GEORGE WASHINGTON AT TWENTY-TWO
George Washington had returned to the Western Pennsylvania wilderness. He was with forty of his men and a few Indian warriors of the Mingo Half-King, Tanacharison. They were hiding on the bluffs surrounding thirty-five sleeping Frenchmen, one of whom might have been a French diplomat.
It happened so fast. Fifteen minutes, said Washington. And twelve scalped Frenchmen lay dead on the ground.
Did Washington fire first? And did the French Commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, plead for his life at Washington’s feet? Was Jumonville then hatcheted in the head by Tanacharison as he spoke, trying to show Washington his papers? Was Jumonville a French diplomat?
It happened so fast. But in the mind of the young Washington, it was a memory that would last. And it did so also with the French.
Thus started the French and Indian War. And for George Washington, it was about to get worse!
This site was below cliffs now called Jumonville Glen, on Chestnut Ridge in Western Pennsylvania. The attack [some say massacre] happened on May 28, 1754. Afterward, Washington wrote these famous lines in a letter to his brother. “I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.” What would happen next was certainly not so entertaining.
Washington retreated back across the ridge, knowing that a larger force from Fort Duquesne [now Pittsburg] was following him. At a place called Great Meadows, he built a small, circular stockade surrounded by shallow trenches. He only had time to clear the trees away in a 60-yard radius around the palisade. In his youth and inexperience, Washington had established his defense in the worst of places.
Tanacharison and his Mingo warriors knew it, and quickly abandoned Washington to await the arrival of superior French forces. Forces bent on revenge. Washington’s men, now numbering about 400, lay in the rain, in the water rising in the trenches. They listened to the Indian and French soldiers encircle the stockade within the edge of the forest. Hiding just beyond the clearing around the palisade and its trenches.
For eleven hours, the French forces fired. Killing or wounding more than 100 of Washington’s defenders. And suffering only a few casualties of their own.
Then a strange thing happened. Under a flag of truce, the French offered Washington an honorable surrender. A retreat with arms and colors. Why? They could have destroyed Washington and his men!
Yes, Washington was allowed to march out at the head of his column. But not before he signed the Articles of Capitulation. Articles that included, in two places [if you can read French], the statement that Washington had “assassinated” a French diplomatic envoy. That man was Jumonville!
Washington did sign the Articles Capitulation. And he had a French translator with him. Was he so desperate to extricate his men from further slaughter, even annihilation? Wouldn’t you have signed anything to save them?
The French government made a big point of circulating word of this “atrocity.” And of Washington’s “confession” in the Articles of Capitulation. The French made him the first “Ugly American.” Even having popular poems written about his “evil” actions. And it didn’t help Washington that he left behind his diary for the French to translate. How did he let that happen?
Washington maintained, for the remainder of his life, that his translator failed to warn him of that offending language. And that he would have never signed the Articles, if he had truly known what they said. True, the ink was smudged, and the parchment was wet with rain. But he was able to escape with most of his men!
What would you have done? If presented with an opportunity to escape further calamity? Sign the articles and disclaim them later? Perhaps that is what a good politician would have done. And Washington did later become our first President!
Regardless, this inexperienced, inept, and possibly untruthful officer returned home to Colonial Virginia. He had been responsible for the deaths of many French and English soldiers. He had surrendered his stockade and was the subject of French ridicule. What did Virginia do? Virginia made him a hero.
In a precursor of modern political process [now done through widespread digital social media], Governor Dinwiddie had published Washington’s report of his first trip out west. It was a brilliant piece of educational propaganda.
Dinwiddie wanted those lands, soon to be the American West. And the Ohio Company of Virginia had good economic reasons for wanting the best. Washington was already well known. So now he could do more for the cause.
Such is how the myth of George Washington began to grow. And such is how began the French and Indian War. And from those costs in fighting the French in America, the English placed taxes on the colonies to recover their losses. You know. “Taxation without Representation.”
The American Revolution would soon begin. And George Washington would be at its helm. This time turning against his British brethren, and now embracing his erstwhile French foes.
But George Washington would first return to the stage of this scene. Return with General Braddock and a full British army. But, as you might imagine by the tenor of my logic, it would not go well again!
Note: This article is Part 4 of a 6-Part series on George Washington in the French and Indian War. The entire series can be viewed on http://www.vanstockum.blog.
John WilpersOctober 17, 2020 at 10:37 am
Terrific history! I’d known some of the story, but your details really filled in some gaps. And your questions about what we’d have done…. I wonder…. Bravo. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
StephenOctober 18, 2020 at 8:27 am
Sad to think our tradition of ugly Americans goes back so far.