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The Braddock Expedition of 1755: Catastrophe in the Wilderness

by Frank A. Cassell

Legacies v.5 #1 braddocks march HALF

The attack began with surprising suddenness as the forward unit of British grenadiers spotted the Indians and French soldiers moving toward them through the trees. With perfect discipline the grenadiers formed up and fired two volleys at the approaching enemy, instantly killing their leader, Captain Daniel-Hyacinthe-Marie Lienard de Beaujeu. Undeterred, the French and Indians took up positions on the flanks of the British column, including high ground on the right. Using natural cover, the attackers fired their muskets and moved quickly to new positions. Among the trees and the smoke of battle they were virtually invisible to the British and American colonial soldiers.

Thus commenced the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, at the site of modern-day Braddock, Pennsylvania. When it was over, 500 British soldiers lay dead and nearly 500 were wounded. Only 300 escaped the debacle unharmed, including Lieutenant Colonel George Washington. The British commander, Major General Edward Braddock, had been badly wounded and died a few days later. The attacking force lost only 28 men. The greatest European army ever seen in America to that time had nearly been annihilated by a much smaller army largely composed of Native Americans.

Braddock’s expedition had assembled in Alexandria, Virginia, in March 1755, under the command of a man who was 60 years old and a lifetime soldier, but who had no combat experience or knowledge of the geography, politics, or people of the North American colonies. To make matters worse, Braddock quickly discovered that the royal governors who were supposed to provide him with funds and supplies were nearly powerless to do so given the opposition of the colonial assemblies. After moving his 2,100-man army to Fort Cumberland in Maryland, Braddock blundered by offending potential Indian allies, who then refused to accompany him. He also learned that his superiors in London had been ignorant of the terrain he would have to cross to reach his objective, Fort Duquesne, on the site of present-day Pittsburgh. Instead of the 15 miles of mountains he had been told to expect, more than 50 miles of steep ridges loomed between him and the French post.

Braddock’s force consisted of two regular regiments, the 44th and 48th, led by Colonels Sir Peter Halkett and Thomas Dunbar, respectively, and a collection of American colonial militia units. At Fort Cumberland Braddock drilled them hard to fight in the European manner, forming up in line and firing in volley. He made it clear that he had neither respect for Indians as adversaries nor any interest in their military capabilities and tactics.

Braddock did respect the abilities of George Washington and named him an aide-de-camp. Although only 23 years old, Washington was an established plantation owner and one of the most experienced soldiers in Virginia. In the winter of 1753–54 Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie had sent Washington to the French post of Fort LeBoeuf near modern Erie, Pennsylvania, to deliver a message demanding the French withdraw from the Ohio Valley. The extremely perilous journey had nearly cost Washington his life. Then, in the summer of 1754, Washington and Virginia militia troops traveled to the forks of the Ohio only to find that a French army had occupied that strategic spot and were building Fort Duquesne. In an engagement generally considered the beginning of the French and Indian War, Washington’s forces attacked a small French party, killing 10 soldiers, including the commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers Jumonville. Washington then retreated to the hastily built Fort Necessity in the Great Meadows. In July a French force from Fort Duquesne attacked him and forced him to surrender. Washington and his troops were allowed to return to Virginia, but his little fort was destroyed. Because of this experience, Washington was of great value to Braddock. He had literally blazed a trail to Fort Duquesne, and he knew the French commanders as well as the Indian leaders of the area. As a member of Braddock’s officer corps, he met and became friendly with other officers who would later play a major role in the American Revolution. These included Thomas Gage, who would order the attack on Breed’s Hill in Boston in 1775, and future American generals Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and Daniel Morgan.

Braddock’s army left Fort Cumberland on June 6, 1755, but the march was slowed by thick woods and steep ridges. By June 18 Braddock worried that he would not reach Fort Duquesne before rumored French reinforcements arrived. Washington proposed to split the army. The best troops, horses, wagons, and a limited number of artillery pieces would push ahead while the rest of the force would bring up the supply train as quickly as possible. Braddock accepted the plan despite warnings from some officers that dividing the army could prove dangerous.

The “flying column” was composed of 1,300 men, including the British regulars. Braddock personally set out the plan of march. Behind the scouts came the advanced party of 300 grenadiers and various American militia units who protected the working party. These 300 men cut down the trees and blasted the stumps to create the 12-foot-wide road. Then came the main force, including the general’s personal guards and Braddock himself in red uniform with gold trim. Strung out behind the general were the artillery pieces and supply wagons flanked by the British regulars. At the very end of the nearly one-mile-long procession came slaves, free blacks, camp followers, servants, and a strong detachment of soldiers to guard against attack from the rear. Washington, seriously ill, rode in a wagon with the rear division of the army commanded by Colonel Dunbar. Lacking sufficient horses and wagons, that unit fell further and further behind Braddock with each passing day.

