The Defeat, The Lesson, The Victory

West of Chestnut Ridge—the last impressive barrier of what was called the Endless Mountains—a fork of land was formed by the junction of two great rivers. From the north the Allegheny came tumbling down, swift and clear two centuries ago; and moving up from its source somewhere in the southern Appalachians was the Monongahela, a deep, still body of water. Where they met, the Ohio River was formed, receiving the flow of both streams and taking it west to the Mississippi, southward to the sea.

In 1753 the young Virginian George Washington had stopped at this triangular piece of land and entered in his journal his impression of the place. From what he could see, the fork was “extremely well situated for a Fort as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. The land at the Point is 20 or 25 Feet above the common surface of the Water; and a considerable Bottome of flat, well-timbered land all around it, very convenient for building.”

Just two years later, the ambitions of two great empires centered on this pie-shaped chunk of wilderness, as the skirmish between Great Britain and France over fur-trading rights in the Ohio Valley erupted into a struggle for control of an entire continent.

The French had erected a log redoubt at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela in 1754, naming it Fort Duquesne, and during the next eight years that site was the goal of several British-American expeditions—two of which illustrate almost perfectly the changing concept of warfare as it was to be fought in the North American wilderness.

On March 26, 1755, the first of these forces began to assemble at the “proud new town” of Alexandria, Virginia. Understandably pleased by the presence of five governors and a commodore, Alexandria was fairly bursting with pride over the fact that the commander in chief of all the King’s forces in America had seen fit to make the little town his Atlantic base of operations. This man, who was leading the important expedition against Fort Duquesne in person, was Major General Edward Braddock, sixtyish, short, and stocky. He had been in the British Army for 45 years, learning almost all there was to know about army life and regulations: but there was an unfortunate gap in his experience—he had seen almost no fighting.

As part of an ambitious plan, Braddock was to march from Wills Creek in western Maryland to Fort Duquesne, take it, and then head 200 miles north and east to seize Fort Niagara, near the western end of Lake Ontario. While Braddock was thus occupying the enemy in the west, Sir William Johnson was to push the French out of Fort Frederic at Crown Point, clearing lower Lake Champlain.

Leaving Alexandria in the spring, Braddock and his imposing military pageant marched over abominable roads to Winchester and arrived, about a month later, near the headwaters of the Potomac, at Wills Creek. There some skeptical frontiersmen got their first glimpse of European-style warfare as the General rode in his carriage and the drums beat the Grenadiers’ March. While the men were constructing an advance base called Fort Cumberland, Braddock’s deputy quartermaster general, Lieutenant Colonel Sir John St. Clair, was assuring his commander that, with the exception of fifteen miles of rough country, the going between Fort Cumberland and Fort Duquesne would be a lot easier than the Winchester road they had just traveled. Unfortunately for Braddock, St. Clair had not really inspected the terrain he was describing so glibly, except at a distance and from a mountain top. Actually, the steep mountains were covered with virgin forest so thick that men might walk through it for days without glimpsing the sky. Impenetrable undergrowth, rocks, streams, and the high mountains themselves made it extraordinarily difficult country through which to travel, much less move an army of 2,000 men, supply wagons, and clumsy cannon. Braddock would discover this for himself, twenty miles west of Fort Cumberland, when they passed through woods so dense they were known as the “Shades of Death.” Although the distance between Fort Cumberland and Fort Duquesne was only about 110 miles, Braddock’s determination to take a ponderous train of wagons with him meant building a road over nearly the entire route.

By the time Braddock left Fort Cumberland, he had seen enough of America and its inhabitants to make him dislike them intensely. There had been constant delays ever since he left Alexandria, and instead of the 150 wagons he wanted, only 25 were available at Wills Creek. George Washington, who was one of Braddock’s aides, strongly urged the use of pack horses in crossing the mountains, but the British General was a wheeled-vehicle man, and damned the provincials for failing to provide them. Benjamin Franklin used his influence with the Pennsylvania fanners to get the General his wagons, meantime warning him that when his long column became entwined in the mountain wilderness the Indians would cut it into pieces like thread. To this advice Braddock replied, “These savages may be a formidable enemy to raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops they can make no impression.” Likewise he spurned the obviously practical suggestion of his colonial officers that he throw out Indian scouts and rangers well in advance of his main force. Braddock had no understanding of the use of such men, and his failure to employ them cost him what Indian allies he had, the confidence of most of his colonial troops, and the battle itself.