A Murder Most Foul; the World Set on Fire

“I FORTUNATELY ESCAPED without any wound, for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy’s fire, and it was the part where the man was killed, and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me there is something charming in the sound.”

“Something charming in the sound”? So wrote a young George Washington (1732-1799), then aged 22, just a few days after events of May 27, 1754, in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. The place is now called Jumonville Glen, for reasons that will become clear, located atop a mountain crest named Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County, Pa. This locale marks the spot where the eventual Father of the American Nation first led men into battle, and the battle was when and how Washington gained not just his initial experience of combat, but perhaps quite a bit more.

The World Set on Fire

The charming sounds of those whistling bullets were the first in a series of skirmishes that, eventually, led the European world to war over North America. Or put another way, in the words of the great British commentator Horace Walpole (1717-1797), “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Indeed, it did, that volley fired by young Washington. But this gets ahead of the story.

French & Indians, and English & Indians

The area of what is now western Pennsylvania was the Wild West in the 1750s. The hills and valleys, shaped to their current form by the effects of successive Pleistocene glaciations and afterward covered with thick forests, were traditional hunting ground for native Indians of several tribes. But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, these lands had been claimed in the names of respective regents by both the recently arrived French and by the more recently arrived British.

The French considered the lands of Ohio, and the Ohio River and its drainage valley, to be a vital link between New France (aka Canada) and Louisiana. For many decades, from the 1600s to the mid-1700s, French trappers, traders, missionaries, and soldiers advanced southward and westward, from Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. To the extent that the French encountered any hint of English exploration (usually in the form of fur traders or the occasional scout or map maker), they drove away those meddling Anglais. The French publicly claimed the Ohio River Valley for themselves by, among other things, staking the lands and burying lead plates at well-marked locations.

In 1753, Virginia Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie learned the French had built a fort at Presque Isle, near Lake Erie, and a fort called Le Boeuf in part of the nearby Ohio lands that were claimed by Virginia. Dinwiddie sent an eight-man expedition, under the command of a well-bred Virginia land surveyor named George Washington, to warn the French to withdraw.

Dinwiddie’s emissary Washington, then all of 21 years old, made the hard trek across the spine of the Appalachian Mountains in the middle of winter 1753-1754. Washington was received courteously by French officers, who listened to his message from “Monsieur le Gouverneur de Virginia.” And then the French politely told young Washington that they were not obliged to obey any summons or command from the British governor of Virginia, or any other English colony, and that French settlements were going to remain exactly where they were established. Washington thereupon returned to Virginia and informed Dinwiddie that the French would not leave.

Fort Duquesne and Strategic Control of the Interior

In January 1754, even before he learned from Washington of the French refusal to abandon the Ohio Valley, Dinwiddie had sent a small troop of Virginia soldiers to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio where the rivers, called by the Indians the Monongahela and Allegheny, come together. The Virginians’ rude stockade, constructed of tree trunks lashed together and named Fort Prince George, was barely finished when a French force appeared out of the trees, drove off the Englishmen, and built for themselves a larger set of defensive works on the site. The French called the place Fort Duquesne, in honor of the Marquis de Duquesne who had just been appointed as governor of New France.

In early April 1754, Washington, newly commissioned as a lieutenant colonel, set out to the west from Alexandria. He was leading a regiment of Virginia frontiersmen and British soldiers, to build a road to a place called Redstone Creek. Washington followed a track now closely paralleled by Pennsylvania Route 40, which passes through present-day Brownsville, Pa., where a small stream empties into the north-flowing Monongahela. From this spot, Washington was then supposed to move north and lend assistance to the defense of English settlements in the Ohio River valley.

Even then, in an 18th-century world of poorly mapped mountains and dense forests, one key point was clear to both the French and English. Both understood that control over the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, where the bodies of water join to form the mighty Ohio, was a critical factor for their future pursuits. That is, whoever controlled the junction of the three rivers would control strategic access to the interior of the North American continent.

A Fateful Spot Atop a Mountain

For six weeks and across several hundred miles of wilderness, west from the banks of the Potomac, Washington’s mixed force advanced. They were comprised of Virginia militia, British soldiers, camp followers, and a few Indians who held grudges against the French. Toward the end of May 1754, Washington’s group was about 60 miles from its destination, encamped in an area called the Great Meadow, when he learned from scouts that a French force was in the area and was apparently searching for the advancing Virginians. Washington and about 40 of his men went out on a night expedition to reconnoiter the French, and on the morning of May 27 came upon a camp full of sleeping Frenchmen. The French commander had not posted sentries, and Washington’s troops quickly surrounded the unsuspecting French.

