On the 20th of February the small British armament cast anchor in Hampton Roads, Virginia, when General Braddock, who was in command, proceeded at once to Williamsburg, the capital of the colony, to confer with its eager and expectant Governor, Dinwiddie. The fleet then sailed up the Potomac and deposited the troops where the Virginia town of Alexandria, then in its infancy, now looks across the broad river toward the noble buildings of the city of Washington. These two regiments were the first substantial force of British regulars that had ever landed on American soil, unless, indeed, we go back to that curious revolt against Governor Berkeley in 1676,2 and the brief civil war in Virginia, which was finally extinguished by the landing of a mixed battalion of Guards.

Concerning Braddock, seeing that his name has been immortalized by the tragedy for which some hold him, in part, accountable, a word or two must be said. He was now over sixty years of age, and was the choice of the Duke of Cumberland, then commander-in-chief. As he had neither wealth nor influence, American warfare not being in request by fortune's favorites, we may fairly suppose that he was selected on his merits. No name has been more irresponsibly played upon and few reputations perhaps more hardly used than Braddock's by most writers of history and nearly all writers of fiction. His personality, from its very contrast to the wild woods in which he died, has caught the fancy of innumerable pens, and justice has been sadly sacrificed to picturesque effect. One is almost inclined to think that the mere fact of his name beginning with a letter which encourages a multiplication of strenuous epithets, has been against him. He is regarded as the typical redcoat of the Hanoverian period by all American writers—burly, brutal, blundering, blasphemous, but happily always, and without a dissentient note, brave—brave indeed as a lion. This familiar picture of our poor general, as a corpulent, red-faced, blaspheming bulldog, riding roughshod over colonial susceptibilities, tones down amazingly when one comes to hard facts. Legends of his former life are, with peculiar lack of generosity, quoted for what they are worth, and when examined they seem to be worth nothing. Walpole airs his wit in one or two doubtful aspersions, and a play of Fielding's is with little reason supposed to satirize the general's earlier years.

What is really known about Braddock is in his favor. Vanquished in a duel, he had been too proud to ask his life. In command at Gibraltar he was "adored by his men," and this tho he was notorious as a strict disciplinarian, a quality which Wolfe at this very time declares to be the most badly needed one in the British army. He had been in the Guards, bad enjoyed a private income of some £300 a year, which it may be noted, since spendthrift is one of the epithets hurled at him, he slightly increased during his lifetime. The night before Braddock sailed, he went with his two aides, Burton and Orme, to see Mrs. Bellamy, and left her his will, drawn up in favor of her husband. He also produced a map, and remarked, with a touch of melancholy, that he was "going forth to conquer whole worlds with a handful of men, and to do so must cut his way through unknown woods." He was, in fact, the first British general to conduct a considerable campaign in a remote wilderness. He had neither precedents nor the experience of others to guide him, and he found little help in the colonies where he had been taught to look for much. . . .

The two British regiments in the meantime were being raised from 500 men to a strength of 700 by provincial enlistment. The 44th was commanded by Sir Peter Halkett, a good officer, who, ten years previously, had been captured by the Pretender, and released on parole. The 48th were under Dunbar, who acquitted himself but poorly as we shall see. The camp of exercise on the Potomac was a strange and inspiring sight to the colonists, who had now begun in some sort to realize the French danger. With all their seeming apathy, the Virginians and Marylanders were stanchly loyal. The echoes from far-off European fields, won or fiercely disputed by the intrepidity of British soldiers, were still ringing in their ears. Stories of Dettingen and Fontenoy were yet told by cabin fires and on the planters' shady porches by newcomers from England and sometimes, no doubt, by men who had misted in those glorious victories, and scarcely less glorious defeats. Here now were these redoubtable redcoats, gay in all the glitter and panoply of war, actually marching and maneuvering on the warm soil of the Old Dominion. If there had been anything in this French scare, there was now at any rate no further cause for alarm. It was a great opportunity, too, for the gentry of the Potomac shore to indulge at the same time their loyal and their social instincts. Tradition says that the ladies appreciated the situation more than the gentlemen of the colony, who were not over-pleased at the supercilious bearing of the British officers. Washington, whose estate at Mount Vernon lay within a few miles of the Alexandria camp, was a frequent visitor. . . .

