How the Man Sent to Seize
a Continent Changed
by Thomas E. Crocker
Westholme, 384 pp., $28
It’s one of the most lushly romantic and chilling scenes in American history, if not often recalled. The British major general Edward Braddock led a scarlet-coated army that hacked its way deep into the frontier wilderness of colonial America in 1755. Expecting easily to capture the undermanned Fort Duquesne at present-day Pittsburgh, and to push France back into Canada, the Anglo-American force was, instead, ambushed by the French and their Indian allies. Braddock was killed and the army decimated, despite the best efforts of the young colonial officer George Washington, who repeatedly evaded death. America’s colonial frontier was left wide open to a season of atrocities.
Braddock’s March is the first book by Washington lawyer Thomas E. Crocker, and it is arguably (and surprisingly) the first truly comprehensive history devoted exclusively to the calamitous march that remade North America. Crocker argues that, without Braddock’s disaster, the French might have withdrawn to Canada to negotiate peace. Absent years of the French and Indian War, events precipitating American independence likely would have been avoided. George Washington would have become a respected British Army officer and an eventual United States would have peaceably evolved into a Canada-style British dominion.
Whatever Crocker’s historical conjecture, Braddock’s story is superb history, involving many notables such as Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Daniel Boone. The bluff, 60-year-old Braddock was a competent veteran of the Coldstream Guards who had fought the French in Holland. The son of a general, the lifelong bachelor was socially prominent in London, where he was intimately connected to a young actress, herself the paramour of other prominent English gentlemen. The Duke of Cumberland, a son of George II and army commander, personally selected Braddock to lead what was the largest military force ever to enter the Western Hemisphere.
The year before the French had refused an appeal by the acting governor of Virginia, represented by young George Washington, to abandon their possessions south of the Great Lakes. Washington helped ignite the French and Indian War when his own force of Virginians and allied Indians encircled a French military delegation and killed the commander. (Himself later encircled and forced to surrender, Washington unknowingly signed an acknowledgment, in French, that he had “assassinated” the enemy commander.)
But Washington’s mishaps did not much bother London or Williamsburg, which were both anxious to oust the French, especially Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio. Braddock’s force numbered about 2,400 men, some of them colonial volunteers, and the general quickly accepted Washington onto his personal staff. Encamped at Alexandria, Virginia, in the spring of 1755, Braddock hosted a summit of the colonial governors of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts to synchronize war strategy—the first such summit in America, presaging future intra-colonial cooperation.
Evidently Braddock’s army was unimpressed by Alexandria, and the small city reciprocated. One British officer recalled that dinner with a local planter, surrounded by burning candles, half-naked slaves, and humidity, resembled the “infernal regions.” Braddock’s host, John Carlyle, remembered that the general “took everything he wanted, abused my home, and furniture and made me little or no satisfaction . . . but to our great joy they marched from hence . . . with the greatest parade and negligence.” Carlyle, whose house still stands regally today, also described the British as “prejudiced against us” and “used us like an enemy country . . . calling us the spawn of convicts, the sweepings of the gaols.” Braddock personally, Carlyle called brave, but also “very indolent, slave to his passions, women and wine,” adding, “See into what hands so great an affair as the settleing [sic] the boudarays [sic] in the North America was put.”
Maybe Carlyle was overly harsh about his former houseguest, who was a meticulous British officer. A prominent Marylander called Braddock “austere . . . distant . . . haughty,” even towards the colonial governors. Evidently the general did not waste conversation. But his sojourn across the Potomac in “indescribably lovely” Georgetown (then part of Maryland, today in Washington) was more enjoyable. Braddock had never before found “better dressed or better mannered people” than in Georgetown, where men were “very large and gallant” and women were the “most beautiful that my eyes have ever looked upon,” while the “stately buildings” have “no superiors in England.”