The End of Braddock’s Life and March

George Washington and the remnants of the two Grenadier companies marched through the night toward Dunbar’s camp. It was not an easy task for the exhausted Washington, who was still weak from his fever. He later wrote: “The shocking Scenes which presented themselves in this Night’s March are not to be described. The dead, the dying, the groans, lamentations, and crys along the Road of the wounded for help . . . were enough to pierce a heart. The gloom and horror of which was not a little encreased by the impervious darkness occasioned by the close shade of thick woods which in places rendered it impossible for the two guides which attended to know when they were in, or out of the track but by groping on the ground with their hands.”

Left on the small rise on the west side of the Monongahela River and with Washington and the remnants of the two Grenadier companies scrambling in desperation back to Col. Dunbar’s [CO 48th of Foot] camp for help, Braddock realized that he and the remaining troops with him were exposed and vulnerable. He therefore ordered an immediate march through the night to try to take them out of striking range of the French and Indians. Covering the same ground as Washington and marching all through the night and next day, they reached Gist’s plantation at ten o’clock the next night.

Although unknown to Braddock or even Washington, the wagoneers who had cut loose their horses and fled during the battle had galloped into Dunbar’s camp early on the morning of July 10 1755 with fragmentary news of the defeat. The names of these dubious mercuries were Michael Houber, Jacob Novre, and Matthew Laird—to judge from the German names of the first two wagoneers, some of Franklin’s Pennsylvania teamsters. Dunbar immediately sent up supplies to the retreating soldiers. From Dunbar’s camp, riders or perhaps a runaway wagoneer carried the news to Fort Cumberland. Charlotte Browne wrote “It is not possible to describe the Distraction of the poor Women for their Husbands.” It was not long before the news was seeping throughout all the Middle Atlantic colonies, carried by post riders from town to town and tavern to tavern. Slaves also reportedly played a major role in disseminating the news in the southern colonies, as they visited neighboring plantations to court their lovers in the dark. Indeed, one of the first thoughts to strike the southern leaders was that the defeat might lead to a rebellion by the slaves. Dinwiddie wrote shortly after the defeat: “The negro slaves have been very audacious on the news of the defeat on the Ohio. These poor creatures imagine the French will give them their freedom. We have too many here; but I hope we shall be able to keep them in proper subjection.”

After sleeping the night at Gist’s plantation, the retreating column resumed its march, retracing its steps through the line of encampments that had marked its westward march only days before. From Gist’s, on Braddock’s orders, deposits of flour were left along the road for any stragglers who might need food. Several men who subsequently made it into camp said they would have died had it not been for the wounded Braddock’s presence of mind, not to mention attention to detail under duress, in leaving the flour. The batman recorded that “This day there was a wounded Soldier Came up who says there was seven more Came from the place of the Ingagement together but they all dyed on the Roade and he says there was several dead as he marched along, he not being Able when Arrv’d here hardly to speeke for want of Nourishment, he living on Raw flower and water when he Came to it, which was left for them.”

On Friday, July 11, the column reached Dunbar’s camp. Braddock, carried in a litter because he could not tolerate the pain caused by a jarring wagon, was still in charge and issuing orders. The next day he tried to restore at least minimal structure to the mauled band by having the troops parade at the evening retreat at the head of their respective regiments and companies. His first thought, however, was to provide for the wounded, ordering that they be placed in wagons for the continuation of the retreat.

Then came the most controversial decision. The same day the army, under Braddock’s order and Dunbar’s execution, destroyed or buried all its ammunition and provisions in order to free up more wagons to transport the wounded. They smashed and buried more than fifteen hundred artillery projectiles and shells, as well as cannon balls, muskets, bullets, and even the pioneers’ axes and tools. The soldiers destroyed the remaining artillery, keeping only two 6-pounders. They stove in casks with 50,000 pounds of gunpowder and poured them into a spring. The horses were dying so fast that the soldiers burned one hundred wagons for lack of horses to pull them and to keep them out of enemy hands. The intent was to strip the army of encumbrances for a faster retreat.

