Retracing old trails brings new faces into history

August 21, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

There is an indefinable uniqueness when traveling over historic trails that you have written books about, but are now accompanied by teenage guests.

About 20 years ago, Joanie and I made several tours to historic sites in Western Maryland and southwestern Pennsylvania to study and photograph monuments, forts, road signs and maps relevant to an understanding of French and Indian War events.

This latter-day tour was both nostalgic and rewarding. Each youthful guest (ages 14 and 16), carried copies of books I had written so that they could compare photographs and sketches therein with the actual settings they were viewing. It was their first visit to such places at Fort Cumberland, Fort Necessity, Jumonville Glen and Braddock's grave, to mention only a few.

It was a treat to watch the reaction of these two young ladies as the stories about personalities and places acquired a ghostly presence of seeming to be here yesterday rather than 250 years ago. This was especially true when they made the descent into the cavernous hollow behind the mammoth rock ledge known as Jumonville Glen. Here, they viewed the actual spot where French soldiers were surprised at dawn by the youthful (22 years) Lt. Col. George Washington and his Virginia forces with the help of several Indian scouts.


On May 28, 1754, at sunrise, Washington's troops opened fire on an astonished French force of 31, led by another young officer, Ensign Coulon de Jumonville. In only a few minutes, Jumonville and nine soldiers were dead and 21 taken as prisoners to Virginia. Washington became somewhat of a celebrity and inspired Horace Walpole to pen these oft repeated lines: "It was the volley fired by a young Virginian in the back woods of America that set the world on fire."

Horace Walpole could not have been prescient enough to correctly call this early skirmish the spark that resulted in the "real World War I," as it is now considered to be. In fact, the French and Indian War was very slow in unfolding when it is remembered that WWI was ignited by one assassin's bullet.

What fascinated these young ladies the most was a little discussed human interest story that was consequent to Washington's first outright show of force at Jumonville Glen. The French forces lost little time in exacting revenge for their defeat on May 28. A force of more than 500 men from Fort Duquesne, led by Capt. Coulon de Villiers, the half brother of Jumonville, was on the march toward Washington's defenses at the Great Meadow, several miles east of Jumonville Glen.

Washington had just enough time to cobble together a circular, stockade fort along with some earthworks to ward off the pending assault. The enemy made their appearance on the morning of July 3, 1754 -- hardly a month after their surprise defeat at the Glen.

Nature was no friend to Washington. It rained all day and the fort site became a mudhole and a death trap. It was aptly named Fort Necessity. It should have come as no surprise to de Villiers when Washington sent him a request for a parley. What is surprising was the generosity in the terms of surrender offered to Washington in view of his disadvantaged situation.

De Villiers allowed Washington full honors of war as they exited the battle site on July 4. Very little is made of the fact that de Villiers could have used this engagement to wreak revenge upon a Colonial officer who was responsible for the death of his brother. Washington's situation was pitiful and a French assault could well have brought an end to Washington's career -- even his life.

The fascination of these very human events, in a war that has not aroused the interest generated by the American Revolution or the Civil War, made a visible impression on our young guests. Joanie and I reached the conclusion that human interest stories are a good starting point to "hook" a younger generation onto the study of our heritage.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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