George Washington, Confessed Assassin
On July 3, 1754, a young British colonial officer named George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in Pennsylvania. While the loss of a relatively small fort was not an uncommon occurrence in warfare of the time, it was certainly not a feather in then-Lt. Col. Washington’s tri-cornered hat. However, this seemingly minor battle on the far-off frontier would have major consequences. Before the affair was through, Washington would prove himself to be a capable scout and an intelligence-gathering diplomat. He would also be captured by the French and sign a document in which he “confessed” to assassination, written in a language he did not speak. This document is available in both the original French and translated into English thanks to the U.S. National Archives. Washington thereby helped spark what some call the first true world war. The future commander-in-chief of the American Continental Army and first president of the United States would learn a harsh lesson during his first field command: Those in command of soldiers who commit atrocities can bear the responsibility for their actions.
In 1753, the British anxiously took note of rising French activity in the Ohio Country. The lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, saw French actions as a violation of treaties that had placed the valuable territory as part of the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies. Lacking crucial information on the strength of the French, Dinwiddie tapped George Washington for a special mission. The 21-year-old major was to deliver what amounted to a cease-and-desist order, demanding that the French abandon their newly constructed forts in the Ohio Country. As we see from records held at the Library of Congress, he was ordered to observe the disposition of French forces and take note of the number and design of the forts.
Washington returned from the expedition with grim news and a wealth of information. Going above and beyond the instructions given him by Dinwiddie to obtain basic information, he had interrogated French deserters, carefully observed the forts, and meticulously noted French military capabilities. However, possibly the most important intelligence gathered was at a diplomatic meal with the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf. Wine flowed freely at the event, and while Washington wisely abstained, the French indulged, giving what he described in his journal as “License to their Tongues.” He shrewdly pressed his tipsy hosts for crucial information. In his report to Lt. Gov. Dinwiddie — available to us thanks to the University of Nebraska — Washington wrote, “from the best Intelligence I could get there [are] 6 or 700, who were left to garrison four Forts, 150 or there abouts in each.” Perhaps most provocative was the French claim that “it was their absolute Design to take Possession of the Ohio, and by G— they would do it.” Armed with Washington’s report, Dinwiddie notified the Board of Trade in London of what he believed to be impending French encroachment.
By the spring of 1754, information began to filter in concerning French raiding parties in the Ohio region. Dinwiddie ordered now-Lt. Col. Washington into the area with whatever soldiers he could muster. On April 2, Washington and his small force of 160 untried recruits set out on the long journey to the wilds of Ohio. Towards the end of May, tensions were rising in Washington’s camp among his soldiers and their Indian allies, led by a chieftain known as Tanaghrisson. A reconnoiter of the area confirmed that French soldiers had set up camp several miles away. Signs of an impending French sneak attack were seen everywhere — constant rustlings in the brush and unknown footprints. Washington and Tanaghrisson decided on May 28 to take the initiative and strike first.
The battle lasted a scant 15 minutes. Hit hard by Washington from the front and the Indian warriors from behind, the French were surrounded, and surrendered quickly. One of the prisoners, a French ensign named Joseph Coulon de Villers, Sieur de Jumonville, had been bearing a diplomatic message demanding the British leave the Ohio area. Through a translator, Jumonville attempted to describe his mission as that of a peaceful emissary. While Washington was busy handling the other prisoners, Tanaghrisson approached Jumonville and struck him repeatedly in the head with a hatchet. Reaching into the man’s broken skull, “he pulled out a handful of viscous tissue, and washed his hands in Jumonville’s brain.” The French dead, including Jumonville, were scalped.
The following day Washington penned a letter to Dinwiddie in which he insisted the French story of an attacked diplomatic mission was false, as they had not only been acting in a hostile manner but also had previously “sent spies to reconnoiter our camp.” Washington knew the infuriated French would launch a counterattack, and ordered his men to dig in. Raising a hasty circle of pointed stakes and deep trenches, he named his impromptu structure Fort Necessity.
On June 28, Washington gathered with Tanaghrisson and the other chieftains for a three-day strategy session. The Indians believed, quite correctly, that the hastily built Necessity and Washington’s green troops could not prevail against the approaching French regulars. The alliance between Washington and the Indians was at an end. Even the arrival of British reinforcements did not equal the odds. Finally, on the morning of July 3, 1754, the expected French onslaught began. As if the French regulars weren’t enough, the French were backed by several hundred of their own Indians allies: The combined French force dwarfed that of Washington’s colonials. To make matters worse, the French were commanded by one Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers, the older brother of Jumonville, who had come seeking vengeance for his slain sibling. The combination of hungry and inexperienced colonial soldiers, wet gunpowder, inferior numbers, and a rickety structure led to the surrender of Fort Necessity by nightfall.
The final debacle was yet to come. As was customary, Washington was required to personally sign the instrument of surrender. As the French were the victors, the document was in French, a language neither Washington nor his fellow officers could read. Washington, unwisely, signed regardless. What he did not realize is that the document, pictured here, claimed that the French attack had been provoked, in particular by the brutal assassination of Jumonville. In the years to come Washington would insist that the translator had rendered the meaning as “loss” or “death” of Jumonville, certainly not the much more incendiary “assassination.” He was adamant that “we were wilfully, or ignorently, deceived by our interpreter in regard to the word assassination, I do [affirm], and will to my dying moment.” The signed Articles of Capitulation, along with Washington’s journals and papers seized at the fort, were sent back to France. Upon publication, they caused public outrage. Jumonville was portrayed as a man slaughtered on a mission of peace, with the surrender document standing as proof of the infamy of this obscure colonial officer. For the French, the affair brilliantly served to paint the British as the instigators of what would become known as the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War).
The French used the incident for propaganda and the British simply moved on. In the final analysis, the event did little to sully Washington’s reputation. In fact, it demonstrated his aptitude for intelligence, resolve, and coolness under fire — things he would become legendary for in the years to come. Nonetheless, having fallen victim to a misleading translation, the signed “confession” of assassination haunted Washington. Today, U.S. diplomats are advised, as a matter of course, to never sign anything if arrested. Washington could have benefited greatly from this advice.
Brice Coates is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. His research focuses on intelligence and national security.
Photo credit: Wonderlane