Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The French and Indian War: Outbreak 1754

If the whole Detachment of the French behave with no more Risolution than this chosen party did, we shall have no great trouble driving them [back to Montreal].
George Washington in a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, June 3, 1754

In the mid-eighteenth century, America's Ohio River valley was a disaster waiting to happen. Through what is now the southwest of Pennsylvania the territory went, and France, Great Britain, and the Iroquois Confederacy each asserted it belonged to them. Since Europe during the Age of Reason went to war at the drop of a hat, one foolish move in the valley could result in war. 

Some—like Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie—did not consider that deplorable possibility, though. After taking control of the Ohio Company, an organization of land speculators, in 1752, Dinwiddie set about tightening its grip on the Forks of the Ohio, the intersection of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. To hold the forks meant you held the rivers, which in turn meant you also controlled the valley. Hence, in order to legitimize his claim, he sent men to look for a proper site for a fort.

Marquis de Duquesne, French Canada's governor-general, did not like that development. To him, Dinwiddie's move put his own territorial dreams in jeopardy. First, in June 1752, he decimated an American trading post in the vicinity. Then, he had four fortresses built, one of which was located at the forks.
George Washington, the Virginia Colonel, 1772

Eventually, in December of 1753, a 21-year-old major by the name of George Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf, handing to the fort's commandant, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, an ultimatum from Dinwiddie. The ultimatum, which stated that the Ohio valley was "notoriously known to be the Property of the Crown of Great Britain," commanded that the French withdraw from the area. Legardeur refused: "As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it."

Having failed to get them to leave diplomatically, Dinwiddie decided to prevent the French from taking his beloved valley by sending Washington, now a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment, with a group of volunteers to the frontier. On April 2, Washington and his entouraged of 186 souls departed Alexandria, Virginia for the frontier.

During their journey, they learned that Captain William Trent, with two companies of 40 frontiersmen each, had reached the forks back in February, and with the help of a few native inhabitants was constructing a fort. Now, Washington was told, Trent and his men were not only running out of supplies but 800 Frenchmen were moving to give them a coup de grace. Trent pleaded for Washington to help him. 

Washington anxiously moved on. Reaching Wills Creek on April 20 he met Trent's ensign, Edward Ward. Three days earlier, Ward told Washington, 1,000 French troops landed close to the fort. As Trent was off trying to obtain some provisions, the fort was under his command. After he and his men had capitulated, the French—who were now under the command of Captain Claude-Pierre P├ęcaudy, sieur de Contrecoeur—destroyed their fort. 

On the very ground where it had stood, the French built another one, and it was named Fort Duquesne. Within its walls Contrecoeur received reports of the Virginia Regiment's advance. As much as he wanted to, he could not assail Washington; such a move was contrary to Governor Duquesne's orders. However, he could intimidate them. So he ordered Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville to take some troops with him and demand that Washington and his men leave. With 35 soldiers, Jumonville on May 23 embarked for Green Meadows, a clearing where the Virginia Regiment was now located.

When he heard of their approach, Washington believed the French were coming not to order him to depart but to launch a surprise attack on his regiment. Therefore, he had his men dig "a good Intrenchment" and make "a charming field for an Encounter" by having them clear away the vegetation. On May 27, Christopher Gist, who had served as guide when Washington traveled to Fort Le Boeuf and at one point saved his life, entered the encampment. A short time ago, Gist imparted to Washington, 50 Frenchmen went to his cabin 13 miles away, threatening to kill his cow and break "every Thing in the House"; then they moved on in the direction of Green Meadows. Gist guessed that the French were at this time very close by. With this information, Washington sent Captain Peter Hog, a middle-aged Scotsman who had recently emmigrated from Edinburgh, to intercept the French with 75 men. Dinwiddie, Washington reasoned, had not prohibited him from taking such a measure; he told him to "act on the Difensive" upon reaching the forks, "but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our Settlemts by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them." Otherwise, he was to behave "as the Circumsts. of the Service shall require."

