Braddock’s Dark and Bloody Road (Part 2)

This is part two of a two-part story. Read part one.

After Washington’s expedition to secure the Forks of the Ohio ended in humiliation, the government in London decided that they had let the idiot colonists manage the problem for long enough. Continuing to do so risked handing the interior of North America to the French on a silver platter.

So a new course was decided upon: Fort Duquesne would be seized — not by ragged colonial militia, but by the King’s own disciplined regulars. And at their head would be one of England’s most respected soldiers: Major General Edward Braddock.

General Braddock was the epitome of the British fighting gentleman. Military leadership ran in the family; his father had been a general in the King’s army. And Braddock the younger followed father’s footsteps with distinction: rising through the officers’ ranks in the elite Coldstream Guards, earning distinction on the battlefield at the siege of Bergen op Zoom during the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s, and then commanding a succession of units and earning promotions to the rank of Major General. This was a man who knew how to fight and win.

So when he arrived in the rude frontier town of Alexandria in Virginia colony in February 1755, accompanied by two regiments of British regular troops, he was confident that he would be able to rout the French from Fort Duquesne — so confident that he struck the locals as a bit of a boor:

Upon his arrival with over 1,000 British troops to Alexandria in March 1755, General Edward Braddock selected the grand home of John Carlyle as his headquarters. Together with his aides, he moved into the home for a period of a month. Although John Carlyle was in the middle of these great events, he did not seem to enjoy the experience. He wrote to his brother George that General Braddock was a man “too fond of his passions, women and wine…” and that while in his house the General had “abused his house and furnishings…”

Others found him less than receptive to military advice:

Braddock was also disdainful of offers of aid made by hardy frontiersmen. In fact, when Braddock was warned by none other than Benjamin Franklin that the Indian allies of the French should not be disregarded as enemies, the British Commander’s reply was, “These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible that they should make such an impression.”

And so, after drinking Alexandria dry and managing to offend Benjamin Franklin, Braddock and his regulars — accompanied by a few hundred militia (among whom was the young officer Washington) — set out to “make an impression” upon the French at Duquesne.

Braddock’s Road

It is no short march from Alexandria to the site of Fort Duquesne. To understand how far that is, realize that the city of Pittsburgh today stands on the land where Duquesne once stood — and imagine marching there across a primeval wilderness, with no roads.

This lack of roads was not just an inconvenience. It was a show-stopper. For Braddock, you see, was marching to Duquesne with what soldiers of the time referred to as a “siege-train” — a full complement of heavy artillery, to be used to batter down the walls of the fort.

In European wars (like the ones Braddock had fought in as a young man), the way to defeat a fortifed enemy had been well established. You drove him back into his fortress, then encircled it and brought him under siege — cutting off his supplies while lobbing artillery shells into the walls of the fort. Eventually the fort would fall, either by capture (when the walls were reduced enough, you would send in your troops), or by starvation.

So to Braddock, the siege-train was a key component of the solution to the problem of Fort Duquesne. But how do you haul cannons from Alexandria to Pittsburgh, through forests and over mountains, with no roads?

Braddock’s solution was straightforward: if there’s no road, you make one. So as his army progressed towards Fort Duquesne, it hacked a road — Braddock’s Road — out of the wilderness; and the cannons followed behind.

As you can imagine, this was an excruciatingly slow process: they had departed Virginia in April, and it was not until July 9 that they reached the Monongahela River, one of the rivers that flowed into the Ohio at Duquesne.

Defeat and Disgrace

It was there that the French and Indians had prepared a surprise for Braddock.

As noted above, the European mode of war dictated that to defend a fort, a force should fall back inside the fort to withstand a siege. So that was what Braddock expected the French defenders of Duquesne to do.

But they did not accommodate him. Instead, they had come out of the fort and hidden themselves in the woods on the other side of the Monongahela, lying in ambush. This, unbeknownst to Braddock, was how wars were fought in America.

What’s more, they were reinforced by Iroquois warriors. The Iroquois, stuck between British and French colonialism, had decided to side with the French; it had not passed their notice that the French traded with them and moved on, while the British established colonies and came in ever greater numbers.

Braddock’s army stumbled blindly into the French ambush. The result was slaughter. The British soldiers, used to fighting in the European mode where opposing ranks lined up in the open to exchange volleys, were terrified by the bullets and arrows that seemed to come from nowhere. Discipline broke down, and with it the British force’s hope of survival.

George Washington, who survived the rout, wrote home of the experience:

[W]e were attacked by a party of French and Indians, whose number, I am persuaded, did not exceed three hundred men; while ours consisted of about one thousand three hundred well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive. The officers behaved gallantly, in order to encourage their men, for which they suffered greatly, there being near sixty killed and wounded; a large proportion of the number we had.

The Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were nearly all killed; for I believe, out of three companies that were there, scarcely thirty men are left alive.

General Braddock did not survive. He was mortally wounded during the day’s fighting, and died in the subsequent retreat. To keep the Indians from mutilating his body, his officers had him buried deep in the road that bore his name — so that the retreating soldiers, horses and wagons would obliterate any trace of his grave site as they tramped over it. (It worked: Braddock’s remains were undiscovered until 1804.)

Once again, a British force straggled home from Fort Duquesne, defeated — only this time it had been crack British regulars who had been defeated. Young Washington had taken note of how poorly this “best fighting force in the world” had fared when it faced an unconventional force fighting in the American style. It was the last time he ever unconditionally accepted the superiority of British arms. It’s no exaggeration to say that the seeds that flowered into the American Revolution were planted as Washington watched the regulars crumble along the Monongahela.

And Braddock’s Road — carved out of the wilderness by the sweat of those regulars, 250 years ago — remains today. It’s split into a thousand little segments, and in many parts you need a GPS unit to follow it. But you can follow it still; and you can see the point where it all began by looking at that little bronze cannon down the street from my apartment.