On the morning of July 4, 1754, Colonel George Washington marched his wounded and battle weary men out of the flimsy, wooden, palisaded circular defensive structure named Fort Necessity. Defeated on the field of battle, Washington had little choice but to abandon the aptly named fort in the face of a numerically superior French and Indian force that was determined to deny the British control of the Ohio Valley.

By the spring of 1754, competing claims over ownership of the Ohio Territory had reached their climax. The British Ohio Company had secured a large plot of land with the hopes of expanding trade into the interior ranges of America in search of greater profit. However, the French military had slowly expanded their presence in the same disputed territory and had ignored requests for immediate departure from the British government, one of which was personally delivered by a young George Washington in 1753. On March 15, 1754, with the obstinate French refusal to evacuate the contested lands, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia gave Washington orders to depart with his force of 160 men to build a road along the Monongahela River and help defend the British fort at Wills Creek (today Cumberland, Maryland).1

Finding the area at Wills Creek to be already occupied by the French, Washington decided to push further west toward Redstone Creek, before finally settling on the establishment of a permanent position in a large clearing known as Great Meadows (today Farmington, Pennsylvania). Washington selected the location for its apparent easy defensibility against assault from any side. While encamped at Great Meadows he received intelligence from a Seneca Indian by the name of Tanacharison, or the “Half King”, that a small French force was encamped only six miles from their current location. Hoping to capitalize on the opportunity, Washington set off with a force of forty men under the cover of darkness in order to find the French forces.

Upon locating the French soldiers encamped for the evening, Washington quickly devised and executed a plan for an attack on all sides, leaving by his accounts, ten dead with twenty-one prisoners.2 To this day disputes exist over the nature of the French forces, with it being unclear if they were simply on a diplomatic mission to deliver a message, or spies and soldiers with intent of attacking British forces. Among the dead was the leader of the French party, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who was brutally scalped by the Indian fighters.3

Following this skirmish at Jumonville Glen, Washington immediately returned to Great Meadows and began fortifying Fort Necessity in anticipation of fierce French retaliation.4 Fort Necessity was smaller and simpler than the average mid-18th century fort. Initially designed as staging area from which he could launch operations while awaiting a larger force of British regulars, the wooden structure stood alone in an open field incapable of withstanding a sustained offensive. Washington’s men dug hasty earthworks around the outside the walls of the fort from which they could easily fire on the enemy and take sufficient cover from the French volleys in hopes of holding out against the impending attack.

Reconstruction of Fort Necessity. MVLA.

The French would indeed strike back on the morning of July 3, with a force of 500 men and 100 Indians appearing in the tree-line around Fort Necessity. Washington quickly came to realize that the tree line provided ample cover and was well within musket range. The fight devolved into a standoff in a torrential downpour throughout the afternoon, with both sides sustaining significant casualties.5 

With soaking gunpowder and a fighting force with low morale, Washington negotiated and accepted terms of capitulation in the late evening on July 3, surrendering his swivel guns, but maintaining the rest of his equipment. In signing the terms of surrender, Washington unwittingly (likely due to a poor translation) acknowledged his role in assassinating Ensign Jumonville. That unfortunate political misstep, combined with open confrontation between French and British troops on the field of battle, lit the kindling that would burn into the French and Indian War. On July 4, a date he could not have expected to celebrate one day, Washington’s depleted force departed Fort Necessity in defeat. Even though his first significant mission as commander of troops was unsuccessful, George Washington had found his calling in life, “I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”6

 

Logan Davis

George Washington University

 

Notes:

1. “Robert Dinwiddie to George Washington, 15 March 1754,” The Papers of George Washington Colonial Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 75-77.

2. Ibid.

3. George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington,  vol. I. 1748-1770 (Boston: Mifflin, 1925), 87-88.

4. “George Washington to Joshua Fry, 29 May 1754,” The Papers of George Washington Colonial Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 117.

5. “George Washington’s Account of the Capitulation of Fort Necessity, 1786,” The Papers of George Washington Colonial Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 172-173.

6. “George Washington to Augustine Washington, 31 May 1754,” The Papers of George Washington Colonial Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 172-173.

Bibliography:

Axelrod, Alan. Blooding at Great Meadows: Young George Washington and the Battle That Shaped the Man. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2007.

Alberts, Robert C. A Charming Field for an Encounter: The Story of George Washington's Fort Necessity. Washington, D.C.: Office of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1975.

Clary, David A. George Washington's First War: His Early Military Adventures. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Hindman, William Blake. The Great Meadows Campaign and the Climactic Battle of Fort Necessity. Leesburg, VA: Printed by Potomac Press, 1967.

Buy Tickets What to See Calendar Shop Restaurant Donate Membership
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save