Benjamin Franklin, then postmaster at Philadelphia, was at the general's right hand, dining daily at his table—"the first capable and sensible man I have met in the country," wrote poor Braddock to his Government.3 Franklin undertook the wagon business, and with great effect he turned to Pennsylvania, a colony of prosperous small farmers, apathetic as to the war, but possest of abundant agricultural requisites. Franklin appealed not to their patriotism but to their pockets, or rather to their fears, telling them roundly that it would be better to hire their wagons and teams to His Majesty's Government than wait till they were dragooned, as with a fine touch of ready audacity he assured them they certainly would be. He, moreover, pledged his personal credit, and both the required wagons and several hundred horses were collected in a few days. With the food contractors in Virginia, too, there was infinite difficulty: the meat was rancid, the flour was short, while many of the horses were afterward stolen by the very men who had sold them. Whatever were Braddock's faults, and one of them no doubt was cursing both the country and the Government which sent him there, he at least spared neither himself nor his private purse, which last he drew upon freely, Orme tells us, in his struggle for ways and means. . . .

The route followed to the Great Meadows was much the same as that used by Washington and his small force in the preceding year, but now a road twelve feet wide had to be opened over the rugged, tree-encumbered ground. Its course lay neither over veldt, nor plain, nor prairie, nor sandy desert, nor Russian steppe; but over two high ranges of mountains and several lesser ridges, clad in the gloom of mighty forests, littered with the wreckage of unnumbered years, riven this way and that by turbulent streams, and swarming with hostile Indians. . . .

On the 7th of July, after a month's march, the column arrived within a dozen miles of its destination, and its difficulties seemed almost over. Whatever reenforcements might have reached Fort Duquesne, the French and their allies could hardly be in great strength, or some sort of demonstration would surely have been made, particularly as the Indians had small liking for open spaces and artillery. "Men and officers," says Orme, "had now become so skilful in the woods that they were no longer in fear of an ambuscade." Nor did Braddock for that matter, as is often loosely stated, eventually ran into one. The army was now within a few miles of the Monongahela, which rolled with broad and shallow current on the left, and in a northwesterly direction to its junction with the Alleghany. These two rivers unite to form the Ohio, and in the angle of their junction, on a site now buried amid the smoke and din of Pittsburgh, then stood the lonely fortress.

In this order the troops had proceeded the better part of a mile, and had reached a spot where the underbrush grew thicker than usual beneath the trees. The vanguard under Gage had just crossed a shallow ravine, when the scouts and horsemen came rapidly in, and at the same moment Gordon, the engineer who was marking out the road, caught sight of a man, drest as an Indian, but wearing the gorget of an officer, running toward him. The latter, as soon as he saw the English, pulled up short and waved his hat over his head, when the woods in front became of a sudden alive with warriors, and the Indian war-whoop ringing from nearly a thousand throats shook the arches of the forest with its novel and appalling clamor. Forms innumerable, some in white uniforms, some in blue, still more in the weird feathered headdress and garish pigments of the Indian, could be seen speeding to right and left among the trees. In a few moments a musketry fire, at first desultory but as each fresh enemy found cover quickening rapidly into a formidable fusillade, poured in upon Gage's men. For a short time many of the foe were visible, and the small British vanguard wheeled into line and delivered two or three volleys with steadiness and precision. But the enemy, with a far greater superiority of aim than the modern Boer has over the modern redcoat, and with a bright-colored exposed target such as was rarely offered to him in forest warfare, was already playing deadly havoc. The British bullets did little more than sliver the bark from trees and cut the saplings. . . .

Braddock, when the firing grew hot enough to show that his vanguard was seriously engaged, prest rapidly up with the main column, leaving Sir Peter Halkett with 400 men, including most of the provincials, to guard the baggage. As the supports reached Gage's company, the latter seem even in so short a time to have received heavy punishment and fell back in some confusion on the new-comers, shaking their steadiness and mixing the men of the two regiments together. Never perhaps was a battle fought more difficult in one sense and in another more painfully simple to describe.

