French and Indian War: Braddock’s Defeat
French and Indian War: Braddock’s Defeat
Forks of the Ohio. Of all the leaders of the English colonies, Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia was the most concerned about the way the French and their Indian allies were behaving in the Ohio River valley. He and other Virginians had invested in companies that intended to acquire land in the Ohio valley and were desperate to forestall any French control of the area. Virginia legislators were reluctant to raise and pay for troops, so when he learned that the French were building forts on the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, the best he could do was commission the twenty-two-year-old George Washington as lieutenant colonel in charge of about 150 militiamen and send him in the spring 1754 to build a fort where the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers met. The move was too late. The French had already arrived at the Forks of the Ohio and built Fort Duquesne. Washington built his own fort some miles away at Great Meadows. His inexperience showed in the faulty design of his fort, and the French easily captured it.
Enter Braddock. In April of the following year Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia as commander in chief of British forces in North America. He brought with him two regiments of British soldiers to form the core of an expedition against the French. Meeting with Dinwiddie, Massachusetts governor William Shirley, and other colonial officials, he elaborated a grand strategy for dealing with the French: the capture of the four French forts that hemmed in the English colonists. These were Fort Beauséjour on the Bay of Fundy in Canada; Crown Point on Lake Champlain in upstate New York; Fort Niagara at Niagara Falls, New York; and Fort Duquesne. With George Washington as one of his aides, Braddock would attack Fort Duquesne. A blunt and short-tempered soldier, Braddock was infuriated by the colonial politicians. The regiments he had were understrength and would have to be reinforced with colonial troops. Pennsylvania refused to contribute troops despite the French threat to its western settlements. North Carolina and Maryland sent two companies, and Virginia dispatched nine. If this situation were not bad enough, Braddock was faced with a long march from the Virginia coast to Fort Duquesne through rough lands and dense forests, which would not have been the case had he started from Philadelphia. Despite the difficulty of the task, he was contemptuous of advice from colonials and insisted on assembling a huge train of wagons to carry his supplies. Local contractors cheated him on sup-plies, and wagons were found only with difficulty.
The March. To cut a usable track through the almost impassable forest, Braddock had three hundred axemen cut a swath twelve-feet wide. The army was four miles long as it toiled along the path; artillery was manhandled along; wagons broke down; and the troops were miserable in the summer heat. In ten days the column had covered only twenty-two miles. Following Washington’s advice, Braddock culled out a smaller force to press forward with lighter loads, leaving the supply train to advance as best it could. This column covered four miles a day and in thirty days was about eight miles from Fort Duquesne.
Disaster. On the morning of 9 July, Braddock’s army forded the Monongahela River in fine order, its band playing. Fort Duquesne was almost within sight, and the French had not been heard. In fact, all was confusion at the fort. Indian scouts had reported the arrival of Braddock’s army, and the French commander realized immediately that he could not hope to win an open battle or withstand a siege. He had only a handful of Canadian troops and about eight hundred Indians. His only hope was to ambush the column in the woods. Captain Daniel Beaujeu led the Canadians and Indians on a dash from the fort. As soon as they contacted Braddock’s army, the British troops formed line and routed the Canadians with a few volleys. Beaujeu was immediately killed, but his subordinate rallied the Indians in an attack on the British flanks. Soon the British were galled by bullets from an unseen enemy and from unexpected directions. The British lines began to collapse, and knots of men, ten or twelve strong, were firing blindly at the woods, often hitting their own comrades. Braddock was infuriated and tried to force his troops back into line. He was especially angry at the Virginians, who had broken ranks to fight from cover. He had four horses killed under him before he himself was wounded through the lungs. Sixty-three of his eighty-six British officers were killed or wounded, and Washington was the only one of his aides to be unharmed. What was left of his army was a routed mob, fleeing its way back across the river to safety. Of the 1,459 men in the army, 977 had been killed or wounded. Braddock died four days later, and wagons were driven over his grave so that the Indians would not find it and desecrate the corpse. Washington helped lead the remains of his army home. Afterward there was much criticism of Braddock for not having listened to the colonials, and many expressed the opinion that European tactics were unsuited to fight in America.