The Battle of the Monongahela

Threatened by British economic dominance among the Indians of the Ohio country, the French secured the lines of communication between their two most prosperous colonies in North America, Quebec and Louisiana. In the 1750s, the French expelled British traders, and constructed a string of forts in the Ohio country, connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River basin. These forts controlled waterways and portage points from Lake Erie south to the Ohio River, and included Fort Presque Isle on the shores of Lake Erie, Fort La Boef, Fort Machault, and most importantly, Fort Duquesne, at the strategic confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which form the headwaters of the Ohio River.

In 1754, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia attempted to force the French out twice, once with diplomacy, and once with force. Both attempts were carried out by a young Virginia militia officer, George Washington. The French ignored the diplomatic attempt, and the second ended in the disastrous Battle of Great Meadows, in which Washington surrendered Fort Necessity. In the winter of 1755, British planners in Whitehall secretly authorized a “madly ambitious” four pronged assault to throw the French out of North America. Their plan did not take into account North American realities of distance, climate, ecology, logistics, nor had any regard for colonial and Indian culture and politics. In their comfortable London offices, they drew lines on maps over terrain that was nearly impossible to traverse with the troops assigned who for the most part didn’t exist. One prong was given to Major-general Edward Braddock and his two understrength Irish regiments, the 44th and 48th, who sailed for Virginia in the spring of 1755. Among the officers of the 44th, was young Lt Charles Lee.

Edward Braddock was a highly experienced and well placed officer of the Coldstream Guards. Though blunt, uncouth and boorish in polite society, he was a “soldiers’ general” and cared deeply for his men, like his idol, The Duke of Marlborough. The 44th and 48th were garrison units in the Irish Establishment, who had last both seen action in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. With the exception of a few officers, the men of neither regiment had been in battle or even on campaign. Due to their garrison duties, they had never drilled at the regimental level, much less together, and rarely at company level. Spread out in small platoon formation across the countryside, the strict rhythm and monotony of garrison duty in Ireland meant that most junior officers knew nothing of life on campaign, and little of the manual of drill beyond what was needed for daily tasks. For the expedition to America, the two regiments were reinforced by stripping other Irish regiments of “their dregs”. Still far below their authorized strength, the two regiments recruited in Virginia to make up the shortfall.

Braddock’s Expedition was to follow Washington’s trail north, capture all of the recent French forts in the Ohio Country, proceed up Lake Erie, capture Fort Niagara, and head east to link up with another prong sent to clear the French from Montreal. To prepare for this wildly fantastical plan, Braddock demanded support from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and the Carolina’s. After browbeating the governors, assemblies, and the Ohio Company for men and resources at the Alexandria Conference in April, 1755, Braddock’s Expedition grew to an impressive size: 2100 men with siege cannon, field pieces and heavy mortars capable of leveling Fort Duquesne if need be, and all of the support necessary to make the trek across the Appalachian Mountains. 150 wagons were acquired for baggage and supply, mostly at the behest of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Hundreds of camp followers accompanied the column. Each regiment, regular and colonial alike was allowed 40 women to accompany them, each inspected by Braddock’s surgeon to make sure they were clean.

Braddock was meticulous and exhausting in every aspect of his preparations for the expedition, and even adapted his men’s equipment to the realities of the Appalachian wilderness, such as leaving behind the NCOs’ halberds, the officers’ short pikes and the mens’ hangers (ceremonial short swords), and even had gaiters crafted for his men, to protect them on the march. Braddock took a direct professional interest in nearly every aspect of the expeditions planning and preparation, except Indian affairs.

Braddock didn’t ignore Indian Affairs, he just delegated it to William Johnson, a trader, friend of the Mohawk, and the Crown’s Indian agent in North America who was one of the most knowledgeable Europeans on the continent in the intricacies of frontier diplomacy. Johnson felt confident that he could bring the powerful Iroquois Six Nations, and thus their nominal vassals, the Ohio Indians, to fight for the British. Furthermore, Dinwiddie promised 400 Catawba and Cherokee warriors, but these refused to join the expedition once they found out the British were negotiating an alliance with their sworn blood enemies, the Iroquois. The Ohio Indians, even without direction from the Iroquois, were more than willing to help expel the French. It was their land that the French and Great Lakes Indians were on. George Croghan, a prominent Ohio country trader and sometime Pennsylvania diplomat was the quintessential “go-between” who lived on the frontier among the Ohio Indians, smoothed over any difficulties, and maintained colonial and tribal relations. Croghan sent wampum belts to arrange a meeting between the Ohio Indian chiefs and Braddock. Six chiefs and their entourages arrived, including from the Shawnee, the Delaware chief Shingas, and Mingo Half King Scaroudy. The French had brought their Indian allies to Fort Duquesne from the Great Lakes, and the Ohio Indians were keen to have them removed. The pretentious and arrogant Braddock alienated the chiefs almost immediately. When queried on the only subject the Ohio Indians cared about, whether the British would allow settlers into the Ohio Valley, Braddock replied absolutely and, “No savage shall inherit the land.” All but seven Mingo warriors departed. Scaroudy still clung to the old notion that the Ohio Country was under the complete influence of the Iroquois. When told of Braddock’s response, most of the Shawnee warriors, and many of the Delaware, joined the French.

