Fort Necessity National Battlefield: Where the Road to Independence Started
In the spring of 1754, a 22-year old British lieutenant colonel led a group of 300 colonials and 100 British regulars on a mission deep into the Pennsylvania frontier. Following an old Indian trail, his goal was to both expand the road to improve future troop movements and to build a port at the Forks of the Ohio, an area known today as Point Park in downtown Pittsburgh.
However, as he was moving west, he was informed of a small contingent of French troops in an area near his camp. Moving his troops out, the lieutenant colonel ambushed the French, killing a dozen of them, including their leader Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville.
The battle, while a rousing victory for the British, was also concerning to the British officer. He knew that word of the attack would get back to the French, and that they would be coming to confront his small contingent of troops.
What he didn’t know, however, was that he and his troops had fired the first shots of what would later be known as the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years’ War in most of the world), a war that would encompass five continents, alter the landscape of colonial powers, and eventually cause the events that led to the Revolutionary War twenty-two years later.
The war would also make a hero out of the young British lieutenant colonel, pushing him to the forefront of the world stage, and making him the most famous historical figure in the United States: George Washington.
However, Washington’s assent to becoming the Commander-in-Chief still had a few challenges, and one of them happened in early July of 1754.
Shortly after attacking the French forces at what is today known as Jumonville Glen, Washington set to work on a small fort in the middle of a nearby meadow. Because the impending attack necessitated a hastily constructed fort, Washington named it “Fort Necessity.”
Less than two months after Washington’s attack on the French, the French attacked. Led by Jumonville’s brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers, the larger French force easily defeated the British thanks to the weather, lack of supplies, and poor planning by Washington. However, fearing British reinforcements, the French offered Washington the opportunity to surrender, the first and only time George Washington surrendered during his military career.
On July 4, 1754, 22 years to the day that the United States would declare its Independence from Britain in Philadelphia, Washington’s troops marched east, leaving the fort to the French.
Today, the area surrounding this pivotal place in American history forms the Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
Located in the Laurel Highlands near Ohiopyle State Park, Fort Necessity National Battlefield gives visitors a chance to learn more about the history and impact of this battle and the entire French and Indian War.
Start your visit to the battlefield in the park’s visitor center. The center offers a worthwhile 20-minute video that gives an overview of both the French and Indian War and the National Highway that runs alongside the park.From there, head into the battlefield’s excellent museum. The museum does a great job explaining what led up to the battle, the battle itself, and its aftermath. Since I knew very little about the French and Indian War before I visited, I really found this quite fascinating.
Once you’ve learned all about the battle, head outside to view the reconstructed Fort Necessity.
The fort that is there has been completely rebuilt based on archeological research of the area. The fort is surprisingly small and would seemingly offer very little protection for the troops inside. Of course, when you consider that it was built in only five days, it’s actually quite impressive.
Nevertheless, the reconstructed fort is actually a bit of a letdown after the fascinating interior of the museum. There are a few informational signs scattered around the area and a short cell phone narration, but overall, the fort really isn’t that impressive.
However, just because the fort itself isn’t worth the trip, that doesn’t mean that you should skip the battlefield, as it’s a great place to learn about the skirmish.
Also at Fort Necessity National Battlefield, and included in the price of admission, is information about the National Road Heritage Corridor that runs right along the battlefield. Now known as Route 40, the National Road was the first federally-funded highway project and one of the most important roads in America’s move west. In fact, 200,000 people traveled the road each year at one point.On the grounds of the battlefield is Mount Washington Tavern. Built on the land along the National Road, the tavern was one of the many inns that travelers could rest in during their trip. Today, the tavern offers visitors a nice glimpse into what life was like in this early hotel and restaurant.
Also a part of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield are two remote sites. The first, is just a few miles west of Fort Necessity and is the gravesite for British General Edward Braddock. Braddock was the top British military general in the colonies and died from wounds suffered in the Battle of Monongahela in 1755.
When he died, he was buried along the road that his troops were using to retreat. Because the unit’s chaplain was also injured in the battle, George Washington presided over his burial. Today, a large marker along Route 40 marks his burial and tells a bit about Braddock’s impact on the colonies.The second satellite area of the battlefield is Jumonville Glen, the site of the skirmish that led to Fort Necessity. Jumonville Glen is in a remote area near the top of the mountain. There is a half-mile path that leads visitors through what happened there and where the different troops were stationed. The path to the top of the rocks is handicapped accessible, but does get a bit rocky and steep once the pavement ends.
Truthfully, there isn’t much at Jumonville Glen today. However, I did find it quite fascinating to see the site where the French and Indian War started and where Washington experienced his first combat. I’d definitely recommend taking the short drive here if you’re visiting Fort Necessity.
Overall, Fort Necessity National Battlefield is a fascinating place to visit, especially for those interested in learning more about the French and Indian War. If you are looking for a bit broader overview of the worldwide impact of the Seven Years’ War, Fort Ligonier in nearby Ligonier may be a better choice.
However, outside of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, I doubt there is anywhere else that you can learn more about the French and Indian War than Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
Insider’s Tip: Mount Washington Tavern and Jumonville Glen are both seasonal attractions. Mount Washington Tavern is open from mid-April to the end of October, and Jumonville Glen is open from May to the end of October, weather permitting.
Note: My visit to Fort Necessity National Battlefield was hosted by the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Fort Necessity National Battlefield
Hours: Daily 9a-5p
Address: Fort Necessity National Battlefield,