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Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them must share in the guilt for the dead.

-- General Omar Bradley

Battle of Great Meadows (July 3, 1754)

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The Battle of the Great Meadows, also known as the Battle of Fort Necessity was a battle of the French and Indian War fought on July 3, 1754 in present-day Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It, along with the Battle of Jumonville Glen, are considered the opening shots of the French and Indian War which would spread to the Old World and become the Seven Years War. It was the only time George Washington ever surrendered on the battlefield.

The battle was the culmination of years of boundary disputes between the British and French Empires in North America. Principle among the disputed territories was the Ohio Country, an area that includes portions of the present American states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

In the spring of 1754, Virginia's Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie ordered militia officer George Washington and 159 men to aid a building party sent to construct a fort at the Forks of the Ohio River (present Pittsburgh), but the party was surrounded and forced to return to Virginia before Washington arrived. The French then constructed Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio.

Washington was sent new orders to construct a wagon road from Wills Creek (present Cumberland, Maryland) into the Ohio country and await reinforcements. On May 24, 1754, Washington?s party arrived at a marshy clearing at the junction of two streams in what is now Wharton Township Fayette County, Pennsylvania called the Great Meadows. They set up camp at the site and explored possible water routes to the Forks of the Ohio while awaiting reinforcements.

Late in the evening of May 27, word arrived in camp that a French scouting party had been spotted nearing the Great Meadows. Half King, a Seneca chief allied to the British, insisted that the group was a large French war party sent to ambush the British garrison. He convinced Washington to take a detachment of troops to ambush the French. After an all night march through a rainstorm, Washington?s men arrived at the French encampment in a narrow valley early in the morning. In an incident now known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen the French camp was attacked. Ten French soldiers were killed and the party?s commanding officer, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, was taken prisoner along with 21 others. As Washington interrogated Jumonville, Half King unexpectedly walked up to Jumonville and struck him dead.

Washington retired from Jumonville Glen back to the Great Meadows and prepared for a French counterattack. Several Frenchmen had escaped from Jumonville Glen and returned to Fort Duquesne informing the garrison of the incident. On May 29, Washington ordered the construction of a log palisade at the Great Meadows which he named Fort Necessity. Washington believed that the site would provide the British a tactical advantage due to the open spaces surrounding the fort. However, Washington had failed to take into account that the fort was constructed in a depression and he overestimated the distance from the tree line to the log walls.

The arrival of 100 British reinforcements under Captain James Mackay on June 14 provided more trouble than relief. Mackay and Washington immediately began arguing over who was in command. Although Mackay was only a captain, his commission as an officer in the British army technically took precedence over Washington?s militia rank of Lt. Colonel. The two ultimately agreed to an awkward power sharing agreement that hindered British command and control throughout the battle.

On June 28, a party of 600 French and 100 French-allied native tribesmen left Fort Duquesne to attack the British party. At the time, the bulk of the British garrison had been sent to Gist?s plantation (present Brownsville, Pennsylvania) on the Monongahela River. Washington decided that this outpost was indefensible and gathered all his remaining strength at Fort Necessity. On July 1, the whole garrison had returned to the Great Meadows and began construction of trenches and further fortifications. Several allied bands of natives including Half King's group argued that Fort Necessity was also indefensible and abandoned Washington. Washington briefly considered abandoning Fort Necessity but decided that his men were too fatigued and the French forces too near to make a safe and orderly retreat.

The French expedition against Fort Necessity was lead by Captain Louis Coulon de Villier, who was the brother of the slain Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Captain de Villier was outraged by the death of his brother, which he considered to be a cold-blooded murder. He was further enraged when he passed Jumonville Glen and discovered that the British had failed to bury the bodies of the slain French soldiers.

At about 11:00 on July 3, the French column arrived at the Great Meadows and immediately began a vigorous attack. Washington?s misjudgement of the Great Meadows site quickly proved disastrous. The French were able to conceal themselves in the cover of the treeline and fire on the fort from an elevated position. The British in the fort were exposed in the shallow trenches and the log walls of the palisade provided little cover. The poorly supplied British quickly began to run short of ammunition. Compounding the problems of the British, it began to rain heavily a few hours later filling their trenches with water.

By evening, Washington realized the hopelessness of his situation. At about 20:00, he asked the French for terms of surrender. The negotiations were slow and difficult. None of the British officers spoke French and none of the French officers spoke English. One Colonial of Dutch descent spoke English and French just well enough to provide basic communication. In the surrender document, Washington unwittingly admitted to "assassinating" Jumonville.

The fort was handed over on July 4 and the British were allowed to return to Maryland honorably. The French razed the fort and returned to Fort Duquesne.

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