It all began with an abortive mission to secure Britain’s hold on its colonies in North America. When a British colonial governor dispatched a young officer to demand the withdrawal of French forces from the Ohio Territory, a series of military and political dominoes began to fall, with world-changing effects.
Having established a strong presence along North America’s eastern seaboard by the mid 1700s, the British were looking ever westward as immigrants flooded in from Europe and sought to establish themselves in a rapidly growing nation.
The political and military fly in the ointment was a rival expansion of colonial interests in the New World by France. With a much smaller settler community, the French had come to depend on exceptionally good relations with Native American tribes, who, through their contacts with French coureurs de bois (independent fur-traders) and voyageurs (licensed transporters of goods to trading posts), had welcomed the French presence.
Intending to expand their influence from Canada, the French began constructing a chain of forts down through the Ohio River Valley, putting them in competition with Britain’s growing colonial empire.
An inauspicious beginning
Alarmed by French expansion, Robert Dinwiddie, governor of the colony of Virginia, ordered a young officer of the Virginia militia to inform the French that their presence in the Ohio Territory was an unwelcome encroachment on British land.
Thus Major George Washington, then just 22 years old, led a small party from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Fort LeBoeuf (located 15 miles from Lake Erie in the north-west corner of present-day Pennsylvania) to present Governor Dinwiddie’s demands.
He arrived at Fort LeBoeuf on 11 December 1753 in the midst of a driving snowstorm. Welcomed and entertained by Captain Jacques Legardeur, the commander of local French forces, Washington’s presentation of Governor Dinwiddie’s demands were dismissed lightly, with Legardeur remarking, ‘As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.’
While Washington was still out on his mission, Governor Dinwiddie, apprehensive about growing French influence, dispatched a force of 40 men in January 1754, having charged them with constructing Fort Prince George at the confluence of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers (the site of present-day Pittsburgh).
Work began in February, but by April a large French force under the command of Claude-Pierre de Contrecoeur had forced the British to surrender the site. The French then moved quickly to consolidate and enlarge their holdings in the Ohio Territory, levelling Fort Prince George and replacing it with the much more formidable Fort Duquesne, with 15ft-thick walls of packed earth and rubble behind a wooden palisade. The new fort consisted of four bastions with two outlying ravelins around an earthen square, all surrounded by a dry moat, and mounting eight pieces of artillery.
Meanwhile, having returned to Virginia, Washington reported his meeting to Dinwiddie, who quickly mobilised a punitive expedition in the spring of 1754 to expel the French forcibly from the Ohio Territory, promoting Washington to lieutenant-colonel and giving him charge of the mission. It did not turn out well.
Aware of Washington’s progress through the wilderness, Contrecoeur dispatched Ensign Joseph de Jumonville with a small force to intercept and persuade him to desist.
On the 28 May 1754, Washington’s Native American scouts detected the French force. The young Virginian officer moved against it and managed to ambush the French as they were breakfasting.
Ensign de Jumonville attempted to halt hostilities long enough to present his commander’s demands, but was quickly cut down and subsequently murdered by Tanaghrisson, a minor chief of the Mingo tribe, who had accompanied Washington with a few of his followers and was enraged by his own frustrated negotiations with the French.
The reaction from Fort Duquesne was as might be expected. A much larger force of 600 French regulars and Canadian militiamen commanded by de Jumonville’s older brother Louis was immediately launched against Washington’s much smaller forces.
The latter had delayed retiring from the theatre in anticipation of the arrival of additional men and supplies, building the small enclosure named Fort Necessity, where they eagerly awaited Virginia’s support.
They waited in vain. While some reinforcements arrived, virtually no supplies were forthcoming, and the fort, poorly situated in an open field and surrounded by higher, forested hills, was soon surrounded by Captain de Jumonville’s force.
Washington’s troops, weakened by a lack of rations, enfiladed by a withering French fire, and with their gunpowder rendered useless by incessant rain, were at the mercy of the enemy.