In late May, 1755, Braddock’s Expedition departed Fort Cumberland led by Scaroudy, his six Mingo warriors, George Croghan and Braddock’s chief of scouts, Lt John Fraser, who had a trading post on the Monongahela about 12 miles from Fort Duquesne. They followed the path that Fraser usually took to his post, the same one Washington followed the previous year. The trail was completely inadequate for Braddock’s column, and the terrain took herculean efforts to conquer. The trail led through 110 miles of nearly uninhabited wilderness, “with steep rocky mountains and impassable morasses.” The column’s logistician and engineer, the indefatigable and irascible Sir John St. Clair spent months before the expedition arrived in America laying the logistical groundwork just to get Braddock to Fort Cumberland. Now he was building a road ahead of the column to accommodate the baggage wagons and the artillery train of six pound cannon and heavy eight inch mortars. Braddock’s Expedition averaged just two miles a day.

Nearly three weeks later, the expedition had travelled just 36 miles. At Little Meadows, the exasperated Braddock formed a “flying column” of about 1400. The flying column would have only five cannon and a few dozen of the lighter and studier wagons. The flying column didn’t have to cut as substantial a road, which made the rough going faster. The “supply column” left behind under the 48th’s commander, Colonel Thomas Dunbar, enlarged the road for the heavier wagons and artillery train. Braddock’s flying column averaged six miles a day, and soon left the supply column far behind.

Just behind the scouts in the flying column was a formation of 200 light infantry and grenadiers under a young Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage. Behind Gage was an independent militia company form New York commanded by Captain Horatio Gates. Gates was tasked with securing St. Clair’s 250 or so pioneers, with six tool laden wagons, who widened the road. The main body followed the pioneers, and consisted of the wagons, artillery, cattle, camp followers, and more workmen, flanked in the trees by two columns of 250 regulars. Braddock and his staff, including a dysentery wracked Washington who volunteered as Braddock’s aide, accompanied the main body. Small parties of flankers watched for French scouts. 100 Virginia rangers, most of whom were at Fort Necessity with Washington, brought up the rear of the column.

On 8 July 1755, the column reached the ford at the junction of Turtle Creek and the Monongahela River. The next morning of 9 July, Braddock crossed the Monongahela and expected to make camp that night about halfway between the ford and Shannopin’s Town, about four miles north of Fort Duquesne on the Allegheny River. There he would cross the Allegheny with half his column and travel down both sides of the river, and invest Fort Duquesne from the north and east, effectively isolating it from any outside assistance.

Across the ford was Fraser’s trading post which was at the limit of the wilderness. The Ohio Indians’ hunting grounds began at the now burnt out ruins of Fraser’s cabin. Unlike the dense terrain Braddock’s Expedition had spent the last month hacking through, the hunting grounds were relatively open and easy to traverse. The Ohio Indians managed their hunting grounds. There was little ground foliage because the Indian hunters burned the undergrowth annually. This improved animal fodder, removed cover for their prey, and allowed the hunters ease of movement. Whereas the column could see no more than twenty meters ahead before, the scouts could see 200 or even three hundred meters in all directions.

Surprisingly, the crossing of the ford was unhindered, though not unobserved. If the French were going to ambush, they would have done it in the wilderness, or at the ford. The British were jubilant, and believed that the worst part of the campaign were over. Most of Braddock’s column fully expected to hear the explosions of the French demolishing the works as they withdrew ahead of the far superior force. Fort Duquesne was just ahead, and the French had failed to respond.

