with forty men, in single file, for the camp of the friendly Mingo Chief, with whom he made arrangements to surprise the common foe and jointly strike him. The night had been consumed in the difficult journey to the Mingo camp, and it was after sunrise when the English and Indians, each marching in parallel lines, in single file, sought the hiding-place of the foe. It was found among some rocks. Washington, who was at the head of the party and carried a musket, when he saw the Frenchmen, shouted Fire! and at the same moment discharged his own gun among them. The volleys of the assailants were returned with spirit. After a fight for about fifteen minutes, when Jumonville, the commander of the French party and ten of his men were killed, the conflict ceased. Only one Virginian was killed. Twenty-two Frenchmen were made prisoners, taken to Fort Necessity, and then sent over the mountains into Eastern Virginia. Of the fifty followers of Jumonville, only fifteen escaped.

This was the first blood shed in the French and Indian war. So was opened by young Washington, who fired the first gun, that long and bitter contest for the rights of man which, like an earthquake, shattered into fragments the institutions of feudal ages which had been transplanted in our country, and shook the foundations of society in Europe.

This skirmish, which occurred on the 28th of May, 1754, made a profound impression. It was exaggerated by French publicists and diplomats. France and England were then at peace, and were saying sweet things to each other, disguising bitterest hatred with a cloak of false professions of friendship. The attack on Jumonville was denounced as an outrage by the French. It was alleged that Jumonville was a civil messenger, bearing a peaceful despatch, and therefore Washington was a murderer. This fiction passed into French history, and has never been expunged. There is no clearer point in national annals than the fact that Jumonville was the bearer of a hostile summons, and his skulking in ambush is proof of his hostile intention. Contrecoeur had begun war by capturing the fort at the Forks; and every circumstance justified the conduct of Washington.

Two days after this event, Colonel Fry died at Will's Creek, leaving Washington in chief command. A few troops pressed forward to join him, and he was burdened at Fort Necessity with about forty families of friendly Indians, among them those of Half-King and Queen Aliquippa. With his little army swelled to about four hundred men, he moved toward Fort Duquesne, when news came that M. de Villiers, brother of Jumonville, had marched with some Frenchmen and more than a thousand Indians to avenge the death of his kinsman. Washington fell back to Fort Necessity and strengthened it. There he was attacked on the 3d of July by six hundred Frenchmen and about three hundred Indians, a reserve being concealed in the woods. After a conflict for about nine hours, De Villiers, finding his ammunition to be failing, proposed a parley. It was now twilight. Washington, whose force was much inferior, agreed to surrender the fort and troops on the condition that he and his men should retire from the stockade with the honors of war and return to the inhabited portion of the country; the Virginians agreeing to restore the prisoners taken from Jumonville's party, and not to erect any establishment west of the mountains for the space of a year.

On the morning of the 4th of July, the two commanders, seated upon a log outside of the fort, with Indian chiefs and Virginia officers looking on, signed the capitulation. Then the troops moved away, re-crossed the mountains to Will's Creek, and returned to their homes, while their commander hastened to Williamsburg to report to the governor. The conduct of Washington and his men was highly approved; and when the House of Burgesses met, the thanks of the colony were voted them "for their bravery and gallant defence of their country." So ended the first campaign of the French and Indian war.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I