Poor military tactics and inflexible leadership of General Braddock squandered the advantage of superior numbers at the Battle of Monongahela, and the French badly routed the British. The road Braddock’s men set out to build through the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains wrote the first milestone of their disaster. Choice of wrong terrain, logistical problems, and disdain toward the colonial militia proved fatal, and the experienced general fell in the battle with 500 of his men.
The Jumonville Affair ended with the defeat and capitulation of the British colonial army under George Washington. It led to the French supremacy of the contested Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh. Continued presence of the French and their Indian allies at Fort Duquesne overlooking the Ohio River Valley posed a serious threat to the political and economic interest of British colonies. They appealed to the government in London to interfere on their part. King George II was fretful at the possibility of a French takeover of British colonial possessions.
In February 1755, Major General Edward Braddock landed with two regiments at Hampton, Virginia, as the commander of British forces in North America. He made a plan for a four-pronged attack on the French, with him leading the assault on Fort Duquesne. Three other armies were to get hold of Fort Niagara near Lake Ontario, Fort St. Frederic near Lake Champlain, and Fort Beausejour in Nova Scotia. The larger plan was to outflank the French defense and take over the fortress city of Quebec, the center of New France.
In Eclipse of the Midnight Sun, my heroes Finn and Gus join Braddock’s expedition of 2,400 men, the biggest ever military assembly in North America until then, as they began marching from Alexandria, Virginia. His staff included George Washington, who led the militia against the French a year earlier. Braddock’s arrogance and rigid leadership and his disregard of advice by colonial officers and native warriors exposed the army to severe hardships. He made all the wrong choices, multiplying the obstacles posed by the terrain and weather.
The road to Fort Duquesne passed through the heavily wooded mountains. As local tribes did not support the general, his army was left to fend for themselves. Braddock made a mistake by selecting the Nemacolin Trail, a trading route used by Native tribes to reach the Forks. The road beyond the Potomac River was not smooth enough to support the movement of heavy artillery and wagons. He was forced to employ his soldiers to construct 40-mile-long dirt road and improve an existing 60-mile long path to reach the Monongahela River.
The terrain full of ridges, streams, and gaps began taking a toll on his men and slowed his progress. His column stretched over five miles and disorder crept into its organization. Unfriendly forest, logistic strain, physical labor, and diseases robbed the soldiers of their morale. Bad terrain led Braddock to split his army into two, with 1,400-men forming a light fighting column marching ahead and the rest of artillery and supplies following slowly.
Rampant illness, heat, drought, lack of supplies, and strenuous trek through unfriendly terrain in full battle gear led to indiscipline among the Irish regulars, Braddock’s most trained soldiers. Wilderness also allowed native Indians allied with the French to harass the British army. Poorly equipped and disenchanted, the colonial militia failed to secure the flank. Unnerved, vulnerable, and low in morale, the British army crossed the Monongahela River for the second time after the loss of valuable time and supplies and collided head-on with the French garrison.
The Disaster and Rout
Braddock ignored Washington’s plea for a tactical battle from a defensive position. A sudden burst of fire from the woods confronted the British, who then set their foot on the Monongahela bank. In its traditional formations, the British army was dilapidated by months of hardship, and became vulnerable to the attacks from behind the trees and shrubbery. Native warriors, used to the terrain as their hunting grounds for generations, targeted the invaders using guerrilla tactics and killed many officers. The French overran the advance guards and created mayhem for the British force cramped in a narrow strip of land with wagons and horses.
The Virginia militia engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting in the woods but was subject to friendly fire from the perplexed British troops. Confusion and fear among the British forced them to fall back in chaos. A commotion ensued as the main body of the British troops ran into the disarrayed men from the advance party retreating, leading to a complete mess and breakdown of organized assault.
Within three hours, the disaster struck and the battle was over. Braddock fell from his horse and was taken away after being mortally struck by a bullet. This led his men to withdraw and flee from the battle.
Washington mounted on a horse and organized a rear guard action that prevented the complete annihilation of the British. His action in seizing and firing six-pound cannon inspired the British to form a rear guard and face the enemy in order. While this allowed an orderly retreat, the French refrained from pursuing the survivors fearing a strong response.
(Image credit: Wilderness Inroads by John Buxton)