A British disaster in the French and Indian War propelled the rise of a young American colonel, George Washington.
In May 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock met with the American inventor, writer and former Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin in Frederick town, Maryland. In his role as deputy postmaster general of Britain’s North American Colonies, Franklin came to meet Braddock to discuss the handling of military dispatches. However, he was quickly recruited to help the general gather wagons and supplies for his forthcoming expedition into Pennsylvania against the French-held Fort Duquesne (on the site of today’s Pittsburgh). Braddock, who had been appointed a major general only a year before, had come to the Colonies with the 44thand 48th regiments of British regulars three months earlier to take command of the growing struggle against the French.
Franklin wrote in his autobiography that the general expected to make quick work of Fort Duquesne. He recalled Braddock boasting,“Duquesne can hardly detain me above three or four days.”
Franklin, however, cautioned the general that he was badly underestimating the rigors of the American wilderness and the dangers therein – especially the French-allied Indians. “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march,” he warned, “is from ambuscades of Indians, who, by constant practice, are dexterous in laying and executing them, and the slender line, near four miles long, which your army must make, may expose it to be attacked by surprise in its flanks, and to be cut like a thread into several pieces.’”
Franklin wrote that Braddock smiled at his “ignorance” and recalled the general replying, “These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”
That abrupt dismissal of Franklin’s advice would prove fatally misguided.
Later that same month, Braddock led a force of British regulars and American militiamen – including George Washington, Daniel Morgan and young Sergeant Daniel Boone – from Fort Cumberland, Maryland, into the Appalachian wilderness. There, Braddock would suffer one of the worst defeats in British military history.
In the mid-18th century, the population of Britain’s North American Colonies was looking west toward the rich Ohio Country beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The French, however, had already staked their claim to the same frontier region. As early as the 1720s, France had sought the region to unite its Canadian colonies with New Orleans at the southern terminus of the great Mississippi River transportation artery. Therefore, the French endeavored to establish a string of forts along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes. From these forts France could control the lucrative fur trade, which was expanding westward as game was depleted in the East. Not incidentally, the French plan also would hem in Britain’s Colonies, trapping France’s North American rival between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastline. By 1755, a number of the French forts had been completed, including Fort Duquesne, which occupied the strategic point where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio River.
Britain was well aware of France’s plans and activities in the continent’s interior. Indeed, although the two countries were not yet formally at war (which eventually would be declared in May 1756 and become known as the Seven Years’ War), armed clashes on the disputed frontier had already occurred. Notably, this included an engagement on May 28, 1754, about 50 miles south of Fort Duquesne. In that action, a British force of 40 Virginia militiamen under colonial Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, along with 12 Indians, ambushed and killed or captured 35 French Canadian militiamen commanded by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Particularly since Jumonville was killed in the fighting, Washington’s otherwise minor “battle” had international repercussions – historians cite it as the beginning of the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the global Seven Years’ War).
To thwart France’s attempts to solidify French control of the Ohio Country, Britain sent freshly minted Major General Edward Braddock to command British forces in North America and to take decisive military action.
Braddock had served in the British army since 1710, although he took 26 years just to reach the rank of captain. Eventually, in 1753, through the British army’s “purchase system” that allowed officers to buy rank, Braddock was able to purchase a vacant colonelcy. On April 2, 1754, he was promoted to major general. However, Braddock lacked command experience. Despite his nearly half-century in uniform, he had served outside of London only twice and had never commanded troops in combat.
A Virginia merchant who knew Braddock called him “a man of weak understanding and very indolent, slave to his passions, women and wine, as great an epicure as could be in his eating though a brave man.”
INTO THE WILDERNESS
After Braddock landed in Virginia in February 1755, further recruiting among British citizens in the Colonies increased the strength of his two regiments to a total of 2,200 regulars. From Fort Cumberland, Maryland, on May 29, the leading elements of his command began the march toward Fort Duquesne. (See map.)
