On this day in 1754, a young Colonel George Washington surrenders his “Fort Necessity” to the French. It was the only time he ever surrendered.
At this point in time, ownership and control of the Ohio Country were hotly contested. Washington had been dispatched to the area with orders to “make Prisoners of or kill & destroy” anyone who disputed British control of the region. He had roughly 160 men.
Washington established a small camp near the French-controlled Fort Duquesne. He had intended to stay and wait for reinforcements, but he received a message that the French were approaching. Washington decided to go on the offensive. Early on May 28, he advanced toward the French position with 40 men. He was joined by about 12 Indian warriors. Together, the two encircled the French detachment of slightly over 30 men.
What happened next is disputed. Who shot first? Did the French try to surrender? Were they on a diplomatic mission? The Indian Half King spoke fluent French, but Washington did not. Thus, the Half King may have been left to interpret the French commander’s statements at a critical moment. Either way, the conflict was over quickly. When the dust settled, about a dozen Frenchmen were dead or wounded and 21 were captured. One of the dead was the French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville. In the French view, Jumonville was not a casualty of war. Not only was he on a diplomatic mission, but he had been trying to surrender. Thus, killing him was murder.
Washington decided to stay and defend the area. He began building a small fort, aptly named “Fort Necessity.” He wrote to the Virginia governor: “We have just finish’d a small palisadod Fort in which with my small Number’s I shall not fear the attack of 500 Men.” The Governor approved the decision and more reinforcements soon arrived, including a company of British regulars.
Washington tried to gain the support of Indians in the area, but they refused. Perhaps they knew what Washington did not then know: A large force of French and Indians was advancing toward Fort Necessity. They were led by Jumonville’s brother. He hoped to “avenge ourselves and chastise [the British] for having violated the most sacred laws of civilized nations.”
When Washington received news that the French were coming, he decided to retreat into Fort Necessity and to prepare “for our Defence in the best Manner we could, by throwing up a small Intrenchment, which we had not Time to perfect . . . .”
The French attacked on the morning of July 3, immediately benefitting from one of Washington’s mistakes. The inexperienced colonel had built his fort too close to the trees. Thus, the French and Indians could sit on the edge of this perimeter, out of sight, but still be within firing range of the Virginians in the fort.
Needless to say, the battle went brutally for Washington. The French allowed him to retreat with the honors of war, but he also had to sign a document of surrender. By one of the provisions in that document, Washington allegedly confessed to “the Assassination of M. de Jumonville.”
Washington later said that he did not realize what he was signing. The document was in French, and it was soaked by a heavy rain that had begun to fall. He was told that the word translated to “death,” “loss,” or “killing,” not “assassination.”
Colonel Washington led his men out of the fort the next day, with his reputation in tatters. It would be a full year before he had a chance to redeem himself.
Naturally, that is a story for another day!
David A. Clary, George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures (2011)
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography, Vol. I: Young Washington (1948)
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
Letter from George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie (June 3, 1754)
The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751-1758 (Virginia Historical Society; 1883)