As July 4th approaches, many of us turn our thoughts to the Declaration of Independence and the early years of the Revolution. I do too, but I also recall another July 4th, the one in 1754 when a Virginia militia officer named George Washington surrendered the crudely built Fort Necessity to the French. The battle touched off the French and Indian War.
General George Washington looks back at us from marble statues or stiff paintings with a grim-faced and determined look. Known for his dignity, resolve, and sound leadership, he seems cold and reserved. Yet he was also quite sentimental. In the midst of a grueling campaign, with a massive British invasion force set to descend on him at New York City in July, 1776, Washington paused to pen these words: “I did not let the Anniversary of the 3rd or 9th of this Inst pas[s] of[f] without a grateful remembrance of the escape we had at the Meadows and on the Banks of the Monogahela. [T]he same Providence that protected us upon those occasions will, I hope, continue his Mercies, and make us happy instruments in restoring Peace & liberty to this once favour’d, but now distressed Country”.
Washington was writing to General Adam Stephens, his subordinate in the French and Indian War twenty years earlier, who now commanded a division in the Continental Army. These lines give us a unique insight into the mind of the Revolution’s commanding general.
The French and Indian War years were Washington’s formative years as a military officer. He learned the art of war on the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland frontier: tackling supply and logistical challenges, dealing with recruitment and discipline, and working patiently-though not always successfully- with elected officials.
He lost his first major battle (Fort Necessity) to the French, fighting with the British. He won his last major battle (Yorktown) against the British, with the help of the French. The irony is deeper, for the surrender at Fort Necessity (the only time Washington ever surrendered), was July 4, 1754. Twenty years later, when celebrating American independence, he no doubt reflected on the juxtaposition.
The two battles Washington reflected upon, Fort Necessity (the Meadows) and Braddock’s Defeat (the Monongahela) were both defeats- disasters, really. Yet the experiences were powerful for the young Virginian; Braddock’s Campaign especially.
British troops and colonial forces were attempting to remove the French from western Pennsylvania and the Ohio country. The first few campaigns ended in failure, but Washington was able to participate in the final victorious effort in 1758.
Washington saw good and poor leadership, good and poor discipline, and good and poor coordination. When making decisions on conducting the war and running the army twenty years later, his decisions were informed by his earlier experiences.
He wrote of these experiences again later, and their impact on him was clearly profound. Washington also kept the sash and pistols that Braddock had given him before he died. These treasures reside in the collection at Mount Vernon today.
So strong were the memories of his youth in the woods of the frontier, that he even purchased the very land on which the battle of Fort Necessity was fought (How many Generals in American history can claim that?). In 1784 he visited the area, bought lands, and tried to find Braddock’s Grave. Washington wrote that he was “desirous of erecting a monument over it.” Unable to find the grave, Washington satisfied himself with viewing places where he learned the art of war three decades earlier.
Washington himself was one of the new nation’s first battlefield tourists. He enjoyed visiting battlefields and retracing the movements of the armies. During his Presidency, he visited many Revolutionary battle sites, including some where he commanded. One has to wonder what ran through his mind as he re-examined the ground as a seasoned veteran and commander, without the urgency and chaos of battle unfolding around him.
Most of us have had close calls: an accident, medical emergency, or in military service. These events are life- changing. Reading Washington’s reflections allows us to better know the person, and understand his complex personality.
Being sentimental as he was, we might also wonder, what might Washington have thought of those battle sites today. Many are preserved as historic sites, though a good many have been lost to development. Hopefully he would applaud our current efforts at preservation, scholarship, and interpretation.