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Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock
General in Chief of His Majesty's Forces
in North America

 

Who Would Have Thought?
A Series Commemorating the
“Season of Braddock”
in the French and Indian War 250th Anniversary

 
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Part IV Running into Disaster

Once the army left Fort Cumberland the real test began. If they thought that the creeks and rivers and forests of Frederick and Hampshire Counties were troublesome, they found the western wilderness had those aplenty and far more challenging terrains with names like “Shades of Death.” If they thought that Spring Gap Mountain was difficult, it paled in comparison with the Allegheny front and ridge after ridge of unmapped mountains that often made splinters of the wagons. If they thought that their security plans had been proved earlier, they were dismayed that any day in this wilderness home to Indians they could loose a few stragglers and scouts. And if they thought that they had plans to best utilize the small number of horses and wagons to move their vast train, they found that often they could move only three or four miles a day with the end of their line just leaving camp as the front was just arriving at the next one.

Conquering the Wilderness

But here is where General Braddock managed to overcome nature’s difficulties in the most challenging military effort America had seen since the travels of the conquistadors in the early south and west. Where the planners in London were totally unaware of what those lines on their maps meant, Braddock faced and overcame the reality on the ground. It was a great victory especially when one considers the army he was moving.

There was a core of trained British regulars (admittedly not the best that Britain had to offer), but the rest of the army were recruits mostly from the American tidewater who had never faced such terrain and wagoneers who had never tasted discipline. It is amazing that Braddock did as much as he did given what he had to work with.

Advancing with a Flying Column

The real test of an army, however, is battle, and that was almost upon them. When it became apparent that the slow progress put the army in danger of finding reinforcements at Fort Duquesne, Braddock took council and divided the army into two sections. He moved with the advance part composed of the best regular troops, his few Indian scouts, the frontier scouts, the colonial soldiers and part of the artillery - about 1400 men. This flying column was designed to be the “fast attack force” while Col. Dunbar was left with the bulk of the supplies and enough soldiers to guard his section that was the slowest to advance.

Fort Duquesne model at Fort Pitt

Fort Duquesne was an imposing fortification that would require siege works with cannons to destroy. Gen. Braddock needed a substantial force for the task.
Photo of model at Fort Pitt Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

As the flying column approached the objective, Braddock cautiously scouted the terrain and planned a route best suited to keep his army from the possibility of ambush. On July 9th he crossed the Monongahela River twice, each time sending the Grenadiers first to clear and protect the crossing. When the second crossing was complete, the army thought the prize was theirs since they knew the French could not withstand an artillery siege of the wooden fort. The band struck up a tune, and the final march of about seven miles began with Col. Gage’s men in the advance.

The French Review Their Options

The French, of course, had been well aware of Braddock’s every move. Their scouts had closely followed the enemy’s advance. Capt. Claude-Pierre Pecundy, seigneur de Contrecour, the fort’s commander who had accepted Ensign Ward’s surrender of the small British fort at the Forks on April 17, 1754, was now preparing to surrender this strategic location back to the British. Although he had a force equal to Braddock’s, he knew that a wooden fort was no match for Braddock’s artillery. He also knew that Indians would never stay for a siege. But there was another option.

One of Contrecour’s subordinates, Capt. Daniel Lienard de Beaujeu, offered to lead an ambush of the British, hoping that this might discourage the enemy or at least give the French more time to await additional men. Contrecour, without much other hope, gave Beaujeu half of his force, just over 250 French and Canadians and some six hundred Indians. Beaujeu had to spend much valuable time convincing the Indians, who only took to the battlefield when the odds were in their favor, that this was an opportunity for victory and plunder. Finally, Beaujeu’s eloquence won the Indians, and they started out to try to beat the British to the final ford of the river. They were too late.

The Battle Begins

At just past one o’clock in the afternoon, Lt. Col. Gage’s men first spotted the French. The armies had literally run into each other in the forest. The British were marching in good order with the advance party on the lookout and scouts guarding the flanks. The French and their Indian allies were running through the woods hoping to get to the river before the British had completed their crossing.

