1755-07-09 - Ambush on the Monongahela
Prelude to the Battle
Since June 11, 1755, Major-General Edward Braddock had been advancing through the forests of the Alleghenies at the head of a British force totaling some 2,200 men in an expedition against Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in order to wrest it from the French. On June 19, he selected 1,200 picked troops, leaving Colonel Dunbar at the head of the baggage train and resumed his advance on Fort Duquesne.
On July 7, Braddock's column reached the mouth of Turtle Creek, a stream entering the Monongahela about 13 km from its junction with the Allegheny River where Fort Duquesne was located. The direct and shortest way lay through a difficult country and a dangerous defile. Accordingly, Braddock preferred to ford the Monongahela twice in order to reach his destination.
The French decided to ambush the advancing British column with some 900 men.
Description of Events
On July 8, early in the morning, the French detachment left Fort Duquesne. Meanwhile, Braddock's column was also on the move.
Around noon, Braddock forded the Monongahela for the second time. He himself fully expected to be attacked at this point and had sent forward a strong advanced party under Lieutenant-Colonel Gage, to clear the opposite bank. However, Gage's men did not encounter the enemy.
Beaujeu, the French commander, had spent half the day to advance 11 km, and the French force was still more than 1,5 km from the fording-place when the British reached the eastern bank. The delay cost him the opportunity of laying an ambush either at the ford or in the gullies and ravines that ran through the forest through which Braddock was now on the point of marching.
Under a cloudless sky, the main body of the British crossed the river with perfect regularity and order. After the crossing, the British column made a short halt for rest and then resumed the march along a narrow track parallel to the river and at the base of a steep and heavily forested ridge. To avoid any surprise Braddock had sent several guides, with 6 Virginian light horsemen, to lead the way. A musket-shot behind them came an advanced party of Gage's vanguard (300 men) followed by the vanguard itself with three howitzers, two 12-pdrs and two 6-pdrs. Then came in succession a party of axe men to clear the road, two 6-pdrs with their ammunition-wagons, and a rear-guard. Then without any interval came the convoy, headed by a few light horsemen, a working party, and four guns. The wagons followed on the track with troops making their way through the forest to right and left, with abundance of parties pushed well out on either flank. At a little distance from the ford the track passed through a wide and bushy ravine.
Sometime after 1:00 p.m., Gage crossed this ravine with his advanced guard, and the main body was just descending to it when Gage's guides and horsemen suddenly fell back, and a man dressed like an Indian, but with an officer's gorget, was seen hurrying along the path. This was Beaujeu, who upon seeing the British turned suddenly and waved his hat. The signal was followed by a wild war-whoop from his Indians and by a sharp fire upon the advancing British from the trees in their front. Gage's column wheeled deliberately into line with great steadiness and returned the fire in a succession of deliberate volleys. They could not see any of the enemy, so that they fired haphazardly, but the mere sound of the musketry was sufficient to scare Beaujeu's Canadian militia most of whom fled to Fort Duquesne and did not take part to the ensuing engagement. The third British volley killed Beaujeu while the fire from Gage's two field-pieces speedily drove the Indians away from the British front.
Meanwhile the redcoats steadily advanced, the men cheering lustily and shouting "God save the King". Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas, who had succeeded Beaujeu in the command of the French, almost gave up the day for lost. His handful of regular troops, however, stood firm, and he and his brother officers by desperate exertions succeeded in rallying the Indians. The regulars and such few of the Canadian militia as stood by them held their ground, and opened a fire of platoons which checked the ardour of Gage's men. The Indians streamed through the forest along both flanks of the British and poured a deadly fire upon the redcoats. The cheering of the British was silenced, as the men began to fall fast. For a time they kept their ranks and swept the unheeding forest with volley after volley, which touched no enemy through the trees. They could see no foe, and yet the bullets rained continually upon them from front, flank, and rear. The trial at last was greater than they could bear. They abandoned their two guns, broke ranks, and fell back in disorder.
Just at this moment Braddock came up to the front. On hearing the fire he had left 400 men under Colonel Sir Peter Halkett of the 44th Regiment of Foot to guard the baggage, and had advanced with the remainder to Gage's assistance. As the fresh troops came up, Gage's routed infantry plunged blindly in among them, seeking shelter from the eternal hail of bullets, and threw them likewise into confusion.