But de Jumonville, having satisfied his honour by avenging his brother’s death, announced a truce and offered the hapless defenders an honourable way out of an untenable position. The British colonial troops would be allowed to withdraw with their arms, leaving Fort Necessity in the hands of the French. Lieutenant-Colonel Washington accepted the terms and, with his battered and bedraggled command in tow, returned to Virginia and Governor Dinwiddie.
The situation escalates
When Washington returned from his abortive mission and made his report to Governor Dinwiddie, the resulting furore was electric. With the loss of Fort Prince George and Washington’s ignominious defeat at Fort Necessity, the governor now feared for the preservation of all the English colonies.
Unable to rally support from the other colonies, Dinwiddie appealed to London, where he found the sympathetic ears of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, and the combative son of King George II, William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland.
Almost immediately, the wheels of government began to turn, as the two of them set forces in motion to oppose French designs on the burgeoning British empire in the New World. Looking for a trusted officer to command British forces in America, they lit on Colonel Edward Braddock, lately of the Coldstream Guards and recently promoted to major-general.
Braddock seemed the ideal choice. A soldier since the age of 15, he had more than 45 years of continuous active service, stretching as far back as the War of Spanish Succession. A hardened campaigner, he was also exceptionally proud and a stern disciplinarian. His steady hand was just what Newcastle and Cumberland felt was needed in their squabbling and disorganised colonies in America.
Thus, in December 1754, Braddock sailed for America, to be followed by the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot – somewhat under-strength regiments sailing from Ireland.
Arriving in Virginia in February 1755, Braddock immediately took charge of military operations as His Majesty’s Commander-in-Chief of British and colonial forces in North America. Calling together the political leadership of the various colonies, he flatly declared that he would instruct them in how properly to conduct a war.
Whatever Governor Dinwiddie’s expectations, Major-General Braddock was quick to dispel any notions of a simple, punitive expedition into the Ohio Territory. With the urging of Newcastle and Cumberland, Braddock planned a multi-pronged strategy, including a thrust at Nova Scotia as Massachusetts Governor William Shirley (now appointed a major-general) attacked Fort Niagara, and William Johnson, agent to the Mohawk Native Americans (also promoted to major-general), led Native American and colonial forces against Fort St Frederic at Crown Point.
At the same time, Admiral Boscowen and the Royal Navy would interdict French reinforcements from the Continent, while Major-General Braddock personally led his forces against the French garrison at Fort Duquesne.
Taken all in all, it was a supremely ambitious plan, but unfortunately designed by people with no understanding or appreciation of the terrain or the colonies’ abilities to provide the manpower and logistics required.
Nor did the planners have any real conception of the distances involved, in that Virginia was as far removed from Nova Scotia as was London from St Petersburg. Most of the territory, moreover, was characterised by rugged, heavily forested mountains, boggy swamps and marshland, and perilous waterways. The few roads that existed tended to run parallel to the eastern seaboard, with tracks into the interior being largely just that – tracks unsuited to wagons and artillery. But it was just such a heavy column that Braddock had in mind.
Assembling the expedition
Despite difficulties in dealing with argumentative and frequently disorganised colonial government officials, Braddock forged ahead in assembling his strike force. Coming to his aid was the young Virginian officer Lieutenant-Colonel Washington.
Declining a role in the Virginia regiments, Washington offered his services to Braddock as an unpaid volunteer, services which were quickly accepted. The tall, spare Virginian was well liked by Braddock, who appreciated his elan and valued the young man’s familiarity with the country to be traversed en route to Fort Duquesne. He was quickly made Braddock’s aide-de-camp.
In addition to the two regiments of British regulars, Braddock brought under his command several colonial militia, giving a total of 2,100 soldiers, not to mention scores of teamsters, engineers, and camp-followers – as many as 50 women to act as cooks, laundresses, and maids for the expedition.