Accounts differ widely from this point. Washington had with his entourage a Seneca Indian chief named Tanacharison (1700-1754, also called Half King, but no relation to your author to the best of my knowledge), an ostensible ally. So the Virginia land surveyor and his Indian associate made plans to approach the French camp. The idea was supposedly just to make contact with the French, not to get into a fight with them. But in a twist of fate, at some point, someone discharged a musket. There has never been any clear determination of who pulled the trigger. It may have been a startled French soldier shooting at the Virginians, or a nervous Virginian shooting at the awakened French. Some accounts claim that it was an Indian who fired a weapon, in an effort to spark a shootout between both sides. As is the case with much that changes the world thereafter, no one knows the objective truth, and thus is the nature of chance encounter.

A 15-Minute Skirmish, a Foul Murder, a Brutal Massacre

The French encampment rapidly filled with the sound of gunfire, as well as the smell of powder and the screams of the wounded and dying. Within 15 minutes, the shooting was over. Washington’s casualties were one man killed and three wounded. Ten Frenchmen were dead and 21 captured. The captured French included their unit commander, an ensign named Coulon de Jumonville. Jumonville had been taken alive after being wounded by gunfire and asked to meet the commander of the Virginians so as to deliver a diplomatic note.

Though wounded, Jumonville approached Washington to hand over his note, which protested the presence of the Virginians in French lands. And then, according to an account by Fred Anderson, in his book Crucible of War, the Seneca Indian Chief Half King walked up to the wounded Jumonville and said, “Tu n’es pas encore mort, mon pere.” (Thou art not yet dead, my father.) Half King then 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 (George Washington) 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 French wounded. Within moments, only one of the Frenchmen who had been hit in the firefight was left alive.”

This French soldier eventually escaped and made his way back to Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio. And Washington, sensing trouble in the air, quickly decamped and withdrew east to the Great Meadow, where he and his troops built a small wooden stockade that he called Fort Necessity.

Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

In a tactical sense, young George Washington won that early-morning skirmish against the French. But it was a short-lived victory clouded with ignominy most base and vile, on account of the coldblooded execution of Jumonville and the ensuing massacre of French prisoners. And in a broader sense, Washington may as well have sowed the teeth of dragons in the soil of this trackless forest. For based upon the account of the lone French survivor of the skirmish, the French determined that their party had been ambushed and slaughtered.

The French claimed that Jumonville’s unit had been attacked without cause. Washington claimed, at the time and much later in his life, that the French had fired on him first. And Washington was defensive about what had occurred. In correspondence addressed to the Earl of Loudon in January 1757, Washington wrote: “I have long been satisfied of the impossibility of continuing in this [military] service, without loss of honor.” In September of that same year, Washington wrote to Dinwiddie, “It is hard to have my character arraigned, and my actions condemned, without a hearing.”

A Death of No Little Consequence

But the French view of the matter was that Washington and his Virginians should never have been there, in the woods of western Pennsylvania, in the first place. And however the shooting had started, it was Washington who was the nominal British commander, and who had permitted and acceded to the raw and gruesome murder, by members of his party, of their diplomat and officer Jumonville.

The French soon sent an overwhelming force of 700 troops from Fort Duquesne to surround Fort Necessity. The commander of this French body was Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers, the half brother of the slain Jumonville. Capt. de Villiers was well known to the Virginians as the former commander of a French force that had attacked and wiped out a detachment of British troops in Nova Scotia in 1747. This Frenchman was a fighter who would do what he had to do, and he had the troops to back up his plan.

At this juncture, de Villiers and his troops should probably have engaged Washington and his group, and the Virginian and his associates should have been dispatched to meet their respective makers. But instead, it started to rain like hell. This led to a standoff at Fort Necessity, because the torrential storm soaked the gunpowder of the troops of both sides and rendered it useless.

Thus disarmed by dampness, on July 3, 1754, the French grudgingly permitted Washington to surrender. But the French also insisted that Washington sign a surrender protocol. The instrument of surrender, written in French, referred to the “assassination” of Jumonville by Washington. This was, to the French, an admission by Washington of his guilt to and complicity in a heinous crime. The French went on to use this document as evidence to advance their political purposes. Washington, who spoke no French, always claimed that he had received a bad translation of the document from his Dutch interpreter.

In May 1754, France and Great Britain were technically at peace, although competing forcefully for the spoils of empire in North America and elsewhere in the world. But the battle in which Jumonville died was an event of no little consequence. When the gruesome details of the death of Jumonville began to circulate, they led to an international scandal with immediate diplomatic consequences. Within a few months, reports on the “Jumonville Massacre” were circulating throughout Europe. Commentators wrote about it, and the name of young George Washington was thrust to international prominence and ignominy, depending on who was telling the story.

