Rediscovering Colonial America: The Fort Necessity Campaign – 1754

This year marks the 260th Anniversary of Braddock’s Defeat on July 9, 1755, during the Battle of Monongahela located in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Most of those who live in Frederick and Frederick County, have likely heard the name Braddock, as Braddock Heights was named after him. There are signs located along the National Road, one at Frederick, near the Route 40 mall, that describes his movements toward modern-day Pittsburgh to take out a French fort there called Fort Duquesne. However, before we get to that part of the story, we need to discuss some of the events that took place prior to Braddock’s defeat as he was ordered to take the Forks of the Ohio.

First, why were the Forks of the Ohio so important? The Ohio Country was an area of land investments called the Ohio Company in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, which encompassed all of Ohio, parts of western Virginia, and western Maryland. In 1747, Lancaster Treaty was signed by the colony of Virginia and the Iroquois Indians. This would allow Virginia to trade and prospect legally in the Ohio Country. The Ohio Company was created in 1748 by Thomas Lee and Lawrence and Augustine Washington. It wasn’t long afterward, that the French showed an interest in the Ohio County. Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie was concerned about the French taking control of the area called the Forks of the Ohio, where modern Pittsburgh, PA is located. The forks were in reference to the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River coming together and forming the Ohio River.

The Ohio Valley was the central key in the Ohio Company. Control of the Ohio Valley and the rivers was of big interest to several colonies, as well as the French. Whoever controls the valley would control the flow of goods in North America. Prior to 1753, Governor Dinwiddie had asked the British government numerous times for support by giving governors in the colonies the powers to stop the French incursions into the Ohio Valley by means of militia. This would protect the investments of the Ohio Company.

In October of 1753, a young 21 year old George Washington, a major in the Virginia militia was ordered by Dinwiddie to head west to the Ohio Country. He was to deliver an ultimatum to the French who were building a series fortifications along the Allegheny River. The French were being warned that they were encroaching on lands that were claimed by several of the colonies, including the colony of Virginia. By December, Washington was at French Fort Le Boeuf, meeting with the French official. Washington also saw signs of the French massing troops for a possible movement to the Forks of the Ohio in the Spring.

The French paid no attention to the ultimatum and Washington returned to Williamsburg, Virginia, arriving there in January of 1754.  While Washington’s negotiation with the French failed, Governor Dinwiddie ordered a small detachment of Virginia militia under Captain William Trent to the Forks of the Ohio to build Fort Prince George. The fort was to protect the lands and employees of the Ohio Company. As Dinwiddie prepared his next movement, he viewed the French response as an act of aggression that was suitable for military action.

Dinwiddie also began mobilizing troops for a push into the wilderness to protect the lands of the Ohio Company. Any colonials that signed up would have a small investment with Ohio Company. On March 2, Governor Dinwiddie ordered Washington to begin recruiting for the Virginia regiment in an attempt to move to the Forks of the Ohio. By March 20, Major Washington received his Lieutenant Colonel commission and was ordered to take the men he recruited, and move out as soon as possible.  Washington was tasked with helping to resupply the English fort on the forks.

On April 2, Washington began moving out of Alexandria, Virginia with about 120 colonial soldiers. Colonel Joshua Fry remained behind with the majority of the Virginia Regiment. Moving westward, Washington entered Winchester, Virginia on April 10. There, he spent several days, lessening the load of his wagon train. He knew that once he got past Wills Creek (Cumberland, MD), the wagon would cause problems, as roads were not established beyond that point.

Eight days later, after arriving at Winchester, Washington began moving westward toward the mountains. He arrived at Wills Creek on April 20, 160 miles from the Forks of the Ohio. While in route to Wills Creek, Washington learned of the surrender of the fort that he was to be resupplying. Stunned, Washington didn’t want to believe it. But the couriers were correct as the unfinished fort at the Forks of the Ohio surrendered on April 17, without firing a single shot at the French. The colonials stationed there fled to safety but the French then quickly began building Fort Duquesne in its place.

