Braddock's Defeat

Braddock’s Defeat

By Thomas Fleming
Autumn 1990 • MHQ Magazine

Almost since the day the French and their Indian allies destroyed the army of Major General Edward Braddock along the steep banks of the Monongahela River, Americans have mocked  the British effort to fight a European-style war in the heart of the American wilderness. With their colorful uniforms, massed troops, and rigid commanders, the British forces appeared destined  to be ambushed, and  the result seemed a case of British hubris and  arrogance versus French savvy and courage. Yet Thomas Fleming contends that General Braddock deserves better from history. Personally courageous but ill served at critical moments by both his officers and men, Braddock was, in the last analysis, unlucky. That fact cost him  his life and his reputation. For other figures in the battle, this clash in western Pennsylvania was merely their introduction to the pages of American history; the battle’s roster-with such names  as Washington, Pontiac, and Boone–reads like a who’s who of early American history. And one cannot help won­dering, if only for a moment, what role others might have played in the future had they not been among the fallen in this opening battle of the French and Indian War.

 

NO ONE IN THE RAW NEW POTOMAC RIVER PORT OF ALEXANDRIA INDEED, in the entire colony of Virginia-had ever seen any­ thing like it. From a fleet of Sixteen Ships came boatload after boatload of British regulars in red coats and buff breeches. A thousand strong, they marched from the waterfront up the town’s only street, 40 drums (20 to a regiment) thundering, almost as many fifes shrilling. At the head of each regiment floated colors of fringed yellow silk, with rose-and-thistle-wreathed Roman numerals on them, announcing that they were the 44th and 48th King’s Foot.

Three days later, on March 26, 1755, the regiments’ commander dis­embarked from a 50-gun warship. He was Major General Edward Brad­dock, a stout, sturdy, red-faced man of 60 who had spent 45 years in the British army, most of them in the elite Coldstream Guards. The son of a major general, virtually born into the army, Braddock had a reputation for being bluff and often blunt to the point of rudeness. But Virginia’s act­ing governor, Robert Dinwiddie, called him “a sensible moderate gentle­ man” after their first meeting, in which Dinwiddie informed him that the Americans had done practically nothing to prepare for the undeclared war that Braddock was about to launch.

Braddock and his soldiers had come to settle a quarrel between France and England about who owned most of North America. It was a dispute that had been sputtering for almost a century. The first shots in the latest round had been fired in 1754 by one of Virginia’s own, a 22-year-old mili­tia colonel named George Washington. Leading a patrol through the west­ern woods in June of that year, he had ambushed a party of French and Indians, killing their leader. The outraged French claimed the dead man was an ambassador coming to Virginia to negotiate peace. Backed by hun­dreds of Indian allies, they soon assailed Washington and his regiment of some 350 militiamen in a makeshift fort and forced him to sign a humili­ating surrender, in which he admitted (in French, which he could not read) that he had assassinated the ambassador.

In London the French claims were greeted with more than a little skep­ticism. Since 1748, when the two great  powers had signed a putative peace at Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the War of the Austrian Succession, commis­sioners had been meeting in Paris to iron out the details of the treaty. On North American matters, progress was zero. The French laid claim to everything watered by the rivers that flowed into the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi. That gave them the right to build forts and station troops in the heart of New York on Lake Champlain and on the crests of the Allegheny Mountains.

The British countered by claiming, in the words of America’s first his­torian of the quarrel, Francis Parkman, “every mountain, forest or prairie” where the wide-ranging war parties of their ferocious allies, the Iroquois, had taken a scalp. This entitled them to everything between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, plus most of what is now the Canadian province of Ontario. The claims and counterclaims were almost mutually exclusive, and in 1755 the peace commissioners had abandoned their task, leaving four volumes of allegations, arguments, and so-called proofs for pamphleteers to chew on.

While the French talked for six years in Paris, they acted in North America. They built additional forts at key points along their riverine empire, sent armed parties swarming from Quebec to warn off American traders and settlers pushing west, and exhorted their Indian allies to sup­port them, adding terror to their repertoire of intimidation. In Virginia these acts of aggression stirred outrage and alarm. Its charter entitled the colony to claim all the land between its northern and southern boundaries “from sea to sea.” Far more influential were the claims of a number of its leading citizens, who in 1747 had formed a real-estate operation called the Ohio Company. Granted 500,000 acres of land by George II, they dreamed of owning and colonizing the Ohio River valley and becoming millionaires. Among the stockholders were Dinwiddie and young Washington.

Coolly dismissing the Ohio Company as agent provocateurs, in 1754 the French had banished a handful of frontiersmen Dinwiddie had sent to the forks of the Ohio to build a small fort on the site of present-day Pittsburgh. Within 24 hours after the group’s departure, the French had axmen in the woods felling trees for a far more formidable fort, which they named Duquesne in honor of their royal governor. Dinwiddie had responded by sending Washington and his regiment of militiamen to expel them-with disastrous results.

