Soon after Gen. George Washington learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, he wrote a letter to an old friend. He described how his poorly trained Continental Army was already surrounded by the British military. And he said he’d been thinking of the anniversary “of the escape we had” with “grateful remembrance.”
Washington was writing to the man who’d been his second-in-command in his very first battle, more than 20 years earlier. It had been a blunder-filled disaster. They were forced to surrender.
But what happened that day triggered a chain of events that culminated decades later in the creation of a new nation, of which Washington would be the first president.
A little stage-setting: If all you’ve heard about Washington’s early years is the tale of the cherry tree, here’s what you need to know. His dad died when he was 11, he idolized his older half brother Lawrence and his mother was kind of bossy. She prevented him from receiving an education in England or a British military commission, like Lawrence had. He taught himself to be a land surveyor instead.
As for young Washington’s temperament, it didn’t resemble at all the staid dignitary who stares back at us on the $1 bill.
“Ambition is the distinguishing feature of his personality as a young man. He was also uncertain of himself socially,” says Fred Anderson, author of “The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War.” “And he knew he had a dangerous temper, so controlling that was one of the major enterprises of his life.”
In 1753, when Washington was 21, the colonial governor of Virginia made him a major in the colonial regiment, largely on his older brother’s reputation, and sent him on a mission to scout the forests in what is now western Pennsylvania. There were rumors the French were building forts there in an effort to block Britain from expanding its empire.
It was a terrific opportunity for the strapping young man to build his reputation. He kept a detailed journal of hacking through the wilderness, parlaying with Native American tribes, and bravely walking into a French fort and ordering its commander to leave.
The French commander “told me that the Country belong’d to them,” Washington wrote, and “that no Englishman had a Right to trade upon those Waters.”
When Washington returned from his expedition, the governor snatched up his journal without giving him a chance to correct his horrid spelling. It “was published in London in pamphlet form,” writes Ron Chernow in his book “Washington: A Life,” “giving the obscure young man instant renown in the British Empire.”
Washington was rewarded the next summer with a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Several hundred men were placed under his command, and they were sent back out into the wilderness. Along with two other units with more experienced commanders, their mission was to find and press the French to leave, but “act only on the defensive.”
By this time, the French had constructed Fort Duquesne, strongly reinforced at the forks of the Ohio River in what is now Pittsburgh. Washington and his men stopped 60 miles to the southeast at Great Meadows, where they cleared the brush to create what he called “a charming field for an encounter.” There, they waited for a battle, and for reinforcements.
Neither came. Eventually, Washington went looking for trouble. Alerted by a Seneca chief he knew from his previous expedition that a small group of French “spies” were a few miles to the north, Washington and about 40 of his men trekked all night to find them. The sunrise ambush that ensued was either accidental or extremely ill-advised, depending on whose account you believe. The Seneca chief killed the leader of the French band, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, moments after the young ensign claimed to be on a diplomatic mission.
Shaken, Washington rushed back to Great Meadows and ordered the construction of a stockade in anticipation of a French attack. They dug trenches around the humble fort, dubbing it Fort Necessity. And to add to the stress, he learned that his commanding officer, who had been leading the reinforcements, died after a fall from a horse — meaning 22-year-old Washington was in charge of the entire Virginia militia.
A few tense weeks later, the French attack arrived, led by none other than Jumonville’s older, very angry brother.
It didn’t take long for Washington to realize his blunder: The fort and its surrounding trenches were within firing distance of the tree-covered hills surrounding the meadow. The French and their Indian allies never left their cover for the kind of open-field battle Washington was expecting. They were hidden in the thick of the wilderness, firing down into the trenches at will.
And then it began to rain.
Thirty years later, Washington remembered it as “the most tremendous rain that can be conceived.”
That’s when Washington realized the fort was not only too close to the trees but also in the lowest point of the valley. Water flooded the trenches, ruining the gunpowder, so they couldn’t even fire back at the French. Soldiers abandoned their positions and ran into the stockade. But it was no use; they were fish in a barrel there, too.
After dusk, rain still falling, with a third of his troops dead or wounded, Washington sought terms for their surrender. A Dutchman in the militia translated the demands of the French. They were remarkably generous, asking only that the soldiers leave their heavy weapons and return to their homes. Plus, Washington had to sign a letter of capitulation that said he was responsible for Jumonville’s death.
The next morning, Washington and the other survivors marched out of Fort Necessity, bedraggled and embarrassed. Making matters worse, the Indian allies of the French harassed and stole from them as they made their retreat.
And the day of this humiliation — one that a soldier might remember his whole life?
July 4, 1754.
Things didn’t get better when Washington returned home. As it turned out, the document he signed had been translated poorly. It actually said Washington assassinated Jumonville, which, in the conventions of the day, was “casus belli” — a justification for France to declare war against Britain.
While many still lauded Washington for his bravery, this final blunder became notorious.
The war ignited that day between France and Britain and each side’s Native American allies became known as the French and Indian War. Tens of thousands of British regulars were shipped to colonies to fight and die on far-flung frontiers. Then it spread into a global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War.
Eventually, Britain trounced France. France lost all of its territory east of the Mississippi, and the British Empire and its subjects were poised for a long period of peace and prosperity.
Or so it seemed.
“I can only see the Revolutionary War as an unintended consequence of the Seven Years’ War,” Anderson says.
How? Well, the property-owning, Protestant white men of the Colonies had been perfectly content for some time to think of themselves as equal to the property-owning, Protestant white men of Britain. And the wide ocean between the two didn’t disabuse them of that notion.
But then a whole bunch of British regulars came over to fight the war. And they got paid more — a lot more — than the militiamen did. Even while Washington was waiting to be attacked at Fort Necessity, he fired off a letter to the governor, bitterly complaining that a small group of regulars nearby were making more.
“Why should the lives of Virginians be worth less than Britons?” he argued.
Then there was the matter of paying for the whole darn war. It was ridiculously expensive and the British government was deeply in debt. How better to create revenue than imposing a tax?
In history textbooks, the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a tax on American colonists importing paper goods, is frequently cited as the first act in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. But the framing is off, Anderson says.
“It is actually the first big consequence of the Seven Years’ War,” he says. And the rest is (the well-known) history.
So there it is. If Washington hadn’t screwed up royally at Fort Necessity, we might not be grilling hot dogs and running around with sparklers this Fourth of July.
Washington never surrendered again. He still bungled tactics sometimes, and there was that fog-aided escape at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, but never again did his shortcomings lead to military failure. More often than not, his ability to learn from his mistakes led directly to his brilliance. And to the immense role he played in founding our country.
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