In the spring of 1754, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched a construction party to the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh, PA) with the goal of building a fort to assert British claims to the area. To support the effort, he later sent 159 militia, under Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, to join the building team. While Dinwiddie instructed Washington to remain on the defensive, he indicated that any attempt to interfere with the construction work was to be prevented. Marching north, Washington found that the workers had been driven away from the forks by the French and had retreated south. As the French began constructing Fort Duquesne at the forks, Washington received new orders instructing him to commence building a road north from Wills Creek.
Obeying his orders, Washington's men proceeded to Wills Creek (present-day Cumberland, MD) and began work. By May 14, 1754, they reached a large, marshy clearing known as the Great Meadows. Establishing a base camp in the meadows, Washington began exploring the area while waiting for reinforcements. Three days later, he was alerted to the approach of a French scouting party. Assessing the situation, Washington was advised by Half King, a Mingo chief allied to the British, to take a detachment to ambush the French.
Armies & Commanders
- Lieutenant Colonel George Washington
- Captain James McKay
- 393 men
- Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers
- 700 men
Battle of Jumonville Glen
Agreeing, Washington and approximately 40 of his men marched through the night and foul weather to set the trap. Finding the French camped in a narrow valley, the British surrounded their position and opened fire. The resulting Battle of Jumonville Glen lasted about fifteen minutes and saw Washington's men kill 10 French soldiers and capture 21, including their commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. After the battle, as Washington was interrogating Jumonville, Half King walked up and struck the French officer in the head killing him.
Building the Fort
Anticipating a French counterattack, Washington fell back to Great Meadows and on May 29 ordered his men to begin constructing a log palisade. Placing the fortification in the middle of the meadow, Washington believed the position would provide a clear field of fire for his men. Though trained as a surveyor, Washington's relative lack of military experience proved critical as the fort was sited in a depression and was too close to the tree lines. Dubbed Fort Necessity, Washington's men quickly completed work on the fortification. During this time, Half King attempted to rally Delaware, Shawnee, and Seneca warriors to support the British.
On June 9, additional troops from Washington's Virginia regiment arrived from Wills Creek bringing his total force up to 293 men. Five days later, Captain James McKay arrived with his Independent Company of regular British troops from South Carolina. Shortly after making camp, McKay and Washington entered into a dispute over who should command. While Washington held a superior rank, McKay's commission in the British Army took precedence. The two ultimately agreed on an awkward system of joint command. While McKay's men remained at Great Meadows, Washington's continued work on the road north to Gist's Plantation. On June 18, Half King reported that his efforts were unsuccessful and no Native American forces would be reinforcing the British position.
Battle of Great Meadows
Late in the month, word was received that a force of 600 French and 100 Indians had departed Fort Duquesne. Feeling that his position at Gist's Plantation was untenable, Washington retreated to Fort Necessity. By July 1, the British garrison had concentrated, and work began on a series of trenches and earthworks around the fort. On July 3, the French, led by Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville's brother, arrived and quickly surrounded the fort. Taking advantage of Washington's mistake, they advanced in three columns before occupying the high ground along the tree line which allowed them to fire into the fort.
Knowing that his men needed to clear the French from their position, Washington prepared to assault the enemy. Anticipating this, Villiers attacked first and ordered his men to charge at the British lines. While the regulars held their position and inflicted losses on the French, the Virginia militia fled into the fort. After breaking Villiers' charge, Washington withdrew all of his men back to Fort Necessity. Outraged by his brother's death, which he considered murder, Villiers had his men maintain a heavy fire on the fort through the day.
Pinned down, Washington's men soon ran short of ammunition. To make their situation worse, heavy rain began which made firing difficult. Around 8:00 PM, Villiers sent a messenger to Washington to open surrender negotiations. With his situation hopeless, Washington agreed. Washington and McKay met with Villiers, however, the negotiations went slowly as neither spoke the other's language. Finally, one of Washington's men, who spoke bits of both English and French, was brought forward to serve as an interpreter.
After several hours of talking, a surrender document was produced. In exchange for surrendering the fort, Washington and McKay were permitted to withdraw back to Wills Creek. One of the clauses of the document stated that Washington was responsible for the "assassination" of Jumonville. Denying this, he claimed the translation he had been given was not "assassination" but "death of" or "killing." Regardless, Washington's "admission" was used as propaganda by the French. After the British departed on July 4, the French burned the fort and marched to Fort Duquesne. Washington returned to Great Meadows the following year as part of the disastrous Braddock Expedition. Fort Duquesne would remain in French hands until 1758 when the site was captured by General John Forbes.