We’re about to celebrate Independence Day in the USA. July 4th. A day of picnics, patriotic music, and fireworks.
But over twenty years before we declared our independence, some other really important thing happened on July 4th. It even involved George Washington, who was but a newly appointed Colonel in the Virginia regiment at the time.
In 1754, the British were pushing ever westward toward the “Ohio country,” which the French considered theirs. In late May, young George Washington arrived at a large natural clearing in present-day Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It was the perfect setting for a base camp. There was plenty of water and—ta da!—grass for his animals.
Somebody blabbed about Washington’s camp to the French, and they sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers southeast from Fort Duquesne (now downtown Pittsburgh) to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory. Determined to confront the French commander and learn his intentions, Washington marched all night with forty men. By dawn, they reached this spot, where Washington easily surrounded de Villiers and his men:
Jumonville Glen is as serene a place as I’ve ever been. Grassy paths wind through mature hardwood trees. The birdsong in the canopy is deafening. It is hard to picture anything brutal happening here, but it did. Some idiot fired a musket, and all hell broke loose. Fifteen minutes later, George Washington declared victory and took the French commander prisoner. He intended to treat him with the courtesies due a captured military officer. However, the Indians accompanying Washington adhered to no such rules. In fact, they saw the humane treatment of an enemy as weakness. They’d come for war, and scalps.
Without warning, the Mingo chief who’d accompanied Washington walked up to the French commander and bashed in his brains with a tomahawk. Washington was no doubt mortified, and not only because the murder broke all rules of civil behavior. He knew that when word of the incident reached Fort Duquesne, the Frenchman’s brother, a captain, would vow revenge.
He was not mistaken.
Washington and his men hastily constructed a fort, a circular stockade made of 7-foot-high upright logs, and covered it with bark and skins. Inside, a tiny hut housed ammunition and provisions.
Washington called for reinforcements, and by July 1st, he had nearly 400 troops under his command, some of them listed HERE. It would not be enough to defeat the large force of French and Indians advancing on them. On July 2nd, Washington ordered his men to dig trenches. On the rainy morning of July 3rd, the French and Indians arrived, and a battle broke out. The rain turned torrential, and filled the trenches Washington’s bedraggled men had dug only the day before. Everything was drenched, including the gunpowder, which silenced Washington’s weapons.
The fight was over.
The French did not know when British reinforcements might arrive, so the commander sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate a surrender. All he wanted was the surrender of the garrison, and he said if Washington accepted the terms, the Virginians could go home. He warned, however, that if they did not surrender at once, he would unleash the Indians on the fort, and all of them would be scalped. Washington agreed to the terms, which were given to him in writing. Had he been able to read French, he probably wouldn’t have signed it, for it essentially confessed to the “assassination” of the French officer, Joseph Coulon de Villiers at what is now Jumonville Glen.
On July 4, Washington and his troops abandoned Fort Necessity.
The French later used Washington’s “confession” to discredit the British.