Still, what Washington did was foolish in the extreme. Despite fearing the French were a part of greater force, Washington divided his regiment by sending Hog off. Now if Washington's supposition turned out to be to be true, the Frenchmen would most certainly annihilate Hog's detachment. If it proved to be the exact opposite, if the Americans outnumbered the French, an attack on the Frenchmen would incur the ire of Contrecoeur, ire that would surely result in reprisals for Washington and his men; but that was just what Washington wanted.

So, when Hog's detachment was nearly out of sight, Washington lied. Gathering some young Seneca warriors accompanying the regiment, he told them the French had arrived at Gist's cabin to look for their chief, their Half-King, Tanacharison so as to kill him. This conveyance, Washington would write, had "its desired Effect." The wrathful natives promised to kill any Frenchmen who harmed the Half-King, and they left the campsite in search of them.

It was 8:00 P.M. when a Seneca messenger arrived at camp, handing a message to Washington; it was from the Half-King himself. Wanting to link up with the Virginia Regiment, he led his warriors to a location in the forest close to Green Meadows. Along the way, they discovered tracks... French tracks. Having followed them until they sought refuge in a "low obscure Place," sending a messenger to alert Washington that Frenchmen were in the area. Leaving 36 men behind, Washington left the camp with 40 men, intent on attacking the French as well.

Through rainy woods they went, under its great green canopy, the calls of the various other creatures coming from seemingly everywhere, in "a Night as dark as Pitch, along a Path scarce broad enough for one Man." Puddle after puddle was disturbed by boots, which made a slopping noise upon impact with the mud: slop-slop-slop. Men accidentally crashed into trees... and into themselves. As the sun began to show itself and as the rain started to die down the following morning, May 28, Washington reached the Half-King's camp, six miles from where his own camp was at Green Meadows.

As the Virginians got some much needed rest after their miserable march, Washington and Tanacharison, with the help of an interpreter, consulted with one another about what to do next. Suffice it to say both men agreed to assail the French, resolving to "fall on them together."

In the rocky glen where they had set up their camp, the Frenchmen that misty morning were experiencing trouble in making a fire, the tinder, kindling, and wood too wet from the rain to ignite. At around 7:00 A.M., Washington arose from his hiding place to order that the Virginians' and Senecans' commence the ambush, and he surprised a French soldier nearby. The Frenchman alerted his comrades, but as they tried to grab their muskets, Washington signaled to begin firing. Shouting through the cacophony of battle—the roar of musketry, the cries of soldiers wounded and unwounded, the war whoops of the natives—Jumonville implored his assailants to cease firing; he was ignored. The French fell in heaps- ten or twelve dead would be counted on the field- as six natives, lacking muskets, "servd to knock the poor unhappy wounded in the head and beriev'd them of their Scalps." When the fight was over, in addition to those Frenchmen killed, 22 French troops became prisoners and two of them were wounded; only one Virginian had died. It had all happened within 15 minutes.

Writing to his brother John, Washington conveyed experiencing combat for the first time:

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 Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.

(This letter would be published in London Magazine that summer. After reading it, King George II of Great Britain looked up, facing his companions. "He would not say so," the British monarch commented wittily, "if he had been used to hear many.")

The engagement over, Washington walked among the devastation. He saw lying wounded on the ground Jumonville, who asked him to read the papers he still grasped in his hand. Jumonville stated that Washington had just committed an act of immense folly. He was leading a diplomatic mission, Jumonville told Washington, not one to begin a war. Right after Washington took the papers that substantiated Jumonville's claims, a Senecan, some say it was the Half-King, smashed the Frenchman's skull with his tomahawk, killing him; Jumonville's brains now spilling from his head, the native washed his hands in them.

Jumonville was right. Washington had made a huge mistake. He had fired the first shots of the French and Indian War, which would later become part of the larger Seven Years' War—a conflict that would be fought not only on the American continent, but in Europe and Asia as well. True, the war might have been inevitable, but by poking the French giant, Washington made it dream of reprisal.

Vengeance would be soon in coming.

Recommended Reading:

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: a Military Life. Random House Trade Pbk. ed. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. Print.

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