There were a few war whoops and some shots before the British managed to form up into their standard firing order and deliver a volley. The effect was immediate. Beaujeu fell dead, shot through the head. The Indians scattered. The British brought up a cannon and delivered another volley from the infantry. The enemy was in disarray. After three volleys from Lt. Col. Gage’s men the field seemed to belong to the British.

Braddock's March formation

Facing the Enemy

But now both armies did what they did best. That would determine the victor. The French officers were each trained differently than the British. They had lived among the Indians in the wilderness until it was their home. They knew their allies and held their respect. They could easily command in such a situation. Capt. Dumas, the second in command, immediately stepped forward and ordered his men to flank the British line.

The Indians for their part took to the trees and natural defenses. Unfortunately for the British, the point of battle was a ridge with small ravines on each side and a hill to the front right. The Indians and Canadians ran along the ravines safe from fire until they could find a tree or other natural cover and began to pick off the British, especially the officers.

Compressed Confusion


…the front was attacked; and by the unusual hallooing and whooping of the enemy, whom they could not see, were so disconcerted and confused as soon to fall into irretrievable disorder. The rear was forced forward to support them, but seeing no enemy, and themselves falling every moment from the fire, a general panic took place among the troops, from which no exertions of the officers could recover them.

George Washington

Col. Gage tried several times to take the hill to the right, but was rebuffed. Finally, his forward column had to move back. This is when the British lost the day. As Gage and the forward companies moved back they ran into the troops that Braddock was ordering forward to support Gage. All these men were confined to the twelve foot wide road or perhaps to areas a bit larger where the openness of the forest allowed. However, even this was insufficient for the trained British soldiers to be able to form their lines of fire and effectively engage the enemy. The British simply huddled in masses and fired indiscriminately, their fire often killing the colonials who had taken to the trees or other British who happened to be in the way although hidden by smoke.

Braddock and his officers displayed the best that could be expected of them, but this turned to their disadvantage. With their bright uniforms, their gleaming gorgets, often mounted on horses, they made perfect targets. Their courage was acknowledged by all, but it cost dearly. Out of 82 officers, 63 were killed or wounded. Braddock himself had five horses shot from under him before he was mortally wounded, and George Washington had two horses killed under him and four bullet holes through his uniform.

Fear Defeats an Army

With their general wounded, most officers killed or incapacitated, and the whoops of the Indians all around them, the soldiers gave way to panic. Amazingly, they had withstood the onslaught for almost three hours, but now nothing could stop their flight. Leaving not only the wounded on the field, but even their guns and food, the men took to flight that lasted through the night.



"This [forward] guard being disordered, the general hurried the troops up to their assistance, which was done in great confusion through wagons, baggage, and cattle, and presently the fire came upon their flank. The officers being on horseback were more easily distinguished, picked out as marks, and fell very fast; and the soldiers were crowded together in a huddle, having or hearing no orders and standing to be shot at till two thirds of them were killed and then, being seized with a panic, the remainder fled with precipitation."

Benjamin Franklin

Next Time: Winter in August - the retreating army leaves the frontier open to enemy attacks.

Timeline:

  • June 8th Finally, the army leaves Fort Cumberland through the Narrows.
  • June 24 First camp after the Great Crossing of the Youghiogheny
  • June 27 Army reaches Gist’s Plantation, burned by the French the previous year
  • July 9 The Battle of the Monongohela
  • July 13 General Edward Braddock dies of his wounds and is buried in the road to obscure all trace of his grave from scavaging Indians.

For further reference see:

Monongahela 1754-55: Washington’s Defeat, Braddock’s Disaster by Rene Chartrand; Opsrey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2004. This newest book on Braddock's defeat is profuselyn illustrated with sketches, photos and maps. The Canadian author gives the French/Canadian perspective of the battle.

Braddock at the Monongahela by Paul E. Kopperman; Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburg, 1977. This is a unique, detailed study of the various contemporary and near-contemporary accounts of the battle that attempts to discern the credibility each account merits.


 
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updated: July 6, 2005
© Charles C. Hall 2005

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