The Opening Round of a World War

So the fight in the woods, and killing of Jumonville and massacre of prisoners, was the opening round of the French and Indian War, as it is known in North America. This long and bloody struggle for control of much of the North American landmass was itself part of a larger European conflict called the Seven Years’ War. Technically, the war lasted between 1756-1763, although it is clear that hostilities date back as far as 1754 in North America.

By 1763, the British were the victors. Eventually, in November 1758, the British captured Fort Duquesne, renaming it Fort Pitt, and proceeded north to fight the French on other ground. The British captured Montreal in 1760, and in turn gained control of almost all French possessions in North America above the lands of the Mississippi and the Louisiana territories. The Treaty of Paris, in 1763, formally ended the conflict.

The Volley Fired by the Young Virginian

And so we return to the words quoted earlier, penned by the great British commentator Horace Walpole, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Indeed it did, and now we can see why this is so.

There was great irony in the British victory over France in the Seven Years’ War. When the war ended, Britain had gained a sprawling empire, which was immensely expensive to administer and maintain. Parliament turned to the American Colonies to help pay for their own defense. And Britain also had Indian allies who had been promised, by British agents, that white farmers and other settlers would stay out of the Ohio Valley. As any student of American Colonial history surely knows, these elements of taxation and geographical restrictions on westward expansion set the stage for the American Revolution.

During the American Revolution, none other than George Washington led the rebellious colonists in battle. Washington was by then more than 20 years older and very much wiser. He issued, among other things during the war, several general orders requiring humane treatment of prisoners, certainly relating back to one particular day long before on a mountaintop in Pennsylvania. The American revolutionary cause received great assistance from none other than the king of France, whose agent Jumonville had been murdered in 1754, in cold blood, before the eyes of that same George Washington. The ways of fate are strange, indeed.

By the late 1780s, the king of France, having spent immense sums to assist the Americans against the British, was forced to call his own French Assembly. This led to political uprising in France, and eventually, in 1789, to the French Revolution. Out of the French Revolution came Napoleon, who ushered in an era of war that, in turn, created the foundations of modern politics and the concepts of modern strategy. (It would take a young Prussian named Carl von Clausewitz, who fought against Napoleon, to set it down in words in his 1832 masterpiece, On War.) Napoleon’s need for funds led, in 1803, to the sale of the Louisiana Territories to the nascent United States, thus completing the process, if not the cycle, of disestablishing French jurisdiction and empire on the North American continent. And the Napoleonic Wars led, in their own way, to national political cohesion in the German states and to the eventual rise of Germany as a great political power in Europe.

Was Everything Preordained?

Was all of this somehow preordained? Or is history just a series of accidents and stumbles? Who can say which small events, or simple accidents of history, will lead to immense changes as the timeline moves on? Had Jumonville not been murdered so brutally by Seneca Indian Half King, and in the presence of George Washington, lieutenant colonel of the Virginia Militia and ostensible agent of the king of Great Britain, would there have been a French and Indian War? Would there have been a Seven Years’ War? Would French influence in Canada have been truncated by 1760? Would there have arisen so rapidly an expansive British Empire, for the maintenance of which Parliament had to raise funds? Would there have been such “intolerable” British acts in the Colonies as to lead to the American Revolution? Absent French financial and material support for the American Revolution, would France and its king have had to call the Assembly in the 1780s? Would there have been a French Revolution? Would the world ever have heard from Napoleon? Would the map of Europe have changed so dramatically in the first half of the 19th century? What would the world look like?

Here is what the great British author William Thackeray (1811-1863) had to say:

“It was strange that in a savage forest of Pennsylvania, a young Virginian officer should fire a shot, and waken a war which was to last for 60 years, which was to cover his own country and pass into Europe, to cost France her American colonies, to sever ours from us, and create the great western republic; to rage over the old world when extinguished in the new; and, of all the myriad engaged in the vast contest, to leave the prize of the greatest fame to him who struck the first blow.”

Strange, indeed. Doubtless, absent the death of Jumonville and the world set on fire by George Washington, we would live in a different world. Or rather, other people would live in a different world, because almost no one alive today could possibly be descended but for the unique events that have occurred over the past 250 years.

It is worth thinking about this, because the next item on the agenda is to wonder what is occurring today that might set the world on fire. For example, what brutal events, occurring on some distant and obscure battlefield, will alter the destiny of the world for centuries to come? I leave that to your imagination. Thank you for reading Whiskey & Gunpowder.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
December 5, 2006