Fort Necessity - The Battle of Great Meadows



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Page Table of Contents (Click a link to go to that section. Click HOME to return here.)

Prelude to Battle

Breathing Room

The Battle Begins

Fight Another Day

The Aftermath

Visiting Fort Necessity

Painting of the battle by Robert Griffing.

"A Charming Field for an Encounter"

by Robert Griffing

 

With his characteristic style, eye for detail and authenticity, Robert Griffing depicts the opening movement of the Battle of Fort Necessity.  Washington was expecting a linear European battle out in the open flats of the Great Meadows and sallied forth to meet the French.  However, the French and their Indian allies fought a mobile, guerilla-style fight using cover and concealment to move and shooting from behind trees. Taking fire from all directions with no visible enemy, Washington was forced back into his defenses to hunker down. The title is a line in a message sent before the battle to Virginia Governor Dinwiddie in which Washington describes his position and their surroundings.  The painting shows how the Great Meadows looked and the relative size and position of the fort.  They look much the same today. The Visitor Center would be through the trees on the upper right.

Late afternoon, May 28, 1754.  A shaken and exhausted 22 year old Lt. Col. George Washington of the Virginia Militia returns to their encampment at the Great Meadows after the skirmish at Jumonville Glen.  His mission to seize the "The Forks" before the French get to it has been compromised.  His Native American support has abandoned him after murdering the French commander, Ensign Jumonville, in cold blood right in front of him.  To make matters worse, it is starting to look like Jumonville's group may have been seeking a parlay with the British - not looking for a fight. Even though his first military action fits the definition of a "victory", it didn't go well. His next one would be a complete disaster.

Prelude to Battle

Washington took stock of his assets and his options. The French were on to him. He had about 160 militia troops and no artillery.  Many of the men were sick or just plain worn out from the weeks of back-breaking wilderness road building. He was supposed to receive reinforcements and re-supply soon but whether it would be soon enough was anybody's guess.  Retreating back to Fort Cumberland would leave the entire region open and defenseless.  On the other hand, moving on the French position at "The Forks" was a shaky proposition at best. Scouts told him the French were already building a fort of their own.  Christened Fort Duquesne after the Governor of New France, it would garrison 1,000 men, many of whom were already there. The British  would have to build the military road first and then be heavily reinforced before any attack could begin. Washington decided to press on with the mission, confident that with reinforcements and re-supply, he could handle whatever came along.

The building of Fort Necessity as depicted at the National Battlefield Visitor Center.
The building of Fort Necessity as depicted at the National Battlefield Visitor Center.

The first order of business was to prepare for the French attack he was sure would come. He expected them to be hot on his heels. The next day, the militia turned from road building to fort building. Completed in five days, Fort Necessity was a simple circular stockade 53 feet in diameter with a 14 x 14 foot storehouse in the middle.  Earthworks and trenches were built around it and this is where most of the men would fight from.  The stockade was more to provide cover for stores and protection for the sick and wounded.

The Great Meadows was not a good place to defend and Fort Necessity played to its tactical weaknesses.  The meadows were really a bog that was prone to rapid flooding.  The fort was in the lowest ground around and was too close to the tree lines that encircled it.  An enemy could completely surround the fort, fight from covered positions and attack downhill. Once the defenders pulled back into the fort, there was no escape from the Great Meadows. Washington knew this and planned to engage the enemy out in the open, where presumably he would have some maneuver room and be able to influence the action. He drilled his men relentlessly.

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A view of the Great Meadows along the French approach.
A view of the Great Meadows along the French approach.  Fort Necessity is in the center of the picture.  The white rectangle is the cloth roof of the storehouse. The blue arrows show the direction of the main French attack once they had encircled the fort. There was never an actual assault on the fort. The attack was a continuous and effective volume of fire delivered from the tree line to the left of the arrows.  At that time, the tree line was only 60 yards from the fort.