Braddock was planning to follow the wilderness route that militia colonel Washington had blazed a year earlier. The distance, which the British mistakenly believed to be only 70miles, was actually 120 miles. Even more daunting was the fact that the route was over a “road”that was little more than a primitive track – the best part of which a British quartermaster called“the worst road I ever traveled over.” The wilderness road traversed five mountain ranges and crossed innumerable watercourses before reaching the French fort located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
From the beginning, Braddock had trouble trying to move his cumbersome force through the difficult terrain. An advance detachment of 600 men, sent ahead to clear and widen the road, made six miles of progress the first day of its march and three miles the second day, with200 men at a time swinging axes while another100 stood guard over them. The first 30 miles took a week.
On June 10, the main body of Braddock’s force set off with thousands of pack horses, wagons, and 19 artillery guns (six of the guns were soon returned to Fort Cumberland to speed up the march). Two dozen female camp followers(cooks and laundresses) and a herd of beef cattle also accompanied the column. A week later,the main body and the advance detachment met at a place called Little Meadows, near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.
There, Braddock gave in to his frustration with the slow pace of the march and split his force, dispatching a “flying column” of 1,400men to forge ahead, while the main body with the artillery and supply wagons would follow along as best it could. An advance detachment of 400 men and two companies of Virginia rangers along with two 6-pounder guns preceded the flying column, cutting a road through the wilderness. Braddock led the next in line element of the flying column with two companies of grenadiers, 550 handpicked infantrymen, four howitzers, four 12-pounders and three mortars.
As Braddock’s army crossed into Pennsylvania, it entered hostile territory. Soon, Indians were seen slipping through the woods around the long, strung-out column. Occasionally, shots were fired.A teamster sent to gather in his horses was surprised by Indians and shot four times near Great Meadows (where Washington had built a crude stockade known as Fort Necessity a year earlier). French scouts and Indians also “endeavored to reconnoiter [our] camp,”wrote British Captain Robert Orme, “but whenever they advanced,they were discovered and fired upon by the advance sentinels.”
By July 3, Braddock’s flying column had progressed 11 days ahead of the main body, prompting Braddock to call a war council to decide if the column should pause and allow the two forces to join up. The council confidently decided not to wait and to continue on toward Fort Duquesne.
On the morning of July 6, Indians attacked the baggage train at the end of Braddock’s flying column, killing and scalping a soldier and a woman, and wounding a second man before the rear guard drove them off. It was the first time the column itself, and not just stragglers, had been hit.
On July 8, Braddock’s flying column reached the Monongahela River and encamped about 10 miles southeast of Fort Duquesne.
BATTLE OF THE MONONGAHELA
Because of the restrictive terrain and the bends in the Monongahela, Braddock would have to cross the river twice to reach Fort Duquesne. Therefore, at 2 a.m. on July 9, he sent ahead a small force under Captain Horatio Gates with two 6-pounders to secure the second crossing site. At 4 a.m., he sent 250 men ahead to begin cutting a road to the first crossing site for the wagons and baggage. Braddock still confidently expected to easily take the fort, which he assumed was lightly defended. However, he was unaware that its small garrison recently had been reinforced to a strength of 1,600 men (French regulars, Canadian militiamen and Indian allies).
Meanwhile, at Fort Duquesne, Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the French commander, had become aware of Braddock’s approach and the British preparations to cross the Monongahela River. He dispatched Captain Daniel Hyacinth-Marie Lienard Beaujeu with 637 French-allied Indians (Ottawa, Miami, Huron, Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo), 146 Canadian militiamen and 72 French regulars. The French commander’s intent was to ambush the British force while it was crossing the river and therefore at its most vulnerable.
At 5 a.m., Braddock’s main element of the flying column began its first crossing of the Monongahela River. By that time, Gates had advanced and secured the second crossing site, having moved across the 300-yard river without incident. Gates then halted his force to await the main element of Braddock’s flying column. At about noon, the remainder of the flying column arrived and crossed the Monongahela for the second time.
For Braddock’s final advance to Fort Duquesne, Gates led the vanguard, followed by the road builders and then Braddock leading the flying column’s main element. Making a grand spectacle of it all, the British marched with flags unfurled and a band playing the “Grenadiers’ March” – because of the numerous Indian sightings, Braddock had no illusion that his approach was unobserved.
