Our Forgotten War

The Thinker by Rodin

There is no lack of Civil War sites in this country. East of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it is hard to drive a hundred miles without running into a Civil War battlefield. I found that one rather obscure Civil War battle, The Battle of Ox Hill, was fought just a few miles from my house. This sacred battlefield has largely been desecrated. Shopping malls and apartment complexes now occupy grounds where hundreds of Confederate and Union soldiers paid with their lives.

There are also Revolutionary War sites that you can visit. These understandably are fewer and further between. Some of these have also been paved over. For example, the longest battle of the Revolutionary War, The Battle of Long Island, was fought in and around Brooklyn Heights. As you might expect since that time Brooklyn Heights has grown up. There is not much in Brooklyn Heights to remind you of the thousands who died in that long battle.

What about wars fought in the United States before the Revolutionary War? The British probably instigated the first, when in 1670 they laid siege to St. Augustine in Florida, which was then held by the Spanish. For most of us who studied history, The French and Indian War, which was fought from 1754 to 1763, was the first war of significance on the North American continent. Yet it remains a war seemingly lost in history. I did not expect that there were battlefields from the French and Indian War that I could visit. Yet there are.

Over our 22nd anniversary weekend last month, my wife and I ventured into Southwestern Pennsylvania. Our three-day mini holiday gave us ample time to explore the local area. Our trip was fortuitous because it allowed us to become acquainted with Fort Necessity. It is one of the few sites within the United States where the French and Indian War was fought. The more exciting parts of the war were fought in Quebec. The British eventually won the war. The spoils included most of the land in North America east of the Mississippi. This was not a bad deal for seven years of warfare.

The instigation of this war had long faded from my memory. A visit to Fort Necessity near Farmington, Pennsylvania helped jog my memory. It was at Fort Necessity that the father of our country George Washington suffered his first and only military defeat.

In 1754, there was no United States of America. George Washington was then a 22-year-old Lieutenant Colonel for the British Army. He commanded a garrison of over four hundred troops. They were charged with the unglamorous task of creating a wagon road into Ohio. Washington, perhaps in an attempt to show he was ambitious, appeared to provoke French troops that had claimed Western Pennsylvania. The French were encamped at Jumonville Glen, in what is now Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Depending on whose story you believe, either Washington’s soldiers were fired upon by the French or the French were surprised by Washington’s sneak attack. Technically neither France nor Britain was at war with each other at the time. Washington’s actions would change this. Ten French soldiers were killed in the attack and 21 others were wounded. It was what happened afterwards though that probably really started the war. Washington lost control of his troops, who decided to massacre the wounded French soldiers. Washington’s Indian ally, Seneca chief Tanaghrisson, put a tomahawk through the head of the remaining survivor, Ensign Jumonville. The French, once they got wind of the attack, were not amused. They went with larger forces in pursuit of Washington and his troops.

Fort Necessity

Washington withdrew to a great meadow near Farmington. There he and his troops hastily built a fort that he aptly named Fort Necessity. As you can see from the re-creation they did not have much time to work on the details. In fact, it took the French less than six weeks to locate the fort, which they attacked on July 3, 1754 and subsequently burned to the ground.

The “fort” itself was round, about fifty feet in diameter with a small storehouse in its middle. Constructed from local hardwood trees it was rudimentary and offered little protection. To defend the fort, Washington also ordered his troops to construct earthen berms from which they could fire at French troops. The French were quite successful picking them off from the woods during a driving summer rainstorm. Their defenses would not be enough. What would become known as The Battle of Great Meadows resulted in his defeat at the hands of 600 French soldiers and 100 allied Indians. Fearing a massacre, he negotiated for terms of surrender, which he later claimed to have misunderstood. The terms said that he personally assumed responsibility for the death of Ensign Jumonville. However, because of his surrender, his garrison was allowed to beat a hasty retreat back into Maryland.

Earthen berms at Fort Necessity

Washington and his garrison were lucky to emerge alive. Yet as subsequent events unfolded, he eventually got the last laugh. His skirmish and the subsequent battle instigated the French and Indian War, which the British eventually won. When the Americans eventually won the Revolutionary War this wild land west of the Appalachians opened to settlement and would eventually become part of the United States.

While there is not much to see of the fort itself, Fort Necessity is worth a visit. The meadows look much as they did when Washington and his troops camped there over 250 years ago. When we were there, it was both peaceful and bucolic. Nearby there is a visitors center. For $5 admission fee, you can tour the small but interesting museum and enjoy a twenty-minute engaging film discussing the battle and its repercussions. One of these was the sponsorship by Congress of The National Road, a first effort by our fledging nation to expand westward. The National Road comprises parts of U.S. 40 along this area of Pennsylvania.

My bet is that you, like most Americans, were unaware that our first president sparked the French and Indian War. Nor are you likely aware of Washington’s great failure at Fort Necessity. The site may not be large, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It took me to a time that on the American time scale is ancient. Perhaps after a visit like me you will find yourself inspired to learn more about the French and Indian War. For the history buff there is much to learn about the war. Moreover, you do not have to cross an ocean to appreciate it first hand.