The Start of the French and Indian War and George Washington’s Military Career, Part II

By early 1754, it became clear that the French Colonists were pushing south from Canada to establish a presence on the western frontiers of the British colonies. A council was formed in Virginia among the the British Colonial governors then to determine a course of action. Companies of regular militia were called up and ordered to move into and fortify parts of the Ohio Country. George Washington, then 22-years-old, was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of a company of 150 foot soldiers with orders to march up from Alexandria, Virginia and defend the construction of a new fort. Up until this time, Washington had been a Major officer in Virginia and an adjutant, or regional administrator of the Virginia governor’s office.

After three weeks of marching, word came to Washington that about 1,000 French soldiers had taken hold of a British fort. Beholden to take counter-action, the Native American Indian Chief Half-King invited Washington to join him in a siege to take back the fort immediately or else he, Half-King, would no longer be able to defend his tribe against the French. A war council was called to decide what to do. It planned to set up fortifications at a spot on Redstone Creek on the Monongahela River in Fayette County, Pennsylvania some 37 miles wide of the fort in conflict. This new fort would be named Fort Necessity.

From there, Washington sent letters to Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia updating him on the situation and requesting the support of more soldiers and supplies, boats and weapons, as well as suggesting that it may be a good idea to ask the Cherokees, Catawbas, and Chickasaws to join up in support. Then, Washington sent a letter to Half-King in answer inviting him to Redstone Creek to join forces and attempt the siege.

The governor’s response came about three weeks later. Approximately 800 new militiamen were coming from Virginia, Carolina, and Maryland; so was money from Pennsylvania for the soldiers’ wages; and 600 soldiers were sent elsewhere in Canada to harass the French with intent to distract them away from focusing on the Ohio Country. Washington received this support and conducted operations outside of the small, newly constructed fort, Fort Necessity. By June 10, 1954, a little less than a month later, most of these reinforcements had arrived. But before that day came, Washington took a step onto one of the stones of destiny.

On May 28, 1754, Washington maneuvered a small battalion towards Half-King’s encampment and joined forces with him there in an attempt to expedite the assault on the French fort. But outside of Half-King’s camp, they encountered a French contingency of about 35 men led by one Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, a French officer claiming to be on a diplomatic envoy delivering a message of peace. Washington was suspicious and certain that this claim was just a hasty ruse to cover up a French spying mission. With tensions already high, and suspicions even higher, Washington initiated combat and engaged in victorious skirmish against the French contingent, killing Jumonville. This skirmish is now commonly known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen. And though in its immediate aftermath Washington was able to make it back to Fort Necessity and remain there for over a month, he would soon be surrounded and forced to surrender the fort to the French and withdraw back to Virginia. Its ultimate consequence was the outbreak of war between French and British Colonies.

Controversialy, Washington was considered culpable for starting the war. The French claimed he assassinated Jumonville. And such a grievance–the killing of a military officer–along with the already bubbling territorial disputes was enough to justify a legal war.

This war also implicated the various Native American Indian tribes allied and associated with the each side. Though about five tribes sided with the British and nine sided with the French, Native American Indian support waxed and waned as French influence laxed; the chiefs and tribes grew tired of the affair and the drama these colonists were constantly bringing, wishing to have neither to do with the French nor the English.

Two years after the commencement of war in America, the two belligerents would take up fighting in Europe as well–marking the start of the Seven Years War. It concluded with a British victory in 1763 resulting in the ceding of France’s territorial claims south of Canada and East of the Mississippi all the way down to Louisiana.

Washington later remarked, in a letter to his brother about that encounter at the glen, that, “I fortunately escaped without a wound, tho’ the right Wing where I stood was exposed to & received all the Enemy’s fire and was the part where the man was killed & the rest wounded. I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” (From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 31 May 1754,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0058. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1, 7 July 1748 – 14 August 1755, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983, pp. 118–119.]).

And so the man’s taste for war was licked.

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