Hearing the music and clatter of Braddock’s crossing, Captain Beaujeu realized he was too late to lay the ambush and attack the Redcoats as they crossed the river, as he had planned. Yet he reacted quickly and decisively, immediately sending his force into the woods on both sides of the trail, where his soldiers and warriors fanned out in a “half-moon” formation behind the trees.
About 1 p.m., an Indian war cry broke out and the French and Indians began firing. The surprised Redcoats halted and then slowly began advancing up the road, stopping every few yards to kneel in ranks and fire volleys. The disciplined British firing quickly routed the Canadian militiamen and many of the French regulars, and the majority of them headed back to the fort. All of the Indians, however, remained and began firing at the red-coated targets standing or kneeling without cover in the open.
On the third British volley, Beaujeu was killed. Yet the Indians’ withering fire continued unabated, and Captain Gates deployed his two 6-pounders to fire grapeshot into the trees. But since the Indians kept moving and firing from the cover of the dense woods, the artillery gunners were unable to effectively target the elusive warriors. Slowly but steadily, the Indians began to push the British back down the road.
Hearing the firing, Braddock spurred his horse to the front of the column, where he found British troops in a near panic. About the same time, the American militiamen in Braddock’s command took the initiative and began executing the “Indian fighting tactics” with which they were well versed. The Americans moved into the trees and took on the Indians on their own terms. The British regulars, however, remained in the open and by now were firing wildly. A number of the Americans and even some British officers and soldiers were inadvertently killed by the Redcoats’ “friendly fire.”
Yet the deadliest fire continued to be that coming from the Indians.British officers were targeted in particular and suffered heavy casualties, leaving the soldiers leaderless. “The officers, being on horseback,”Franklin later wrote, “were more easily distinguished, picked out as marks, and fell very fast; and the soldiers were crowded together in a huddle, having or hearing no orders.”
Braddock charged through his scattered and demoralized troops as they continued to be pushed back, trying with little success to organize them. Gates’ vanguard by now had crumpled into the road-building detachment, and that disorganized mass of men then collapsed into the main body, adding to the confusion. Soon, the two 6-pounders had to be abandoned, and Gates went down with a bullet wound to his left breast. More Americans rushed forward to join the fighting and took to the trees while the British regulars stayed huddled in the road firing wildly. Having been issued only 24cartridges each before the first river crossing, the regulars began to run out of ammunition and rummaged the bodies of the dead and wounded to find more.
George Washington, who was recovering from a bout of the “flux” (dysentery), also charged into the midst of the fighting. He seemed to be everywhere, riding fearlessly among the chaos and trying to bring some order. He recorded that 12 musket balls pierced his coat, but none struck him – an early indication of the incredible luck that would see Washington through the fierce combat in this war and would mark his experiences in the American Revolution.
The fighting raged on for three hours with the Indians slipping through the trees on both sides of the British, the Redcoats huddling in the open trying to keep formation and return fire, and the Americans firing from behind the trees alongside the road.
At this point, Braddock, whose horse had been shot from under him, was attempting to mount another horse when he was hit in the arm and the lung. With Washington’s help, the mortally wounded general was carried to the rear.
Any semblance of an orderly British withdrawal collapsed as the men tried to get back across the Monongahela. Indians wielding tomahawks and knives swarmed over the Redcoats. After that, Washington wrote, the remnants of Braddock’s troops “broke and [ran] as sheep before the hounds.” Hundreds of Indians closed on the panicked fugitives – many of whom had thrown away their muskets to run faster– and slaughtered the British, who could offer little resistance.
When the Indians stopped pursuing in order to scalp and plunder the many dead and wounded – and to drink the 200 gallons of captured British rum – Washington halted and regrouped some of the fleeing British troops on a small rise. After bringing a semblance of order and forming these men into a rear guard, Washington then rode back to the main body to bring up medical supplies and wagons to move the wounded.
The British had lost 456 men killed outright (including 63 of 89officers killed or wounded) and another 422 wounded – 878 men out of the flying column’s total of 1,466. “I cannot describe the horrors of that scene, no pen could do it,” an English officer wrote. “The yell of the Indians is fresh on my ear, and that terrific sound will haunt me until the hour of my dissolution.”
