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Re-enactors descend upon Jumonville


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Judy Kroeger/Daily Courier

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By Judy Kroeger
Saturday, May 29, 2004

HOPWOOD -- Fog shrouds trees, birds greet the new day and a single sentry patrols the French camp. Thirty-three men, under the command of Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville sleep under wool blankets or sit by a small fire, lighting cheroots and starting breakfast.

Suddenly a shout in French, "To arms! To arms!"

Gunshots shatter the air above the Frenchmen.

Birds stop singing; men rise from their blankets and some fall again, struck by British bullets.

British Army Lt. Col. George Washington and 40 of his men joined Mingo (Seneca) Chief Tanacharison, known as Half King, and several other Mingoes in a dawn attack. The British and the Mingoes flank the French on two sides, firing down on the camp.

Rain the night before the battle has left some powder wet, and rifles often misfire during the 15-minute battle.

Half King fells Jumonville with his hatchet, crying out in French, "You are not yet dead, my father!" as he sinks the blade into the Ensign's body.

Nine other Frenchmen die; one escapes; the rest become Washington's prisoners.

On May 28, 1754, the first men died in the French and Indian War; exactly 250 years later, a group of re-enactors bring the ghosts of that battle to vivid life at the Green Cathedral of Jumonville Christian Camp and Retreat Center.

"It was a very profound experience," says Greg Henning of Edinboro, who portrayed Jumonville as part of the Compagnie Le Boeuf, Jumonville's company. "This is where it happened. The whole French garrison (at Fort Duquesne) took it personally. Jumonville knew the English were very close the night before the attack. Jumonville was almost a martyr. Washington later signed a document showing he murdered a French officer."

Half King actually murdered the Ensign. Tom Vecchio of Shaler portrayed him in the re-enactment. "What he did started the war. He and Washington had known each other for about a year," he said. "Today was very significant. I was extremely honored to be asked to participate." Half King died of illness before the end of the French and Indian War.

"I don't think of the battle as an ambush," says Bryan Cunning of Washington, who portrayed Lt. Col. Washington. "They were French and had made threatening movements in the area. Our mission was to meet the threat."

Cunning has also played the commander in the films "When The Forest Ran Red" and "Washington's First War" and posed as Washington in historical paintings by John Buxton and Andy Kenez. He is a member of the First Virginia Company; Trent's Company of Canonsburg also participated in Friday's re-enactment.

The Braddock Road Preservation Association sponsored the re-enactment, as part of a weekend of historical programs, and Paladin Communications filmed it for possible future release.

Robert Matzen of Bethel Park operated one of the cameras and found the experience "extremely intense. The most shocking element was how smoky it was. They had to fight a battle and the smoke was just hanging there. The number of misfires was also interesting. It would have been worse and cost a lot of guys their lives if the powder had been dry." Matzen found the authenticity of the battle "spooky."

Bruce Egli, vice president of the Braddock Road Preservation Association, put accounts of the attack together for the event; the re-enactors had not rehearsed.

The attack on the French camp is considered Washington's baptism of fire. It escalated the undeclared war. The 22-year-old officer will be defeated July 3 at Fort Necessity by nearly 700 French under the command of Jumonville's brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers, who witnessed Washington's signature on a French surrender document that includes the admission of assassinating Jumonville.

The French and Indian War will not be formally declared between Great Britain and France until May of 1756. The French wanted to control the Ohio Valley, with its access to rivers for transporting furs to Europe. The British wanted to expand their holdings in North America.

Despite early French victories, in 1759, the British captured Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Niagara and Crown Point in New York and the February 1763 Treaty of Paris gave all French possessions east of the Mississippi River, except New Orleans, to the British.

Judy Kroeger can be reached at jkroeger@tribweb.com or (724) 626-3538.

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