The men of the two regiments became mixed together and in a short time the whole of Braddock's force, excepting the Virginians and Halkett's baggage-guard, was broken up into a succession of heaving groups, without order and without cohesion. They could neither charge nor return the fire. The Virginians alone, who were accustomed to such work, kept their presence of mind, and taking shelter behind the trees began to answer the Indian fire. A body of Virginians under Captain Waggoner made a dash for a fallen tree lying in the woods, far out towards the lurking-places of the Indians, and, crouching behind the huge trunk, opened fire. But the regulars, seeing the smoke among the bushes, mistook the Virginians for the enemy, and shot at them from behind, killing many, and forcing the rest to return. A few of the British strove to imitate the Virginians as well as their inexperience would permit but Braddock would have none of such things. Raging and cursing furiously, Braddock drove British and Virginians alike back to their fellows with his sword.
Noting that the fire was hottest from a hill on the right flank of his advance, Braddock ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Burton to attack it with the 48th Regiment of Foot. Only 100 men followed Burton after much persuasion. However, Burton was wounded at the beginning of his attack and his detachment routed.
The gunners stood for a time to their guns and sent round after round crashing uselessly into the forest. Meanwhile, the infantry stood packed together, firing aimlessly or fighting furiously with the officers who strove to make them form. Braddock seconded by Lieutenant-Colonel George Washington was vainly trying to rally his little army. Already, the British had lost 60 of their 86 officers. Sir Peter Halkett, colonel of the 44th Regiment of Foot had been shot dead. His son James had also been killed while trying to raise the body of his father. Young Shirley, Braddock's secretary, was pierced through the brain. Orme and Morris, his aides-de-camp, Sinclair, the quartermaster-general, Gates and Gage, both afterwards conspicuous on opposite sides in the War of the Revolution, and Gladwin, who, eight years later, defended Detroit against Pontiac, were all wounded.
After 3 hours of struggle, seeing that everything was lost, Braddock finally ordered the wreck of his army to retreat. Soon after, Braddock himself was mortally wounded by a shot through arm and lungs. Captain Stewart and another provincial carried him away. The unwounded remnant of his troops instantly broke and fled away. Washington tried unsuccessfully to rally them at the ford. Some 50 Indians followed them up to the edge of the river while Dumas and Ligneris, who had now only about 20 Frenchmen with them, made no attempt to pursue, and went back to Fort Duquesne.
Gage succeeded in rallying about 80 men at the second ford. Braddock then sent Washington away to Dunbar for provisions and transport. The British general passed the night among the handful of men that had been rallied by Gage.
A Different Interpretation of the Battlefield
In Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution (2015), David Preston argues that the geographic descriptions in previous narratives and histories are inaccurate as it relates to the topography and that there was no small hillock to the right of Braddock's column, as depicted in Fortescue's Map shown here, better known as Engineer McKellar's Map. This map has dominated histories for the last 200 years.
Instead Preston contends that Braddock's column was climbing from the river bottom along the diagonal of a long massive ridge that extended for miles. The climb from the river bottom to the top of the ridge was over 1,100 feet (335 m) in elevation change. The column was following a forest trail that worked its way across the face of this ridge, slowly climbing to the top of the ridge.
At the time of the initial confrontation, the head of the column was mid-slope, gradually climbing, but sideways up the ridge face, heading north-northwest. The top of the ridge was still a considerable distance away. For most of the column, the ground to the right would have been sloping upwards and to the left sloping downward, only the very rear of the column was still in the floodplain of the Monongahela. From the very beginning of the fight, Braddock himself would have been on this sloping terrain.
Regardless of position, the French and Indian Allies attacked successfully from both the upslope and downslope. The British could have moved upslope away from the trail and taken positions in the trees, but the French and Indian Allies would still have been upslope, because the top of the ridge was simply too far away. There was no hillock to take. The cannon were positioned on the left flank, but as they were facing downhill with limited visibility, their shot would have gone high.
To establish a true defensive perimeter around the column, the British would have had to simultaneously move both uphill and downhill away from the forest trail for a distance close to 100 yards (91.5 m). Except for the rearguard of Virginians and South Carolina Independents, Braddock's column was never able to establish a defensive perimeter. Although the French lost the opportunity to contest the crossings of the Monongahela, Preston writes: "The French and Indians could not have struck the British column at a more vulnerable psychological, tactical and topographical moment" (Preston, 2015: page 243).