Anticipating having to lay siege to Fort Duquesne, Braddock augmented his force with cannon, taking four 12-pdr naval guns from HMS Norwich and mounting them on wheeled carriages. These were supplemented by six 6-pdr field guns, four 8-inch howitzers, and 15 Coehorn mortars. It was an impressive assembly of firepower and, considering the naval guns weighed an average of 1,000lbs each, not easily conveyed through the wilderness.
Transport – of guns, munitions, and supplies – was a massive undertaking. It was at this point that a former printer from Philadelphia entered the equation. Representing the interests of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin put out a call to his constituency and quickly acquired some 150 wagons, with teams and teamsters, and more than 500 packhorses for the expedition.
The Pennsylvania legislature sent an additional 20 packhorses, laden with gifts for the officers of the regular regiments – coffee, tea, sugar, raisins, rice, smoked hams, cured tongues, as well as two dozen bottles of Madeira and two gallons of Jamaica rum. Despite his ire at most of the colonial legislatures, General Braddock was well pleased with the contributions of the Pennsylvanians.
Braddock made a serious error, however, in neglecting the advantages of enlisting Native American allies. Regarding the representatives of various tribes that offered support – the Delaware, Mingos, and Shawnee – the general was arrogant and dismissive. He considered them undependable and rather troublesome auxiliaries, saying, ‘It is impossible that savages can make any impression on disciplined troops.’
It took him only a few days to alienate nearly all the Native Americans who volunteered to accompany the force and, in high dudgeon, they quickly departed, leaving but seven Delawares, under their leader Scarouady, to augment the force. The paucity of Native American support would have devastating results.
Movement to contact
It was 29 May 1755 before the expedition departed from its base at Fort Cumberland in Maryland. Rather than moving the start point to Pennsylvania, which would have cut many miles from the route, General Braddock opted to launch from Fort Cumberland following the Potomac River north-west and beginning a tortuous trek over the Allegheny Mountains.
It was the start of an arduous journey of over 106 miles to Fort Duquesne through an essentially trackless wilderness. What became immediately apparent was that progress would be slowed by the necessity of constructing a roadway through the densely forested terrain that could accommodate the wide wheel-bases of the wagons and towed artillery.
Thus the engineers and pioneers were kept exceptionally busy cutting and clearing a route for Braddock’s force. Within a week of the outset of the march, progress was so slow that Braddock split his forces in two, taking the bulk of his combat power, some 1,500 men ahead of the supply train and leaving a small rearguard.
Braddock’s ‘flying column’, accompanied by a two pieces of field artillery, proceeded to achieve as much as three to eight miles a day, while the supply train fell farther and farther behind.
Struggling to cut a road through the rugged terrain, men fell from exhaustion and suffered from dysentery, the effects of heat, and swarms of biting insects, as the wagons were shaken apart and draft animals dropped in harness. It was not long before Braddock’s attack force was separated from the support column by as much as 60 miles.
Meanwhile, the French commander at Fort Dusquesne was well aware of the British efforts. Throughout Braddock’s march, de Contrecoeur’s Native American allies from the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi shadowed the column and reported back regularly on the size, composition, and rate of movement they observed.
Since Washington’s abortive thrust against Duquesne, its defenders had made great strides improving and expanding the works. Further, they had been reinforced by as many as 1,600 troops, both regulars and Canadian militia. De Contrecoeur now had so many fighting men at his disposal that additional barracks had had to be constructed outside Fort Duquesne’s ramparts to accommodate them.
These forces were supplemented by hundreds of Native American warriors representing the Mingo, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Mississaugua, and Wyandotte tribes.
What probably troubled the French commander most was the approaching column’s artillery, which he knew, if allowed to be brought to bear, would quickly reduce his fort to splinters. Thus he decided his best defence was to intercept and disrupt Braddock’s force en route.
Braddock pushed on. Deploying small parties of soldiers as flankers to the sides of the column, he endeavoured to close the distance to the fort. By the first week of July, he had managed to get to within a few miles of his goal and allowed the support to close up with his ‘flying column’.
