GEORGE WASHINGTON WENT BACK!
What would you think if you were a hero and just 22? And you know the truth of those others who died. Died under your charge. Under your command. Like Jumonville under the hatchet, whose death led Washington to Fort Necessity. And then to even more misery and ignobility.
“Assassinated!” That’s what the French said. “I don’t read French,” was Washington’s reply. And the parchment was smudged and wet. But he signed his name anyway, and that allowed Washington and his remaining men to march out to safety. And Washington to march into history as our first national hero! Washington knew better.
Could you steel your mind and return to the line that you abandoned that way just the year before? Face the truth and fear the fate that you lived through there once before? Washington did, and his next battle there was an even more bizarre and bloody debacle. But one that made Washington an even more famous hero. For on that day of disaster, Washington truly earned that status at the Battle of the Monongahela. You know it as Braddock’s Defeat.
Let us investigate how all of that happened.
It is argued that George Washington started the French and Indian War with the death of the French leader, Jumonville, and Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity. But the British weren’t going to give up the Ohio Country to French regulars without a real fight with true British soldiers! Enter British General Edward Braddock to lead the war effort back in that resolve. It is now the summer of 1755.
Braddock was 60 when he marched into the western Pennsylvania Mountains. He would not reach 61. George Washington was 23. He signed on as a volunteer. An aide-de-camp to Braddock. Washington was not a member of the regular British Army, though he mightily sought such status. But he had been named a Lieutenant Colonel in the Colonial Virginia militia by Virginia Governor Dinwiddie before his efforts at Fort Necessity the year before.
Braddock’s column was so large [around 2,100 soldiers, not to mention camp followers] that a road had to be built before marching it out of Fort Cumberland in Maryland. That was the farthest point you could reach west along the Potomac River. It was overland after that, against the grain of mountains, through a dark forest primeval, to reach the forks of the Ohio. At a place now called Pittsburg, but it was then in the hands of the French, who had built Fort Duquesne. Braddock’s Road would lead them there, ultimately becoming a road for his survivors to flee along in a rout.
Braddock marched with 1,400 British regular members of the line and about 700 soldiers from the Colonial Militia, with a train of supplies with those in support. These included as many as 50 women as maids and cooks. Most of those women would die.
Only eight Mingo warriors accompanied Braddock’s column as scouts. Mingo warriors had accompanied Washington in his attack on Jumonville the year before. But they had then abandoned Washington at Fort Necessity in face of a French fight.
So Braddock had dismissed the Indians as undisciplined fighters. This was the King’s land, not theirs, he had said. And so, few were willing to fight at Braddock’s side. You can bet that the French had not been so foolishly stupid!
Washington had plenty of tragic experience in these hereabouts. So he advised Braddock to adapt to the Indian strategy of fighting. Adopt the woods warfare that the French had learned in this wooded backcountry. Braddock, at the head of such a powerful force, demurred. He would fight the French as he always had, in formation. The French would not be so foolishly stupid.
Braddock sent a “flying wing” of 1,400 soldiers ahead on the road. Washington, sick with dysentery, had to catch up riding on a pillow lashed to his saddle. Give him credit. He wanted to be “there.” Wouldn’t you? Maybe not, when you saw what was happening when you arrived.
Braddock’s advancing troops stumbled onto the French forces after crossing the Monongahela River ten miles upstream from Fort Duquesne. The French and Indian warriors had only about half the fighters of Braddock, but they soon swarmed into the woods on either side of his column.
By sundown, Braddock was dead, along with 456 of his men and 26 of his officers. A similar number were wounded as Washington and the remaining officers tried to rally the troops into an orderly retreat. Incredibly, the French and Indian force seemed to have lost only about thirty killed.
The French force was too small to pursue the British, or the slaughter would have been even greater, even complete. But Washington had survived his horse being shot from under him, and had mounted an effective rear guard action in defense. For this, he would rightfully be heralded as a hero. He had now truly earned that status!
British Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage, British Captain Horatio Gates, and Colonial Lieutenant Colonel George Washington were leaders during Braddock’s defeat. They would each meet again in the American Revolution.
In 1775, now a British General commanding British forces in Boston, Thomas Gage would order British regulars into Lexington and start the American Revolution. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, Gage opined, “These people show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French … the loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.” Ironic thoughts, considering Braddock’s defeat twenty years earlier.
And Horatio Gates, now an American General, would claim victory in the defeat of the British at Saratoga, encouraging the French to join the American side in our Revolution. The French, again. Ironic. Gates would lead an even more interesting life, full of additional ironies.
As for George Washington, he would learn these lessons well, fighting in the backwoods of his soon-to-be new nation. What he learned, in the truth of those experiences, would allow him to defeat the British regular army in the coming American Revolutionary War. And do it with the aid of his former enemies, the French government and its powerful navy. Such political ironies continue, even into our current time.
Life is like a spider web. And here is one of those interesting, glistening ties. You see, a young Daniel Boone had come up with the North Carolina Militia, in support of Braddock’s army. Not as a fighter, nor a frontiersman, and not as a scout. He was a driver of a wagon with supplies.
Was his wagon train attacked? Yup. Did he stand and fight? Nope. He cut loose his horses and hightailed it out of there.
Both George Washington and Daniel Boone were learning the hard lessons of life!
Note: This article is Part 5 of a 6-Part series on George Washington in the French and Indian War. The entire series can be viewed for free on http://www.vanstockum.blog.