The French didn’t respond to their scouts reports of Braddock’s progress because they were awaiting reinforcements from Quebec, and Braddock’s original progress was slow enough to allow reaction time. The reinforcements arrived in the first week of July, but Braddock’s relatively rapid progress in the last few days took the French commander Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecœur by surprise. He had 1600 French marines, Canadian militia, and Indian warriors. However, Fort Duquesne could only house 200, and he knew his Indian allies would disperse if he allowed the British to begin the siege. Also, Contrecœur’s Indian allies held a conference on 7 July to determine if it was more beneficial to abandon the post against such an intimidating force. The stubbornness of the Potawatomis caused the conference to go another day. Only when Contrecœur opened his stores up to the Indians to take what they wished, did they agree to attack. Thankful for the war chiefs’ renewed pledges, Contrecœur gave half his men to Canadian militia Captain Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu, about seventy marines, 150 militia, and 650 Ottawas, Chippewa, Huron, Shawnee, and Potawatomis warriors, to ambush Braddock. They never got into position.

On the afternoon of 9 July 1755, Beaujeu’s force was spotted cresting the ridge about 200 meters from the advanced guard. Gage formed his men into a line and opened fire, even though the range was more than twice what the Brown Bess musket was normally accurate at. Gage hoped to surprise the French and let them know they were dealing with disciplined professionals. But Beaujeu was also a seasoned professional, experienced in the ways of warfare on the frontier and working with Indian allies.

Beaujeu knew from the morning reports from the scouts that the British crossed the river and the delay had cost the French and Indians the good ambush sites. Instead he conducted a hasty attack after making contact, and planned to do so beforehand. Every one of his officers had years and sometimes decades living among the tribes, and fighting and trading on the frontier. Many dressed and looked so similar to the Indian warriors that they could only be distinguished by their gorgets. He attached one to each of the Indian small war parties that made up the bulk of his force. As Beujeau fixed Braddock’s vanguard, his officers would advise the small bands to envelop Braddock’s mile long column, destroy the flank guards, and prevent Braddock from creating a cohesive defense. The wagons at the rear was all the incentive the warriors needed to continue moving down the column.

Gage’s plan inadvertently worked on the Canadian militia, and Beajeu’s attack was seemingly aborted before it could get started. One of the first shots Gage’s men fired struck Beaujeu and killed him instantly. Seeing their leader go down, and unwilling to get closer and weather the fire, particularly from the two cannons, the Canadian militia and many Indians broke and ran back to Fort Duquesne to report the battle lost.

The death of their commander did not dissuade the French and Indians. Beaujeu’s officers knew his intent and they had discussed the battle plan ahead of time. His officers and cadets rallied many of the fleeing Indians, while those who did not flee continued enveloping the column. Beaujeu’s second, Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas and French Canadian Ottawa war chief Charles de Langlade rallied the marines and remaining militia and followed the Indian warriors into the attack. The open spaces of the Indian hunting ground were punctuated by stout old growth trees, fallen timbers, and tall shrubberies, essentially natural breastworks. The terrain was perfect for the Indians’ bounding advances. Instead of hunting game, they hunted soldiers in bright red coats clustered in small groups. In less than ten minutes, nearly all of Gage’s officers were killed or incapacitated. And dozens of his men were wounded on the ground, many more than were standing. The war whoops, and the Indians seen behind them unnerved those who remained. Gage ordered a retreat toward the main body before he was cut off and destroyed.

Gage’s men slammed into Gates’ who had hurried forward when they heard shots fired. Crude platoons formed and blazed away at the brush, while the Indians sniped the officers, or rushed in while the British were reloading. The Indians continued to envelop the British and colonials. The flank guards were isolated and destroyed. The British regulars had no idea how to fight in the wilderness, and their bayonets unwieldy against the tomahawk and war club. Soon the main body devolved into individual clusters of regulars doing the only thing they knew how to do in tough situations: reload and fire.

The pioneers and militia however did know how to fight on the frontier. Gates’ New Yorkers immediately took to the trees. They hid in the trees and brush and fought the Indians in the same way. Unfortunately, many British regulars mistook the colonials fighting in the trees for Canadian militia and fired on them. Many flank guards fell back to the column avoid fire from the main body. French marines pushed down the road and forced the main body back into the wagon train. Many of the wagon drivers joined in, such as Daniel Morgan, but many fled, such as Morgan’s cousin, Daniel Boone. The three cannon in the train kept the Indians at bay for most of the battle: until there was no more crew to reload.

