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Major George Washington Attacks the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley: May 28, 1754

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

English colonists, especially in Virginia, wanted to be able to cross the Appalachian Mountains and settle in the great Ohio River valley. The problem was that the French claimed this valley as part of their territory. Just like the English, the French, too, wanted control of North America. To keep English settlers from coming to the Ohio Valley, the French governor began building forts along the upper Ohio River. Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia was not pleased with this, for Virginia claimed this region as part of its territory. In 1753, Dinwiddie sent the French commander a message saying that the French should stop building forts on the Ohio River. Dinwiddie chose a young Virginia gentleman, a major, to deliver the message. This young gentleman was the 21-year-old George Washington, who had served as the adjutant of one of Virginia’s four military districts.

George Washington and his family
George Washington and his family

Washington delivered Governor Dinwiddie’s message, but the French commander ignored it. In the spring of 1754, Dinwiddie sent Washington again to the Ohio River, but not with a message. The Virginia governor told Washington to drive the French from the Ohio Valley.

When Washington reached the Ohio Valley, he learned that the French had already erected Fort Duquesne near the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. Washington built a log stockade, not far from the French fort, at a place called Great Meadows. On May 28, 1754, Washington and his 350 men made a surprise attack on a small detachment of French troops, killing their commander and nine others. Washington took the rest of the French soldiers prisoner.

Washington’s attack greatly angered the French commander. Gathering about 700 men, he marched against Washington. When Washington heard that the French were approaching, he ordered his Virginians to retreat to their fort at Great Meadows. There they fought a day-long battle. Unable to resist so large a force of French, Washington finally surrendered on July 4. The French did not take any of the Virginians as prisoners. Instead, after disarming them, they allowed the Virginians to return to their homes.

Though Washington had been beaten, Governor Dinwiddie made him a lieutenant colonel. About his first experience of war, Washington wrote, “I have heard the bullets whistle; and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

George Washington reads prayers in his camp as a lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian War of 1754.
George Washington reads prayers in his camp as a lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian War of 1754.

Music of New France

L’Acadie, today’s Nova Scotia, has a rich musical tradition dating back to the days when it was a French New World possession. This song, “Rossignolet Sauvage,” is an example of that rich tradition. Perhaps French soldiers at Fort Duquesne in 1754 would have been familiar with a version of it. This version is performed by the Canadian soprano, Suzie LeBlanc.

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