Monday, July 3, 2017

George Washington: Assassin

In May of 1754, George Washington, the 22 year old future American patriarch, was serving as Lieutenant Colonel in a regiment of soldiers assigned to protect English settlers in the Ohio territory. They were on a mission to help secure an area on the site of present day Pittsburgh.

English soldiers had begun to build a fort on that spot, but French soldiers had seized it and renamed it Fort Duquesne. An Indian ally named Tanacharison (a.k.a. The Half King) sent Washington word of what had happened. According to Joseph J. Ellis in his book, His Excellency,

"Washington decided to build a makeshift fort near Tanacharison's camp, rally whatever Indian allies he could find, and wait for reinforcements. Tanacharison promised his support, but also warned that the odds were stacked against them."

What happened next is arguably what led to the start of "The Seven Years' War" (or as we call it in the U.S. "The French and Indian War.") While trudging through the woods Washington and about 40 men came upon a group of French soldiers camped in a small clearing. Washington's soldiers and their Indian allies quietly surrounded the group. It is not clear which side began shooting, but someone did, leading to a short battle between the two forces. Washington himself provided a brief description of what happened next in a letter he sent to Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

"I there upon in conjunction with the Half King (Tanacharison)...formed a disposition to attack them on all sides, which we accordingly did and after and engagement of about 15 minutes we killed 10, wounded one and took 21 prisoners, amongst those that were killed was Monsieur De Jumonville, the commander."

Washington failed to provide a detailed account of the fighting. Based on eyewitness accounts of what happened next, Washington may have omitted the facts to protect himself. After the firefight ended, Jumonville presented a letter, in French, that stated that the French soldiers were on diplomatic mission. The letter was sent by a French governor in Canada warning the English that their presence in the Ohio River Valley would not be tolerated. According to Kenneth C. Davis in his book America's Hidden History, here's what happened next...

"The chief who had guided and advised Washington, the Half King [Tanacharison] moved beside Jumonville. Without warning, the Half King swung his hatchet, burying it in the wounded Frenchman's head, saying in French, "Thou are not dead yet, my father." Reaching into Jumonville's shattered skull, the Half King pulled out some brain matter and smeared it on his hands. As if on signal the rest of the Half King's warriors fell on the wounded French captives. The Indians methodically scalped and stripped the Frenchmen as they were killed. One French soldier's decapitated head was then impaled on a stick."

The Half King's actions were apparently to avenge his father who had been killed by the French. It was alleged that he was boiled and eaten as well.

Washington was an inexperienced soldier and this was his first taste of combat. The shock of what was happening left him feeling helpless and too frightened to intervene. He surely realized he had no control over the situation. 

On July 3, Washington would surrender his makeshift fort, dubbed Fort Necessity, to the French. As a condition of his surrender he signed Articles of Capitulation. The papers essentially stated that he and his troops were responsible for the assassination of a French emissary. On July 4 Washington and his men shuffled away from the fort headed for home. For the rest of his life Washington denied realizing that the document he was signing was an admission of guilt. However, it is more likely he was fully aware of their contents and signed them as it was the only guarantee that he could walk away alive.

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