Military history



MAY 28, 1754

THE RAIN HAD fallen all night, a steady, miserable rain; and when at last the light grew to the point that he could see his troops, George Washington realized that seven of them were lost in the forest, God knew where. For hours he had blundered through the dripping dark, time and again leading the little column off the trail, sometimes taking a quarter hour just to grope his way back to the track. Confused, untrained, and wretched, the forty soldiers who had somehow held together through the night were hardly prepared to fight any enemy, let alone one experienced in forest warfare. Nonetheless the tall Virginian led them on, following the Indian warrior who had come to warn them of their peril.

Toward daybreak the rain stopped, and the remnants of Washington’s patrol reached the Indian camp. There the soldiers dried and loaded their muskets while Washington conferred with the old chief who had summoned him. Tanaghrisson, called the “Half King” by the English who regarded him as an ally, described the tracks he had seen nearby. They led toward a sheltered place he knew; there, he suspected, the French had been bivouacked since the day before. Washington’s soldiers could march to a spot nearby and wait while his own men reconnoitered. Once the warriors knew the enemy’s strength and disposition, they and the Virginians could fall on the camp together. Washington agreed.

He had no choice. However little he cared for Indians, however little he trusted them, he could never have found the Frenchmen’s camp without them. Surely he could not have found it in time to dispose his men in firing positions while the French, groggy with sleep, were just starting to cook breakfast at the foot of a tall rock face. Quietly his men and the Indians stationed themselves above and around the narrow glen, while on its floor Frenchmen still crawled from their bark lean-tos and stretched themselves in the early light.

As always in such affairs, no one knows exactly what happened next. Perhaps, as the French later said, the English fired on them without warning. Or perhaps, as Washington maintained, a Frenchman shouted a warning that sent his comrades flying to their arms and firing up into the woods. All that is certain is that the English fired two volleys down into the hollow while the French returned a few ragged shots and tried to retreat into the shelter of the trees.

But there was no escape. The Half King’s warriors had blocked the path, forcing the thirty-odd Frenchmen back into the clearing, where English fire pinned them down. An officer called for quarter, and Washington ordered his men to cease firing. Perhaps ten minutes had passed since the first shot.

It had been a lopsided skirmish. Around the rim of the hollow three of Washington’s troops were wounded, and one lay dead; at its bottom the French had suffered fourteen casualties. One of the wounded, a thirtyfive-year-old ensign named Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, identified himself as the detachment’s commander. Through a translator he tried to make it known that he had come in peace, as an emissary with a message summoning the English to withdraw from the possessions of His Most Christian Majesty, Louis XV. The letter he carried would make everything clear. His interpreter would read it.

As the combatants’ adrenaline levels subsided and the wounded men moaned, the translation went badly. The letter had to be read a second time, and Washington turned to take it back to his own translator. As he withdrew, Tanaghrisson stepped up to where Jumonville lay. “Tu n’es pas encore mort, mon père,” he said; Thou art not yet dead, my father. He raised his hatchet and sank it in the ensign’s head, striking until he had shattered the cranium. Then he reached into the skull, pulled out a handful of viscous tissue, and washed his hands in Jumonville’s brain.

The tall Virginian who until that instant had thought himself in command did nothing while the Half King’s warriors, as if on signal, set about killing the wounded. Within moments only one of the Frenchmen who had been hit in the firefight was left alive.

Recovering his composure, Washington now salvaged what he could by forming his men around the twenty-one surviving prisoners and hustling them to safety. Behind them, in the bloody hollow, the Half King’s men scalped and stripped the thirteen corpses, decapitating one and impaling its head on a stake. Then they, too, abandoned the glen, and crows flapped noisily down from the trees to begin the feast. Soon wolves would lope in to do their part; eventually maggots and beetles and ants would finish the job in meticulous silence.

By afternoon Washington was back at his own camp, groping for explanations and trying to plan his next move. Since boyhood he had dreamed of battle’s glory. Now he had seen combat but no heroism: only chaos and the slaughter of defenseless men. Why had it happened? What could he tell his superiors? What would happen next?

George Washington had none of the answers.1

THERE COULD HARDLY be a clearer example of a historical moment when events vastly incommensurate with human intention begin to follow from the efforts of an individual to cope with a situation run out of control than this otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning in May 1754. Nothing could have been further from Washington’s mind, or more alien to the designs of the men who had entrusted him with troops and ordered him to the Ohio Valley, than beginning a war. Neither he nor his masters imagined that they were setting in train events that would destroy the American empire of France. Much less could they have foreseen that a stunning Anglo-American victory would lead to yet another war, one that would destroy Britain’s empire and raise in its ruin the American republic that Washington himself would lead.

So extraordinary indeed were the events that followed from this callow officer’s acts and hesitations that we must begin by shaking off the impression that some awesome destiny shaped occurrences in the Ohio Valley during the 1750s. For in fact the presence of French troops and forts in the region, the determination of Virginia’s colonial governor to remove them, and the decisions of the French and British governments to use military force to back up the maneuverings of colonists deep in the American interior all resulted from the unusually powerful coincidence of some very ordinary human factors: ambition and avarice, fear and misunderstanding, miscalculation and mischance. How such a combination could produce a backwoods massacre is not, perhaps, hard to imagine. How that particular butchery gave rise to the greatest war of the eighteenth century, however, is less easy to explain. To understand it, we must first chart the paths by which the interests of the Iroquois Confederacy, the government of New France, the governor of Virginia, and a group of Anglo-American land speculators all converged, in the spring of 1754, at the spot where the Allegheny joins the Monongahela and the Ohio’s waters begin their long descent through the heart of America to the Mississippi, and the sea.

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