The governor’s agitation, which was probably multiplied by his Ohio Company shares, had failed to stir much  response among the Americans in nearby colonies. Pennsylvania competed with Virginia for the Indian trade and had its own group of leading citizens with designs on the Ohio Valley’s real estate. The southern colonies found it hard to grasp the idea of danger from distant Canada and were loath to vote money to protect fron­tiersmen, whom they considered largely disreputable. But Dinwiddie’s let­ters to England did persuade the home government, irked by six years of verbal smoke screens in Paris, to dispatch Braddock and his two regiments to Virginia.

The general’s orders seemed to show a surprising amount of sagacity in the somnolent administration of the lisping duke of Newcastle, a prime minister whose witlessness anticipated Gilbert and Sullivan. (A typical anecdote: Someone told Newcastle that Annapolis should be defended. He fluttered about his office like an agitated moth for five minutes, then asked, “Where is Annapolis?”) In fact Newcastle had little to do with Braddock’s orders; they came from the commander of the British army, Prince William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, the third son of George II. The gruff, ro­tund prince, sometimes called the boy general, was a professional soldier who had stopped the French-financed Scotch army at Culloden in 1746, saving his father’s throne. For several years he had been saying France was plotting another war, and he had urged Britain to strike first.

Braddock was told to attack the French fort at the forks of the Ohio­ and also to demolish five other forts in the North. Some historians have ridiculed the British government–and Braddock–for these orders, which supposedly were based on ignorance of the geographic realities of America. From a strategic point of view, however, the orders had much to recom­mend them. They gave Braddock the initiative–and did not, as some have assumed, require him and his two regiments to do the whole job. The directives included plans to raise two more regiments in America and allowed Braddock the freedom to deputize subordinates to handle the northern assaults, using these troops and American militia.

Cumberland also cautioned Braddock to be “particularly careful that the troops be not thrown into a panic by the Indians, with whom they are yet unacquainted.” Both knew British regulars had a tendency to run away when frightened. That had happened at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, when howling Scottish Highlanders had routed an entire British army. The duke may have reminded Braddock that among the fastest sprinters that day were the men of the 44th and 48th regiments.

With a vigor few have given him credit for, Braddock went to work as a theater commander the moment he arrived in Virginia. He sent messen­gers pounding up and down the Atlantic coast to ask royal governors to a conference in Annapolis to work out plans for the general offensive. Executed with energy, the offensive would pin down the few regulars France had in America and take advantage of the enormous edge in man­ power the million-plus Americans had over the 90,000 Canadian French.

Braddock also tartly reminded the governors that the king expected their assemblies to vote substantial sums to finance this campaign and pro­vide men, food, and wagons to keep it going. Parliament had done its part: It had voted £50,000 to launch the assault-part of a £4-million  increase in the military budget, which George II blandly explained in his speech to Parliament would be used to guarantee peace and promote the trade and prosperity of the colonies.

The French, after debating whether to call for another round of peace talks, decided on an armed riposte. They began building flatboats in the Channel ports for an invasion of England-and ordered eight regiments of regulars, 3,000 men, to America, under the command of one of their best generals, Baron Ludwig August Dieskau.

By the time Braddock arrived in Alexandria to take command of his troops, he had been in America five weeks and had already encountered enough frustrations to exasperate a far more patient man. There were no trustworthy maps of the wilderness he was about  to invade. The recruits he was turning up to flesh out his regiments to their full strength of 700 each were, to the general’s experienced eyes, “very indifferent men.” Many of them were leftovers from the shiploads of convicts the British regularly sent to the colonies to keep Britain’s prison population manageable. For extra irritation, someone stole one of Braddock’s horses from the stables of the Raleigh Tavern just before he left Williamsburg.

On March 30, Easter Sunday, Braddock tried to boost the morale of his regulars by giving them each an extra 20 shillings to compensate them for their winter crossing of the Atlantic. They proceeded to buy up all the peach brandy in Alexandria’s only tavern and go on a weeklong drunk. To restore order, the infuriated colonel of the 44th Regiment, Sir Peter Hal­kett, had to threaten to withhold rations.

Meanwhile, at his residence in one of the town’s best private houses, with a guard of thirty privates commanded by an ensign at the gate, Braddock received the local gentry. He was agreeable enough to dinner invi­tations, but he retained his hard soldier’s eye when someone asked to join his army. One of his harshest rejections fell on vain, lanky Richard Henry Lee, scion of one of the colony’s most influential families. Braddock took one look and told him to go home, thereby incurring the Lee clan’s enmity.

On the other hand, Braddock had responded enthusiastically to 23-year-old George Washington. This strapping six-footer had drawn a hearty welcome from Braddock and an offer of a captain’s com­mission with the flattering title of aide-de-camp. It was not only a case of one born soldier recognizing another one; Washington had been to the forks of the Ohio, could read a map–and could draw one.

