Braddock's Defeat

DESCRIPTION: "It was our hard general's false treachery Which caused our destruction that great day." The singer tells how Braddock attacks his own men (?). Other generals take command, but it is too late; the forces across the river are slaughtered.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1934 (Lomax)
KEYWORDS: battle death trick river
1754-1763 - French and Indian War ("Great War for Empire"; fought in Europe 1756-1763 as the Seven Years' War)
July 9, 1755 - Defeat and Death of Edward Braddock in the Battle of the Wilderness
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 526-527, "Braddock's Defeat" (1 text)
ST LxA526 (Full)
Roud #4027
cf. "Courrier, Courrier, Qu'y a-t-il de Nouveau? (Courier, Courier, Say What News Hast There?)" (subject)
NOTES: "Not until the golden-haired Custer failed to emerge from the Little Bighorn more than a century later would another leader's defeat be so personalized" as that of Major General Edward Braddock (Borneman, p. 40).
The English colonial situation in the 1750s was uncomfortably restricted. They had many more colonists in the Americas than had the French, but the French and their Indian allies controlled most of the land beyond the Appalachians. The French were stretched very thin, but had good communications via the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the lower Mississippi (Fowler, pp. 6-12).
The English colonists, with an expanding population, naturally wanted more land. The French would not allow it; if the English controlled the Ohio country, the two halves of New France could not hold together (Crocker, p. 17). And the French were in a difficult situation in Europe since the War of the Austrian Succession had ended in 1748, so they were looking to strengthen their position outside Europe (Crocker, p. 41).
The English colonials made many attempts to escape their hemmed-in colonies. In 1753, they mounted a filibustering expedition into Maine (Fowler, pp. 25-26). At about the same time, they started pushing into the Ohio country -- they had founded an "Ohio Company" in 1749, and King George II granted them lands inside the French sphere (Fowler, p. 33, who notes that Pennsylvanians and Virginians both wanted the lands.)
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie, who was competing both with the French and the Pennsylvanians, decided that occupation was nine points of the law (Crocker, p. 2, comments that "Virginia under Dinwiddie, if not a[n independent] kingdom, had its own foreign policy," and Anderson, p. 51, observes that he had no authorization for his acts). He sent a party under young Major George Washington to put in a claim in the Ohio area (Fowler, p. 34; Anderson, p. 41, observes that Washington's only real qualification for the job was that he was willing to do it). The French officers he met were polite but kept him from accomplishing anything (Fowler, p. 35).
At about the same time, Dinwiddie sent a force to the Forks of the Ohio, the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela (the site of modern Pittsburgh; see Pulliam, p. 53). He wanted to build a fort; what he did was start a war (Fowler, p. 36).
The English at the Forks had a difficult winter; their defences were hardly begun when a French force under Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecouer arrived on April 16. The English, whose commander was away, found themselves short of food and with no hope of defending the site; they quickly agreed to leave (Anderson, p. 49; Fowler, pp. 36-37).
The French at once set to work improving the site, which they called Fort Duquesne (named for Ange Duquesne de Menneville, Governor of French Canada from 1752; Fowler, pp. 28-29). Because of transport problems, it had few cannon (just eight, and nothing bigger than a four-pounder), but it was well-situated and strongly constructed (Crocker, p. 65). The one drawback was that it was small -- it could hold at most about 200 men (Anderson, p. 49). Any other troops had to stay outside in an external barracks. Still, Anderson declares it, other than Detroit and Niagara, the strongest fortress in North America away from the coasts.
The first English attempt to gain the land back was another force under George Washington, this one of about 150 men with no experience and little equipment (Fowler, p. 38; Anderson, p. 50, says that they were poor troops who enlisted only when promised land upon discharge).
Washington's troops won a small skirmish between patrols (Fowler, pp. 41-42; Crocker, pp. 6-7, notes that this resulted in Washington's men being accused of atrocities, and Anderson, pp. 53-59, thinks the limited evidence supports the accusation) and then settled down to build a fortified base -- which, however, was badly sited and too small (Anderson, p. 60). The French quickly captured it (Fowler, pp. 45-46) and forced the English to retreat -- as well as causing Washington (who knew no French; Crocker, p. 10) to sign what he thought were articles of parole but which also contained an admission of guilt to an "assassination" (Fowler, p. 47).
The Fort Duquesne affair finally roused the British government, which until then had ignored the Ohio situation (Fowler, p. 52). Their objective was to do something about the loss of the Forks. If possible, he was to do this quietly, so as to prevent the trouble from spreading to Europe (Anderson, p. 67; Borneman, p. 42). In effect, the British government was trying to invent the colonial proxy war. The goal was to fight and win local battles with pauses between, in hopes the French would negotiate (Anderson, p. 68). But the plans for small-scale war quickly started to blow up (Anderson, p. 69).