Preston also argues that the battle was not a chance encounter of two columns, one British and one French, but that the French were well aware of the British position and column organization and had divided their own forces into three separate columns prior to the engagement. The Compagnies de la Marine and some of the Canadian militia were traveling on the same forest trail as Braddock, the enemy columns heading towards each other from opposite directions. This middle column of French would block the forest road and stop the advance of the British column while the other two columns, predominately Indian Allies, swept Braddock's flanking guards and then attacked deep into the flanks of the British column.
Preston maintains that this was not a meeting engagement, but a planned assault on the British column directed by Captain Beaujeu, who purposely intended to engage Braddock while the British were still mid-slope and strung-out in a long, narrow column. The British would have been in a much better tactical position if they had reached the top of the ridge. If attacked earlier at either of the Monongahela crossings, the covering artillery might have proved an effective countermeasure and a clear demonstration of British power.
The French did not have the time to pick the exact spot of the initial confrontation and the British did well over the first few minutes and volleys. Preston credits the Indian Allies' hitting Gage's forward elements from the flanks as the cause of the British grenadiers initially breaking and giving ground, not the fire from the Compagnies de la Marine. The Indians then moved quickly to engage the middle and rear segments of the Flying Column that were not obscured by smoke. Preston's arguments are based on new accounts and maps recently uncovered in France (Preston, 2015: Page 224).
On the British side, from the 1,373 NCOs and men who took part to the engagement, only 459 came off unharmed. Of 86 officers, 73 were killed or disabled. The wounded men left on the field were killed. The detailed British losses were:
- Major-General Edward Braddock, mortally wounded
- Secretary William Shirley, killed
- 2 staff officers wounded
- 2 génie officers wounded
- 44th Halkett's Regiment of Foot (7 killed and 9 wounded)
- 48th Dunbar's Regiment of Foot (6 killed and 11 wounded)
- Royal Regiment of Artillery (1 killed and 1 wounded)
- Captain Horatio Gates' New York Independent Companies (1 killed and 3 wounded)
- 2 volunteers killed
- Royal Navy (2 officers killed)
- Captain Robert Stewart's Virginia Troop of Horse Rangers (1 killed)
- Virginia companies (5 killed and 2 wounded)
- 1 surgeon's mate killed
- 17 sergeants killed and 20 wounded
- 2 drummers killed and 6 wounded
- 336 privates and matrosses killed and 328 wounded
- Royal Navy (10 sailors killed and 8 wounded)
The French lost 3 officers killed and 4 wounded, 4 French and 5 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded. Among the Indians from Canada, 27 were killed or wounded while the casualties among the Western tribes were not reported.
For the British, it was a total and crushing defeat.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Secretary: Captain William Shirley
Deputy Quartermaster-general: Major Sir John St. Clair
Assistant-deputy Quartermaster-general: Ensign Matthew Leslie (44th foot)
Major of brigade: Captain Francis Halkett (44th foot)
- Royal Regiment of Artillery (20 men)
- Sailors of the Royal Navy (30 men and 2 midshipmen) under Lieutenant Spindelow
- Indian Warriors (8 men)
- Captain Robert Stewart's Virginia Troop of Horse Rangers (29 men)
- 44th Halkett's Regiment of Foot (350 men)
- 48th Dunbar's Regiment of Foot (350 men)
- Captain Horatio Gates' New York Independent Companies (50 men)
- Captain William Peronee's Virginia Rangers (3 officers, 47 men)
- Captain Wagner's Virginia Rangers (3 officers, 45 men)
- Detachment of the South Carolina Independent Companies under Lieutenants Howarth and Gray (2 officers and 50 men)
- Captain Adam Steven's Virginia Rangers (3 officers, 48 men)
- Captain William Polson's Virginia Carpenters (3 officers, 48 men)
N.B.: the numbers listed represent the effective strength of each unit. During this initial stage of the conflict, the so-called Rangers were in fact provincials.
French Order of Battle
Commander: Captain Daniel-Hyacinthe-Marie Liénard de Beaujeu
- Compagnies Franches de la Marine (108 regulars: 36 officers and cadets and 72 soldiers)
- Canadian militia (146 men)
- Indian Allies (637)
Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 274-281
Holmes, Richard: Redcoat, Harper Collins, London, 2001
Lévis, Chevalier de: Journal of the Campaigns of the Chevalier De Levis In Canada from 1756 to 1760, translated by James Mitchell, Seven Years War Association Journal Vol. IX No. 4
Parkman, Francis: Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, p. 124-129
Preston, David: Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2015
Kenneth P Dunne and Jean-Pierre Loriot for the revised British order of battle
Kenneth P Dunne for presenting Preston's interpretation