The Defeat, The Lesson, The Victory

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As the army pushed deeper into the mountains, Braddock lost what little patience he had and was constantly angry over the slow, tedious pace. To speed its progress, he committed the error of dividing his force, leaving a heavy escort with his impedimenta, while he went forward with about 1,500 of his choicest light troops. Besides the British regulars in this advance division, there were several companies of pioneers to cut roads, two colonial companies from New York, some Virginia rangers, and a bodyguard for the commander in chief. The long column covered about four miles.

On the fateful morning of July 9, 1755, the regiments crossed from the south bank of the Monongahela to the north bank at a point close by Frazier’s trading post on Turtle Creek, where Washington and Christopher Gist had stopped on their way to and from Fort LeBoeuf in 1753. This was only about twelve miles from their destination, the little log fort which would certainly fall when Braddock’s artillery was brought into range. A fringe of heavy underbrush extended about 400 yards inland from the north bank, where the ground rose steadily away from the stream, and as the brilliantly arrayed British troops fell into line of march as though on parade, Washington thought it one of the most thrilling sights he had ever seen. In the background was the sparkling, tranquil river, and ahead was the deep, dark forest, overshadowing them with its silent grandeur. To a man, the officers were in high spirits, confident of taking Duquesne with no trouble. They had half-expected a French attack while they were crossing the ford, and when nothing happened Braddock did not even bother to reconnoiter ahead, assuming all was safe. There were a few guides up front, followed by the engineer, busily marking the route and blazing trees which would have to be felled by the carpenters and pioneers to make a road twelve feet wide. (This rather exactly defined width was just enough for the guns and wagons—it was assumed the men could look out for themselves.) From the advance guard to the extreme rear, the column of nearly 1,500 men was strung out over a distance of 1,900 yards.

Braddock’s guess that the French might attack at the ford was not ill-founded. Keen Indian eyes had followed his movements every day since he left Fort Cumberland, and as he never made more than three or four miles a day, the French at Fort Duquesne were constantly aware of his position. The fort was woefully undermanned, and the only hope of thwarting Braddock’s plan lay in surprising him somewhere en route, probably at the ford. Captain Daniel Beaujeu, second in command at Duquesne, was to lead the attacking party; but at the last moment, with the British within striking distance, his Indians refused to move. Marching a handful of white troops out of the fort on July 8, Beaujeu goaded the Indians into joining him by asking: “What—will you let your father go alone? I am sure of beating them!” Because of the brief delay, Beaujeu’s attack on Braddock was not an ambush, but a head-on meeting of two forces at a point where neither quite expected to find the other.

It was two thirty in the afternoon of the ninth, and Braddock’s advance under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage was ascending’ the slope into dense forest when someone caught sight of a conspicuously uniformed French colonial officer. He was observed motioning with his arms to left and right, dividing his forces to encircle head and Hanks of the British column, and a moment later a volley of musket fire, accompanied by a hideous Indian war whoop, echoed through the forest.

After their first fright, the grenadiers delivered a volley, loaded, fired again, and saw Beaujeu and two other French officers fall, along with a score of Indians and Canadians. That was very nearly the last they saw of the enemy. As the Indians disappeared from view, musket fire swept the British left, front, and right; the flankers were driven in: and the whole advance was pushed back fifty or sixty yards, piling into the main body and creating a confused mass of struggling, terrified soldiers who could see nothing of a foe who was attacking them with deadly fire from three sides. Mounted British officers, trying to rally the regulars, made ideal targets and one by one were shot down.

The situation spread out of control as a rumor swept the ranks that the rear guard and the baggage were under attack. Thinking themselves completely surrounded, the men began running back, abandoning two cannons, and ran straight into the fire from their own rear guard. Braddock and Washington came up from the rear to find unutterable confusion, with a mass of men ten or twelve deep firing at random, hitting many of their comrades in the back. Some of the colonials, trying to fight this thing their own way, headed for a place of concealment. The British regulars thought they were French and opened fire on them, while some British officers, recognizing them as Americans, thought they were retreating and refused to send reinforcements.

By this time British morale was as low as their ammunition supply. As their comrades dropped on every side, the frustrated redcoats scanned the woods for a clear shot at the unseen enemy. Occasionally an Indian would run out of the woods long enough to scalp a dead or wounded soldier and then dart back to cover. Washington had two horses shot from under him, and Braddock, desperately trying to form a line of his confused swarm of regulars, was finally shot through the right arm and one lung.