Sunday, July 9, 2017

July 9, 1755 – The Braddock Expedition by the British Army is routed by a smaller French and Native American force in its attempt to capture Fort Duquesne (now downtown Pittsburgh). It is a defining moment in young George Washington's life.

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The French claimed nearly all of North America east of the Appalachian Mountains. But unlike the British, the French sent only minimal settlers into the area, and almost none of its settlements survived more than a year.

Realizing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, the British stopped enforcing laws that prevented English colonists from moving inland. In 1746, a small but enterprising number of settlers now began moving into Ohio, where they rapidly cleared land, built roads, and displaced large numbers of Native Americans.

Deeply alarmed, the French sent a military mapping expedition into the Ohio Country in 1747 to reinforce their claim. The British chartered the Ohio Valley Company two years later. Investors included some of the most prominent Colonial politicians of the day, including Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia. Large numbers of English settlers began moving into western Pennsylvania and Ohio with the company's financial backing.

The French responded by building a fort on Presque Isle in Lake Erie near what is now Erie, Pennsylvania, and driving off large numbers of British traders.

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Dinwiddie stood to lose a vast sum if the French incursion succeeded. So he ordered 21 year-old Major George Washington of the Virginia Regiment into western Pennsylvania in October 1753. Washington met with the French commander of the area, demanding he leave. "I do not think myself obliged to obey," he told Washington.

The French now began moving south, building roads and forts. Fort Duquesne was erected in early 1754, and Dinwiddie sent Washington to seize it.

War broke out on May 28 when Washington's men surprised the French at Jumonville Glen. A massive French and Indian retaliation occurred, and Washington retreated. Overtaken, he established Fort Necessity (present-day Uniontown) to try to hold out. But he was forced to surrender.

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The British decided to send an expedition to North America under the command of General Edward Braddock. Braddock had two regular army regiments, the 44th and 48th, with about 1,350 men. Another 500 regular army soldiers and militiamen from several British American colonies joined his column, bringing with them 10 cannon. His orders were to seize Fort Duquesne.

Braddock, with Washington besides him, set out from what is now the District of Columbia on April 14. He reached the British stronghold at Fort Cumberland, Maryland, on May 29. Braddock now faced a major challenge: Moving his heavy cannon through and over densely wooded Allegheny Mountains into western Pennsylvania, a journey of about 110 miles. Braddock, sure of victory, decided to build a road while he moved. This would give him an important logistical advantage in holding the fort after it was taken, and permit major British settlement of the area around the road.

Braddock's Road became one of the most important legacies of the march. It exists to this day, and is a major highway.

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The French garrison at Fort Duquesne consisted of 250 French Army regulars and Canadian militia, with about 640 Indian allies. General Claude-Pierre P├ęcaudy de Contrecoeur, the French commander, received reports from Indian scouts weeks before Braddock approached, and learned of the heavy cannon that Braddock carried. Contrecoeur decided a preemptive strike -- attacking before Braddock could bring his cannon to bear -- was the only way to defeat the British.

On July 9, 1755, Braddock crossed the Monongahela River, about 10 miles south of Fort Duquesne. Washington tried to warn Braddock that the French and the Indians fought differently than the open-field style used by the British. Braddock ignored him.

About 11 A.M., a force of 300 French and Indian troops skirmished with Braddock's 1,400 men. The French field commander was killed, but the French swiftly counterattacked. The British, startled by the second assault, mistakenly concluded that they had been ambushed. The Britsh advance units began to retreat -- and ran smack into their own main force on Braddock's Road. The British column dissolved into chaos as the French and Indians surrounded them, using the cover of the woods.

Suddenly, the main French force of 600 began advancing down the road. As British officers on horseback tried to reform their troops into perfect lines, the French and Indians shot them. With their own troops milling about in front, the British could not bring effective cannon fire to bear. Colonial militia headed into the woods for cover to try to blunt the French and Indian attack; British regulars fired on them, mistaking them for French militia.

Several hours of intense combat ensued.

Near sunset, Braddock was shot and fell from his horse, mortally wounded. Washington managed to cobble together a rear guard, and ordered a retreat.

On July 13, the British reached the shattered remains of Fort Necessity. Braddock died that night. Washington had the general buried in the middle of the road he had constructed.

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The British had suffered horrifying losses. There was an overall casualty rate of 67 percent (30 percent renders a unit no longer combat-effective). The casualty rate was even higher among officers (78.5 percent). The French and Indians reported 23 killed and 16 wounded.

The French and Indians did not pursue. The surviving French commander realized the British were utterly defeated, but he did not have enough of a force to engage in organized pursuit.

The British were left stunned by the loss of Braddock. By now, war between the French and English had moved to Europe, where it was called the Seven Years' War.

The French in North America achieved numerous victories over the British and their Colonial allies over the next two years. But in Europe, the British blockaded the French coast. As French resupply dwindled, British fortunes in North America revived.

By 1760, the British had defeated the French in North America, seizing all of Canada and of North America to the Mississippi River.

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The French and Indian War nearly bankrupted the British. Parliament sought to recoup the costs of the war by taxing the American colonies. This set in motion the American Revolution 16 years later.

For George Washington, the defeats at Fort Necessity and the Monongahela proved life-changing. Washington never forgot how much hubris, pride, and arrogance both he and Braddock had shown. Never again would he show the recklessness of his youth. Over and over, Washington would refer to the losses in western Pennsylvania during his strategic and tactical discussions with his commanders during the American Revolutionary War.

Portions of the original Braddock's Road can still be seen in Pennsylvania.

In 1804, some workmen regrading Braddock's Road discovered General Braddock's remains. Some of the remains were kept as souvenirs. Outraged, a local judge ordered the bones and buttons returned. Some hand bones ended up in a museum, and later the collection of P.T. Barnum. They were lost in a fire in 1864. A section of vertebrae was retained by the U.S. Army, and resides in the Army medical museum in Bethesda, Maryland. Braddock's remains were reinterred on a small hill adjacent to the road. A marker was placed over the site in 1913.

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