Washington Gets Some Breathing Room

Washington's luck held. The fort was finished on June 2 with no sign of the French, who were taking their time getting into action. Washington used the lull to continue the road as far forward as possible, reasoning that it furthered the British mission and kept his men busy.  They started working on the road, moving northwest towards the farm of Washington's friend and scout, Christopher Gist.  Road building continued through the month of June.

On June 9, the rest of the Virginia Militia Regiment showed up with men and supplies, including nine swivel guns.  A week later, a company of British regulars reinforced the command.  Washington now had 400 men and some light artillery. The swivel guns were anti-personnel weapons that operated like  big, muzzle-loaded shotguns. At close range against massed troops, they could have been devastating, but that target rich environment never materialized.

The Battle Begins

On July 1, scouts reported that a force of 600 French and 100 Indians had left Fort Duquesne and were moving towards Washington. They were led by Captain de Villiers, the brother of the murdered Ensign Jumonville, and he was out for blood. The militia returned to Fort Necessity and spent July 1 and 2 reinforcing their defensive positions.  Swivel guns were hastily mounted on posts. Trenches and earthworks were dug chest deep and began to fill with water.

A National Park Service depiction of the battle.

A National Park Service depiction of the battle.

On July 3, the French and the rain both arrived at Fort Necessity.  The French used the British road for their approach. Washington, expecting a linear battle against a European adversary, marched his forces out to engage them. They quickly found themselves under fire from all directions from an enemy they couldn't see and pulled back inside their defenses.  There was never an actual assault on the fort.  The French were in no hurry to charge into concentrated musket and cannon fire. It was a battle of fire and attrition. It continued all day and so did the rain, which turned into a downpour in the afternoon and continued most of the night.

The two forces slugged it out all day, with the British getting the worst of it. Washington's casualties were high. The wounded and the sick filled the stockade.  The defenders in the trenches were in waist deep water and under constant fire, their dead comrades floating nearby.   British powder stores became wet and their weapons inoperable.  In addition, the militia had no bayonets to meet a charge with.

Night fell with the prospect of a wholesale slaughter the next day. The garrison was practically defenseless and the nearest tree line was only 60 yards away. One quick final rush would have done it.  The tomahawk murder of Ensign Jumonville by Tanacharison must have weighed heavily on Washington's mind.  The scenario of 100 Indians racing to get inside his perimeter with their tomahawks and knives at the ready was too terrible to contemplate.

Lives to Fight Another Day

The rebuilt and restored Fort Necessity.
Fort Necessity today.  It was reconstructed in the 1970's on newly discovered charred timber of the original fort. It is very accurate in dimensions and location, including the trench line and swivel gun.  Archaeologists estimate the earthen berm would have been several feet higher than it is now, effectively masking much of the stockade from direct musket fire. The Visitor Center is about 1/4 mile behind the photographer.

Then, as she would do so many times in his life, Lady Luck smiled on George Washington again. French scouts reported a British relief force was closing in on the Great Meadows.  In fact, these reports were completely false but as often happens in battle, Captain de Villiers had to work with the information he had.  He wanted revenge for his brother as much as his Indian allies wanted scalps and prisoners, but this changed everything. A massacre of British defenders and/or a long line of prisoners in close proximity to a large relief force was not a good idea.

About 8:00 PM, firing subsided and the French sent a messenger with an offer to parlay. Washington accepted and sent a French-speaking Dutch officer to negotiate with the French commander.  Negotiations lasted until around midnight. Washington agreed to surrender.  In return, he and his forces would retire from the battlefield with honors.  They would be allowed to leave the area unmolested with their colors, weapons and equipment except for the swivel guns.

The two commanders signed the negotiated surrender document.  Washington agreed to wording that said he had "killed"  Ensign Jumonville.  The surrender document he signed was worded that he had "assassinated...a peaceful envoy".  This parsing of words would have political repercussions that went all the way to their respective capitols and would hasten the move towards war.

