The Other 4th of July
07/01/08 7:55AM By Kenneth Davis  Download MP3
(HOST) As America's birthday approaches, historian Kenneth Davis has been thinking about another Fourth of July story - that many Americans haven't heard.
(DAVIS) Most of us know at least something about that day in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was adopted. But what do you know about the "other" 4th of July - the one in 1754 - when George Washington signed what was tantamount to a murder confession?
It's a story that doesn't make it into our schoolbooks. And that's too bad, because it's instructive - both politically and historically.
The tale begins in May 1754, when 22-year-old Washington was the wet-behind-the-ears commander of a militia unit dispatched to build an outpost in Pennsylvania's wilderness. England and France were in a brief respite from their relentless wars and Washington was instructed not to engage the "enemy."
But the ambitious, headstrong young officer had other ideas.
Encountering a detachment of French soldiers, Washington ordered an ambush. When the smoke cleared, several Frenchmen lay dead or wounded; the rest taken prisoner. "I heard bullets whistle," Washington wrote his brother, adding that the sound was "charming."
What happened next was anything but charming. A wounded French officer - a diplomat, it turned out - frantically waved some papers at Washington. But before the young Virginian could make sense of this, his ally, an Indian called the Half King, buried a tomahawk in the Frenchman's skull. His warriors then fell on the other captives, leaving no survivors.
Following this massacre, Washington had his men cobble together a small wooden shed, surrounded by sharpened stakes, in a meadow about 60 miles south of modern-day Pittsburgh. It was called "Fort Necessity" - but "Desperation" would have been more fitting.
On a rainy July 3d, a French army surrounded Fort Necessity and poured gunfire down on Washington's hapless troops. Their powder wet, their trenches filling with mud and gore, some of the Virginians ransacked the rum supplies. By the morning of July 4th, Washington had no choice but to surrender. Among the terms was signing what amounted to a murder confession that sparked warfare across four continents. In North America, it was the French and Indian War.
Why spoil America's birthday party with this story? Certainly not to tarnish an icon. Washington was the "indispensable man" who saw battle at its worst and learned well the grim realities of war.
The first lesson is that propaganda rules. Young Washington should have been undone by this disaster. But even back then, there was an official "spin" machine that used the Fort Necessity fiasco to rally opinion against the enemy. That made Washington one of America's first "Teflon" heroes.
Washington's "youthful indiscretions" also never fit the tidy "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" image many Americans still cherish. And so our schoolbooks left it out.
And lastly, winners write history and tell the tales. Washington was a winner. Even though, as he surely knew - it is often disaster and defeat that can teach us the most, if only we're willing to learn.
Kenneth Davis' new book is titled, America's Hidden History.