Edward Braddock (1695-1755) was appointed in 1754 to command the American colonies in the French and Indian War. (Which technically hadn't been declared yet, but hey, if we can fight undeclared wars in this century, why couldn't they do it then?) According to Borneman, p. 41, Crocker, p. xiii, this was based on the recommendation of the Duke of Cumberland, the infamous butcher of Culloden, who had little good on his military record except that one victory. (And who would later be held responsible for England's loss of its one continental possession in Hanover. After that, even George II had to get rid of his less than brilliant son. Borneman, pp. 96-97.)
Braddock, who had spent most of his career in non-combat posts (he had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards), seemed well enough suited for this task; he came from a military family (his father had also been a major general; Crocker, p. 24) and had a good administrative record. Plus he seems to have been considered politically reliable (Anderson, p. 86).
On the other hand, he had obtained his commission by purchase (Fowler, p. 52; Crocker, p. 25, notes the curious fact that this was his only real inheritance -- his father had left all his money to other members of the family), and he had spent a very long time as a mere lieutenant (Crocker, p. 27, although his lack of money was a major reason for that). Thus he had only the slightest experience in handling large bodies of troops even in peacetime, especially compared to other officers of his age and length of service. Even when he finally obtained a significant posting, in 1753, it was as the commander of Gibraltar (Crocker, p. 35), where his main duty was enforcing discipline.
What's more, he had spent most of his career in London and had rarely experienced field conditions (Crocker, p. 36). To top it all off, he had no combat experience (Pulliam, p. 53). And he seems to have been very orthodox, and he was determined to follow London's orders exactly (Anderson, p. 90) -- and in the Ohio campaign, he was called upon to do something that couldn't be done "by the book." Yet he tried -- and as a result quickly angered the colonials with his peremptory orders (Borneman, p. 46).
Braddock was assigned portions of two understrength regiments. Tthey were selected on Cumberland's recommendation because they were available and could be shipped off quickly (Fowler, p. 52). Both were relatively new units, organized during the War of the Austrian Succession (Crocker, pp. 50-51). Neither had a good record; they were in need of discipline, training, and recruits, all of which Braddock was supposed to supply in the colonies.
Crocker, p. 52, reports that the two regiments were "reinforced" with the worst troops from other regiments; after that, the units were very bad indeed. Drunkenness and desertion would become major problems from the moment the troops arrived in the colonies (Crocker, pp. 88-89).
Braddock set our for America in December 1754, before his troops sailed, in order to prepare the groundwork for the upcoming campaign (Fowler, p. 53). He theoretically had command of all forces in North America (Crocker, p. 55) -- but this amounted to only five established regiments (the two he was bringing plus three in Nova Scotia, too far away to be any use in Virginia), plus some artillery, a few independent companies, and whatever he could scrounge in the colonies (Fowler, p. 54).
Although it was the largest professional army to serve in American to this time (Crocker, p. 49), Braddock was being asked to conquer a continent with what amounted to an unorganized brigade! And the locals who joined his forces were so poor that he refused to enlist them into his regular regiments (Fowler, p. 55).
To top it all off, Cumberland and his officers in London had planned the campaign based on wildly inaccurate maps (Crocker, p. 56). And Braddock does not seem to have bothered to gather intelligence (Crocker, p. 94). And he refused to believe that Indians could ambush British regulars (Anderson, p. 95; Crocker, p. 118). It was a recipe for disaster.
In early 1755, Braddock set out to capture Fort Duquesne. Knowing it would he a hard nut to crack, Braddock decided to bring as much heavy artillery as possible (Borneman, p. 48). Neither it nor he would ever come within range of the walls; his quartermaster found it almost impossible to acquire enough horses to move the artillery and supplies (Fowler, p. 58. The original plan had been to used more water transport, but this was based on those inaccurate maps the English generals had used in their planning; Crocker, p. 104). It was Benjamin Franklin who finally induced Pennsylvania citizens to make their transport available (Crocker, pp. 118-120). Even so, Braddock at one point almost abandoned his march, but supplies arrived just in time (Crocker, pp. 147-148).
Braddock recruited George Washington as a sort of guide-plus-staff-officer, but only unofficially; Washington wanted a higher rank than Braddock could give him (Fowler, p. 58; Crocker, pp. 72-73, suggests that Braddock took on Washington -- whose reputation by this time was not of the best -- at the recommendation of, and as a sort of liaison to, Governor Dinwiddie). Washington's service, we might note, was a violation of his earlier parole (Crocker, p. 74), but he was one of the few men available who had some knowledge of the area the army would traverse.
