1755-07-09 - Ambush on the Monongahela
Prelude to the Battle
Since June 11, Major-General Edward Braddock at the head of a British force totalling some 2,200 men was wearily advancing through the forests of the Alleghenies in an expedition against Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) which he planned to wrest from the French. On June 19, he selected 1,200 picked troops, leaving Dunbar at the head of the baggage train and he resumed his advance on Fort Duquesne.
On July 7, Braddock's column reached the mouth of Turtle Creek, a stream which enters the Monongahela about 13 km from its junction with the Allegheny River and thus from Fort Duquesne. 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.
At 1:00 p.m., 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, no enemy was encountered.
Indeed, Beaujeu, the French commander, spent half the day in marching 11 km, and was more than 1,5 km from the fording-place when the British reached the eastern shore. The delay, from whatever cause arising, cost him the opportunity of laying an ambush either at the ford or in the gullies and ravines that channelled 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 of hills. 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 axemen 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 over a wide and bushy ravine.
Around 6:00 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. In fact, it was Beaujeu who at sight of 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 a man of the enemy, so that they shot at haphazard, but the mere sound of the musketry was sufficient to scare Beaujeu's Canadian militia most of whom fled shamefully away to Fort Duquesne and did not take part to the ensuing engagement. The third volley killed Beaujeu while Gage's two field-pieces coming into action speedily drove the Indians away from the British front.
Meanwhile the red-coats 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 staunchly, and opened a fire of platoons which checked the ardour of Gage's men. The Indians streamed away through the forest along both flanks of the British and poured a deadly fire upon the hapless redcoats. The cheering of the British was silenced, for 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 and pitilessly upon them from front, flank, and rear. The trial at last was greater than they could bear. They abandoned their two guns, they broke their 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 Halket 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 Halket'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 their best friends for the enemy, shot at them from behind, killed many, and forced 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 Halket, colonel of the 44th Regiment of Foot had been shot dead. His son 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. He was carried away by Captain Stewart and another provincial. The unwounded remnant of his troops instantly broke loose 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.
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 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
- 3 génie officers wounded
- 44th Halket's Regiment of Foot (6 killed and 6 wounded)
- 48th Dunbar's Regiment of Foot (6 killed and 12 wounded)
- Royal Regiment of Artillery (1 killed and 2 wounded)
- Captain Rutherford's New York Independent Companies (1 killed and 3 wounded)
- 2 volunteers wounded
- Royal Navy (2 officers killed, 1 midshipman killed and 1 wounded)
- Captain Robert Stewart's Virginia Troop of Horse Rangers (1 killed and 1 wounded)
- Virginia companies (2 killed and 2 wounded)
- 1 chaplain wounded
- 1 quartermaster wounded
- 1 surgeon's mate killed and 5 wounded
- 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 in fact a total and crushing defeat.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Secretary: William Shirley
Deputy Quartermaster-general: Sir John St. Clair
Assistant-deputy Quartermaster-general: Lieutenant Matthew Leslie (44th foot)
Major of brigade: Lieutenant 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 Halket's Regiment of Foot (450 men)
- 48th Dunbar's Regiment of Foot (450 men)
- Captain Rutherford's 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)
- 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 mere militia.
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)
- Indians (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
Jean-Pierre Loriot for the revised British order of battle