Washington was touchy about plummeting from colonel to captain in less than a year. He had resigned in 1754 partly because he had found him­self outranked by several officers with captain’s commissions from the king. He negotiated laboriously–and lugubriously–until Braddock cheerfully agreed to let him serve as an aide without a commission. Braddock even agreed to let him stay home and put the affairs of his new estate, Mount Vernon, in order before joining the army at Wills Creek in western Maryland, the jumping-off point for the march to the Ohio.

Washington was not the only actor to step onto American history’s stage under Braddock’s aegis. The lieutenant colonel of the 44th Regiment was Thomas Gage who was destined to send British regulars to fight em­battled farmers in Concord, Massachusetts, 20 years later. And in one of the 44th’s companies was a lean, voluble lieutenant named Charles Lee, a future major general in the Revolutionary army of the as yet unimagin­able United States of America. Soon they would be joined by Captain Horatio Gates, who would humble a British army at Saratoga for this same improbable nation. He was leading a company of New York recruits to Virginia.

While his men drilled, got drunk, or chased the few available women in Alexandria, Braddock grappled with his major problems: food and trans­portation. He had to carry all his salt beef and flour with him into the wilderness–along with 14 pieces of artillery. Fort Duquesne, with rivers on two sides, would require siege tactics. He had brought 16 artillery wagons from England, but no horses. Braddock and his quarter­ master, Colonel Sir John St. Clair, estimated they would need another 200 wagons and 2,500 horses to travel the 110 miles from Wills Creek to the Ohio. Governor Dinwiddie had flourished contracts guaranteeing delivery of these necessities by May 10. But as April ebbed away, few of them appeared, and even fewer were satisfactory. The horses, in particular, were the worst jades Braddock had ever seen.

Cheating the government was bad enough, but the Virginians carried things to excess by doing the same thing to Braddock’s officers, who had to buy horses too. One officer wrote of visiting a plantation for a hearty sup­ per, after which he was sold a horse that as “soon as it was cool, showed itself dog lame and moon-blind.” Denouncing both the inhabitants and the weather, which went from hot to snowy in the same week, he wrote: “I reckon the day I bought my commission the most unhappy in my life excepting that in which I landed in this country.”

After irritating delays, Braddock finally met on April 15 with Dinwiddie and the governors of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina. He laid before them the plans for the general offensive and got an enthusiastic response. William Shirley of  Massachusetts­ whose moody son, William, Jr., was serving as Braddock’s secretary–fan­cied himself a man of action, perhaps because he had married a French girl a third his age during the year he spent in Paris rebutting France’s Amer­ican claims. He eagerly accepted the responsibility for assaulting Niagara, a crucial choke point in the French network of forts. Braddock put him in command of the two regiments to be raised in the North and gave him money to build two 60-ton warships on Lake Ontario.

Sir William Johnson, the Indian agent for New York, who had accom­panied his governor, took charge of the attack on the fort at Crown Point, near the southern end of Lake Champlain, and promised to bring the Iroquois into the battle on the British side. A third expedition of New England men was to attack three forts in Nova Scotia and expel French power from that province.

On the surface the conference was a triumph of strategic planning. Braddock had no idea that the governor of South Carolina, the one man who could have brought the powerful Cherokees and Catawbas into his attack on Fort Duquesne, had not even been invited by Dinwiddie. The ambitious Scotsman wanted most of the credit for supporting Braddock. He had sent his own emissaries to the Cherokees, who ignored them. Hoping for the best, Dinwiddie smoothly assured Braddock that the savages always wanted to be on the winning side and would join them when they reached Wills Creek with their mass of men and cannon. Inexperienced in dealing with the Indians, Dinwiddie did not realize that the rout of Washington and his militiamen in 1754 had already swung most of the western tribes to the French side.

A more visible failure of the conference was the governors’ rueful report that not one of their assemblies was willing to vote a shilling to support Braddock. While this lack of financial backing from the Americans was in­furiating, it did not endanger the expedition; Braddock had a “contingent account” from the home government to meet expenses. Newcastle, obsessed with the fear that a war would bankrupt England, had urged him to count his shillings carefully. Now Braddock wrote the duke that the contingencies were going to be much more expensive than “Your Grace imagines.”

Braddock continued to be far more worried about food and transport than about Indian allies. Over wretched roads his two regiments marched up opposite sides of the Potomac to Wills Creek. The governor of Maryland had promised that Braddock would find wagons and a generous supply of horses and cattle at Frederick. Braddock found nothing. St. Clair, who had gone ahead to Wills Creek, reported no sign of Dinwiddie’s supplies there. Officers scoured the countryside but could not even find anything to commandeer.

For a few days Braddock considered abandoning the expedition. He might have done so if Benjamin Franklin and his son William had not rid­den into Frederick to confer with him. As deputy postmaster general for the colonies, Franklin had been summoned to set up an express service that would enable Braddock to communicate as rapidly as possible with the home government and his deputy commanders in the North. When he heard Braddock raging about his lack of wagons, Franklin remarked that almost every farmer in Pennsylvania owned a wagon and would be glad to lease it to the government for the generous fee Braddock was offering, 15 shillings a day.