Braddock has his defenders -- Crocker, although often critical of Braddock, concludes that he "never stood a chance" (p. 242). George Washington, who was on Braddock's staff, and Benjamin Franklin, who knew him, both said he might have been a good officer in Europe, but both noted that he was opinionated, and Franklin through he was too harsh toward local troops (Crocker, pp. 241-242). Middlekauff, p. 7, also gives a mixed verdict: "Not stupid but surely inept and ignorant of his ignorance."
Chandler/Beckett, pp. 117-118, argue that he tried to train his troops for their task but didn't have time to whip them into shape. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't change the fact that he moved slowly in order to keep his forces together. And when the men, who were unused to frontier conditions, struggled, Braddock treated them harshly (Fowler, p. 59), which if anything made them slower.
The French national response was vigorous -- six battalions were sent to Canada, or about twice as many regulars as Braddock had (Fowler, p. 64). And while they did not end up at Duquesne, other Canadian forces did; the garrison, although still smaller than the English forces, had been substantially reinforced by the time Braddock reached the scene.
Braddock would have been better off moving as quickly as possible -- Crocker, p. 65, declares that Braddock would have won "an almost certain victory if he had struck in April or early May." Instead, he wasted a lot of time and effort building a road in the mountainous forest for his wagon train, which accomplished nothing much except to give the French a clear area in which to take pot shots at the British, and a whole month in which to do it (Braddock spent 32 days covering an estimated distance of 110 miles; Morison, p. 162).
To manage even that, he had to leave a third of his force behind (Pulliam, p. 55). He shuffled his command arrangements in the process, meaning that many troops were under inexperienced officers (Crocker, pp. 179-180). Nor, it appears, had anyone scouted in advance to find the best course for his road (Crocker, pp. 159-163). And he didn't even have a force of Native American scouts to watch for the enemy (Borneman, p. 52); according to Anderson, pp. 95-96, Fowler, pp. 60, 63, his bad treatment had driven them off, although Crocker, pp. 138-140, insists that he had negotiated with them fairly.
The first serious contact with the enemy came on July 6, about 20 miles from the fort, when Indians allied with the French raided the column. Losses were slight but included one of the few Indians accompanying the British, killed by "friendly fire" (Crocker, pp. 196-197).
Ironically, the French had little hope of halting Braddock; they were very close to surrender at this time (Crocker, pp. 203-204; Anderson, p. 97, adds that in addition to the fort being too small to hold all the French soldiers, the Indians would not sit around to be besieged). If it came to a stand-up fight, the French would lose. But they waited before giving in. And a French officer, Daniel Hyacinth-Marie Lienard de Beaujeu, convinced many Indians to fight (Crocker, pp. 204-206). The fort's commander put half the French forces -- over 250 Europeans and 600 Indians -- at his disposal (Anderson, p. 99). Even so, the attack on Braddock was probably intended to be a delaying action (Fowler, p. 67).
On July 9, the British finished crossing the Monongahela and started their final march on the fort (Crocker, p. 210).
The French and Indians ran into Braddock about twelve kilometers from Fort Duquesne. It was not an ambush, technically, since the French were surprised too (Anderson, p. 99; Borneman, p. 53) -- some of them fled, and Beaujeu was killed very early (Crocker, p. 211). But the French responded quickly and effectively. And the British colonel in charge of the van was soon killed (Crocker, p. 212), which meant the British did not deploy effectively.
Braddock apparently reacted by shoving more troops into the battle without making any attempt to build a defensive position (Borneman, p. 54). He wouldn't even let his men position themselves behind natural objects such as trees (Pulliam, p. 56), nor let them spread out to use their superior numbers (Fowler, p. 71). And the soldiers were trained for set piece battles between armies in rigid formation anyway; forest fighting confused them. This often meant that British units were firing on each other (Anderson, p. 102). And Braddock just kept shoving troops into the meat grinder. With troops trying to move along a narrow road, the situation quickly turned to chaos.
Braddock's staff was slaughtered; only George Washington the volunteer officer survived unwounded. Braddock himself spent an hour and more whipping his troops forward, having four horses shot out from under him. Finally he took a bullet in the side. The wound was mortal; he died four days later (Pulliam, p. 57). Fowler, p. 71, thinks Braddock had already ordered a retreat; whether he had or not, his troops gave up around this time.
While Braddock lived, the British carried him on their retreat; when he died, they quickly buried him in the road and marched the rest of the army over the grave -- supposedly to keep the enemy from despoiling it (Anderson, p. 104), although I'm sure many of Braddock's troops enjoyed the thought of stomping on it.
