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Salena Zito: Remembering another July 4th

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7/3/2022 Salena Zito
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FARMINGTON, Pa. — Several days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington sent off a note to Colonel Adam Stephen — a man with whom he had fought here at the miserable capitulation of Fort Necessity 22 years ago, on a very different Fourth of July — reminding him to never forget that day.

The newly appointed General Washington said he prayed “the same Provedence that protected us upon those occasions will, I hope, continue his Mercies, and make us happy Instruments in restoring Peace & liberty to this once favour’d, but now distressed Country.”

Nestled deep in the lush Pennsylvania woods off U.S. Rt. 40 lies the spot where Washington and Stephen — along with several companies of Virginia and South Carolina colonial troops — held off a superior force of French and Indians for as long as they could, until they were forced to surrender the fort on July 4, 1754.

It marked the first battle that Washington ever commanded — as well as the only battle he ever surrendered. He was outmanned, outgunned and out maneuvered.

He was 22 years old and had been sent there with 160 men by Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie to build a road along the Monongahela River and to help defend the British fort at Wills Creek. When Washington arrived at Wills Creek, he found it already occupied by the French.

National Park Ranger Joshua Freeman explains that Washington decided to push forward before finally settling at a clearing in the dense Allegheny Mountain woods known as Great Meadows: “He didn’t have much choice, so he picked it for what he believed was an easily defensible position. While camped there, a Seneca Indian named Tanacharison told Washington that a small French force was positioned only six miles from them. Washington took that as an opportunity and set off with a force of several dozen men to find them.”

Mr. Freeman said once Washington found the encampment, he attacked it on all sides: “Ten men died, including the leader of the French party, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who was brutally scalped by Tanacharison.”

Washington immediately returned to the Great Meadows and began strengthening what he accurately called “Fort Necessity” in anticipation of fierce French retaliation. “You have to remember that the initial fort was built as a staging area not for a battle; they did what they could while they awaited a larger force of British regulars,” said Mr. Freeman. “While they waited, the flimsy wooden structure stood barren in an open field clearly unable to endure a sustained offensive.”

Stand here today and the vulnerability of those men is palpable in every direction; that any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

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The French did retaliate, on the morning of July 3rd with a force of several hundred French and more than 100 Indians — all of them using the tree line as a cover to fire their muskets at the fort without much fear of return fire.

Mr. Freeman said the battle became a standoff — all fought during a torrential downpour throughout the day: “Washington’s gunpowder became soaked and unusable; the morale was sinking, so he negotiated and accepted terms of capitulation in the late evening on July 3rd.”

“On the next day — July 4th — he departed Fort Necessity in defeat.”

Washington had lost — but in that loss he also found his purpose in life.

Mr. Freeman said, “Little did Washington know at the time that this battle would mark the beginning of his military career as well as eventually lead to the Revolutionary War and independence for the 13 colonies. He probably didn’t realize he would later become our first president — and it all started here.”

And little do people realize how significant this battle is in the forming of our country, explained John Standard, a Charleroi resident visiting the battlefield this week with a group of friends: “It is arguably as important an anniversary as the signing of the Declaration of Independence — the battle here changed everything and kicked off what was truly the first world war that covered every continent and would last for seven years. Had Washington not got himself in a jam here, none of that would have happened.”

Mr. Freeman explains that seven years later, the British ultimately won the war — but at great economic cost. “They had to pay down their war debt, and they placed the burden on the colonists, beginning with the stamp tax. That led to the dumping of the tea into Boston Harbor and ultimately the American Revolution,” he said.

Several dozen people were at the park at the same time as Mr. Standard, who said he is inspired to stand in a place so pivotal in our country’s history: “I often tell young people when you come here to be reflective, take in what you see, many of the trees and rocks on the ground you might pick up were witness to history here,” he said.

This is a story that’s often lost in our society and in our education system, Mr. Freeman said. “We tend to go from the pilgrims to a revolution, and it just didn’t happen that way. There were a lot of things that led up to the revolution that get missed in the retelling of our history. This spot of land,” he said, pointing to the meadow and fort, “is where Washington bravely tried to fight off the French, despite being vastly outnumbered, and it should mean something significant to everyone.”

Living historians dressed in period costumes fire shots from muskets at the fort — a reenactment for visitors. Unlike the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, Fort Necessity isn’t just overlooked by historians, but by regular people because of its location in “flyover country.”

Twenty-two summers after Washington’s defeat here, the Continental Congress commissioned Thomas Jefferson to draw up a declaration for independence; at the time, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2nd — the day it was signed — “will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival … It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Most Americans do appreciate the significance of the Fourth of July despite our current political turmoil. They know that it is more than hot dogs, fireworks and time with their families — and they appreciate the sacrifices that gave them the freedom to celebrate in happiness and security.

This weekend, plenty of Main Streets across the country will make their neighborhoods and business districts a maze of red, white and blue. It would be great if they knew that it all didn’t start at the signing of the Declaration; instead, it began here in this meadow in the Allegheny Mountains south of Pittsburgh.

North Side native Salena Zito is a national political reporter for The Washington Examiner, a New York Post columnist and co-author of “The Great Revolt”:


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