What was remarkable about the decision was that the army was not even being chased. The drunken French and Indians had failed to pursue the fleeing British and Americans. The garrison at Fort Duquesne was actually fearful that Dunbar’s troops would reunite with the survivors from the battlefield and advance on the fort. In fact, what was left of Braddock’s army, survivors and baggage train alike, was fleeing pell-mell from nothing.

Altogether, the value of the hastily destroyed equipment was significant, perhaps in excess of £300,000. Dunbar destroyed stores that had been assembled over the course of months in London and Ireland and shipped across the Atlantic and which would have been invaluable for the defense of the frontier had the army stood rather than fled.

A persistent rumor later arose that the contents of the pay chest, up to £25,000 in gold coins, were poured into the barrel of a cannon and buried. Treasure hunters have searched for it ever since. Equally likely, the pay chest never left Fort Cumberland or, if it did, was looted by the French or Indians on the battlefield, along with the general’s papers, including the diagram of Fort Duquesne and all the Anglo-American plans for the assaults on Fort Niagara and other northern French positions, which was an even greater loss. In any event, the destruction of the supplies later drew intense criticism from those who like to second-guess decisions made in the field. Perhaps the only bonus from the abandoning of provisions was a sudden influx of food into the soldiers’ hands. The batman got six or eight hams, the most that he could carry on his horse.

Still fearful of pursuit by the enemy, the officers resumed the tight line of march, complete with pickets and sentries, on Sunday, July 13, as they retraced their steps over Chestnut Ridge toward the Great Meadows. However, Braddock’s strength was waning. Carried in his litter along the march, he grew increasingly silent except to give the necessary occasional orders. He knew his loss was utter and his reputation in shreds. He retreated into himself as much as to Fort Cumberland. He fell silent for hours at a time, muttering only several times as evening fell that Sunday, “Who would have thought it?”

As his life slowly slipped from his body, he turned to the severely wounded Lieutenant Robert Orme, aide-de-camp to Braddock and said, “We shall better know how to deal with them another time.” These were his last words. He died at eight in the evening on Sunday, July 13.

The next morning the remaining officers who could still walk buried Braddock, with military honors, in two blankets and a crude “coffin” fashioned of pieces of bark. Washington later wrote that he had officiated at the burial. They buried the general in the middle of the road that his pioneers had cut only days before on the eastern slope of Chestnut Ridge, not far from Jumonville and the Great Meadows. The gravesite was just yards from a small creek as the road began to rise toward the top of a hill. Then they ordered all the wagons and soldiers to march over and obscure Braddock’s gravesite to protect his body from desecration by the Indians. The Indians subsequently did try to find Braddock’s grave in order to dig him up and scalp him. But they never succeeded.

Before he died, Braddock gave Washington his war horse and the services of his cook Bishop, who in fact served Washington for many years afterward as major domo at Mount Vernon. Either before or after Braddock’s death, Washington also obtained the general’s sash, leopard skin saddle pad, and one or both of his pistols.

The retreat to Fort Cumberland continued without delay, with Dunbar now in command. The condition of the wounded grew worse. Maggots began to infest their wounds in the heat. A full accounting of the dead, wounded, and surviving was not undertaken until July 15, when the army reached camp on the east side of the Youghiogheny. On the 16th, they reached the Little Meadows in the rain. They made Fort Cumberland the next day. The surgeons immediately went to work on the wounded, removing “many Sluggs & other ragged pieces of lead” from those who had not died en route. Many of the balls were identified by their caliber as being British, further evidence of the devastating effect of “friendly fire” throughout the engagement.

At the fort, the officers, wounded and well, penned dispatches to their superiors. Orme, though much weakened by the wound to his thigh and able only to dictate, composed letters to Napier, Fox, and Dinwiddie on the 18th. Washington also wrote Dinwiddie, as well as his brother, the same day. St. Clair, though wounded, wrote to Commodore Keppel. All of these letters described the “unhappy affair,” as Orme put it, albeit from differing angles.

The finger-pointing and recriminations had started. Orme, in his report to Napier, was careful to protect the reputation of His Excellency, while blaming the disorder of the enlisted men, and to a lesser degree St. Clair, for the disaster. Other officers, wrote Orme to Dinwiddie, “were sacrificed by their unparalleled good behaviour.” Orme commended the conduct of the Virginia officers (but not Washington by name) to Dinwiddie: “I have the pleasure to acquaint you that Captain Polson (who was killed) and his company behaved extremely well, as did Captain Stuart and his light horse, who I must beg leave to recommend to your protection and to desire you will be so kind to use your best endeavors to serve him as he has lost by the death of the general the rewards he really deserved by his gallant and faithful attendance on him.” In fact, Captain Stewart had two horses shot out from under him, and separate balls grazed his brow and forehead and another shot away his sword and scabbard. His Virginia light horse lost twenty-five of its twenty-nine members killed.

Orme concluded: “As the whole of the Artillery is lost and the Terror of the Indian remaining so strongly in the men’s minds, as also the Troops being extremely weakened by Deaths, Wounds and Sickness, it was judged impossible to make any further attempts; therefore Col. Dunbar is returning to Fort Cumberland [behind 1,200 men with the wounded and artillery who arrived the 17th], with everything he is able to bring along with him. I propose remaining here till my wound will suffer me to remove to Philadelphia, from thence I shall make all possible Dispatch to England.”

Orme’s letter to Fox was different, however. It stands out from the others. First, Braddock expressly ordered him to write it on the day before he died, a point made clear in the opening sentence of the letter. Second, although Fox was Secretary at War and properly might have had an interest in the outcome of the battle, Fox was also a close friend of George Anne Bellamy. The letter thus was also possibly intended for her consumption. Third, Braddock dictated to Orme most of the content of the letter. It describes the action in only the most cursory terms, at least in comparison to the letters to Napier and Dinwiddie. It mentions the conduct on the battlefield of only two officers: Burton (Bellamy’s “darling friend”) and Braddock. The thrust of the letter was to report on these two officers (in fact, Burton’s bravery and role in the battle had arguably been secondary to those of Halkett and Gage, among others). The letter reports the mortal wound of Braddock and sums up the brief description of the battle by stating: “I had the Generals Order to Inform You, Sir, that the behavior of the Officers deserved the very Highest Commendation.” Braddock wanted Fox, and possibly by extension Bellamy, to know that he died as an officer in the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. This parting sentence summarizes much about Braddock’s character and system of values. The final sentence of the letter reports the wounds suffered by Morris and Orme and the death of Shirley and states “all the papers are lost.” At one level, this ostensibly refers to the military plans that were lost to the French. At another level, it also might mean personal correspondence between Braddock and Bellamy, if such existed. Perhaps it refers to both. The fact that Braddock, knowing he was dying, would order Orme to write such a letter, which he probably knew would ultimately arrive in the hands of George Anne Bellamy, suggests that their relationship was indeed close.

In contrast, Washington’s dispatch to Dinwiddie focused, not unnaturally, on the conduct of the Virginia troops. “The Officers in gen’l behavd with incomparable bravery, for which they greatly suffer’d. . . . The Virginia companies behav’d like Men and died like Soldiers; for I believe that out of 3 companys that were on the ground that day, scarce 30 were left alive . . . the dastardly behavior of the Regular troops (so called) (English soldier) expos’d all those who were inclin’d to do their duty to almost certain Death; and at length, in spite of every effort to the contrary, broke and ran as Sheep before the Hounds. . . . Col. Dunbar, who commands at present, intends as soon as his men are recruited at this place, to continue his march to Phila. into Winter Quarters, so that there will be no Men left here, unless it is the poor remains of the Virginia troops, who survive and will be too small to guard our frontiers.” Washington himself limped back to Mount Vernon to recover from his illness and the exhaustion of the campaign.

In camp at Fort Cumberland, the rote of military life reasserted itself, but this time tainted by blame, especially by the officers of the common soldiers. A court-martial was convened, and fifty-six prisoners were tried for their conduct during the engagement, most probably for cowardice or desertion. On Monday, July 28, mass floggings were carried out against the enlisted men. On August 1, Dunbar received a letter from Commodore Keppel asking that the surviving seamen (only five of them were not killed or wounded) return to Hampton. On August 3, they left the army and proceeded down through Virginia, where they ultimately boarded the HMS Garland at Hampton for the long voyage home.