The French had suffered less than a hundred casualties, their Indian allies even fewer (Borneman, p. 55). Braddock, by contrast, had almost certainly lost more than half his force. Some put the casualties as high as two-thirds, at least in the leading elements that were under fire the longest (so, e.g., Anderson, p. 105). Crocker cites a figure of 877 killed and wounded out of 1466 in Braddock's force. Among officers, it was worse -- more than 60 out of 89 present (Crocker, p. 227).
It was a major French victory, as it left the western parts of the American colonies exposed (Braddock's successor, Colonel Dunbar, made it worse by abandoning several defensible forts and going into "winter quarters" in July; Anderson, p. 105; Borneman, p. 67, Morison, p. 163). This even though there was no pursuit (Crocker, p. 233) and the Indians soon abandoned the French, leaving Fort Duquesne again vulnerable (Anderson, p. 105). According to Crocker, p. 233, much military equipment, including artillery, was destroyed to free up transport for the wounded. As a result, much territory held by British citizens was vulnerable; many settlers were forced back across the Allegheny Mountains. They were pushed along by the French and Indians, who were emboldened to engage in the atrocities known as "the Outrages" (Crocker, p. 243).
On top of it all, the Defeat helped turn a local war into a world war (Borneman, p. 60).
Formally, the name of the fight is most often given as "The Battle of the Monongahela" (Pulliam, p. 50; Crocker, p. 254, lists a few other names), but everyone seems to call it "Braddock's Defeat" (Borneman, p. 40).
Despite this song, there is absolutely no record in our sources hinting that Braddock was a traitor, and he certainly was never in the French fort. We also note that the song is incorrect in speaking of a river battle; although the French planned to attack the British at a river crossing, they could not actually mount the attack because their Indian allies were not ready.
That isn't the only inaccuracy in the (Lomax) text of this song. The command structure is all wrong. Braddock certainly wasn't succeeded by "General Gatefore," nor by "General Gates." "Gatefore" might perhaps be an oral corruption of "St. Clair," the officer responsible for building Braddock's Road, but John St. Clair was wounded and out of action before Braddock himself (Crocker, pp. 214, 219); Braddock's successor, as noted, was Colonel Thomas Dunbar (who was, however, soon relieved because of the black mark the retreat had left on his reputation; Crocker, p. 261).
Braddock did have an officer named Horatio Gates, but his rank was captain, not general! Gates would later be a general on the American side in the Revolutionary War, and would command at the Battle of Saratoga (Crocker, pp. 262-263). But he didn't exercise command on the Monongahela. Thus the only really historical part of this song is the fact that Braddock was defeated.
It does occur to me that the mentions of Gatefore and Gates might be a much-distorted reference to the order of march of the army. The leading element was under Lt. Col. Thomas Gage, then came Gates's company (Anderson, p. 97). Lt. Col. St. Clair's pioneers followed (Borneman, p. 51). So when Gage fell, St. Clair in effect took command of the vanguard. He in turn was wounded, and Gates took charge. So if Braddock is confused with Gage, and St. Clair heard as "Gatefore," and Gates promoted from captain to general, you might get this mess. But it's a huge "if."
If the vicious description in the song is based on anything, it perhaps has to do with rumors that Braddock was killed by his own men. The song repeats a legend that one Thomas Fausett killed Braddock after Braddock killed Fausett's brother Joseph for hiding behind a tree (Crocker, p. 222). But the only evidence for this was Fausett's own word, and most historians disbelieve the story -- the man also claimed to be 109 when he died (Crocker, p. 262), so he clearly could tell whoppers.
One thing about Braddock's Defeat would prove very important: It allowed George Washington to gain combat experience. Two decades later, when the Continental Congress needed someone to run the army, "George Washington, a Virginia planter, was appointed to chair a committee on military supply. [He was t]he highest ranking former British officer with active military experience" (as a brevet brigadier); Weintraub, pp. 11-12.
Fort Duquesne would eventually fall, much later in the war, after British victories in the Great Lakes area had cut it off from France. An expedition under John Forbes (who was dying as his army slowly advanced) reached the site to find that the French had burned the fort (Stokesbury, p. 146). The British built Fort Pitt on the site (Middlekauff, p. 9), naming it for William Pitt the Prime Minister, whence the modern name Pittsburgh.
Crocker, p. 100, makes the fascinating point that many of the issues leading to the American Revolution came out of the French and Indian War, and specifically Braddock's expedition. Braddock had tried to get the colonies to fund his expedition; the colonial governors said that only parliament could impose the proper taxes. In other words, the governors demanded taxation without representation! When, after the war, Parliament did just that, the colonial view shifted instantly.... On this basis, Crocker, p. 51, argues that, without Braddock's Defeat, there would have been no American Revolution.
Crocker, p. 253, also points out that the road Braddock had built with so much labor eventually became a key westward migration route.
This song is item dA28 in Laws's Appendix II. - RBW
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