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Fight for America

A pivotal moment in the struggle between France and England.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By MARK TOOLEY
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With the promise of corralling wagons and provisions in Maryland, Braddock divided his force. Half the army followed what is today, roughly, Route 7 through Virginia’s Piedmont from Alexandria up to Winchester, while the other half followed what is today roughly Route 270 from Georgetown to Frederick. (Mostly unnoticed today, the submerged remains of Braddock’s Rock, where his force landed after crossing the Potomac, are near the Kennedy Center, marked by a small plaque.) The impact of Braddock’s army marching with flags flying and drums beating through the small villages of colonial Maryland and Virginia must have been considerable. Colonial forces wore blue jackets while the British regiments and their colonial recruits wore red. The army must have been biracial, because recruiters were discouraged from signing up blacks who were not “young and strong.” Local Catholics, especially the Irish, were also avoided, since their attitude towards the French could not be trusted. British sailors were attached to the army to help transit rivers and assist with ropes and pulleys for dragging wagons and cannon. Dozens of camp followers also marched, mostly soldiers’ wives who doubled as washer women. Perhaps doubting that all were “wives,” Braddock had physicians “search and see who was clean.”

British planners in London, relying on faulty maps, thought the army could paddle up the Potomac, with the rocks of Great Falls north of Georgetown simply blown out of the way. Engineers on site quickly saw otherwise. Maps in London also showed the jump over the Alleghenies from Cumberland to Fort Duquesne as only 15 miles. In fact, it is more than 100 miles.

To his credit, Braddock did not dwell on these mishaps but was more distraught over the failed promise of wagons, provisions, and Indian allies by colonial governors. Benjamin Franklin rescued the expedition when he shrewdly frightened Pennsylvania farmers into renting their wagons to the army rather than risk seizure. Some Indians convened at Cumberland and thrilled to Braddock’s display of cannon fire and martial music, responding with their own “horrible noise, dancing all night.” But they mostly dispersed, never to reappear. 

Historians usually fault Braddock for failing to win more Indian friends; but Crocker writes that intra-tribal rivalries mostly explain the failure, and that Braddock, while no charmer, understood the importance of such alliances against the French. The British were intrigued by the first Indians they encountered, calling them “well made” and “dexterous.” One tribal princess trysted with much of Braddock’s officer corps before he banned Indian women from camp. An Indian scout who remained later called Braddock, after the disaster, a “bad man” full of “pride and ignorance.”

Running low on provisions while in Cumberland, Braddock nearly canceled the march. But he was relieved by “plump” Quakers from Pennsylvania laden with wagons of flour, cheese, and bacon. One officer presciently noted that cheese and bacon are the “baits that draw rats to destruction.” Quakers and Benjamin Franklin notwithstanding, Braddock pronounced that his army was victimized by “lies and villainy.”

Mythology teaches that Braddock arduously constructed a twelve-foot-wide road through the wilderness to accommodate his carriage. In fact, he abandoned his “chariot” in Cumberland, and for the climb into the mountains and beyond, rode a white charger. Pushing over 2,500 men and camp followers, with nearly 200 wagons, 30 cannon and mortars, and 600 pack horses across the Alleghenies, under constant threat of ambush, and where no wheeled vehicles had ever rolled before, was an engineering marvel.

Disputes among Braddock’s officers
were rife, with his own secretary secretly denouncing the general. Braddock himself was mostly aloof, while ordering frequent floggings of deserters and drunkards. He knew the 116-mile trek from Cumberland to Fort Duquesne demanded absolute discipline. A team of 300 axe men, receiving extra pay, tore through the forest and up mountains, braving bears, panthers, and rattlesnakes, punching a road where only Indian paths had existed before. Beyond Cumberland were virtually no European inhabitants, so all provisions had to be carried.

Colonial newspapers gushed with confidence: “May the Great God of Hosts Crown their Enterprize [sic] with Success.” But an officer described the scene in more prosaic terms: “The knight [Braddock’s quartermaster] swearing in the van, the general cursing and bullying in the center, and their whores bringing up the rear.” Although Braddock appointed far-flung sentries, Indian and French raiding parties occasionally shot and scalped stragglers, including one woman, also leaving insulting graffiti on trees, including “many insolent expressions.” 

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