On 9 July 1755, British troops under the command of General Edward Braddock suffered one of the greatest disasters of military history. Braddock’s Defeat, or the Battle of the Monongahela, was the most important battle prior to the American Revolution, carrying with it enormous consequences for the British, French, and Native American peoples of North America. We sat down to discuss its complex history with David Preston, whose archival research and fieldwork has provided new insight into a pivotal moment long obscured by misunderstanding and mythology.
Who was the real Edward Braddock?
At the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1755, the British government sent Major General Edward Braddock to Virginia with two regiments of regulars to capture the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley. Over the course of history, Braddock has been typecast as a brash and arrogant Redcoat who ignored the dangers of fighting in America’s woods. The archival record proves that Braddock was a realistic and capable officer who brought his army to the cusp of victory. There is no evidence, for example, that Braddock purposefully spurned the support of Native allies, marched blindly into the woods, or rode across the mountains in his coach and four.
How noteworthy was Braddock’s march?
Braddock’s march of nearly 125 miles across the Appalachian Mountains represents one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of early American warfare. Hiking many extant portions of Braddock’s Road was an epiphany that changed my understanding of the campaign and fueled my appreciation for how Braddock’s army was able to quickly carve a 12-foot-wide military road through such daunting Appalachian ridgelines, rivers, and swamps.
What was the experience of the French?
Historians have generally ignored French and Native perspectives on the 1755 campaign. The French were outnumbered, outgunned, and faced crippling supply problems in their Ohio Valley posts. They despaired of their inability to halt or slow Braddock’s relentless march. However, convoys of French reinforcements led by a veteran officer, Captain Beaujeu, came to Fort Duquesne after an epic 700-mile voyage from Montreal, arriving only a few days before the fateful battle at the Monongahela.
What role did Captain Beaujeu play in the French and Native American victory?
A newly discovered French account from the Archives du Calvados transforms our understanding of French and Native American leadership and tactics at the Battle of the Monongahela. The French commander, Captain Beaujeu, sent out Native scouts who brought him exact intelligence on the location and disposition of the British. Dividing his force into three parallel columns, Beaujeu organized a frontal attack on the British column with his Canadian troops. He instructed the Indians to spread out in the woods on the right and the left, and to withhold their fire until he had engaged the British. The Monongahela was neither a meeting engagement nor an ambush, but a well-planned and executed French and Indian attack on a vulnerable British column.
How many Indian nations fought against Braddock?
A remarkable coalition of 600 to 700 Native American warriors, drawn from half the continent, fought against the British on 9 July 1755. With only 254 French marines and militiamen present, Native warriors represented two thirds of the force that defeated Braddock. Their numbers, tactics, firepower, and discipline were ultimately responsible for the shocking collapse of a conventional British army.
How many casualties did the British suffer?
The Battle of the Monongahela ranks as one of the greatest disasters in all of military history. In the space of four hours, a powerful British army on the cusp of victory dissolved into a mob of panic-stricken individuals. One British record shows that 976 (66%) of the 1,469 personnel who crossed the Monongahela River on 9 July were killed, wounded, or missing.
How did Braddock’s Defeat impact Indian nations?
Victory at the Monongahela greatly fueled Native American alliances with the French in the Seven Years’ War. Triumphant warriors returned to their communities having achieved their main objectives: a victory achieved with minimal casualties, as well as many tokens of war, including scalps, captives, and war materiel (horses, uniforms, weapons, and other supplies seized from Braddock’s captured supply wagons).
How did Braddock’s Defeat transform American warfare?
Braddock’s Expedition helped shift American warfare’s center of gravity to North America’s interior. Prior to 1755, the British had been unable to project large military forces west of the Appalachian Mountains, and had only been able to strike coastal targets on the Atlantic or the St. Lawrence River. Braddock’s Expedition symbolized the new continental reach that British forces achieved during the French and Indian War. The Monongahela disaster also prompted the British and Americans to form light infantry and ranger units (such as Rogers’ Rangers) to meet the challenge of French and Native American irregulars in the woods.
What were the consequences of Braddock’s Road?
After the British finally captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, Braddock’s Road proved to have long-term consequences for American westward expansion. The scars of Braddock’s Road, still visible today, attest to the many thousands of Euroamerican settlers who followed in the British army’s wake, seeking land and opportunity in the Ohio Valley after the war. This was a migration that fueled future conflicts with the region’s Native inhabitants.
How is Braddock’s Defeat remembered in history?
Braddock’s Defeat shaped a distinctly American identity and highlighted differences between the 13 colonies and the British Empire. Revolutionaries frequently recalled the disaster as evidence that British regulars could be defeated through American tactics. The Monongahela had been a defining military experience for a generation of officers who fought in both the Seven Years’ War and the Revolutionary War. George Washington, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, and Adam Stephen were among the veterans of Braddock’s Expedition who carried its military lessons forward into the Revolutionary War.
Image Credit: “Washington at the Battle of the Monongahela” by Emanuel Leutze, 1858. Used with permission from Braddock’s Battlefield History Center and Braddock Carnegie Library Association. Photograph courtesy of David Kissell.