Salena Zito

JUMONVILLE GLEN, Pa. – Between this heavily wooded ravine along an alpine summit in the Allegheny Mountains and the “great meadow” down the road, a young George Washington offered his only surrender in battle.

The date was July 4, 1754.

“It is pretty amazing standing here, knowing at this very spot the seeds of democracy were sown,” says David Harkleroad, 26, a living historian for the National Park Service.

The shots fired between Washington, then a British emissary, and the French were the first in what became the Fort Necessity campaign. That battle led to a worldwide conflict, the French and Indian (or Seven Years) War.

“In yet another twist of irony,” Harkleroad adds, “because Britain was the ultimate winner of the French and Indian War, the Brits had to pay down their war debt by taxing the colonists, ultimately leading to the rebellion and eventually our independence.

“Americans, as you see today with Tea Party protests, still rebel against taxes,” said Harkleroad, who has served two tours in Iraq as a Pennsylvania National Guardsman. “We are … willing to still fight for economic independence.”

Twenty-two summers after Washington’s defeat, the Continental Congress commissioned Thomas Jefferson to draw up a declaration for independence, says political historian Ryan Barilleaux of Miami University of Ohio. “But it was voted for on July 2nd, 1776, not the 4th.”

John Adams, an advocate of independence in that congress, wrote to his wife Abigail that he thought July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. … It ought to be solemnized with pomp and Parade, with games, sports, guns, bells, bonfire and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

He was right about the celebrating, Barilleaux notes, yet wrong about the date.

On July 4, 1826, both Adams and Jefferson – the only two signers of the Declaration of Independence who became president – died on what was the nation’s 50th anniversary.

Americans love to celebrate Independence Day. For most, that has little to do with an extra day and much to do with the day’s significance.

On main streets across the country, flags begin to dangle from lamp posts and telephone poles on Memorial Day. By July 4, Pennsylvania communities such as Uniontown, 10 miles down the old National Pike from Jumonville Glen, are a maze of red, white and blue.

More than 6,000 miles away, Independence Day has extra-special meaning in a combat zone.

“We American soldiers, through our training and rich traditions in our units, have a keen sense of history,” says Major General Tony Cucolo, commander of Task Force Marne and the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq.

“We know we are the descendents of ‘ten companies of expert riflemen’ who marched to the aid of fellow Americans in Boston under siege back in the summer of 1775, even before the nation was born.”

He has fond memories of the annual July 4 parade of marching bands, Boy Scouts and veterans in the small southern New York town where he grew up: “The whole town … was awash in red, white and blue. By the time the day ended, if you weren't proud to be an American, you had to be in sensory denial or have a heart made of stone.”

From George Washington to Tony Cucolo, American soldiers share a belief that some things are literally worth fighting for: home, family, the right to assemble peaceably, the freedom to speak our minds and worship as we choose.

“Those things are, in fact, worth our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor – just like the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged confidently during a time of great uncertainty,” the major general says.

Soldiers take quiet pride in being among the less than 1 percent of Americans of this generation who have come forward and said, “This we will defend.”

Washington’s early military experience – including his surrender in southwestern Pennsylvania – gave him invaluable battlefield experience that most American leaders lacked.

“He learned about strategy and tactics, as well as war propaganda because of how his surrender was used by the French,” Barilleaux said.

Two hundred and fifty-six years ago today, Washington and his troops abandoned this area. Drums beat and flags flew, and the momentarily victorious Indians and French began looting the garrison's baggage on their way out.

The young Virginian had no inkling that his surrender would lead to a nation’s birth.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.