On April 23, Washington held a council of war. He was told by traders and friendly Indians that a large French force was occupying the forks. Washington decided to move forward to the forks. By April 25, Washington moved out of Wills Creek and began cutting in roads for the wagons and artillery to use by Colonel Fry.

By May 7, Washington made twenty miles. If Washington came under attack, there were no reinforcements that could come to aid in time. Colonial troops from North Carolina and British Regulars from New York and South Carolina were on the move. The Regulars from South Carolina, under the command of Captain James Mackay, would eventually converge at Wills Creek in late May early June.

On May 12, Washington learned that Colonel Fry, with the other half of the Virginia Regiment, was at Winchester. Washington also learned that the troops from North Carolina, under Colonel James Innes, were not far behind Colonel Fry. Plus, Maryland might raise 200 men for the expedition. By May 24, Washington was at Great Meadows, a natural opening in the wilderness. Five days later, a small stockade fort would be built on its location.  This fort would be known as Fort Necessity, a fitting name for the fort that was to store supplies. The actual fort was finished on June 3.

Late in the day on May 27, Washington learned of a small French and Canadian force led by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, who were encamped near his position. The French officer had orders to deliver a similar warning that Washington, a few months prior, had given the French. At dark, Washington, along with forty colonials, left Great Meadows to find the French.

Jumonville Glen
Jumonville Glen

At dawn on May 28, Washington met with Half-King, an Indian ally, and began planning an attack. The French camp was soon surrounded and then a shot was fired, sparking the first battle of what became known as the French and Indian War. Fifteen minutes later, when the smoke cleared, 13 Frenchmen were dead and 21 were captured. Washington’s casualties were one man killed and two or three wounded. Among the dead Frenchmen was Jumonville, who the French say was a diplomat. During the fight, the Frenchmen escaped and reported the action to their superiors at Fort Duquesne. Washington quickly fell back to Fort Necessity.

On May 31, Washington learned that Colonel Fry had died at Wills Creek, and that he was to assume command of the Virginia regiment. By June 6, Washington had expected a French attack, but so far none came. Three days later, the remainder of the Virginia regiment had made it to Fort Necessity. Washington also became aware that Captain Mackay, with the South Carolina Regulars, was at Wills Creek. By June 12, Captain Mackay arrived with his troops, and since he was a regular British soldier, he felt that he should assume command.  However, Washington, as Lieutenant Colonel and acting commander of the Colonial forces, felt that the command was his. Captain Mackay ended up encamping away from the colonials.

While, Washington and his regiment worked on opening a road west of the Great Meadows, the South Carolina troops remained behind. Hearing of a large French force moving eastward, Washington falls back once more to Fort Necessity, where he arrives July 1.The next day, Washington improved the fort by adding small earthworks around the fort.

Fort Necessity
Fort Necessity

By July 3, some 600 French and 100 Indians made their presence known and began surrounding the fort. Washington fell back to the earthworks for cover, as the French were at the woods edge. As the battle began unfolding it also began to rain, turning the ground into a wetland. Firing was kept up till 8:00 p.m. when French commander Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers requested a truce. The truce was to discuss terms of Washington’s surrender. Near midnight, the terms were signed by both Washington and Captain Mackay. Due to a translation error, Washington was now viewed as an assassin for the killing of Jumonville.

By morning of July 4, the colonials and British troops marched out of Fort Necessity marched back to Wills Creek. Washington returned to Virginia in mid July and gave his report to Dinwiddie. Washington was not blamed for the Fort Necessity surrender. Washington eventually resigned from the Virginia regiment when it was reorganized, and he would receive a demotion in rank.

Now that war was coming, Britain and France began sending more troops to North America. British Major General Edward Braddock would be ordered to America with two regiments of troops for a campaign to take the Forks of the Ohio in 1755. The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, would become the first official World War.

Alberts, Robert. A Charming Field for an Encounter. National Park Service, Washington D.C. 1975.
Axelrod, Alan. Blooding at Great Meadows, Running Press, Philadelphia, PA. 2007. Trudel, Marcel. The Jumonville Affair, Eastern National, 2002 edition.
Washington, George.
Additional Resources:
Fort Necessity National Battlefield:

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