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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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To reach Fort Duquesne before French reinforcements, Braddock divided his army nearly evenly between a forward flying column and a rear column to guard the baggage train, sometimes with 15 miles or more dividing the two. He also decreed that the army, as it approached the fort, would majestically ford the Monongahela River, presumably under French observation, with “bayonets fixed, colors flying, and drums and fifes beating and playing.” It was a magnificent sight. Less impressively, Braddock rejected a subordinate’s suggestion to beat the forests as Scottish Highland hunters drive their game, to forestall ambush.

Braddock’s confidence was not misplaced. The French commander, realizing he was outnumbered, was preparing an honorable surrender. But a young captain dissuaded him, ripping off his shirt while retaining his tri-cornered hat, painting himself with war paint, and whipping the tribal allies into a frenzy with war whoops. On July 9, 1755, he led about 900 warriors, including
200 French and Quebecois, into the woods to surprise the British, now only seven miles away. The captain was quickly killed during the assault, but his audacity prevailed. The British regulars were flummoxed by gunfire from the trees. Many colonials attempted to fight from within the woods and were mistakenly shot by their British comrades. George Washington, barely recovered from debilitating diarrhea, urged Braddock to fight guerrilla-style rather than in formation. 

“I’ve a mind to run you through the body!” General Braddock responded. “We’ll sup today in Fort Duquense or else in hell.”


Braddock’s exertions were fearless, as he lost two horses beneath him seeking to rally the troops. But he was shot, possibly by a colonial: One Pennsylvanian later claimed that he killed Braddock in reprisal for having impaled his brother for hiding during the battle. Wagoneers such as Daniel Boone abandoned their wagons and dashed to the rear. The Indians chased the Anglo-Americans to the river, where “they shot many in ye water both men and women and dyed ye stream with their blood, scalping and cutting them in a most barbarous manner.” Washington, with a few remaining officers, helped organize a retreat and carried Braddock from the field. The Indians and French remained behind, plundering, drinking, and scalping.

More than 900 Anglo-Americans, or about one-third of Braddock’s total force, were killed or wounded, including 63 of 89 officers. Not a single wagoneer was hurt. At least eight women were killed. An American prisoner in the fort observed the returning French and Indians championing their war trophies and firing guns, with about a dozen naked prisoners. He later watched from the ramparts as the Indians burned them to death, poking them with hot irons, and “yelling with infernal spirits.”

Carried away in a cart, General Braddock survived for several more days, aware of the disaster over which he had presided, but still dispensing orders, many of them sensible. His instruction to leave flour along the escape route for stragglers saved lives. Another order was more controversial: to transport the wounded, munitions and provisions were destroyed, worth perhaps £300,000.

“We shall know how to deal with them another time,” were his last words. He left to Washington his cook, his war horse, sash, leopard skin saddle pad, and pistols. Washington buried Braddock beneath the road he had built, with the army marching over his grave to disguise it from Indians eager to mutilate the remains. The general was “brave to a fault,” Washington later remembered, a man “whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended.” 

One British officer blamed the colonials for “continually telling the soldiers, that if they attempted to fight the Indians in a regular manner, they would certainly be defeated.” But the warning was astute. Although the remaining British force still heavily outnumbered the French and Indians, it quickly retreated into “winter quarters” in Philadelphia, although it was July. The army’s ignoble withdrawal left the frontier exposed, with Braddock’s road now conveniently available for invaders. Fifteen hundred settlers may have been killed or captured, and regions west of the Blue Ridge were evacuated. One typically horrific raid into Virginia entailed roping colonial infants onto tree branches and shooting them for target practice. Fort Duquesne would not be captured for another three years, and the war lasted until 1763, eight years after Braddock’s catastrophic Battle of the Wilderness.

In more peaceable times, Braddock’s Road became the way west for thousands of settlers, eventually formalized as the National Pike. A road crew discovered Braddock’s body in the early 19th century and reburied it nearby, where it is now marked by an obelisk. Britain in 1755 was horrified, but also uncomprehending, about Braddock’s disaster; Horace Walpole observed, “Braddock’s defeat still remains in the situation of the longest battle that ever was fought with nobody.” Anglo-American ties never fully recovered from the tensions of Braddock’s March, whose chief surviving hero was the young George Washington. His experience and fame would serve Americans well 20 years later.


Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.




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