The general seized on his suggestion like a drowning man clutching for a spar. He gave Franklin £800 and empowered him to advertise for wagons in Pennsylvania. Franklin went to work writing a clever proclamation that ended by warning the largely German farmers that if they did not accept the offer, “Sir John St. Clair, the hussar,” would come to get the wagons “with a body of soldiers.” St. Clair was in fact an ex-cavalryman. The word hussar awakened memories of European pillagers and produced a magical flow of wagons and horses.

Franklin, who had an opinion about everything, asked Braddock if he worried about being attacked by Indians while his column, almost four miles long, toiled toward the Ohio. Couldn’t this line of march be “cut like a thread into several pieces” and be unable to support the severed parts? Writing 15 years later in his autobiography, Franklin remembered Braddock dismissing this possibility. “These savages may, indeed, be a for­midable enemy to your raw American militia,” Braddock supposedly said, “but upon the King’s regulars…it is impossible they should make any impression.”

There are strong reasons for doubting that Braddock ever said this. His discussions with Cumberland and his entire conduct of the expedition sug­gest that he and his superiors were extremely worried about the Indians. But he thought they could be beaten with the same massed firepower and bayonet charges that had defeated the wild Scots at Culloden Field. Wills Creek and its fort did nothing to lighten Braddock’s mood. The fort was a pathetic green-timbered affair, which one of Braddock’s engi­neers saw no point in improving; he said it could be knocked to pieces by three six-pounders. Braddock named the shambles Fort Cumberland in honor of his patron and told the engineer to do his best. Nothing seemed to go right. Beef from Virginia had not arrived because the assembly had declined to pay for it and the contractor declared the deal null and void. The beef from Maryland was rotten. A raging Braddock sent officers to arrest the contractor, but he had taken to the woods.

Arriving on May 10, Washington found the general ready to damn the entire continent of North America. Washington defended his countrymen. In a letter to his friend William Fairfax, he described a typical scene: “Instead of blaming individuals as he ought, he charges all his disappoint­ments to public supineness; and looks upon the country, I believe, as void of both honor and honesty; we have frequent disputes on this head, which are maintained by warmth on both sides.”

But a genuine affection had taken root between the gruff general and the diffident young Virginian. It began to flourish even though Washington took issue with more than Braddock’s opinion of Americans. At Wills Creek he watched the regulars drill each day and practice platoon firing–the stan­dard European way to repel an attack. He told Braddock these tactics would not work in the forest. Years later a survivor of the expedition remembered young Washington in his blue uniform, “two thumbs [in] the armpits of his vest,” lecturing Braddock on wilderness fighting. With a twinkle in his eye, Braddock growled: “What think you of this from a beardless boy?”

One of the reasons Braddock stayed with the standard tactics was a report from England warning him about the 3,000 French regulars heading for Canada. Another reason was that the gush of flame and smoke from 150 leveled muskets impressed the Indians at Wills Creek. About 100 had shown up, led by Pennsylvania trader George Croghan. Braddock gave them speeches, presents, and rum, and encouraged them to put on their war paint and dance and howl for the troops. He thought it was a good way to familiarize his men with their fighting style. The regulars watched the braves rush each other with raised tomahawks and go through the motions of scalping a victim. One flourished a real scalp, taken in an earlier battle. Many think this only tightened, rather than toughened, everyone’s nerves. Unfortunately, the Indians brought their wives and children. The wives–and perhaps a few daughters–were soon the rage of the camp, among both officers and men. The Indian husbands did not seem to mind, but Braddock disapproved mightily. Discipline was unraveling before his eyes. He told the Indians to take their women and children home. They obeyed, but few of the men returned. With their numbers shrunk to 50, Braddock decided they were not numerous enough to help him but were too many to feed on the march. He sent home all but 10, who were retained as scouts.

Though still short of wagons and horses, Braddock had to march. Letters from the North reported that troops for the assault on Nova Scotia were at sea, escorted by three warships. William Shirley had recruited his regiment and was moving toward Albany to link up with a corps raised in New Jersey. At Albany, William Johnson was assembling a largely New England army to attack Crown Point. A wandering Delaware Indian brought a report from Fort Duquesne that the garrison numbered only 100 men but they were expecting another 900 soon. It was vital to beat these regulars to the site.

On June 7, with 300 sweating axmen ahead of them leveling a 12 foot-wide road, the 2,200-man army slogged out of Fort Cumberland into the wilderness. The two regiments had been recruited to full strength. Some 1,400 of the men wore red coats, and there were also three compa­nies of blue-coated Virginians, two companies of New Yorkers, and single companies of North and South Carolinians wearing the same color. Serving as a wagoner and blacksmith in the North Carolina company was the future founder of Kentucky, 21-year-old Daniel Boone. Handling the reins of another team was 19-year-old Daniel Morgan, a future brigadier general in the Revolution.

