A volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.
On the 28th of May in 1754, a wilderness skirmish in colonial Pennsylvania set spark to the Seven Years’ War — thanks to a battlefield execution under the auspices of the future United States founding father George Washington.
The backdrop to what pro-French partisans would call the “Jumonville Affair” was the rivalrous jockeying of French and British flags in contested North American territory. Looking to check French raiding in Ohio that was feared prelude to an attempt to effect control of that valuable and disputed tract, Washington — here a 22-year-old British lieutenant colonel, many years away yet from his future glory as the American Revolution’s great general — had engaged the French 11 miles from present-day Uniontown, Pa..
It was a short fight: Washington got the drop on the French encampment and efficiently flanked them with his Iroquois allies. Fifteen minutes, and about 10 to 14 French killed, told the tale.
It’s remembered now as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, but its namesake wasn’t around to enjoy the distinction. Instead, that defeated French commander, one Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, was allegedly taken prisoner by his opposite number but then killed out of hand by the Iroquois leader Tanacharison or Tanaghrisson (known as “Half-King” to Europeans).
There are differing accounts of exactly what happened and only speculative surmises as to why; in the most cinematically catchy version, Jumonville is attempting to communicate his mission to the victorious Washington — the two men do not share a language — when Tanaghrisson steps up to the captive and “cries out ‘Tu n’es pas encore mort, mon père’ (‘Thou art not yet dead, my father’), raises his hatchet over Jumonville’s head, and crashes it into his skull. Reaching into the skull, he extracts a handful of Jumonville’s brains and washes his hands in the pulpy gore.”* According to historian Fred Anderson, this was the native chief making a declaration of war against the French, rejecting their asserted “paternity” over Indians.
Now caught out with a small force of militiamen against a rival state that was sure to be incensed when it caught word Jumonville’s killing, Washington hastily dug in behind improvised palisades, a bunker unassumingly christened “Fort Necessity”. The Iroquois did not stick around, correctly urging Washington that he’d do best to abandon the field as he’d have no prospect of withstanding the large force of French regulars that was sure to answer Jumonville Glen. Just so: on July 3, the French reached the fort and forced its surrender after a few hours’ fighting.
The French-language capitulation that Washington signed on this signal occasion — the only surrender of his military career — characterized the slaying of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville as an “assassination”. This word would be grist for years of competing propaganda between the contending empires, especially since the flying musket-balls from these two engagements would spiral into the French and Indian War (within the North American theater) and the Seven Years’ War (the larger European and global great powers war). Proving himself even at this moment to be every bit the American, Washington would spend the rest of his career attributing his assent to this incendiary word to his infelicity with French.
Despite slinking out of Pennsylvania with an L and a grudge against his translator, this frontier Gavrilo Princip did great service for his future country. Great Britain won the big war he’d started; her attempt in the 1760s and 1770s to settle the terms of her resulting domination of North America — like restricting colonization past the Appalachian Mountains, in deference to native allies like the Iroquois, or ratcheting up taxes to service gigantic war debts — only inflamed the colonists into the rebellion that put George Washington’s name onto his own imperial capital, and George Washington’s face on the world’s reserve currency. Tu n’es pas encore mort, mon père, indeed.
* Other accounts have the murder effected by musket shot, or even have Jumonville killed during the battle.
On this day..
- 1345: Arnaud Foucaud, jobbing trooper - 2019
- 1753: George Robertson, prick - 2018
- 1794: The neighbors of Susan Sorel, the female atheist - 2017
- 2015: A day in the death penalty around the world - 2016
- 1879: Alexander Soloviev, bad shot - 2015
- 1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle - 2014
- 1829: George Chapman, besotted - 2013
- Themed Set: Old New York - 2013
- 1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum - 2012
- 1872: Franks survives Fiji's first hanging - 2011
- 2002: Napoleon Beazley, who threw it all away - 2010
- 1871: The Paris Commune falls - 2009
- 1987: Valery Martynov, betrayed by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen - 2008