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July 8-14, 1755: Braddock's Defeat

July 2012

The Battle of the Monongahela Results in Defeat for Britain but Future Possibilities for America

On July 9, 1755, Gen. Edward Braddock and his British and American troops were decisively defeated by a small force of French soldiers and Indians in the forests of Western Pennsylvania. The events leading up to the battle, and those that resulted from it, were crucial to the future independence of the United States. And a very large number of the participants in the conflict also played important roles in the American Revolution which was to follow two decades later.

From the early period of American colonization, England had worked through a faction of ideological co-thinkers in France, to use the French as a surrogate power to keep the colonists in check. French control of Canada and the upper and lower Mississippi River meant that they could hurl their Indian allies at the Americans whenever they tried to expand across the Appalachian Mountains. England was afraid that American expansion would strengthen the colonists' republican tendencies, and end England's policy of looting the colonies for cheap raw materials. Thus, the British government opposed any effort by the Americans to end French rule in North America. Time and time again, when England was at war with France on the European continent, any English expedition against French Canada, despite all-out support efforts by the Americans, would fail for lack of soldiers and supplies, or through "mistakes" by its British leaders.

But, beginning in the late 1740s, the iron-making Washington family and its allies founded the Ohio Company, whose goal was the settlement of families in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country, and the provision of infrastructure such as grain mills and iron foundries and forges. When the French started building a string of forts down from Lake Erie toward the strategic crossroads of the forks of the Ohio River, the Governor of Virginia, whose colonial land charter extended west to the Mississippi River, sent 21-year-old George Washington on a perilous mission to warn the French to stop their incursions on American territory. Washington completed his mission through hundreds of miles of wilderness, in the winter of 1753-54, and reported to Governor Dinwiddie that the French had no intention of pulling back their forces.

The Ohio Company redoubled its efforts to build a settlement in western Pennsylvania, the Colony of Virginia began building a fort at the forks of the Ohio, and Washington led a small military force to widen an old buffalo and Indian trail that led to the west and would eventually become the National Road. The French sent out a detachment to determine what the Americans were doing, and its commander carried double orders—one presenting the group as negotiators, and the other admitting their military reconnaissance purpose. Friendly Indians warned Washington of their presence, and he surprised them at Jumonville Glen, where some of them, spotting the Americans, ran for their guns and a short engagement began. When the French received the news that some of their soldiers had been killed or captured, they sent a detachment which destroyed the American fort at the forks of the Ohio, and pulled down the settlement and the supply depot of the Ohio Company. Washington and his small force made a stand inside a hastily built stockade at Great Meadows, but they were no match for the larger and well-equipped French and Indian force. After a grueling siege in a pounding rainstorm, the French offered terms of surrender. Since England and France were not at war, Washington and his officers signed the surrender document by candlelight, their translator of the rain-soaked document unable to see that they were admitting to having "assassinated" the supposed French envoys at Jumonville Glen. Washington and his men marched out of the stockade on July 4, 1754, and returned east to unexpected opprobrium.

While Washington and his soldiers had been facing the French in the wilderness, Benjamin Franklin had been organizing for an unexpected outcome to a colonial meeting with the Iroquois Indians in Albany, New York. The delegates from seven American colonies were presented with Franklin's Albany Plan of Union, which proposed that the several colonies should select delegates to a general council, which would be headed by a president-general who would be appointed by the British Crown. The council, working with the president-general, would direct matters relating to Indian affairs and colonial defense. The Albany delegates ratified the proposal, but both the King and the various colonial legislatures rejected it as infringing too much on their prerogatives. When the French started using Washington's capitulation agreement as propaganda against British so-called "assassination" of their soldiers, the British reacted by calling George Washington a French agent who was trying to get them into a war. They applied the same label to Benjamin Franklin, who had recruited an effective militia company in Philadelphia to counter the French and Indian threat. Nevertheless, stung by the defeat in western Pennsylvania, the British dispatched a large force of British Regulars under Gen. Edward Braddock to displace the French from their newly-built Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) at the forks of the Ohio.

Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin met with General Braddock at Frederick, Maryland to try to ensure the success of the expedition. Franklin recruited large farm wagons and their drivers from Pennsylvania, which included Daniel Boone and future Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan. Washington signed on as volunteer aide to Braddock and advised him, when the going became painfully slow over the Alleghenies, to leave his heaviest baggage and supplies behind and move forward with light infantry. This Braddock did, but when he was only a few miles from Fort Duquesne, disaster struck.

General Braddock's death at the Battle of the Monongahela, July 9, 1755.

The officer at the head of the column was Thomas Gage, who would later be named military governor of Massachusetts and dispatch the fateful British expedition to Lexington and Concord in 1775. Gage had not sent out enough scouts ahead to know what he faced. A small party of French and Indians had sallied forth, with no expectation of victory, merely to harass and delay the British, while the main French force prepared to abandon Fort Duquesne. But Gage's men, at the first shots, fell back in panic, while Braddock, further back in the column, urged his men forward to the sound of battle. The soldiers piled up on one another, while the French and Indians divided in the woods along each side of the column, pouring in a deadly fire. Braddock was mortally wounded, Washington, who acted as Braddock's courier to different parts of the column, survived with only bullet holes through his clothing. An Indian warrior later said that the Indians could see what function Washington was carrying out, and directed their fire against him whenever he rode by, but they could never succeed in hitting him.

Washington rallied the surviving soldiers and led them back along the road they had carved through the forest. Once Braddock had been cared for, Washington, who never gave up even under the most difficult circumstances, took a few scouts and travelled day and night to rally the rest of the army, which was still toiling along the road. This part of the British Army was still the largest military force in North America, but when the officers heard the news of the massacre from stragglers, they burned their wagons and fled to the coast, where they went into "winter quarters" in August. It would be another year before the French and British would officially be at war in Europe, where it was called the Seven Years War, and in America, where it was named the French and Indian War. Although the British were ultimately victorious, and claimed France's looting rights in India, they tried to give Canada back to France in exchange for the tiny Caribbean Island of Guadaloupe. Franklin had to mount an intensive campaign, through his writings and the influence of his networks, to compel the British to accept Canada.

At that point, in 1763, every government in Europe knew that the Americans were going to try for independence. The ministers of France and Spain discussed it frequently, and the First Minister of France, the Compte de Choiseul, sent a series of informants, including Baron de Kalb, to America to determine how strong the American resistance would be and what they would require to succeed. The British knew it too, and so they brought the boundary of Canada south all the way to the Ohio River, and forbade Americans to cross the mountains. But cross they did, and when the Continental Congress in 1777 adopted the Articles of Confederation, they were based on Benjamin Franklin's Albany Plan of Union.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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