Dinwiddie wanted Dunbar to remain at Fort Cumberland and make another attempt to take Fort Duquesne. However, a council of war decided that the scheme was not feasible in light of the overwhelming losses suffered. On August 2, Dunbar marched from Fort Cumberland for Philadelphia. For this decision, for his hasty retreat, and for destroying the artillery and supplies, Dunbar immediately began to attract criticism.

Orme attacked St. Clair as well. Writing to Washington, with whom he remained on friendly terms, Orme stated: “I know the ignorant and rascally C____ D____ [Colonel Dunbar] is one promoter [of criticism of Braddock] through resentment and malevolence and the thick headed baronet [St. Clair] another, intending to build his character upon the ruins of one much more amiable than his can be. For my part I judge it a duty to vindicate the memory of a man whom I greatly and deservedly esteemed. . . . It is very hard the bluntness and openness of a man’s temper should be called brutality and that he who would hear opinions more freely than any man should be accused of obstinacy and peremptoriness.”

St. Clair also must have gotten wind of Orme’s finger-pointing early on, for on July 22, he wrote another report to Napier which detailed his repeated attempts to warn Braddock of the danger, to reunite the two columns into one more powerful force and, once the battle was on, to urge Braddock to take the high ground, most of which initiatives the general had brushed aside. He told Napier that even if the British had won the battle, he was determined to ask leave to be recalled, “finding I could be of little use being never listen’d to.”

Gage reported to Napier on why the common soldiers fought so badly, blaming it on the American locals: “no officers ever behaved better, or men worse. I can’t ascribe their behavior to any other cause than the talk of the country people, ever since our arrival in America—the woodsmen and Indian traders, who were continually telling the soldiers, that if they attempted to fight the Indians in a regular manner, they would certainly be defeated. These discourses were prevented as much as possible, and the men in appearance seemed to shew a thorough contempt for such an enemy; but I fear they gained too much upon them. I have since talked to the soldiers about their scandalous behavior, and the only excuse I can get from them is, that they were quite dispirited, from the great fatigue they had undergone, and not receiving a sufficient quantity of food; and further that they did not expect the enemy would come down so suddenly.”

Orme’s accusations in particular next assumed the form of public letters as he retreated to Philadelphia to recuperate from his wound before embarking for England in November. The colonial press picked up his accusations and magnified them. As early as August 30, Gates, back in New York, responded that “there has not been one true account publish’d as yet a great deal of pro & con in the news papers and yesterday Col. Gage and the officers of the Van Guard contradicted Captn: Orme’s publick letter by an advertisement which you will see in the Philadelphia Gazette. A few who were the General’s favourites gratefully strive to save his fame by throwing the misfortune of the day on the bad behaviour of the troops, but that was not the case.”

News of the defeat reached London in late August via the frigate HMS Seahorse, which raced homeward from Virginia carrying Commodore Keppel. The news was greeted by a mixture of shock and langor. Most of the aristocracy were in the country enjoying the late summer holidays and the start of the shooting season. Besides, given the pace at which armies and news moved in the eighteenth century, the war had for months been out of sight and out of mind. It was no longer popular. The government held no high-level inquiry, perhaps because the defeat was too embarrassing. Cumberland, the godfather of the expedition, was also the son of the king and may well not have wanted an inquiry. The attitude in London is perhaps best summed up by Walpole’s remark: “Braddock’s defeat still remains in the situation of the longest battle that ever was fought with nobody.”

Nonetheless, Braddock, being dead, of course came in for the most criticism. One British officer who participated in the action wrote: “In the time of the Action, the General behaved with a great deal of Personal Courage, which every body must allow—but that’s all what Can be said—he was a Man of Sense and good natur’d too tho’ Warm and a little uncouth in his manner—and Peevish—with all very indolent and sem’d glad for any body to take business off his hands, which may be one reason why he was so grossly imposed upon, by his favourite [Orme]—who realy Directed every thing and may justly be said to’ve Commanded the Expedition and the Army.”

