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 Crocker argues that, without Braddock’s disaster, the French might have withdrawn to Canada to negotiate peace.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.”
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.”
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.