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