Dinwiddie, the shrewd Scotch Governor of Virginia, was the first to move, and this he could only do by way of protest, since he had no forces worth mentioning and no money to pay the handful that he had. It is a strange coincidence that the agent he selected for the business—the first British soldier, in fact, who went out formally to proclaim King George's title to the West—should have been George Washington. The young Virginian was at this time only twenty-one, a major in the colonial service and adjutant-general of the Virginia militia. In the opinion of Dinwiddie, an opinion which did him credit, there was no one in the colony so well qualified to perform a mission of danger, delicacy, and hardship. . .

The mission was to march through the woods from the Potomac River to the new French fort of Le Bœuf,2 only twenty miles south of Lake-Erie, no mean performance in the year 1753! The chill rains of late autumn fell ceaselessly upon the small party as they pushed their way through the dripping forests, and it was December before they reached the nearer station of the French at Venango. Here an officer named Joncaire commanded, having seized an English trading-house and hoisted above it the French flag. Washington kept a journal of the whole expedition, and tells us how he dined here with the French officers, who, when flushed with wine, declared that, tho the English were in a great majority, their movements were too slow, and for their own part they intended to take the Ohio Valley and "by G—d to keep it." . . .

It was now the early spring of 1754. Forty backwoodsmen under an Ensign Ward were sent across the Alleghanies to erect a fort at a place previously selected by Washington, where the two large streams of the Alleghany and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio—a spot to become famous enough in the succeeding years, and in another sense still more famous now.3

Washington struck out into the wilderness,4 the ultimate object of the British attack being the fort which the French were said to be building at the beforementioned forks of the Ohio, and had already named after their Governor, Duquesne.

Washington and his 150 men slowly pushed their way northwestward, cutting roads over the lofty forest-clad ridges of the Alleghanies for their guns and pack-trains. They had covered sixty miles, nearly half the march, and had arrived at an oasis in the mountain wilderness, where stood a trading station, known as "The Great Meadows," when word was brought that a French detachment was advancing from the new fort Duquesne to clear the English out of the country. Taking forty of his men with him, Washington groped his way through the whole of a pitch-dark and soaking night to the quarters of the "Half King," a friendly Indian chief, who had formed one of his party in the diplomatic mission of the previous year. The Indian had some news to give of an advanced scouting party of the French, supposed to be lurking in the neighborhood, and with some of his people joined Washington at daylight in an attempt to track them. In this they succeeded, and surprized the French lying in a ravine, who, on being discovered, all sprang, to their feet, rifle in hand. Washington promptly gave the order to fire. A volley was given and returned. Coulon de Jumonville, the ensign who commanded the French, was shot dead, and a few of his men killed and wounded, while the remaining twenty-one were taken prisoners. The killing of Jumonville raised a great commotion, not only in the colonies, but in Europe. "It was the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America," says Horace Walpole, "that set the world on fire." It was pretended by the French that Jumonville was on a quasi-diplomatic errand, ordering the English to retire. . .

Jumonville and his men, it transpired, had been lying concealed for two days in the neighborhood of Washington's superior force—scarcely the natural method of procedure for a peaceful convoy! De Contrecœur, commanding the main force of some 500 men, was advancing in the rear, and his scouting subaltern, who, as a matter of fact, had sent messengers to hurry him up, was simply waiting for his arrival to overwhelm the small British detachment.

Washington after this retired to the Great Meadows, where his second battalion, tho without their colonel, who had died, now arrived, together with the South Carolina company, consisting of fifty so-called regulars, raised in the colony but paid by the Crown. The young Virginian was now in command of 350 men, but the Carolina captain, being in some sort a king's officer, refused to take orders from him as a provincial, admirably illustrating one of the many difficulties which then hampered military action in the colonies. His men assumed similar airs, and would lend no hand in road-making, carrying packs, or hauling guns. So Washington labored on with his Virginians, seeking for some good defensive point at which to receive the attack of the large force he heard was advancing against him. After much labor it was decided to return again to the Great Meadows, and there entrench themselves as best they could. . . .

He drew up his force outside the poor entrenchments, which he had aptly called Fort Necessity, and seems to have had some vague idea of encountering the French in the open. But when at eleven o'clock some eight or nine hundred of the enemy, including Indians, emerged from the woods, it soon became evident that, with such excellent cover as nature afforded in the overhanging hills, they were not going to take the superfluous risks of a frontal attack.

The British thereupon withdrew inside their works, and the French riflemen scattered among the wooded ridges that so fatally commanded them. A musketry duel then commenced and continued for nine hours, while a heavy rain fell incessantly. Washington's guns were almost useless, for they were so exposed that the loss of life in serving them was far greater than any damage they could inflict on the enemy. The men were up to their knees in water and mud; their bread had been long exhausted, and they were reduced to a meat diet, and a very poor one at that. This ragged regiment, in homespun and hunting-shirts, halfstarved, soaked to the skin, and with ammunition failing, not from expenditure only, but from wet, fought stubbornly throughout the day. From time to time the very force of the rain caused a lull in the combat, the opposing forces being hidden from one another by sheets of falling water.

The French, as the day waned, proposed a capitulation, which Washington refused. But his ammunition at length gave out entirely, and as the gloomy light of the June evening began to fade, a fresh proposal to send an envoy to discuss terms was accepted. The indispensable Van Braam, as the only one of the British force who could speak French, was sent to negotiate. Nearly a hundred men of the defending force lay killed or wounded, while the French loss, tho not so great, turned out to be considerable. The terms offered, after a little discussion, were at length accepted, and were honorable enough; namely, that the garrison were to march out with the honors of war, carrying their effects and one gun with them. The French were indeed in no position to take or maintain prisoners. . . .

The fifty-mile march return over the mountains to Wills Creek was a pitiful business. The wounded had to be carried on the backs of their weakened, travel-worn comrades, for the Indians, threatening and noisy, were with difficulty prevented from a general onslaught, and, as it was, killed all the horses and destroyed the medicine chests. It was a sorry band that struggled back with Washington across the Alleghanies, by the rough track that a year hence was to be beaten wider by the tramp of British infantry marching to a fate far more calamitous.5 . . .

The fight at the Great Meadows was in itself a small affair, but its effect was prodigious. Judged by modern ethics, it seems incredible that formal peace between France and England should remain undisturbed by such proceedings; but we shall see that the peace outlasted events far more critical, owing to the desire of France to get more forward in her preparations before the coming struggle actually opened, and to the apathy reigning in the councils of England. But, peace or war, the great conflict had begun, and the incapacity of the colonies to help themselves had been so fully demonstrated as to turn men's minds across the sea, as to the only quarter from which efficient help could be expected.

1From Bradley's "Fight with France for North America." By arrangement with the publishers, Constable & Co., of London.
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2This fort, according to Irving, was "on a sort of island an the west fork of French Creek, about fifteen miles south of Lake Erie."
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4That is, in the year following his first expedition to the Ohio, described in the previous paragraphs.
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5A reference to Braddock's ill-fated expedition of the following year.
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