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washington2 Today is the anniversary of the first shots of the Seven Years’ War, the so-called Battle of Jumonville Glen, fought this day in 1754 in western Pennsylvania.

The battle was really more of a bush-whacking than anything else.  Following on the unsuccesful attempt of the British to diplomatically stop the French from building forts in the Ohio Valley (and thereby pinning the British colonists to the Atlantic seaboard), an expeditionary force commanded by young Lt. Colonel George Washington set out from Virginia to plant the British flag there as well.

As Washington’s force proceeded westward, scouts reported a force of French and their Indian allies holed up at Jumonville Glen.  Fearing he was about to be ambushed, Washington and a detatchment marched all night and surprised the French first.  The result was a completely lopsided victory, with ten or twelve Frenchmen killed and 22 captured.  It was after this skirmish that Washington famously wrote to his brother, “I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.”

After the battle, while Washington was reading some papers handed to him by Jumonville, the wounded and captured French commander, an Indian ally of the British suddenly rushed up and tomahawked him.  When word of the skirmish reached nearby French Fort DuQuesne, Jumonville’s half-brother Coulon de Villiers swore revenge and set out after Washington’s party with a large force.  They caught up with Washington at Fort Necessity a few weeks later, surrounded them and forced them to surrender.  The fact that Washington, in turn, was not butchered on the spot has always amazed me, even given the complexities of 18th Century battlefield etiquette.  Nonetheless, de Villiers included a clause in the surrender agreement stating that Washington had “assassinated” Jumonville and Washington, ignorant of French, signed it.

There was a good deal of criticism of Washington for his actions at the time (not that the war wouldn’t have happened anyway, because it certainly was going to one way or the other).  Nonetheless, it could not have bothered Washington himself that much, because the above portrait, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772 and one of my favorites, supposedly features Jumonville Glen in the background.


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May 2009