Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Historians missed the mark in assessing Washington’s location of Ft. Necessity

George Washington’s 1754 decisions concerning Fort Necessity have often been portrayed as the unfortunate result of an amateur’s poor decisions.




By Christian E. Fearer
Best Defense guest respondent

I’m working on a book that will discuss George Washington’s 1754 campaign at considerable length.

As you noted, Washington’s decisions concerning Fort Necessity have often been portrayed as the unfortunate result of an amateur’s poor decisions. Lieutenant General Palmer is not alone in his observations. Fred Anderson, in his book Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, writes, “The situation of the fort and its entrenchments on the valley floor, overlooked by hills, made the position dangerously vulnerable to enfilading fire. So poorly sited and so dubiously constructed was this fort that only an amateur or a fool would have thought it defensible; the Half King, who was neither, tried to explain the ways in which ‘that little thing upon the meadow’ could prove a death trap.” I believe Palmer and Anderson misunderstand the circumstances and the site.

You are correct in your observation that Washington was concerned about forage for his horses and the cattle, and you are likewise correct that there were very few places suitable for animals to graze. Between Wills Creek and the Great Meadows, a distance of nearly fifty miles, there was but only one other meadow, the Little Meadows. As its name would suggest, the Little Meadows paled in comparison to the Great Meadows, which stretched nearly one and a half miles, bending in a crescent shape at its widest point, where two streams converged. For men who had been cutting and clearing a crude military road over the mountains from Wills Creek, walking into the Great Meadows would have been as if stepping into an oasis of grass and light in a desert of forest and darkness. When Washington wrote Governor Dinwiddie from the Great Meadows on May 27, he noted that “We have with nature’s assistance made a good Intrenchment and by clearing the Bushes out of these Meadows prepared a charming field for an Encounter….”

By the time he arrived at the Great Meadows, Washington knew that the French, who had occupied the Forks of the Ohio and began construction of Fort Duquesne, were aware of the Virginians’ presence and had sent parties to search for his location. Not wishing to be surprised, Washington had been sending various parties looking for signs of these reported French detachments. They were all unsuccessful. Finally, on May 27, Christopher Gist, an agent of the Ohio Company who also had a settlement nearby, arrived at Washington’s camp, informing Washington that the French had passed by his place and had threatened to destroy it. Again, Washington sent out a detachment in search of the French. In the meantime, a runner arrived from the Half King’s camp atop nearby Chestnut Ridge, informing Washington that the Half King had located the French and urging him to strike. The result was the skirmish at Jumonville Glen on May 28.

After the May 28 action, Washington returned to the Great Meadows and ordered that a small circular fort be constructed. It would measure slightly over fifty feet in diameter with a single building in the middle that was fourteen-by-fourteen feet. The fort housed no one, including Washington. It was first and foremost a supply depot, intended to protect the regiment’s provisions — which included large amounts of gunpowder and rum — from Washington’s own men as much as to keep them safe from the French.

The fort Washington ordered to be built did sit in the middle of the widest point of the meadow between the two streams. It is true that Fort Necessity is surrounded by hills on three sides; however, each hill was heavily forested and well beyond effective musket range; while a ball fired from a smoothbore musket can be lethal at several hundred yards, the weapons’ inaccuracy all but guarantees that if you hit or killed at two hundred yards, it wasn’t by the man who aimed at you. As a result, effective range was and is considered between sixty and a hundred yards. The only weapon that would perhaps have been useful from the hills would have been artillery; however, the French did not have the means to move heavy guns from Fort Duquesne to Fort Necessity. As a result, the hills surrounding the fort are entirely inconsequential.

When Washington’s men arrived at the Great Meadows in late May, they immediately began removing brush to provide clear fields of fire, something the men likely continued doing once the fort was completed. One thing they did not do was cut back the tree line nearest to the fort, a tree line that perhaps crept to within sixty to eighty yards of the nearest entrenchment that surrounded the fort. While ground samples taken on the battlefield in recent years have helped scientists determine the approximate location of the 1754 tree line, these efforts are unable to determine how thick the trees were. It is very likely that there would have been minimal undergrowth and that you could have seen into the woods to some distance. There were likely trees within sixty yards of Fort Necessity, but there certainly would not have been enough for every attacker to hide behind.

It’s important to also consider what Washington was expecting. He had begun his march from Wills Creek in late April, building a road across the Alleghenies for follow-on forces. The campaign was to be a multi-colony effort with forces from North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York joining the Virginians. Washington, who began the campaign as the Virginia regiment’s second in command, was but the vanguard of this effort. With no roads that crossed the mountains and no navigable rivers, it was imperative that Washington’s command open a route into the backcountry. That was his principal purpose.

