A skirmish in Pennsylvania mountains changes history
Think how different the world would be had George Washington fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War. It could very easily have happened if not for a little remembered incident that occurred deep in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania two and one-half centuries ago. One of history’s turning points:
George Washington’s ambition at the outset of his military career was to secure a commission as a British officer, which had more prestige than serving in the colonial militia. But Washington’s dreams were derailed in the PA woods while on patrol one day– the decisions he made there left a permanent blemish on his record. When viewed in the context of unyielding British disdain for colonials as officers, Washington really had no chance at a commission thereafter. Sure enough, the promotion never materialized. So in 1758 George Washington resigned from active military service of the British Crown for the final time, he spent the following sixteen years as a civilian in Virginia. The rest as they say is history…
So what happened?
In the early 1750s Washington was sent on several occasions as an ambassador to the French and Indians, traveling as far north as present day Erie, Pennsylvania. His Virginia was competing with Pennsylvania for the area around what would become Pittsburgh, and both were in opposition to the French who saw control of the territory as crucial to their efforts to unite Quebec and Louisiana via river. The French and their Indian allies also sought to quarantine the British settlers on the East Coast. Washington’s reports of these expeditions, some of the earliest accounts of life west of the Appalachians, became popular reading in the colonies and in England.
Did you know? George Washington fired some of the first shots in the French and Indian war:
In 1754, Virginia’s Governor Dinwiddie sent George Washington, then a commissioned Lieutenant Colonel in the newly created Virginia Regiment (a colonial militia), on a mission to the Ohio Country to surprise the French occupants and attempt to turn them out, thus securing valuable territory for Virginia. Two hundred fifty-four years ago this weekend Washington’s raiding party was somewhere in the mountains near the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (today) marching toward infamy. Along the way, Washington’s regiment was destined to ambush a French scouting party, led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. This is where things get messy: what was the mission of this patrol composed of Frenchmen and Indians? They had come from Fort Duquesne, but for what reason? Washington assumed their intent was foul play. At daybreak on May 28, he and his men ambushed the French camp (near what is now Jumonville in the SW corner of PA in the Laurel Highlands near Uniontown). Without warning Washington gave the order to fire. When it was over ten were killed, one wounded, and nearly all survivors were taken prisoner.
To hold the newly “won” territory Washington and the men built a fort nearby– Fort Necessity– which subsequently proved insufficient. Disaster ensued: apparently Washington was unable (or unwilling?) to restrain his charges from attacking the prisoners; the soldiers (and their Indian allies) brutally massacred them one by one, including Jumonville. The gloves were off. It wasn’t long before the French and their Indian allies launched a swift counterattack. Fort Necessity was surrounded and Washington and his men, under siege, eventually surrendered.
Tensions were at a fever pitch. The French claimed that Jumonville’s party had been on a diplomatic (rather than military) mission and that the ambush and killing of the prisoners was unprovoked and unacceptable. The “Jumonville affair ” was an international incident of the first order. It was one among many events that led to the confrontation (between the two superpowers of the time) but it was the decisive spark that ultimately ignited the French and Indian War. After a series of embarrassing negotiations Washington was subsequently released by the French—with the promise not to return to the Ohio Country. The incident was a black-eye for the British, so much so that back in Virginia Governor Dinwiddie responded angrily; the disgraced Washington, faced with a demotion in rank, opted to resign from active military service. As it turned out, the Jumonville Affair was not the end for George Washington in the French-Indian war, not by a long-shot, he re-emerged a year later to fight once more for King and colony and this time he greatly distinguished himself in battle. Unfortunately for Washington it did little to enhance his prospects for becoming a commissioned British officer…
Major-General Edward Braddock‘s death at the Battle of the Monongahela, July 9, 1755:
In 1755, Major-General Braddock headed a major effort to retake the Ohio Country. Washington’s first retirement was short-lived; he eagerly volunteered to serve as one of Braddock’s aides. The expedition ended in disaster though– at the Battle of the Monongahela Braddock was killed. Yet Washington distinguished himself in the battle, reportedly displaying both courage and calm under fire. Washington was once again a hero, and was chosen to replace the fallen Braddock as commander of the new Virginia Regiment. His rank was colonel. His task: for three years he was responsible for guarding hundreds of miles of mountainous frontier with too few men to adequately do the job. Frontier fighting was heavy and Washington and his men fought numerous engagements under difficult conditions– they faced mountainous terrain, unpredictable weather, and the twin difficulties of communication and supply due to the long distance from their home base. After several years Washington grew impatient for advancement. It wasn’t to be; even after his leadership in the successful Forbes Expedition in 1758 that successfully evicted the French from Fort Duquesne. Unrewarded, Washington retired from active service a short time later.
Thomas A. Lewis, For King and Country: The Maturing of George Washington, 1748–1760 (1992).