George Washington, a young lieutenant colonel in the British Army and future president of the United States, leads an attack on French forces at Jumonville Glen on this day in 1754. The battle is later credited with being the opening salvo in the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763).
In the biography His Excellency: George Washington, historian Joseph Ellis recounts Washington’s first combat experience. Washington and 40 colonial troops had been encamped near the French garrison at Fort Duquesne when he received an urgent message to rescue Indian allies in the area who were threatened by French forces. In his official report of the encounter, Washington described how his troops, aided by warriors under the Indian leader Tanacharison, surrounded a detachment of 32 French soldiers near the fort on May 28 and, within 15 minutes, killed 10 of them, including the garrison’s commander, wounded one and took another 21 prisoner.
Controversy surrounded the attack both at the time and after the war. Historical accounts indicate that the French commander, Joseph Coulon De Jumonville had actually tried to surrender but was slain by Tanacharison. Tanacharison’s rash act incited the other warriors to kill and scalp nine other French soldiers before Washington could intervene. Ellis describes Washington as shocked and hapless and writes that he later tried to downplay the incident to his commanding officer. The French vilified Washington as the epitome of dishonor. The Jumonville Glen massacre remains a highly debated subject among scholars. In the aftermath of the encounter, Washington resigned his British army commission and returned to his family’s plantation. In 1775, he returned to military service to lead the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.