Scaroyady also had an acerbic assessment: “It was the pride and ignorance of that General that came from England. He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often tried to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers, but he never appeared pleased with us, and that was the reason that a great many of our warriors left him and would not be under his command.”

Franklin rendered a more balanced judgment in his Autobiography: “This General was, I think, a brave man, and might probably have made a figure as a good officer in some European war. But he had too much self-confidence, too high an opinion of the validity of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans and Indians.”

But Washington offered what is perhaps the truest assessment of Braddock, both as a commander and as a man: “Thus died a man, whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended. He was brave even to a fault and in regular Service would have done honor to his profession. His attachments were warm, his enmities were strong, and having no disguise about him, both appeared in full force. He was generous and disinterested, but plain and blunt in his manner even to rudeness.”

Thus, His Excellency Major General Edward Braddock remains one of those simple people fated to leave behind a complex, mixed reputation because of their very limitations. There can be little question that his struggle to overcome adversity, as well as his personal behavior on the battlefield, did “deserve the highest commendation.”

At the end of the day, Braddock was done in not only by his French and Indian enemies but also by a confluence of adverse circumstances: formidable geography, almost nonexistent intelligence, colonial assemblies which would not pay, colonial governors who dissembled, Americans who failed to provide logistical support, Americans with their own agendas, Quakers who did not lift a finger, Indian allies who failed to materialize, bad weather, drunken and ill-humored troops, and conniving staff officers. Braddock never stood a chance.

However, neither judgments on Braddock’s character nor his staff’s efforts to assign and avoid blame were of account to the inhabitants of the Middle Atlantic colonies. By August 1755, with Dunbar marching to Philadelphia at the head of the surviving troops and a skeleton force of Virginians holding Fort Cumberland, the frontier lay open to hordes of pro-French Indians sallying forth from Canada and Fort Duquesne. By mid-August, colonial reconnaissance patrols had reported four to five hundred Indians and French at Great Meadows. In response, Fort Cumberland prepared for a siege and transferred its hospital, including Nurse Charlotte Browne, to Frederick, Maryland. The Virginia House of Burgesses voted £40,000 to increase Virginia troop levels to twelve hundred, and Dinwiddie commissioned Washington as colonel of the reactivated Virginia Regiment.

Within three months of Braddock’s defeat, the entire frontier was aflame with French and Indian attacks, which came to be known simply as “the Outrages.” Thousands of families abandoned their homes and farms and fled back into the Piedmont and Tidewater, terrified. So severe were the depredations that it was said that no English settlers would be left west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. With Fort Cumberland all but abandoned, the new frontier line was drawn at Frederick, Maryland. Raids penetrated to within a hundred miles of Philadelphia. Perhaps fifteen hundred settlers were murdered and many more taken captive. According to one estimate, the frontier counties of the three middle Atlantic colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania lost between a third and a half of their populations between 1755 and 1758, with some four percent of their prewar inhabitants murdered or captured. The French and their Indian allies killed civilians, women and children indiscriminately. They gloated at the sufferings of their victims. The impact on the psyche of Americans at the time was devastating.

Moreover, there was a premeditation to the Outrages that chilled the soul. One large raid in Pennsylvania consisted of 1,400 Indians and French divided into scalping parties of forty each. A week before, they had sent out numerous small scouting parties. The attack groups were targeted on carefully chosen settlements on the Pennsylvania frontier, such as Shamokin, Juniata, and Harris’s Ferry (today’s Harrisburg), until the whole frontier was blanketed. Each party thoroughly scouted its target for several days, and then all attacks were launched at the same time to achieve complete surprise.

Like other aspects of the Braddock expedition, the horrors of the Outrages can only be comprehended by peeking into the lives of common people long buried by history. Two lives will suffice.

The consequences of Braddock’s defeat came home to Thomas Jemison on his prosperous farm near Gettysburg. Jemison and his family had lived in central Pennsylvania for a dozen years after emigrating from Ireland. He was concerned about the Indian depredations, but none had taken place as far east as Gettysburg. He believed that if he could get safely through one more year the Anglo-American forces would drive the Indians back. (He had lost a brother serving under Washington at Fort Necessity.)

