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Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Braddock Expedition, July 9, 1755

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Today in 1755, British forces led by General Edward Braddock were defeated by French forces in western Pennsylvania. The Battle of the Monongahela, named after the nearby river, was major setback for the British during the early years of the French and Indian War.

The Seven Years’ War, as the French and Indian War was called in Europe, did not officially begin until 1756, the year of the British declaration of war. However, fighting had actually been going on since 1754 and small skirmishes for years before that. The main cause of the war was a disagreement over the land located between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. This land, called the Ohio Country, was claimed by both England and France. Both nations had forts and trading posts spread across the area. There was one main resource that made the land so valuable at the time: beaver pelts. While not the only thing to come from the Ohio Country, the pelts were a huge source of income for both nations.

In the summer of 1755, General Braddock was tasked with the mission to capture Fort Duquesne, a French fort that stood where the present city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is located. Braddock was commanding general of the Royal Army in America, but his attacking force consisted of only two regiments and about 500 militiamen from various colonies; in other words, about 1,900 soldiers. A young Virginia militiaman who had fought in the area earlier in the war volunteered to be Braddock’s aide for the duration of the expedition. His name was George Washington.

The expedition left Fort Cumberland in Maryland at the end of May. They faced a difficult journey, for between them and western Pennsylvania lay the Alleghany Mountains. Provisions loaded on wagons and heavy cannon were hauled up the mountains, a task that sometimes meant the force only covered two miles per day. Braddock eventually split the men into two groups: a faster group of 1500 men with no heavy weapons or wagons and a supply group which followed well behind them. Braddock took command of the fast group.

Fort Duquesne was defended by 250 French soldiers and Canadian militia. Outside the fort were camped about 650 Native American allies from various tribes. It was thought that the fort would not withstand an attack by heavy cannons, so the French decided to meet the British force while they were still some distance away.

The opposing groups met nine miles from the fort. The British had about 600 more men than the enemy, but the French had surprise in their favor. The Canadian militiamen and Native Americans began firing on the column from the woods bordering the road, while the French regulars attacked them head-on. The British force fell into confusion and some of them even shot at their own militiamen in the heat of the battle. The British tried to use their cannon, but at close range and towards a scattered enemy they were nearly useless.

The battle went on for three hours until General Braddock was mortally wounded. Colonel Washington, although not formally second-in-command, took charge and began to evacuate the force while fighting a rear guard action. By that evening, the British regulars and the militiamen were well away from the battleground and headed home. General Braddock died of his wounds several days later. When the forward group met up once again with the supply group, the Colonel in charge of that group took command and ordered the destruction of all the wagons and cannons, despite the fact that they were not being pursued by the French.

All told, the British lost 456 soldiers with 521 wounded. The French lost 23 and had 20 wounded. As a result of the battle, many Native American tribes that had been neutral to this point joined the French side. Because of this, British settlers in the Ohio Country suddenly found themselves in greater danger than before and had to quickly organize defense forces of their own. The British eventually won the French and Indian War, but it would take two years before the tide of the war turned in their favor.

Only one British subject reaped a positive outcome from the loss. George Washington’s reputation grew because of his masterful withdrawal from the battle, a move that doubtless saved many lives. He was calm, decisive and courageous even during the fiercest fights. Witnesses to the battle claimed that Washington removed his riding coat after the fighting only to find that it had four bullet holes in it, each one barely missing the future first President of the United States.

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