No one was in a particularly happy mood. The bloody flux dysentery­ had begun to appear among the men, from the rotten beef and bacon. The regulars were not enthusiastic about being turned into road builders. The senior officers had become disenchanted with the whole expedition. Colonel Thomas Dunbar of the 48th complained about his health and threatened to go home. Sir Peter Halkett of the 44th exuded pessimism. Quartermaster St. Clair, whose temper was as short as Braddock’s and whose tongue was even sharper, sulked because the general did not take his advice. In response, the general’s military family, led by his chief aide, Captain  Robert Orme of the Coldstream Guards, formed a protective circle around him. Orme in­sulted Dunbar to his face, and Braddock let him get away with it. He had decided that Dunbar was an old woman.

Too much should not be made of this bickering, which always goes on in the military. Soldiers are blunt. Far more serious was the pace of Braddock’s march. The toiling axmen and the second-rate horses, hauling 1,300-pound cannon and tons of food, were moving only two miles a day. An exasperated Braddock, knowing his senior officers were looking for a chance to call it quits, sought Washington’s advice. The big Virginian stag­gered from his tent. He was down with dysentery, feverish, his head split­ting. He urged Braddock to leave most of the heavy artillery and food behind and push ahead with a picked force, traveling as light as possible.

This advice gave Braddock a chance to get rid of Dunbar. He put the colonel in charge of the rear echelon and took the best horses and troops for his flying column. Wagons were limited to 30, and the number of horses per team was increased to add speed. Packhorses carried much of the equip­ment. St. Clair was sent ahead with 400 ax swingers to clear the road. The column, counting St. Clair’s men, numbered 1,459 officers and men.

Washington was not among them. He was prostrate. He begged Brad­dock to send for him when they reached the fort so he could participate in the final assault. The general promised him on his word of honor.

The lightened column advanced at a respectable five or six miles a day. Often Braddock and his wagons caught up to St. Clair and his axmen and the two forces camped together for the night. The strictest security was maintained against surprise. Flanking troops prowled the woods a hundred yards from both sides of the column. As they drew closer to the Ohio, they slept with loaded guns at their sides. Whenever they halted, the men faced outward, two deep, with shouldered arms.

They had no contact with the enemy, except for obscene warnings scrawled in charcoal on random trees and one or two brushes with scout­ ing Indians, who killed several stragglers. Braddock ordered redoubled vigilance and tried to persuade his 10 Indians to range well ahead of the column. They declined to do so until July 5, when two of them prowled close enough to observe the French fort. They saw no sign of any plan to ambush the column along the 20 miles left to march. Christopher Gist, a Virginia frontiersman and friend of Washington’s who had scouted on his own, confirmed their account.

The next day Washington rejoined the column. Too weak to ride a horse, he arrived in a wagon, determined not to miss the assault on the fort. He had a personal score to settle with the French commander, Pierre Claude Pecaudy, the sieur de Contrecoeur, who had accused him of assas­sinating the French ambassador.

Contrecoeur was no longer the commander of Fort Duquesne; he had been relieved at his own request by Canadian-born Captain Daniel Beaujeu. But he was still at the fort; he did not want to be accused of flee­ing from the British. How to handle Braddock’s attack, neither he nor Beaujeu could decide. Their scouts had reported Braddock’s army at 3,000 men marching “so well on their guard, always ready for battle,” that it seemed futile to attack them with small detachments. The fort’s garrison consisted of only a platoon of regulars and about 200 Canadian militia. Encamped outside the walls was their only hope of victory–some 800 Indians. But the size of the British army and its train of artillery had pro­foundly discouraged the red men.

What to do? Surrender after a brief siege? Or blow up the fort and retreat? To Beaujeu and Contrecoeur, these seemed the only options. Just one subordinate captain, Jean Dumas, favored attacking Braddock on the march. By the time he talked the wavering Beaujeu into making the attempt, Braddock was only a day from the fort. But the Indians remained uninter­ested. “What, my father, do you wish to die and sacrifice us?” one warrior asked Beaujeu. He spent most of the day arguing with the chiefs, to no avail. Eight miles away, on July 8, Braddock convened a final council of war.

Sir Peter Halkett thought they ought to wait for Dunbar to join them for the final assault. Washington said that would take three weeks, because Dun­bar’s horses were used up. Braddock called Halkett a fool and told him they would attack with their 1,400 men. On the advice of his scouts, Braddock decided to avoid a final slog across some difficult ridges. They would ap­proach the fort by two fords of the winding Monongahela, which would give them access to a trail that led along the east bank of the river directly to their goal. It was risky because the second ford was an ideal site for an ambush: The trees were thick and the riverbank was 12 feet high.

Again exercising maximum caution, Braddock ordered Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage and an advance party of 160 men to march at dawn on July 9 and seize both fords. If they were attacked, there would be plen­ty of time for the main force to come to their aid, or take defensive posi­tions if the advance was driven back.