The doubtful moment with the Indians seems to have passed when the main body and the vanguard of the British melted into one. Henceforth it was an almost purely Indian fight and of a nature more astoundingly one-sided than had ever occurred in the annals of backwoods warfare. From right and left and front, and from an enemy that was practically invisible, a deadly fire that scarcely tested the well-known accuracy of the men behind the rifles, was poured for two hours into bewildered, huddling groups of redcoats. It was a butchery rather than a battle. Anglo-Saxon writers have followed one another in monotonous abuse of these two hapless battalions. The French victor, Dumas, is more generous when he tells us they remained to be shot at for two hours with obstinate firmness. Braddock was a helpless amateur at such work, and his men still more so. Hopelessly disorganized, they crowded together in groups firing wildly into the trees or into the air, or sometimes even into their own comrades.

Braddock proved himself a very lion in combat, but his reckless courage was of no avail. His officers exposed their lives with splendid valor, but the sacrifice was useless. To fight enemies they could not see, and who mowed them down like corn, was something terribly novel to the routine British soldier of that day, brave and stanch tho he was amid more familiar dangers. In vain it was endeavored, by planting the regimental standards in the ground, to disentangle the medley. It was in vain that officer after officer gathered together small groups of men and led them into the teeth of the storm. They were picked off with deadly accuracy, and their followers, bereft of leadership, thrown back upon the slaughter pen. . . .

British officers as well as colonials who were there have declared that no pen could describe the scene. One actor in it wrote that the dreadful clangor of the Indian war-whoop would ring in his ears till his dying day. One can imagine the pack-horses, stung to madness by bullet-wounds and fright, stumbling about among the dead and wounded, adding their dying shrieks to the general uproar, and the cattle, smitten by the fire of both sides, rushing terror-stricken through the woods. At the tail of the column toward the ford and in rear of the baggage Halkett's 400 men, prest by the advanced points of the Indian flank fire, were faring somewhat better, tho Sir Peter himself was killed, and his son, while trying to raise him, fell dead by his side. Most of the hundred or so Virginia riflemen, about whose action in this fight a good deal of fable has gathered, were here. They did their duty, and fought gallantly behind trees according to backwoods custom. But the contemporary plan of the battle shows the attack on the rear guard to have been far weaker than where the mass of the demoralized redcoats drew the bulk of the fire.

The pandemonium had lasted over two hours. Only the wagoners and axmen so far had fled. Washington, in the thick of the fight, had nobly seconded his chief's endeavors. He was still unhurt, though several bullets had passed through his clothes and two horses had been killed under him. Braddock, hoarse, hot, smoke-grimed, and stung with the bitterness of defeat, at last gave the signal for retreat. He was riding his fifth horse, and at this moment fell from it with a ball in his lungs.

Everything was abandoned to the enemy—wagons, guns, cattle, horses, baggage, and 925,000 in specie, while scores of helpless wounded were left victims to the tomahawk and scalping-knife. The long strain once loosened, it became a race for life by every man who could drag his legs behind him. Regulars and provincials splashed in panic and in dire confusion through the ford they had crossed in such pomp but three hours before. Arms and accouterments were flung away in the terror with which men fled from those ghastly shambles. A few Indians followed the fugitives into the water, but none crossed it. There was no pursuit; with such a wealth of spoil and scalps on the battle-field, it would not have been Indian tactics.

Braddock, tho suffering from a mortal wound, made an effort with his surviving officers to gather some men together and make a stand beyond the first ford. It was useless, however, and they soon found themselves alone. Beyond the second ford another attempt was made with no more success. From here Washington, Braddock's only uninjured aide-de-camp, was sent forward to Dunbar's camp, over sixty miles away, to hurry on help and provisions for the wounded.

At the Great Meadows, a stage beyond, Braddock died. He was buried there beneath the forest leaves, Washington reading the funeral service over his grave, while wagons were rolled over the fresh mould lest his remains should be found and desecrated. Twenty years later, when the wilderness had given away to civilization, his bones, recognized by the articles buried with him, were accidentally unearthed by a farmer's spade, and found a strange and discreditable resting-place in a glass case at a local museum.4

1From Bradley's "Fight with France for North America." By arrangement with the publishers, Constable Co., of London.
Return to text.

2Bacon's Rebellion, described in Volume II.
Return to text.

3"Franklin," says the author in a foot-note, "did not return Braddock's regard."
Return to text.

4Some of Braddock's bones were so treated, but others were buried at the foot of a broad-spreading oak about a mile to the west of Fort Necessity.
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman