Braddock’s Defeat — The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution

Edward Braddock’s ill-fated 1755 expedition to drive the French from the Ohio Country was a minor skirmish in a colonial backwater, but it would would have enormous ramifications for history.

“Historians’ traditional emphasis on Braddock’s supposed arrogance has also obscured the immense historical consequences of his defeat.”

By David L. Preston

BY AUGUST OF 1755, grim details of the slaughter of Major General Edward Braddock’s army on the banks of the Monongahela River had spread across the empire.

The reports described how a column of British regulars and American colonial troops were ambushed by French and Native American forces in the remote Ohio Country. Braddock’s expedition had spent the previous six weeks traversing more than 100 miles of wilderness with the goal of capturing Fort Duquesne, which sat at the strategically vital Forks of the Ohio River (modern Pittsburgh). The British were only a few miles from the enemy outpost on July 9 when they were attacked. In the space of just four hours, 976 out of a force of 1,469 Redcoats and provincials were dead or injured. Braddock himself was mortally wounded in the clash, and the remnants of his force struggled back across the Appalachian Mountains before abandoning the expedition altogether.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

British contemporaries were stunned by initial reports that a mere 300 French and Indians had defeated a force of more than 1,400 British soldiers.

In faraway Nova Scotia, a Massachusetts officer thought it the “most extraordinary thing that ever [happened] in America and unparalleled in history that such a number of English regular troops (then which there certainly is none better) should be defeated by a handful of French & Indians, & directly to run away.” Even those who had witnessed the slaughter were similarly shocked.

George Washington, one of General Braddock’s aides who had barely survived, wrote to a friend following the battle:

“I join very heartily with you in believing that when this story comes to be related in future annals, it will meet with unbelief & indignation; for had I not been witness to the fact on that fatal day, I should scarce have given credit to it even now.”

A young George Washington at Monongahela. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Yet Braddock’s Defeat, or the Battle of the Monongahela (as it was known by its French victors) was distinguished by far more than battlefield slaughter. Historians’ traditional emphasis on Braddock’s supposed arrogance has also obscured the immense historical consequences of his defeat. While it was one of the worst military disasters in British history, it was among the greatest victories ever achieved by Native Americans, who had composed two-thirds of the French and Indian coalition of around 900 combatants. The tangible evidence of their victory — captured war materiel, horses, uniforms, and scalps — brought Native nations into the French alliance in far greater numbers than ever before. Using Braddock’s road across the mountains in reverse, French and Indian war parties soon attacked and devastated the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.

The events at Monongahela decisively swung the pendulum of military power to the French. The victors used Braddock’s captured artillery train and supplies to besiege and capture other British forts in America. The capture of Braddock’s headquarters papers was also a diplomatic and propaganda coup for the French, as they provided incriminating evidence that leading British ministers of state had plotted war against France during a formal peace. Braddock’s defeat powerfully escalated what had been a colonial conflict between Britain and France into a global struggle for supremacy known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

What began as some minor frontier skirmishes would end with the British conquest of New France and lay the groundwork for American Independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Braddock’s Defeat ultimately changed how and where war was fought in America. The British army adapted to American warfare by creating ranger units and light infantry companies that could confront the threat of Indian and Canadian irregulars in the woods. In 1758, and with Braddock’s example before him, General John Forbes finally captured Fort Duquesne, and by 1760 the British had conquered New France itself.

During the Seven Years’ War, British and American forces had developed a new ability to strike at French and Indian targets deep in the continent’s interior. The military roads that Braddock and Forbes built across the Appalachians were crucial in shifting military operations from the seaboard to the interior. In the decades following the war, those military roads enabled thousands of British colonists to occupy lands the Ohio Valley. It marked the beginning of America’s westward expansion across the continent.