His flankers did manage to engage a few of the enemy’s scouts, and the fact that they were able to brush them off buoyed his confidence, even as the column threaded its way deeper into the heavily wooded terrain.
Meanwhile, Contrecoeur assembled a disruptive force consisting of 36 officers, 72 regulars, 146 Canadian troupes de la marine, and 637 Native American allies, placing them under the command of the recently arrived Captain Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu, his ostensible replacement as commander of Fort Duquesne.
‘It is impossible that savages can make any impression on disciplined troops.’Major-General Edward Braddock
A meeting engagement
As the sun rose on 9 July 1755, Braddock’s column was within 10 miles of their objective. The men were tired from the exertions of the trek and woefully underfed, with rations having begun to play out. They were, however, eager to close with the enemy, anticipating success.
In the van of the force were some 300 men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gage, along with the few Native American scouts under Scarouady, accompanied by young frontiersman George Croghan.
At about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Croghan and Scaraouady caught sight of the French forces moving through the woods in their direction. While the French had hoped to ambush Braddock’s column, de Beaujeu was stunned to realise that his force had in fact stumbled directly into their advance guard.
As Beaujeu hastened to disperse his men, the British advance guard under Lieutenant-Colonel Gage scrambled forward and formed ranks to deliver three volleys into the opposing force. Despite the range of more than 200 yards – rather a long reach for the Brown Bess muskets of the British, usually accurate only to about half that distance – one ball found Beaujeu and killed him.
With the death of Beaujeu, Lieutenant Jean-Daniel Dumas assumed command and directed the fire of the French regulars. Although several of the Canadian militia fled back to Duquesne, their Native American allies immediately darted into the woods on both flanks of the British column, enveloping it, and began firing into the massed troops from the dense cover of the trees.
The British troops reacted as they had been trained, forming into firing lines and pivoting to face the threat. The problem was that the threat came from the heavily wooded country on both sides of the road. Accustomed to exchanging fire with masses of regular troops formed and deployed as they were, they instead faced a wilderness maze where their opponents were dispersed and firing from the cover of the trees.
As the firing increased, a pall of gunsmoke enveloping them, Gage’s advance guard began to withdraw, 15 of his 18 officers already killed or wounded, the bright gorgets around their necks and glittering swords making them prime targets. All the time their Native American antagonists kept up a steady fire, while screeching out bloodcurdling war whoops.
As Gage’s men fell back, they collided with the main body of troops, which Major-General Braddock had begun leading forward. Soon the narrow roadway was a mass of confusion as advancing and retreating units mixed in the mêlée, while the French and their Native American allies continued to pour fire into the disorganised ranks. The British tried to bring their artillery into action, but in the dense woods it was all but useless.
Attempting to rally and form ranks, the British troops relied on their European-based experiences of the battlefield. But, unlike on a European battlefield, they were a mass of troops crammed into a narrow roadway no more than 250 yards long by 100 feet wide, surrounded on all sides by screaming Native Americans who flitted from tree to tree.
As one survivor later recalled, ‘The French and Indians crept about in small parties so that the Fire was quite all round us, and in all the Time I never saw one, nor could I on Inquiry find any one who saw ten together.’
Still the determined veterans fought on. With many of their officers dead or wounded, they reverted to their training and fired in volleys, which were frequently useless, for as one veteran remarked, ‘If any got a shott at one [the enemy], the fire immediately ran through the whole line though they saw nothing but trees.’
Further confusing the issue was the problem of what is termed ‘friendly fire’ – which, as any soldier can tell you, is anything but friendly. Sometimes British platoons decimated the ranks of their comrades who inadvertently moved in front of them, their uniforms obscured by the heavy smoke. British regulars also fired on allied colonial troops, mistaking their mufti for that of the French irregulars.
Braddock remained calm, spurring his horse to the fore and ordering the regiments’ colours unfurled to mark rallying points. At least two horses were shot from under the general as he attempted to restore order. It was only when Braddock was shot from his saddle that resistance began to collapse completely.