One morning he and his wife and six children were sitting down to breakfast with a visiting family of neighbors. Twelve-year-old Mary later recalled that “Father was shaving an axe-helve at the side of the house; mother was making preparations for breakfast; my two older brothers were at work near the barn; and the little ones, with myself, and the [neighbor] woman and her three children, in the house.” The neighbor had just left on horseback for some supplies.

There was a sudden, appalling crash of gunfire, a glimpse of the neighbor and his horse lying dead in the yard, and then a rush of bronze bodies. ‘They first secured my father, and then rushed into the house, and without the least resistance made prisoners’ of them all. The raiders, ‘six Indians and four Frenchmen,’ grabbed all the food they could carry and, ‘in great haste, for fear of detection,’ drove the little herd of frightened humanity into the woods. All day long they hurried westward, the captives offered nothing to eat or drink. ‘Whenever the little children cried for water, the Indians would make then drink urine or go thirsty.’ That night they slept, hungry, exhausted and afraid, on the ground, and before dawn were forced to march on. They were given some breakfast at dawn, and some supper that night when they camped in a swamp.

After supper the Shawnees tore the shoes from Mary’s feet and replaced them with moccasins, and did the same for one of the neighbor boys. Mary’s mother knew what that meant and hugged her, urging her to be brave and careful, to remember her English and her prayers. Her father could not speak; he had been ‘sunk in silent despair’ since the attack. The Shawnees led the two children away from the rest of the captives, whom they then tomahawked, scalped and dismembered. Mary was spared the sights and sounds of the killings, but the next day was forced to watch as the warriors stretched, cleaned and cured the scalps. ‘My mother’s hair was red, and I could easily distinguish my father’s and the children’s from each other.’

Mary was adopted by a Seneca family at Logstown, married to a Delaware warrior, widowed in a Cherokee raid, and later moved to western New York’s Genesee River country, where she chose to spend the rest of her eight decades of life as a Seneca wife, mother of eight, and matron.

Or the case of Jacob Fisher:

1758 was the worst year yet. The outrages resumed along Mill Creek, near Woodstock [Virginia], when fifty Shawnees and four Frenchmen surrounded a congregation of several families seeking refuge in George Painter’s large log house. When Painter tried a desperate run for help, they shot him down in the yard. The others surrendered, hoping in vain for mercy.

The warriors fired the house and tossed George Painter’s body into the flames. They burned the barn and laughed at the screams of the burning animals trapped inside. They snatched four babies from their mothers’ arms, strung them up in trees, and used them for target practice until they dangled, quiet and bloody, before the horrified eyes of the families. Then they drove forty-eight surviving prisoners, men, women and children, on a hellish, six-day march over the western mountains to their village.

There, after consultation with the matrons, they told Jacob Fisher, a pudgy twelve year-old, to gather a large pile of dry wood. He burst into tears. “They’re going to burn me, father,” he sobbed.

“I hope not, son, do as they say,” said the helpless father. Jacob, weeping, brought the wood, which the warriors and the women arranged in a circle around a sapling. They tied the howling Jacob to the sapling with a long rope cinched to his wrist and set the wood afire. Then, while Jacob’s father and brothers watched, the Shawnees poked him with sharpened sticks, forcing him to run around the sapling, first winding himself tight to it, then spiralling outward, into and out of the flames. It took him hours and hours to die.

Three years earlier, soon after the defeat of Braddock, and as the Outrages were just starting, Captain Charles Lewis of the Virginia Volunteers happened upon a similar scene of scalping and massacre of innocent women and children. He wrote in his journal: “This horrid scene gave us a terrible shock, but I hope with the leave of God we shall still overcome the cruel, barbarous and inhuman enemy.”

Braddock’s march was the opening chapter in a long and complicated struggle for the continent of North America. Three years after Braddock’s defeat another general, John Forbes, battling fatal cancer and carried in a litter along a different route, captured the citadel of French power on the Forks of the Ohio and stopped the Outrages, but not before many more Americans, Scots Highlanders, and Englishmen died and had their heads impaled before the ramparts of Fort Duquesne.

But that is another story.

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