July 17 Marks 250th Anniversary of Augusta County War Council
Following the disastrous Sandy Creek Expedition carried out in early in 1756 by Virginia forces under Major Andrew Lewis, the Indians inhabiting the vast lands west of the Alleghany Mountains were heartened at their chances of mounting attacks against the settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. Plans were made to continue these deadly attacks throughout the year.
On July 17th of that year (250 years ago), a council of war was held at Augusta Court House (now Staunton) to discuss the locations for a series of forts the assembly had voted to construct along the frontier. Among those attending were local stalwarts such as William Christian, Robert Breckenridge, Israel Christian, and John Buchanan.
Writing from Winchester on April 24, Col. George Washington told Gov. Dinwiddie, “Three families were murdered the night before last within 12 miles from this place; every day we have accounts of such cruelties and barbarities as are shocking to human nature. Nor is it possible to conceive the situation of this miserable country. Such numbers of French and Indians are all around, no road is safe to travel; and here we know not the hour how soon we may be attacked.”
The need was evident, and so the council convened. From that meeting’s official notes came this: “Whereas his honour the governor has Sent Repeated orders to the officers of the militia of this County to meet and consult on the most proper places to build forts along the fronteers for the protection of the inhabitants. It is therefore unanimously agreed by the said council that a fort be built at Petersons on the south branch of Potowmack nigh mill Creek at Some Convenient Spot of ground for a fort, which is left to the Direction of the officers appointed for that Service…” Eight other forts to be constructed are listed as well as four already existing forts.
Washington, we find in various history books, was not enthusiastic about the plan. “We are, Sir,” he wrote to John Robinson, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, “first to consider that if a chain of forts is to be erected upon our frontiers, it is done with a design to protect the people.” He felt the forts should be no more than 15 to 18 miles apart—one day’s march—and garrisoned with 80 to 100 men each. This suggestion was not heeded by the council as they proposed garrisons of 30 to 70 men… with nine of the forts to house 50 soldiers. The council more closely followed Washington’s suggestion concerning the distances between forts with most ranging from 13 to 18 miles apart, with two being 20 miles apart, and two more 25 miles apart.
Although not enthusiastic, Washington planned to do all he could to help: “I intend to take the advice of a council of war about the line on which these forts are to be erected, and shall visit all the ground that I conveniently can, and direct the building,” he wrote to Dinwiddie about three weeks before the council was held. Following the council, the future commander of all American troops gave orders to Capt. Peter Hog to secure the Augusta militia to help the regular soldiers in building the forts.
Washington visited the area October 1-5 as part of an inspection tour. He asked Col. David Stuart to call out the militia to scour the woods in search of marauding Indians. After four days only five men showed up.
Washington discovered that the men of the Augusta militia were “under such bad order and discipline, that they will go and come when and where they please, without regarding time, their officers, or the safety of the inhabitants…” While the local leaders were cognizant of the Indian problem, and willing to do what needed to be done, the individual men who made up the militia were too independent, too concerned with their local defense to work together on a county-wide defense.
Eventually, some of the forts were built and others were scrapped. Those that did come to fruition provided shelter from attacking Indians during the long, hard years of the French and Indian War.