American colonists discovered at Monongahela that British regulars were not invincible. Eventually, Washington’s armies would defeat the British too, with help from France. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Braddock’s expedition also shaped a distinctly American identity and exposed many of the political and constitutional fault lines that would ultimately sunder the 13 colonies from the British Empire. Many colonists were awakened to a sense of “being Americans” — as George Washington expressed it — as they campaigned alongside British regulars who often denigrated their military abilities and provincial status. When the American Revolution erupted, only 20 years after Braddock’s defeat, revolutionaries remembered the Monongahela as evidence that trained British regulars could be beaten. Among the Continental Army’s leading generals were George Washington, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Adam Stephen, and Daniel Morgan — all veterans of the Monongahela who carried its lessons forward into the Revolutionary War, as they sought victory over the British at places like Trenton, Saratoga, Cowpens, and Yorktown.

David L. Preston is an award-winning historian of American military history with a special interest in war and peace among the French, British, and Indian peoples of the 18th century. He is currently a professor of history at The Citadel. His first book, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (2009), received the 2010 Albert B. Corey Prize from the Canadian and American Historical Associations for the best book on Canadian/American relations. His most recent work is Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution. Since being published in 2016, the book has received six awards or distinctions, including the 2016 Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History, recognizing the best book published on military history in the English language each year. It also received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society of Military History and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

1 comment for “Braddock’s Defeat — The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution

  1. 3 December, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    The Bullet Proof President

    “This story of George Washington once appeared in virtually every student text in America, but hasn’t been seen in the last forty years. This story deals with George Washington when he was involved in the French and Indian War as a young man only twenty-three years of age.

    “The French and Indian War occurred twenty years before the American Revolution. It was the British against the French; the Americans sided with the British; and most of the Indians sided with the French. Both Great Britain and France disputed each other’s claims of territorial ownership along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers; both of them claimed the same land.

    “Unable to settle the dispute diplomatically, Great Britain sent 2300 hand-picked, veteran British troops to America under General Edward Braddock to rout the French.

    “The British troops arrived in Virginia, where George Washington (colonel of the Virginia militia) and 100 Virginia buckskins joined General Braddock. They divided their force; and General Braddock, George Washington, and 1300 troops marched north to expel the French from Fort Duquesne — now the city of Pittsburgh. On July 9, 1755 — only seven miles from the fort — while marching through a wooded ravine, they walked right into an ambush; the French and Indians opened fire on them from both sides.

    “But these were British veterans; they knew exactly what to do. The problem was, they were veterans of European wars. European warfare was all in the open. One army lined up at one end of an open field, the other army lined up at the other end, they looked at each other, took aim, and fired. No running, no hiding, But here they were in the Pennsylvania woods with the French and Indians firing at them from the tops of trees, from behind rocks, and from under logs.

    “When they came under fire, the British troops did exactly what they had been taught; they lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in the bottom of that ravine — and were slaughtered. At the end of two hours, 714 of the 1300 British and American troops had been shot down; only 30 of the French and Indians had been shot. There were 86 British and American officers involved in that battle; at the end of the battle, George Washington was the only officer who had not been shot down off his horse — he was the only officer left on horseback.

    “Following this resounding defeat, Washington gathered the remaining troops and retreated back to Fort Cumberland in western Maryland, arriving there on July 17, 1755.

    “The next day, Washington wrote a letter to his family explaining that after the battle was over, he had taken off his jacket and had found four bullet holes through it, yet not a single bullet had touched him; several horses had been shot from under him, but he had not been harmed. He told them:

    “‘By the all powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation.’

    “Washington openly acknowledged that God’s hand was upon him, that God had protected him and kept him through that battle.

    “However, the story does not stop here. Fifteen years later, in 1770 — now a time of peace — George Washington and a close personal friend, Dr. James Craik, returned to those same Pennsylvania woods. An old Indian chief from far away, having heard that Washington had come back to those woods, traveled a long way just to meet with him.

    “He sat down with Washington, and face-to-face over a council fire, the chief told Washington that he had been a leader in that battle fifteen years earlier, and that he had instructed his braves to single out all the officers and shoot them down. Washington had been singled out, and the chief explained that he personally had shot at Washington seventeen different times, but without effect. Believing Washington to be under the care of the Great Spirit, the chief instructed his braves to cease firing at him. He then told Washington:

    “‘I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle…. I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle.’”

    From America’s Godly Heritage
    By David Barton

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