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French & Indian War: Fort Necessity & the Battle of Great Meadows

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French & Indian War: Fort Necessity & the Battle of Great Meadows

The reconstructed Fort Necessity

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Fort Necessity - Conflict:

The Battle of Great Meadows took place during the French & Indian War (1754-1763).

Fort Necessity - Dates:

The French attacked Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754.

Armies & Commanders:

British

French

  • Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers
  • 700 men

Fort Necessity - Background:

In the spring of 1754, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched a construction party to the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh, PA) with the goal of building a fort to assert British claims to the area. To support the effort, he later sent 159 militia, under Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, to join the building team. Marching north, Washington found that the workers had been driven away from the forks by the French and had retreated south. As the French began constructing Fort Duquesne at the forks, Washington received new orders instructing him to commence building a road north from Wills Creek

Obeying his orders, Washington's men proceeded to Wills Creek (present-day Cumberland, MD) and began work. By May 14, 1754, the reached a large, marshy clearing known as the Great Meadows. Establishing a base camp in the meadows, Washington began exploring the area while waiting for reinforcements. Three days later, he was alerted to the approach of a French scouting party. Assessing the situation, Washington was advised by Half King, a Mingo chief allied to the British, to take a detachment to ambush the French.

Fort Necessity - Battle of Jumonville Glen:

Agreeing, Washington and approximately 40 of his men marched through the night and foul weather to set the trap. Finding the French camped in a narrow valley, the British surrounded their position and opened fire. In the resulting Battle of Jumonville Glen, Washington's men killed 10 French soldiers and captured 21, including their commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. After the battle, as Washington was interrogating Jumonville, Half King walked up and struck the French officer in the head killing him.

Fort Necessity - Building the Fort:

Anticipating a French counterattack, Washington fell back to Great Meadows and on May 29 ordered his men to begin constructing a log palisade. Placing the fortification in the middle of the meadow, Washington believed the position would provide a clear field of fire for his men. Though trained as a surveyor, Washington's relative lack of military experience proved critical as the fort was sited in a depression and was too close to the tree lines. Dubbed Fort Necessity, Washington's men quickly completed work on the fortification.

On June 9, additional troops from Washington's Virginia regiment arrived from Wills Creek bringing his total force up to 293 men. Five days later, Captain James McKay arrived with his Independent Company of regular British troops from South Carolina. Shortly after making camp, McKay and Washington entered into a dispute over who should command. While Washington held a superior rank, McKay's commission in the British Army took precedence. The two ultimately agreed on an awkward system of joint command. While McKay's men remained at Great Meadows, Washington's continued work on the road north to Gist's Plantation.

Fort Necessity - Battle of Great Meadows:

Late in the month, word was received that a force of 600 French and 100 Indians had departed Fort Duquesne. Feeling that his position at Gist's Plantation was untenable, Washington retreated to Fort Necessity. By July 1, the British garrison had concentrated, and work began on a series of trenches and earthworks around the fort. On July 3, the French, led by Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville's brother, arrived and quickly surrounded the fort. Taking advantage of Washington's mistake, they occupied high ground along the tree line which allowed them to fire into the fort.

Outraged by his brother's death, which he considered murder, Villiers pressed his attack through the day. Pinned down, Washington's men soon ran short of ammunition. To make their situation worse, heavy rain began which made firing difficult. Around 8:00 PM, Villiers sent a messenger to Washington to open surrender negotiations. With his situation hopeless, Washington agreed. Washington and McKay met with Villiers, however the negotiations went slowly as neither spoke the other's language. Finally, one of Washington's men, who spoke bits of both English and French, was brought forward to serve as an interpreter.

Fort Necessity - Aftermath

After several hours of talking, a surrender document was produced. In exchange for surrendering the fort, Washington and McKay were permitted to withdraw back to Wills Creek. One of the clauses of the document stated that Washington was responsible for the "assassination" of Jumonville. Denying this, he claimed the translation he had been given was not "assassination" but "death of" or "killing." Regardless, Washington's "admission" was used as propaganda by the French. After the British departed on July 4, the French burned the fort and marched to Fort Duquesne. Washington returned to Great Meadows the following years as part of the disastrous Braddock Expedition. Fort Duquesne would remain in French hands until 1758, when the site was captured by General John Forbes.

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