George Washington experienced combat for the first time on May 28, 1754. “I heard bullets whistle,” he boasted to his brother two days later, “and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.” Britain’s King George II read Washington’s remark in a newspaper and reportedly quipped, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.” Washington would hear many more bullets whistle in his long military career, but he would never again find anything charming in the sound.
That first big moment in Washington’s military career took place at a small glen in southwestern Pennsylvania, about 50 miles southeast of modern-day Pittsburgh. Leading a mixed group of Virginia militiamen and Iroquois warriors, Lt. Col. Washington, then 22 years old, attacked and subdued a force of about 35 French soldiers as they sat around their morning campfires. After the fighting ended, Washington discovered the French had not come to fight, but to parley. By then, however, it was too late. The French commander, 2nd Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, lay dead at Washington’s feet, butchered by an Indian’s tomahawk.
The incident touched off the French and Indian War, which pitted the British and their colonial subjects against the French and their Indian allies on North America’s wilderness frontier. The French did not hesitate to select their first target in this new war: George Washington. His command, the Virginia Regiment, was a ragtag volunteer militia completely unsuited to all-out warfare. The French, meanwhile, had several hundred experienced troops at hand in nearby Fort Duquesne. “I shall expect every hour to be attacked and by unequal numbers, which I must withstand if there are 5-to-1,” Washington fretted.
Pulling back several miles south of Jumonville Glen, Washington led his men into a clearing known as Great Meadows. There they set to work building a small circular stockade comprised of upright logs covered with bark and animal skins. Inside its walls stood a tiny hut stocked with ammunition, provisions and liquor. Washington named it Fort Necessity and dubbed the surrounding area a “charming field for an encounter.”
The French found the location equally charming. Arriving on July 3, they discovered that Washington had sited his fort amateurishly. Hills surrounded and dominated the little stockade, and although the Virginians had worked furiously to expand the clearing, they had left a point of woods standing within easy musket range.
After skirmishing briefly with Washington and a recently arrived contingent of British regulars, the French seized the point of woods and spread out around the clearing, taking cover behind stones, bushes and tree stumps. From there they delivered a withering fire on Washington’s men, killing 30 of them along with all their animals. A heavy rain poured down, further dampening the beleaguered garrison’s morale.
After several hours of misery, Washington asked the French for a truce. To his dismay, he discovered the French commander was Louis Coulon de Villiers, brother of Ensign Jumonville, whom his Indian friends had killed in his presence just over a month earlier. Fortunately, the French were merciful, allowing Washington and his troops to put down their weapons, abandon the fort and return to Virginia. First, though, Washington had to sign articles of capitulation, written in French. As he penned his name, he did not realize the articles declared him the “assassin” of Ensign Jumonville.
On July 4, Washington led his bedraggled men—many stooped over with hangovers after having broken into the liquor stores the night before—out of Fort Necessity. This terrible humiliation might have crushed a lesser man. Washington learned his lesson with stoic fortitude, however, and moved on to take the first steps in what would become a magnificent military career.
Today, the National Park Service administers Fort Necessity National Battlefield [www.nps.gov/fone], about 90 minutes’ drive from Pittsburgh, which includes a modern Interpretive and Education Center and a re-created stockade. Dedicated historical interpreters staff the site in summer, and visitors can explore the neighboring glen in which Washington heard the “charming” whistle of bullets during the attack on Jumonville’s French troops. Also nearby is a memorial marking the grave of British Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, who was killed during a July 1755 battle in which George Washington, a year older and much wiser, distinguished himself as a brave and decisive soldier.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.