Braddock rode forward and found most of his officers dead or wounded. He ordered the regulars near the baggage to reinforce the main body, but when they arrived, all they did was add to the confusion. For the next three hours, Braddock single handedly kept the main body in the fight, relying on British discipline and firepower to defeat the French and Indian attacks. Braddock had three horses shot out from under him. Nevertheless, he reformed ranks, while the British regulars loaded and fired like clockwork, defiantly taking the punishment from unknown sources. In the confusion, several groups of regulars fired upon each other. Braddock ordered several counter attacks to retrieve the cannon in the advanced guard and some high ground further up the slope to the right. Each attack was defeated by murderously accurate Indian fire as the Indians isolated then overran the attackers.

With the death of most of the British regular officers, the American provincials took to the trees to fight, the most effective being the Virginia rangers, and the South Carolina and New York independent companies. The Virginia rangers also attempted to take the high ground on the right, but were massacred when the main body on the road mistook them for Indians and put several volleys into them from behind.

Shrouded in smoke, the remnants of the column continued firing blindly, becoming even more unnerved by the Indian war cries and the prospect of a warrior appearing out of the smoke with a tomahawk and scalping knife. At Washington’s constant urging, Braddock finally saw the utility of fighting in the trees. Washington continually pointed out that Braddock’s most effective units were not the regulars in the open, but the provincials he readily dismissed fighting in the trees. But by then it was too late, there weren’t enough officers to effect the change, and the regulars were bunched together in the open seeking safety in numbers, oblivious to hell around them. Many were terrified, and few were still shooting since many of their muskets were fowled, and they were desperately attempting to clear them.

Shortly thereafter, Braddock was shot in the arm, possibly by his own men, whose ball penetrated into his lungs. When Braddock fell from his horse, the defense collapsed with him. The French marines pushed the assault. By ones and twos, and then by whole groups the expedition fell back to the ford over the Monongahela. No one wanted to be the last one on this side of the ford. Braddock’s staff carried him across the river. A silence descended on the battlefield, punctuated only by the screams and moans of the wounded. The French and Indians were reorganizing for the final attack. As one, the Indians resumed their war cries. At the ford, the victorious war whoops of the Indians broke what remained of British cohesion, as the men assumed they were going to be massacred.

Though he had no official position in the expedition Washington took command at the ford and formed a rear guard. After a brief fight the Indians quit the pursuit. There was no reason to continue the fight. Why get killed so late in the battle when back up the hill there were captives to round up, wounded and dead to scalp, and bodies to mutilate and loot? Braddock’s Expedition had 467 killed and another 450 wounded. The several dozen men who were captured were taken back to Fort Duquesne where they were ritually tortured and burned at the stake. The cattle provided the meat for the victory feast. Of the 50 or so female camp followers who accompanied the flying column as maids and cook, only four returned. The rest taken as slaves and assimilated into the various tribes.

At the previous camp Gage, as the senior surviving regular took command and reorganized the defenders. He sent Washington, who was sick with dysentery and had just fought a battle, to ride the sixty miles back to Dunbar, and return with all of the remaining troops. Washington did so, and eventually the reorganized column withdrew back to Dunbar. Fearing the French and Indians were pursuing after their orgy of victory, Dunbar, now in command, had the men set fire to 150 wagons and headed back to Fort Cumberland. Braddock finally succumbed to his wound on 13 July. To prevent his body from being taken as a trophy by the Indians, Washington and Dunbar had him buried in the road, and the entire expedition marched over it to conceal the grave.

Many junior officers, militiamen, and soldiers, including Fraser, Gates, Boone, Gage, and Morgan blamed Braddock for the defeat and not preparing his army to fight on the frontier. While his arrogance was certainly a factor, particularly with his potential Indian allies, Braddock went to war with the army he had, not the army they wished he had in hindsight. The Battle of the Monongahela would go down in history as the defeat of a regular army which refused to learn how to fight on the frontier. Washington learned the same, but also different lessons. He saw Braddock courageously rally his men who fought on for three hours, despite the French and Indians having every advantage. The disciplined British regulars broke because of a dearth of training and leadership. Washington knew how to fight on the frontier, but he would not forget what he saw Braddock accomplish with regulars. For the rest of his life, Washington would not disparage Braddock’s memory.