Covering five or six miles a day and generally following the path that is now U.S. Route 40, Braddock’s corps entered Pennsylvania passing the ruins of Fort Necessity and camping near Jumonville Glen, the site of Washington’s brief engagement a year earlier. By June 30, Braddock had crossed the Youghiogheny River where Connellsville stands today. With the mountains now behind him, Braddock advanced in a northwesterly direction across the future Westmoreland County. During a two-day layover at Thicketty Run camp near present-day Madison, Braddock’s scouts reported that though French reinforcements were approaching Fort Duquesne, no French or Indians were in the immediate area. On July 6, however, small parties of French and Indians attacked the column first in the rear and later along the right flank. Several, including one woman, were killed and scalped before Braddock’s troops drove the attackers off. During these brief encounters, Braddock’s troops nearly panicked. They accidentally shot one of their own Indian scouts, the son of Monacatootha, an Oneida sachem and leader of the small group of Indians with Braddock. That night Braddock ordered the young man buried with military honors and the encampment named in honor of the father.

A few days later, the British turned south down the valley of the Long Run in what is now Allegheny County. On the night of July 8 the army encamped and prepared for battle near the Monongahela River where the town of White Oak stands today. Washington finally arrived late in the evening, still ill, but intending to fight the next day. In the early hours of July 9 the British moved out. To avoid ambush in the rugged area around Turtle Creek, Braddock executed a double crossing of the Monongahela River. The first took place where the McKeesport-Duquesne bridge is now located. After marching a few miles, the British recrossed the river at the site of present-day Kennywood Park. Braddock considered this the most dangerous moment of the campaign, but the maneuver was unopposed. As soon as all the units were across, Braddock reformed the column and marched up the embankment. Nothing, he thought, now stood between him and Fort Duquesne.

With Braddock’s arrival imminent, Captain Pierre-Claude Pécaudy, Sieur de Contrecoeur, the commander of Fort Duquesne, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Indians around the fort to join the French in an attack on the British. Fearing that his post could not withstand a siege, he contemplated destroying the fort and sailing away down the Ohio. But by July 9, Captain Beaujeu, newly arrived at the fort, persuaded the Indians to join in an attack. With 600 Indians and 100 or so French and Canadian troops, Beaujeu rushed forward to meet the British, finding them near where they had made the second river crossing.

From the beginning the battle went badly for Braddock’s men. The Indian tactics were ideally suited for woodlands warfare. The British, however, fought European style with massed ranks firing in volley. They proved to be easy targets in their red uniforms. With most of their officers killed or wounded, the British advanced party retreated back along the road where they collided with the 44th and 48th regiments that Braddock had ordered forward to support them. The result was pandemonium. American colonial troops instinctively sought cover. Braddock saw this as cowardice and beat some of the Americans with the flat of his sword to drive them back into formation. Many other Americans were shot by the British soldiers who were firing blindly into the thick woods filled with smoke. Braddock and his few remaining officers, including Washington, tried desperately to organize attacks to clear the high ground of the enemy. Nothing worked. The men, frightened and largely leaderless, stood for nearly four hours in the withering fire that poured in from all sides. When Braddock suffered a mortal wound, the army finally broke and ran.

Washington and several other officers carried the dying Braddock away on a makeshift stretcher made of his own sash. The young Virginian’s later reminiscences recount the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield and during the ensuing retreat. At Jumonville the fleeing survivors found Colonel Dunbar and the rear guard. Dunbar promptly burned or buried his artillery and supplies and joined the retreat to Fort Cumberland. On July 14, Braddock died, a mile from the site of Fort Necessity. His body was buried in the middle of the road, and the troops marched over it to obliterate all signs and prevent the Indians from desecrating his corpse.

Braddock’s defeat was certainly one of the most dramatic events of the prerevolutionary period. In the short term, it left American settlements in Pennsylvania and Virginia vulnerable to French and Indian raids. In the longer term, Braddock’s expedition enhanced Washington’s reputation and helped make him the logical choice for commander in chief of the Continental army in 1775. If nothing else, he knew that a British army could be defeated. The Braddock campaign was also an important opening chapter to the decades-long struggle with the Indians for control of the Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania.

The British finally ousted the French from the forks of the Ohio in 1758, when General John Forbes led a second British expedition, again accompanied by George Washington, and built a new road through Pennsylvania. This time the British forced the French to blow up Fort Duquesne and sail away. Forbes immediately constructed a far grander fortification and named it for British prime minister William Pitt. In the general peace of 1763, the French ceded Canada and their claims to the Great Lakes area to Britain.

Perhaps the most important result of the Braddock campaign, though, was the building of the road itself. Prior to 1755, few had traveled to western Pennsylvania or Ohio. The area was too far away, and the route both difficult and dangerous. Today, Braddock’s wilderness track seems primitive, but it was the equivalent of a superhighway in the mid-18th century. Thousands of Americans seeking new economic opportunities soon followed it west to the forks of the Ohio and beyond.

Braddock’s body was found in 1804 by men building the new national pike, the future Route 40. In 1913 the body was reinterred in an impressive tomb erected by members of his old regiment, the Coldstream Guards. Nearby is a preserved stretch of his road trailing off into the trees. Little visited, Braddock’s grave, on the 250th anniversary of his death, is a good place to reflect on the man, his road, and their impact on the future of western Pennsylvania and the nation.

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Image:  A Plan of the Field & Disposition of the Troops as they were at the time of the attack on the 9th of July 1755. Braddock Expedition Papers.