On this day in 1754, George Washington unwittingly begins the Seven Years War with France, launching an inauspicious military career which would eventually win him the Presidency. According to many historians, the actions of the hapless young Washington would lead to a conflagration involving all the great powers of Europe; France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain on the other.
During 1754, while ancient rivalries and modern ambitions simmered in Europe, the fertile Ohio River Valley lay seductively between French Canada and English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. Both French and English settlers and traders increasingly expanded into North America in the first half of the 18th century, and possession of this region became vitally important. If the French could build continuous settlements along the Mississippi River, they could hem the British in to a limited area.
The French did not want the British to control the Midwest either. British control of the Ohio River Valley endangered continued French claims to the Mississippi and beyond, while both the English and French tried to ally themselves with regional Native American tribes to gain an edge. To such ends, a small British expedition arrived at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in late 1753 to begin construction at the site, known colloquially as “Three Rivers Stadium.” Just as swiftly, in February, 1754, 500 French militia ousted the British and began construction on their own citadel on the site which they named Fort Duquesne.
Enter a 22-year-old Washington, who had here-to-fore been an occasional surveyor of lands running west from Virginia. George gathered 300 volunteers and marched west in March, picking up Mingo braves along the way, part of the Iroquois Nation led by hot-blooded Chief Half King. Hearing rumors the Virginia militia was on the march, the French dispatched Joseph Coulon de Villars de Jumonville with 35 men to scout south of Fort Duquesne. Washington learned of the French approach on May 27th from Half King’s Indian scouts and advanced through the night to meet them.
The next day, Washington and his men located the French party and laid in wait. Sources disagree on who fired first, but Washington’s men quickly ambushed the French, killing 10 and wounding 21 more, including Jumonville, who was taken prisoner. The language barrier made interrogation difficult for the mono-lingual Washington, and before he could make any progress, Half King charged Jumonville without warning burying a tomahawk in the Frenchman’s skull and killing him instantly before George’s shocked eyes; escalation was at hand.
Expecting a French reprisal, Washington retired to Great Meadows near modern day Uniontown, Pennsylvania to construct a wooden outpost he appropriately named Fort Necessity, or Camp WTF. The French did indeed respond and reprise; Louis de Villars Coulon, Jumonville’s angry older brother, commanded the garrison at Fort Duquesne and led a force of 600 French militia and 100 Indians to exact bloody revenge.
Coulon arrived at a still incomplete Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754; Washington was badly outnumbered, in only partially prepared defenses. The French advanced and exchanged musket fire with the British, eventually falling back. As Washington’s men prepared for another attack, a heavy downpour began quickly dampening the gunpowder rendering the militia’s muskets useless. Coulon incorrectly believed the British might have reinforcements on route and sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate terms.
Coulon bluffed, offering to allow the Virginians to leave under terms, but if they refused he promised to unleash his Indian warriors. Washington understood the implied threat of using Native American braves, given the hatchet in the other Jumonville’s head. With far fewer soldiers and musty muskets, Washington had no choice but to capitulate. The language barrier again playing the deuce with him, Washington signed a surrender instrument he could not read; he and his troops marched away from a burning Fort Necessity in total defeat.
Upon returning to Virginia, Washington learned the surrender document he signed contained the admission that Jumonville was a diplomatic courier whom Washington had “assassinated.” That admission started the inter-continental conflagration in which well over one-half million souls perished; no mean feat from a post-adolescent surveyor who would one day become the Father of Our Country.