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How the War Began: The French & Indian War (1754-63)

November 26, 2006

By David Venditta and Linda O’Connell, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

Nov. 26–Second of a three-day series

“I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me there is something charming in the sound,” 22-year-old Lt. Col. George Washington wrote to his younger brother Jack on May 31, 1754.

Those shots — Washington’s first brush with combat — were fired three days earlier in a glen near southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Ridge. They ignited the French and Indian War and a period of peril and turmoil for the Lehigh Valley.

Virginia’s governor had sent the young colonel with a regiment to confront French troops encroaching on land the British colony claimed. About sunrise, Washington and four dozen soldiers, guided by several Indian warriors, surprised a smaller party of French Canadian militiamen in camp.

No one knows which side fired first. The skirmish lasted 15 minutes, during which the Indians cut off Frenchmen trying to flee, forcing them back. When the musket smoke cleared, one of Washington’s men and numerous Frenchmen were dead.

Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, leader of the French detachment, lay wounded. He tried to explain he was an official emissary from the commander at Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, with orders only to tell Washington to leave the territory, which France also claimed.

Jumonville offered a letter to confirm his diplomatic mission.

The future commander of the Continental Army — a Virginia gentleman — turned to show the letter to his translator.

An Iroquois leader named Tanaghrisson stepped forward.

While Washington stood rooted to the spot, Tanaghrisson raised his tomahawk and hacked open Jumonville’s skull.

In a symbolic rebuke of the French, the Indian scooped out the ensign’s brains and washed his hands with them, historian Fred Anderson says in his 2000 book, “Crucible of War.”

Tanaghrisson’s warriors killed nearly all the Frenchmen wounded in the firefight and scalped all the dead — 13 men. The massacre stunned Washington, who formed his troops into a protective ring around the 21 survivors and escorted them away.

Fearing retaliation by “considerable forces,” Washington pressed his militiamen to finish the crude stockade called Fort Necessity. They had started building it in a clearing called the Great Meadows, in today’s Fayette County. Its defenders grew to 400 men.

On July 3, Jumonville’s older brother, Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers, attacked the fort with 600 Frenchmen and 100 Indians. “About 9 Oclock … the Enemy advanced with Shouts, & dismal Indian yells to our Intrenchments,” Washington recalled three decades later in his autobiographical “Remarks.”

Overwhelmed and ill-prepared in a drenching rain, he surrendered for the first and only time in his long military career. He then unwittingly handed the French a propaganda prize: The surrender document — in French, dripping wet and barely legible — named him as responsible for Ensign Jumonville’s “assassination.”

“The next Morning we marched out with the honors of War,” Washington wrote in his “Remarks” in late 1787, “but were soon plundered contrary to the articles of capitulation of great part of our Baggage by the Savages.”

His defeat at Fort Necessity prompted Britain to send a large force of its own army, led by a career soldier, to do what Washington had failed to do — oust the French.

So began the French and Indian War.

A bloodier struggle than the American Revolution two decades later, the conflict evolved into the Seven Years’ War — often considered the first world war — which also ensnared Spain and ultimately enthroned Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power.

Britain and France had competed for land and wealth in North America since the previous century, trapping between them the Indians, who were clinging to their native lands.

France controlled Canada along the St. Lawrence River, the “Illinois country” in the mid-Mississippi River Valley, and Louisiana, which included New Orleans and the land west of the Mississippi.

Britain had its 13 colonies on the East Coast.

The war began over the rich “Ohio country,” today’s western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Its gateway stood where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River, now Pittsburgh.

Indians sided with the French, mostly trappers and traders with whom they had enjoyed good relations, against the British colonists they saw as land grabbers.

Britain sent Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock to drive the French from the Forks of the Ohio.

Benjamin Franklin — 49-year-old printer, dabbler in science, philosopher and leader in the Pennsylvania Assembly — led the effort to get horses and wagons for Braddock’s campaign. He warned the general about the Indians’ guerrilla tactics, suggesting he couldn’t fight them the European way.

Still, with young Washington as an aide, Braddock in 1755 openly marched his redcoats and colonial troops toward Fort Duquesne. On July 9, a force of French and Indians annihilated them along the Monongahela.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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