Later, reinforcements arrived bearing news that the regiment’s commanding officer, Joshua Fry, had died of injuries involving a fall from his horse. As a result, Washington was promoted to colonel and command of the Virginia regiment. Still, Washington was not technically in command of the overall effort. That responsibility fell to James Innes of North Carolina. Washington expected these forces daily, and while all the colonies that had contributed forces had their men on the march, only the South Carolina Independent Company would arrive by the time of the July 3 battle. Keeping in mind that Washington’s focus was on building the road, Fort Necessity was to serve as his supply depot. Men and supplies would be forwarded from Alexandria and Winchester to the Great Meadows. From there, they would be forwarded to the men who were working on building the road toward Redstone, site of present-day Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

At the end of June, Washington learned that a large French force with Indian allies had left Fort Duquesne and were moving on his position. Away from the Great Meadows with the road building crews, Washington ordered the Virginians remaining at the fort to join him at Gist’s settlement and requested that the South Carolinians do the same. There, Washington held a council of war to determine the best course, and while the officers discussed their options, the men began to fortify the position. The council “Unanimously Resolved that it was Absolutly necessary to Return to our Fort at the meadows & Wait there until Supply’d with a Stock of provisions Sufficient to serve us for some months.”

Supplies had run low, leaving the men hungry and growing weaker; a significant number were falling sick. Many had not eaten in nearly a week. Worse, Washington “knew that two of our men had deserted to [the French] and Acquainted The Enemy of our Starving Condition and our Numbrs & Situation.” Washington and his officers likewise feared that if they attempted a general retreat in their weakened state, they would be overrun and “be Cut to pieces by so prodigious a Number of their Indians in our Retreat, who are the best people in the World to improve a Victory….” While there were some advantages to making a stand at Gist’s, the distance “Betwixt [the Great Meadows] and Mr. Gist’s house is thirteen miles of hilly Road form’d Naturally for Ambushes. The French could not so Easily Support themselves at the Meadow as at Gists by the reason of distance to Carry the Stores & provisions & their want of horses to do it.”

Washington and his fellow officers determined that they needed to fall back to a defensive position. Ideally, given the unfavorable circumstances, they would have withdrawn to Wills Creek; however, the men had become too weak to risk such a move for fear of being overtaken. If there was to be a fight, then Washington and his officers were determined to at least have some say where that fight would occur, and they chose Fort Necessity. They returned to the Great Meadows on July 1 and began improving the surrounding entrenchments. In order to give advance warning, Washington positioned men on horseback atop Chestnut Ridge and around the Great Meadows. And then they waited.

The French force arrived at Gist’s settlement on July 2 and could tell that the Virginians and South Carolinians had made efforts to fortify the place. Clearly they had withdrawn, and the French commander, Louis de Villiers, considered returning to Fort Duquesne. De Villiers was operating well beyond the support of Fort Duquesne and was not entirely sure what force he might encounter. He was aware of Washington’s garrison, but he was also of the impression that additional British reinforcements were on the march; de Villiers did not realize that they were no closer than Winchester. As the French commander was considering a withdrawal to the Forks, a deserter arrived from Fort Necessity and informed the French of Washington’s location and the poor condition of his command. With that information, de Villiers decided to march on Fort Necessity the next morning.

At 11:00 a.m. on July 3, the French appeared in the meadow about six hundred yards from the fort and advanced in what Washington described as an “irregular manner.” He had drawn his men out in a line of battle, prepared to engage the enemy in the field. As Washington’s line gave way, the men fell back to the cover of the earthworks and stream beds while the French surrounded the fort. In the chaotic opening moments, the French-allied Indians rushed the fort and were repulsed. That is the only attempt they would make to take the fort by force. It then began to rain, making fighting a difficult affair. By evening, the rain had slacked if not stopped, and de Villiers noted that the defenders began firing from the fort “with more fury than ever.” De Villiers, who had served his king almost as long as Washington had been alive and was a veteran of warfare in North America, also commented that the fort was “advantageously situated.” Having attempted to storm the fort once and failed, he had determined not to make a second attempt.

De Villiers faced a dilemma. By 8:00pm, he had surrounded and fired into little Fort Necessity for nearly nine hours. He had attempted to take it once and failed. His men, while superior in number, were running out of ammunition. His Indian allies threatened to leave the following morning, and he remained concerned about rumored British reinforcements. And then, in my assessment, he bluffed, calling out to Washington to see if he was interested in talking.

Washington, unaware of de Villiers’ concerns, seeing his command surrounded, and having lost a quarter of his command killed and wounded, at first thought the French offer was a ploy. After being asked a second and third time if he wished to talk. The French called out to Washington, asking “Voulez-vous parler?,” Washington sent an interpreter to the French lines to discuss terms of surrender. After four hours, Washington signed articles of capitulation and the British flag was lowered from above the fort. Washington and his men began their retreat the following morning, and the French burned Fort Necessity before returning to Fort Duquesne.

Christian E. Fearer is a historian with the federal government and has worked as such for the Department of Defense and the National Park Service, including at Fort Necessity National Battlefield. The views and opinions expressed here are entirely his own. 

Photo credit: Christian E. Fearer

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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