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Ten questions about Braddock’s Defeat

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.

General Braddock, Engraving by William Sartain, 1899, Library of Congress.
“General Braddock Engraving” by William Sartain, 1899. Public Domain via Library of Congress.

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.

Trace of Braddock’s Road on Big Savage Mountain, Maryland.  David L. Preston.
“Trace of Braddock’s Road on Big Savage Mountain, Maryland” by David L. Preston. Used with permission.

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?

Battle of the Monongahela: Beaujeu's Attack.  Author map, courtesy of Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
Battle of the Monongahela: Beaujeu’s Attack. Author map, courtesy of Mapping Specialists, Ltd.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Wiley

    Excellent article! If you love history, particularly that of Western PA, you really do not want to miss this event. Please help support our event so we can continue to bring it to you for years to come!
    We invite you to take a weekend journey back into the early frontier of Western Pennsylvania and witness history come alive! Braddock’s Defeat, as it is popularly known, centers around a great French fortress, Fort Duquesne, standing guard at the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela – joining forces to form one grand river way, the Ohio. It was a critical juncture in the western frontier. Holding this point meant control of the Ohio River Valley and the fur trade & Indian alliances that came with it. Watch as our participants reenact this historic event and celebrate the rich history Pittsburgh/Western PA has to offer! The event will be open to the public from July 17-19, 2015 and will commemorate the 260th Anniversary of Braddock’s Defeat.

    In addition to the battle reenactments on Saturday and Sunday, there will be many scheduled and ongoing demonstrations. The Grand Encampment will feature a full Merchant’s Row with some of the most renowned living historians and French and Indian War Era artisans in the country. Additional highlights include Women of the Frontier Program, live horses, cannon and musket firing, cooking, primitive skills, blacksmithing, pottery, woodworking, live tactical engagements, and native camps and delicious home cooked food available for purchase.

    Cost: $5.00 per person
    Children 12 and under free
    Date: July 17-19, 2015
    Place: Portersville Old Engine and Steam Show Grounds
    1512 Perry Highway Portersville, Pa 16051

    Public Hours:
    Friday, July 17, 2015 from 9AM – 5PM

    Saturday, July 18, 2015 from 9AM – 5PM
    Women on the Frontier Program at 11:00 a.m.

    BATTLE BEGINNING AT 1:00 PM

    Sunday, July 19, 2015 from 10AM – 4PM
    BATTLE BEGINNING AT 1:00 PM

    For more information and to register please visit
    facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/braddocksdefeat2015/

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