For the French, the Battle of the Monongahela was a massive logistics, intelligence, and propaganda victory. The French spent the weeks collecting equipment and stores form the battlefield. There was so much that Contrecœur had to build another large building outside of Fort Duquesne to store it. After some deserters informed him, Contrecœur did the same to Dunbar’s camp. Braddock’s artillery would be used by the French through the remainder of the French and Indian War. Braddock’s captured stores fueled the French offensive in New York. The greatest find, however, was Braddock’s own papers, which detailed the British plan to remove the French from North America, leading to the thwarting of the British thrusts in other areas. The papers were partially responsible for the British loss of Forts Bull, Oswego, and William Henry, and the failed expedition to capture Louisburg. Moreover, since the two empires were still not technically at war, the papers were proof that while the British crown and parliament preached peace with France, they were secretly planning for war. Braddock’s translated papers were published across Europe and were one of the catalysts of the Seven Years War.

The Battle of the Monongahela was the worst British defeat at the hands of an indigenous enemy until the Battle of Isandlwana, 124 years later. The British however, did not have to worry about the French or Indians in its immediate aftermath. The Indians broke into the 500 gallons of rum in the baggage, and many Indians got drunk. Between the booze, loot and captives, teh French would not be able to convince the Indians to \complete the destruction. France’s Indian allies started departing Fort Duquesne the day after the battle. Laden with scalps, loot, and captives, many Indians only wished to triumphantly return home. By August, Contrecœur reported that he had only 260 French Canadian marines and militia remaining, and just two Abenaki Indian warriors.

The warriors’ returned to their lands with tales of victory and loot. The Battle of the Monongahela was the “most glorious in which Indians were involved.” British loot decorated Great Lakes and Ohio Indian villages for decades. The battle became the standard by which Indian warriors came to judge all future successful battlefield encounters. Hundreds more Indian warriors flocked to the French. Ohio Indian tribes attempting to sit on the fence for economic reasons suddenly began attacking the colonial settlements on the frontier. The lack of British traders was made up by pillaging colonial homesteads. The Great Lakes and Ohio Indians sent wampum belts to the Iroquois and Cherokee, urging them to “drive the colonials into the salt water”. The frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia were set aflame, and the colonies brought to their knees. The frontier was rolled back behind the Appalachian Mountains once again.

For the colonists, the Battle of the Monongahela was a great awakening. The myth of invincibility enjoyed by British regulars was shattered. They fought “la guerre terra”, large war, and were defeated by “la guerre petit”, or small war. The most effective units in Braddock’s army were American, fighting as the Indians la guerre petit. The colonials took great pride in their culture that allowed them to adapt. Furthermore, after the battle the British regular army abandoned the Middle Colonies, leaving then to fend for themselves against the Indians’ “la guerre sauvage”, the total war on the colonists. The Americans were on their own, at least in the short term. Consequently, the term “American” came into more common usage to distinguish British colonials in North America from citizens of the British Isles.

When Washington was given command of the Virginia Regiment later that year to protect the frontier, he made sure it was trained in both la guerre terra and la guerre petit. They could fight in closed or open order on command. His Virginians fought jointly with the Cherokee who turned down The Great Lakes and Ohio Indian request to drive the Americans into the sea. Ranger companies formed in the colonies to protect the frontier.

The Battle of the Monongahela had more lasting effects on the French and Indian War, and even on the future United States of America. When Major-general John Forbes and Royal American regimental commander Colonel Henri Bouquet were tasked to take Fort Duquesne three year later in 1758, they did so with an army that could fight both conventionally and against the Indians on equal terms. Even more, Forbes made sure he didn’t have to fight the Indians at all, whom abandoned the French after they signed the Treaty of Easton. Most importantly though, they chose not to take Braddock’s Road from Fort Cumberland to the Forks of the Ohio. Two expeditions had departed Virginia via that route to seize Fort Duquesne, and both had failed. A new route, one not tainted in defeat was needed. Against the protestations of Washington, Forbe’s expedition set out from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and they cut a new road, Forbe’s Road, across the Appalachian Mountains. Their successful capture of Fort Duquesne, and subsequent construction of Fort Pitt, meant that the future of the Ohio Country lay with Pennsylvania and not Virginia.

Braddock’s Road wasn’t abandoned though. After the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War in 1763, Braddock’s Road became a high speed conduit for settlers from Virginia to enter the Ohio Country. One such was Daniel Boone. While in Braddock’s Expedition he became great friends John Findley, an associate of George Croghan, who described to Boone the wonders of the Ohio Country. 12 years after the battle, Findley took Boone on his first hunting trip to a place called “Kentucky.”

Boone was one of tens of thousands. What Braddock’s Expedition couldn’t do to the French and Indians of the Ohio Country, Braddock’s Road did

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