In comparison, French and Indian casualties were very light,probably no more than 30 killed and 60 wounded.
Braddock’s shattered force began retreating along the same road it had hacked so laboriously on its approach march to Fort Duquesne,leaving behind caches of flour for any stragglers who had escaped the battle and were trying to catch up with the withdrawing force. On July 11, the survivors of Braddock’s flying column reunited with his main body, and the army buried most of its remaining provisions to free wagons for the hundreds of wounded. Artillery guns were destroyed, gunpowder casks emptied, artillery shells buried, muskets and road-building tools smashed.
On July 13, Braddock died of his wounds. Captain Orme, one of the general’s aides-de-camp, reported that Braddock was mostly silent during the retreat but that he spoke once to say, “Who would have thought? We shall better know how to deal with them another time.”
Braddock was buried in the middle of the road that his men had cut a week earlier. The army and its wagons then passed over the grave to obscure it, hoping to keep the Indians from discovering it and desecrating Braddock’s body. On July 17, the survivors made it back to Fort Cumberland.
ANATOMY OF A DISASTER
For many years, historians blamed the defeat on Braddock’s stubborn insistence on using formal European tactics in the American wilderness. Recent historians, however, have questioned that conventional wisdom and blame the defeat more on the general’s faulty execution of those tactics. Importantly, Braddock had failed to use skirmishers, an established European tactic. Skirmishers would have provided early warning of the enemy attack and then would have fought individually behind cover to break up and delay the attacking force. Although Braddock had posted a company of flankers on each side of his column, those troops were not trained to do anything except stand in ranks and fire volleys, negating their ability to act as proper skirmishers.
Braddock also failed to properly employ another valuable source of intelligence gathering, early warning and frontier fighting skills – British-allied Indians. He not only egregiously misused the eight Indian scouts that accompanied his force, he also had refused offers to add more Indian warriors and scouts to his army.
Because of the speed with which the French and Indians launched their devastating attack, the Battle of the Monongahela is often described as an ambush, which it was not. In fact, the planned French ambush never materialized and the two opposing forces instead came together in what in military terms is called a “meeting engagement.” The superior speed and flexibility with which the French and Indians reacted is what allowed them to quickly gain the upper hand and inflict a disastrous defeat on Braddock’s army.
Ironically, Braddock’s defeat greatly enhanced the reputation of George Washington, who two decades later would lead the American forces that won the United States’ independence from Britain. The 23-year-old Virginian had remained cool and collected under fire and organized the rear guard that permitted the scattered remnants of Braddock’s force to disengage and escape the killing ground. The experience also allowed Washington to serve and fight with a British army, an opportunity from which he gained insights into British army organization and operations. Those insights would become invaluable to Washington as Continental Army commander in chief.
There were also other long-range benefits for the Colonies. Franklin observed: “From their landing till they got beyond the settlements, [the British] had plundered and stripped the inhabitants, totally ruining some poor families, besides insulting, abusing, and confining the people if they remonstrated. This was enough to put us out of conceit of such defenders, if we had really wanted any.”
Such loutish British behavior gave birth to – or at least added to – colonial resentment toward Britain. But Braddock’s debacle in the American wilderness also had a more far-reaching and subtle influence on the thinking of those in the Colonies, a shift Franklin again was able to discern: “[It] gave us Americans the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British regulars had not been well founded.”
“[Braddock,]” Franklin concluded, “had too much self-confidence, too high an opinion of the validity of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans and Indians.” Braddock’s faults – overconfidence in himself and in the effectiveness of British regular troops while underestimating both his enemy and the extreme difficulties of waging war in the wilderness – cost him a bitter defeat and his life.
“[Braddock] died a man whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended,” Washington wrote. “He was brave even to a fault and in the regular service would have done honour to his profession.” But waging war in the American wilderness proved too much for him.
Chuck Lyons is a retired newspaper editor and a freelance writer who has written extensively on historical subjects, and his work has appeared in numerous periodicals. Lyons resides in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife, Brenda, and a beagle named Gus.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.