At Fort Duquesne the Indians had spent the night in council. When Beaujeu asked them to come with him to attack the British, they still said no. Undeterred, Beaujeu rolled barrels of powder and bullets to the gates of the fort and broke the barrels open. “Will you let your father go alone?” he shouted. “I am certain of defeating them.” Several younger chiefs, notably an Ottawa named Pontiac, wavered.

Into the fort rushed a scouting party of 30 braves who had exchanged shots with the British advance guard at the upper ford. They gave Beaujeu the exact route of the British advance. No time was to be lost if he was going to ambush them at the lower ford. “You see, my friends, the English are going to throw themselves into the lion’s mouth!” he shouted. “Those who love their father, follow me.”

With wild yells, the Indians changed their minds. They crowded up to the barrels, scooping out bullets, filling their powder horns. But the frantic Beaujeu had to wait while they put on their paint and whipped themselves up with dances. He organized his white men-Dumas and another captain, four lieutenants, six ensigns, and about 60 cadets who were capable of functioning as junior officers, giving their force a remarkably high leader­ ship quotient. With the platoon of regulars and the Canadian militia, they numbered about 250. The French officers stripped to the waist like their savage allies, cocked hats and silver gorgets around their necks as their only symbols of authority. Beaujeu led the way at a dead run to reach the lower ford before Braddock.

They were already too late. Gage and his men had done their job. As Braddock led the main army across the upper ford, with 400 men posted on high ground to cover their passage, a messenger from Gage reported that the lower ford had been seized without firing a shot. St. Clair and his axmen and engineers were leveling the 12-foot banks for the wagons and were beginning to work on the final leg of the forest road.

The good news swept through the ranks. A captain’s batman, who kept a journal of the expedition, wrote: “We began our march again, beating the grenadier’s march all the way. There never was an army in the world in more spirits.” One of the engineers noted in his journal that the men “hugged themselves with joy at our good luck.” The batman milked a cow and fixed a milk punch for his captain.

Still Braddock was cautious. He crossed this second ford by the book, first drawing up his wagons and artillery on the riverbank and posting pick­ets on the high ground behind them. Then, with Washington and his other aides and senior officers beside him, he studied the opposite bank for a sign of danger. Shortly after noon, as the men began to grow restless in the hot sun, the grade was finished on the opposite bank. Braddock ordered St. Clair and Gage to advance through the forest until 3:00 p.m. and bivouac; they would invest the fort the following day. Braddock had finally accept­ed the universal assumption that the French, having failed to defend the ford, were going to stay inside Fort Duquesne.

Drums thundering, fifes shrilling, the army splashed through the shal­low water and up the bank into the forest, following the axmen and Gage down the 12-foot-wide road they were cutting. The woods were fairly free of underbrush. Horses and even wagons could pass among the trees. Flanking parties led by sergeants covered both sides of the column. Prowling scouts and a detachment of Virginia horsemen were at the head to sniff out an ambush. Behind them came an engineer, marking the trees to be cut for the road, and behind him two companies of grenadiers, the best and biggest soldiers from each regiment.

Suddenly the scouts and horsemen recoiled and went rushing past the engineer. Peering through the woods, he saw a man, probably Captain Beaujeu, running toward him, his silver gorget gleaming on his bare neck. The man turned and waved his hat to the right and left to send the Indians down both flanks of the column. They streamed past him, howling the war whoop.

Panic swept through the grenadiers. They almost followed the fleeing engineer, scouts, and horsemen, but a command to fix bayonets steadied them. They quickly formed into a line of battle and delivered a full volley, the front rank kneeling. Once, twice, three times their guns boomed, echoing through the forest like thunderclaps. A bullet from the third volley hit Beaujeu in the forehead, killing him instantly. The terrified Canadian militia fled screaming “Sauve qui peut!”–”Save yourself if you can!” A good many Indians followed them. Only the platoon of French regulars stood firm.

For a few seconds it looked as if Braddock’s men were about to achieve a rout. “God save the king!” roared an ensign. The grenadiers huzzahed and surged forward, bayonets lowered. But Captain Dumas, now in com­mand, proceeded to demonstrate how courage and daring can turn a battle around. With reckless disregard for his own safety, he steadied his platoon of regulars, and they stopped the grenadiers with a volley. He ordered the rest of the French officers to regain control of the Indians and lead them along the British flanks.

Lieutenant Colonel Gage, in command of the advance guard, now demonstrated his lack of military judgment. If he had reconnoitered at the head of the column, he might have seen there was only a platoon of Frenchmen, whom his 160 men could have demolished with a determined bayonet charge. But instead, he ordered his men to fall back. He thought the flanking Indians were going to cut him off. His panicky grenadiers blun­dered into the axmen behind them, who in tum recoiled on the column’s 800-man center, which was advancing on the double to their assistance.

