The Defeat, The Lesson, The Victory

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As the sun began to sink, the troops collected around their wagons. There was no abatement of fire from the woods, and the wagon drivers, perceiving that the shots were beginning to come from behind, cut loose their horses and rode off to safety. The struggling, terrified troops crowded into the passage leading back to the ford, and somehow Washington found a small cart which still had its team, put Braddock into it, and got him across the river just ahead of some Indians who began scalping helpless soldiers who had fallen exhausted in the water. On the south bank, Washington rode off through the darkness to try to reorganize the scattered remnants of what had been an army. The disaster was almost total: sixty-three officers had been killed or wounded (Washington was the only one of Braddock’s aides to survive) and 914 men—or 977 casualties in a force which numbered 1,459.

After looting wagons and bodies, the Indians returned to Fort Duquesne where the French commander scarcely believed what had happened. Long into the night the hideous victory celebration went on, the Indians in scarlet British coats dancing around funeral pyres of twelve prisoners who were burned alive on the Allegheny’s bank. A horrified Pennsylvanian who was a prisoner in the fort watched them torture one man: "… They had tied him to a stake and kept touching him with firebrands, hot irons &c and he screaming … the Indians in the meantime yelling like infernal spirits.”

Meantime, in the engulfing darkness, the exhausted and wounded British crawled away from the battle scene, their groans and pitiful cries for help sounding through the black night. Braddock was transferred from the cart to a hand litter, and later when his soldiers refused to carry him he somehow managed to mount a horse and endure the agony of his wound on the rocky road. One of his men heard him mutter, almost to himself, “Who would have thought it?” and again, “We shall know better how to deal with them another time,” but at 9 P.M. on July 13, Braddock died. Washington selected a place in the road, had a trench dug, and after burying the General, ordered troops and wagons to march over the grave to conceal it from the French and Indians. Not until 1824, when some workmen repairing the road dug up a skeleton and an officer’s insignia believed to be Braddock’s, was the grave discovered. As for Fort Duquesne, after Braddock’s retreat there was no British force west of the Alleghenies to challenge the little French outpost, and the bones of Braddock’s men whitened in the wilderness for three years before another attempt was made.

In 1758 Brigadier General John Forbes was given the task of taking Fort Duquesne and breaking the French link between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Instead of Alexandria, he selected the older, well-provisioned city of Philadelphia as a base; and against the advice of Washington, who was in his command, abandoned the old Braddock route from Fort Cumberland in favor of a new road west from Raystown, or Bedford. Forbes had learned from Braddock’s defeat that he had to have a fortified advance post to fall back on in the event of defeat, so Fort Ligonier was constructed. The British commander was seriously ill on this campaign (he was, in fact, slowly dying and had to be carried along much of the wilderness route in a sling between two horses), and had it not been for his enormous will power and a brilliant second in command, Henry Bouquet, who executed his plans, the expedition might have ended like Braddock’s. Instead, the outnumbered French garrison burned Fort Duquesne while Forbes was hacking his “Great Road” across the Alleghenies, and the British built a new fort on the site, naming it Fort Pitt in honor of the British statesman.

By 1763 William Pitt’s plans to drive the French from North America had succeeded, and the colonists rejoiced in the belief that peace was assured at last. This illusion was quickly destroyed by the Indian tribes who, generally dissatisfied with the white men’s peace, joined in an uprising led by Pontiac and inspired a general Indian uprising that brought terror to the entire frontier. Between May 16 and June 22, ten English forts fell to Pontiac, their garrisons massacred; and Detroit, Ligonier, and Pitt were besieged. To relieve the latter two, the British commander Sir Jeffery Amherst sent Colonel Henry Bouquet, one of the few qualified Indian fighters in America.

Born in 1719 in Switzerland, Bouquet began his military career at the age of seventeen, and by 1763 he combined a thorough knowledge of European warfare with seven years’ experience on the American frontier. In complete contrast to Braddock, he had a remarkable awareness of Indian psychology and tactics and a knowledge of how to combat them.