The Aftermath of the Battle

On the morning of July 4, 1754,  British forces marched out of Fort Necessity on their way back to Fort Cumberland and Williamsburg.  It's an ironic date - exactly 22 years before the Declaration of Independence. It was the only time in his career that Washington ever surrendered.  He would suffer more defeats in the years ahead, but even in the darkest days of the American Revolution two decades later, quitting was never an option.

Thirty of Washington's men were killed during the battle. They were buried in the Great Meadows on the morning of the 4th before the British started their march home.  Despite extensive search efforts, no trace of their bodies or graves has ever been found.

This undated National Park Service photo shows charred remains of the original fort found during an excavation in the 1960's.
This undated National Park Service photo shows charred remains of the original fort found during an excavation in the 1960's. The French pulled up most of the stockade timbers and stacked them against a dozen or so they left standing to create a giant bonfire. Discoveries made during this excavation led to a complete rebuild of the fort as it appears today.

The French burned Fort Necessity. The charred stumps were uncovered over 200 years later and formed the basis for the historic reconstruction of the fort as it appears today.

In 1771, Washington returned to the Great Meadows and bought it.  He owned it until his death in 1799, although he never saw it again.

The strategic vacuum that Washington had feared was now a reality. The French owned the Ohio Valley. Based out of Fort Duquesne, their Indian allies launched raids up and down the frontier and deep into British territory. Terrified colonial settlers abandoned the region in droves.

The British were left with no forts, no troops and no Native American allies. Nevertheless, further attempts to seize control of this vital region would come soon. A year later, Washington would need his run of luck to continue as he marched front and center with a British general whose name is synonymous with defeat - Edward Braddock.

 

The new Visitor Center which opened in 2005.
The new Visitor Center which opened in 2005. Even during peak season, there is plenty of parking. The flag was at half-mast this day due to the death Senator Robert Byrd.  The red figure in the front is a re-enactor on his way to work.

Visiting Fort Necessity

Fort Necessity National Battlefield  actually has three units totaling almost 1,000 acres - Fort Necessity, Jumonville Glen and Braddock's Grave.  Although they represent three different battles, they are all linked to the history of the region and have George Washington as their common thread.  This was his proving ground. 

The Visitor Center for all three units is at Fort Necessity. Jumonville Glen and Braddock's Grave are self-guided and about a 15 minute drive down the road. The center does a great job of presenting all three and is open year round.  Additionally, in the summer there are exhibits, demonstrations, Ranger talks and re-enactors as well as picnic areas and a playground.

Other historical sites and recreational activities abound nearby. The Mount Washington Tavern is on the park grounds within walking distance of the Visitor Center. Built as a stagecoach stop in the early 1800's, it is now a museum - completely restored and open for tours from April to November. It gives a fascinating glimpse of frontier life two centuries ago and the opening of the West.

The highway that runs through the area - Route 40 - is called the National Road and has its own history to tell.

For the more adventuresome, nearby Ohiopyle State Park has many possibilities. The Youghiogheny (yock-a-gain'-ee) River has world class white water rafting, especially the upper section of the river. There is terrific biking and hiking on the Great Allegheny Passage along with many other local trails.

If you are a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, his most famous work - Fallingwater - is 10 minutes northwest of Ohiopyle.  Another one - Kentuck Knob - is just a few miles south of Fallingwater.  Wright was 86 when he designed it and it was one of his last.

Would you believe us if we told you there are a few geocaches around?  Actually, there are a lot. In keeping with National Park policy, there are none on battlefield property but they can be found in great numbers throughout in the region.

The Jumonville Glen geocache is near the battle site and Sherri's Cache is near the church retreat just down the road. Other geocaches abound throughout the entire region.  There's everything from one star park'n'grabs to five star expeditions. Ohiopyle is a hotbed of challenging caches.

For a change of pace, try the Fat Bird letterbox. It was just placed in May 2010. Letterboxing has been around a long time and is basically geocaching with clues instead of GPS coordinates.

The GPS coordinates to the Fort Necessity Visitor Center are  39.81409, -79.58595.  Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Semper Fi....Out here....Alpha6