Simultaneously, the French and Indians on the British right seized a commanding ridge that Gage should have occupied as soon as he reached the east side of the ford. From it they unleashed a hail of musket balls on the red-coated men in the road. Lesser but still deadly fire poured from thickets between the road and the river on the left. Braddock, in the regu­lation position at the rear of the column, galloped forward with his secre­tary, William Shirley, Jr., Washington, Captain Orme, and another aide, Captain Roger Morris of the 44th.

A bullet in the thigh knocked Orme out of the saddle almost instantly. Colonel St. Clair staggered past them, his shoulder shattered by an early bul­let. “For God’s sake, the rising ground on our right!” he shouted, and passed out. Young Shirley went down with a bullet in his brain; then Captain Morris was wounded. Riderless horses plunged wildly through the forest. The British officers, proudly refusing to abandon their saddles, were prime targets.

Braddock found his men huddled in the road firing volleys at their invisible assailants. Artillerymen manning two six-pounders under Gage’s command added to the thunder for a few minutes but soon abandoned these guns as their casualties mounted. The flanking parties had already been driven in or killed. Drifting clouds of gunsmoke added to the confu­sion. Braddock saw that he had to seize the high ground on the right and get the column moving forward. He ordered a lieutenant colonel to attack the ridge. On horseback, the officer led a hundred men up the slope and was promptly shot out of the saddle. The men straggled back to the road, and the Indians’ war whoops rose to a new crescendo.

Displaying a courage that his terrified troops could not emulate, Braddock rode up and down the column, cursing, flailing men with the flat of his sword, trying to get them into line. Washington and several other Virginians begged him to let the Americans, at least, scatter behind trees and fight it out Indian-style. Braddock refused to listen to them. He did not want to fight the enemy their way. He roared curses at any man he saw crouching behind a tree. He wanted to mass his men and smash the enemy back with bayonets and volleys, but too many officers were dead or wound­ ed to create the coherence he needed for these tactics.

The situation slowly disintegrated. Virginians under one of their cap­tains disregarded Braddock and took a position behind a huge fallen tree on the slope of the ridge. Some British, seeing guns go off, fired a volley at them, killing many. Braddock ordered the rest to fall back to the road, and they were further decimated by the Indians. Sir Peter Halkett rode forward from the rear guard to try to help. At Prestonpans in 1745, he had been one of the few officers able to control the men around him. But now he was shot dead the moment he reached the battlefield. His son, a major in his regi­ment, tried to rescue him and fell dead with his father in his arms.

Royal artillerymen brought three twelve-pounders into action, cutting swaths through the forest with grapeshot. But these fresh gunners were also shot down by the steady fire of the invisible enemy. The infantry gave them no protection. Again and again, officers tried to rally the men and lead them up the slope of the ridge. They died gallantly, to no purpose. Officers, Captain Orme later wrote, were “absolutely sacrificed.” Among the seri­ously wounded was Captain Horatio Gates.

Washington and Braddock seemed to have charmed lives. The big Virginian had bullets through his coat and hat. Two horses were shot out from under him. Braddock lost four horses. For another hour they strug­gled to rescue the situation, but their men became more and more in­ capable of obeying orders. They just kept shooting madly, blindly, some­ times killing their own officers by accident. Eventually they fired away all their ammunition. Braddock realized he had to retreat to save the army from annihilation. He decided to fall back to the wagons and make a stand there to protect the food and reserve ammunition. But a moment after he gave the order and began mounting his fifth horse, a bullet flung him to the ground, tearing through his arm and penetrating his lungs.

In the rear of the mile-long column, around the wagons, the situation was relatively stable. A company of South Carolina volunteers had beaten off an Indian attack. But when the survivors of the battle in the woods reached the wagons, panic became a rout. Wagoners such as Daniel Boone cut loose their horses and rode for their lives. Soldiers seized officers’ bathorses and did likewise. Those without a horse threw away guns, knap­sacks, and belts and fled across the ford. “Sheep pursued by dogs,” Washington said. He helped load the wounded general into a little cart with a still-intact team. They forded the river under fire, with terrified soldiers running after them and Indians leaping into the water to tomahawk wound­ed men. Otherwise, there was no pursuit. The French were too few in num­ber, and the Indians were too busy scalping the dead and wounded and plundering the wagons.

On the opposite bank, Braddock, whose mind was clear, ordered Wash­ington to ride ahead and rally as many fugitives as possible. About 200 men had retreated in fairly good order. They would seize the nearest high ground and hold out until Dunbar’s men reached them. Washington, reeling with fatigue and fever, obeyed. He found Gage beyond the upper ford with about 80 men. How the commander of the advance guard got that far back has never been explained. Some people later accused him of cowardice.

Washington told Gage to join them on the high ground and rode back to Braddock. He found the general and the rest of the army retreating. The regulars were too shaken to stay close to the battlefield. Those they had put out as pickets simply ran away. Braddock ordered Washington to ride on to Dunbar’s camp, forty miles back, and tell him to rush forward food and liquor for the wounded. Washington and two guides rode down the dark­ening road, past wounded men begging them for help. The sounds, he recalled 30 years later, “were enough to pierce a heart of adamant.”