Shortly after he fell, a musket ball lodged in his lung, the regulars began to withdraw, maintaining some semblance of order as they conducted a fighting retreat. But, as they approached the Monongahela River, the French and Native Americans broke out of the woods in pursuit, whooping and brandishing tomahawks, scalping knives, and war clubs. The troops broke and ran in terror as the enemy closed in.
They did not have that far to run, for as the Native Americans closed in they were distracted by the column’s remnants. In keeping with their usual mode of warfare, the warriors scalped the dead, killed the badly wounded, and took prisoners – some destined for slavery, some as replacements for dead relatives, and others to endure ritual torture. They also turned their attentions to the supply wagons, looting their contents and coming across gallons of rum and Madeira, which they happily consumed on the spot.
‘The French and Native Americans crept about in small parties so that the Fire was quite all round us…’British survivor
Taking advantage of the diversion, the shattered British column retreated hastily down the road carved laboriously through the forest. Lieutenant-Colonel Washington, despite suffering from dysentery and haemorrhoids, organised a rearguard to deter pursuit by the French regulars whom he feared were moving inexorably after them.
As they went, the refugees jettisoned whatever was not absolutely required, throwing away tools, clothing, bedding, tentage. Wagons were destroyed, as were all pieces of the artillery that had been dragged painfully through the wilderness.
The wounded were carried away as best as could be managed, some in the few remaining wagons, some on litters, some supported by their colleagues.
On 13 July, Major-General Braddock finally succumbed to his wound and was buried in the middle of the trail to discourage the enemy from digging up and mutilating his remains. It was an understandable but unnecessary precaution.
The French commander felt further pursuit ill-advised, in that the British force still outnumbered his own. His Native American allies had already departed, content to take their spoils and prisoners away to their home villages.
For the British, it was a severe blow. Of the men Braddock had led into action, 456 had been killed outright and 422 wounded. The officers suffered badly, in that of 86 present 26 were killed and 37 wounded. Of the camp followers accompanying the force, only four returned, the others having been killed or taken into captivity.
A rather interesting aspect of Braddock’s expedition was the extraordinary number of individuals involved who would rise to prominence in the following years. Benjamin Franklin, who had acquired wagons and packhorses for the expedition, would become a leading light in the bid for American independence. George Washington was to serve as the Commander-in-Chief of American forces during the American Revolution and later as the first president of the United States.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gage would go on to become Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the American Revolution, directing the operations at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Captain Horatio Gates, commanding a company of New York Militia, would become an American general during the Revolution, as would one teamster, Daniel Morgan.
Morgan gained renown for his organisation of a feared corps of sharpshooters, using the highly accurate Pennsylvania long rifle in lieu of the standard Brown Bess musket. One of Morgan’s fellow teamsters from the Braddock expedition would make a name for himself as well: that was the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.
Although the numbers of combatants were fairly small, even by contemporary European standards, the results of this collision were widespread. Like the ripples from a rock thrown into a stream, the effects of this engagement were to be felt worldwide.
What began as a territorial dispute between Britain and France in the New World resulted in a fierce contest known commonly as the French and Indian War. It would eventually end on the Plains of Abraham outside the city of Quebec in 1759.
But this messy colonial dispute would by then have morphed into a general conflict between these two powers, which, as the Seven Years War, eventually drew in Spain, Austria, Prussia, and Sweden, and spread across the globe even as far as the Caribbean, the Philippines, and the Indian subcontinent.
This conflict paved the way for British supremacy in the next century and initiated the rise of Prussia as a significant power in Central Europe. When young Major Washington’s initial mission to Fort LeBoeuf failed, it put in motion events that would culminate in what Winston Churchill would later dub the actual ‘first world war’. •
Frederick J Chiaventone is a military historian, retired cavalry officer, and Professor Emeritus for International Security Affairs at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College.