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 marked George Washington's only military surrender.
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 Mingo 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 early the next morning at the French encampment in a narrow valley now known as Jumonville Glen. 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 Villiers 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 as much trouble as relief. Although Mackay brought reinforcements and much needed supplies, Mackay and Washington immediately entered into an argument over command of the garrison. 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. Mackay refused to take orders from Washington, established a separate encampment, and demanded supplemental pay for his men when engaged in road construction work. The two ultimately agreed to an awkward power sharing agreement that hindered British command and control throughout the battle. Morale sunk even further when the troops learned that the powerful Shawnee and Lenape tribes had made an alliance with the French.
At about 11:00 on July 3, the French column arrived at the Great Meadows and immediately began a vigorous attack. Washington’s misjudgment of the Great Meadows site quickly proved disastrous. The French were able to conceal themselves in the cover of the tree line and fire on the fort from an elevated position. The British in the fort were exposed in the 5 feet deep trenches. 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 the 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. They were given a surrender document. Washington could not read French, but to not appear foolish in front of his soldiers, he signed the document, unaware that it stated that he would accept all responsibility for the death of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. This "admission" would later be used as propaganda against the British and nearly ruined Washington's reputation.
The fort was handed over on July 4 and the bulk of British garrison were allowed to return to Maryland honorably. Two British prisoners, Robert Stobo and Jacob Van Braam, were retained by the French as a guarantee of compliance with the terms of surrender. The French burned the fort and returned to Fort Duquesne. Washington would pass by the destroyed fort one year later as part of the Braddock expedition.
The site of the fort and battle are preserved as Fort Necessity National Battlefield.