In front of Fort Duquesne, meanwhile, the Indians celebrated the vic­tory in their usual style: They tied 12 British captives to stakes and burned them alive. A young Pennsylvanian, taken prisoner by a raiding party a few days earlier, watched the first man die. The Indians “kept touch­ing him with firebrands hot irons &c and he screaming.” The French pious­ly deplored such barbarities in their reports, but seldom stopped them.

When an exhausted Washington reeled into Dunbar’s camp late the next morning, Dunbar, proving Braddock’s doubts about him were correct, lost his head and beat “to arms” as if they were about to be attacked. Teamsters, soldiers, and even a few officers fled east. But as lightly wound­ed men began to show up, it became obvious that Braddock’s survivors were between them and the enemy; Dunbar calmed down and sent Braddock the supplies.

Braddock arrived the next evening. He was in agony, but his mind was clear. He ordered Dunbar to retreat to Fort Cumberland. As they began the withdrawal, he turned over his command to Dunbar. He said little after that. Musing almost to himself, he sighed: “We shall know better how to deal with them another time.” Later he told the wounded Orme to report that “nothing could equal the gallantry and conduct of the officers nor the bad behavior of the men.” Around 9:00 p.m. on July 13, he died.

The next morning Washington superintended Braddock’s burial in a trench at the head of the column. After a brief service, all the men and horses and wagons tramped over it, obliterating the grave. Washington knew the Indian habit of digging up corpses and abusing them.

The column staggered into Fort Cumberland with 387 wounded offi­cers and men. Of the 1,459 men who forded the Monongahela in such high spirits at noon on July 9, an appalling 977 had been killed or wounded. French casualties were 16. The Indians reported 25 dead. Dunbar, although he still had almost 1,000 men under his command, once again confirmed Braddock’s doubts about him-by retreating all the way to Philadelphia, exposing western Virginia and Pennsylvania to Indian scalping parties. Reappointed a Virginia colonel, Washington was left to defend a 350-mile frontier with a 1,000 militiamen, whom he was soon damning with a vehemence that matched Braddock’s.

While the French exulted in the capture of Braddock’s cannon, they were far more excited by his papers, with his secret orders from the duke of Cumberland for a general offensive. They rushed troops to the threat­ened forts in the North and tried to seize the initiative by attacking the New England army that William Johnson had assembled to assault Crown Point. Baron Dieskau led two crack French regiments and a force of Canadians and Indians to the assault. The New Englanders, fighting behind log barri­cades, met them with blasts of musketry, then charged, routing the lot. Dieskau, wounded in the leg, was captured.

Governor Shirley, faced with daunting numerical superiority at Niagara and a nearby fort that threatened his flank, abandoned his attack. But the assault on Nova Scotia was successful–and gave the modem world its first glimpse of total war. To guarantee their possession of the province, the British and their New England allies deported almost the entire French population of 6,000, burned their homes, and laid waste their farms.

There was no longer any doubt that General Braddock’s undeclared war would soon become official. On May 18, 1756, England declared hostilities, and France replied on June 9. For the next six years, war raged around the globe. Although the French scored a few victories in the early years, the British never lost the strategic initiative that Braddock had so energetically seized. In 1758 another British army, again including George Washington, bulled its way to Fort Duquesne. This time the French blew it up and retreat­ed. By 1762 France was beaten in America–and in India and Europe-and Britain was master of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

This triumph of British arms had an oddly negative effect on Americans. They emerged from the conflict with a skeptical attitude toward the prowess of the mother country. Not a little of this opinion had taken root on that bitter, bloody July day along the Monongahela. In an age when news traveled largely by word of mouth, Braddock’s defeat quickly acquired mythic proportions. The regulars supposedly ran at the first war whoop. Braddock blundered arrogantly, stupidly, into an ambush that any junior officer should have foreseen. Virginians such as the Lees gleefully piled on the slanders. Gage, Dunbar, and other survivors, anxious to pro­tect their own reputations, planted letters in newspapers  smearing  the dead general’s tactics and personality.

George Washington was among the few who never uttered any criticism of Edward Braddock. Thirty years later, when a friend remarked that he had always had a low opinion of the Coldstream Guardsman, Washington replied: “He was unfortunate, but his character was much too severely treat­ed.” By then he knew that a general could do everything he thought right in preparing for a battle and be undone by an inept subordinate or a single false assumption or a collision with the enemy at the worst possible moment. In the final analysis, Edward Braddock was the victim of all these vicissitudes. He lacked the one ingredient every general needs: luck.

Thomas Fleming is both a historian and novelist. His books include Beat the Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781  (1963) and  1776: Year of Illusions  (1975). His latest book is Loyalties: A Novel of World War II (1994).

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1990 issue (Vol. 3, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Braddock’s Defeat

 

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