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Battle of the Monongahela

the battle in which George Washington first earned distinction

Following Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's defeat at Fort Necessity in 1754, the British decided to mount a larger expedition against Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).

In 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock assembled a combined force of British regulars and American militia (totalling about 2,400 men) at Alexandria, Virginia. Braddock's planning and preparations were so haphazard that he had to rely on help from Benjamin Franklin to get the wagons, horses and supplies he needed. Although a march from Philadelphia through Pennsylvania would have been much shorter and less difficult, Virginia Governor Thomas Dinwiddie wanted the needed military road built through his colony, and Braddock's army ultimately set out from Fort Cumberland, Maryland, on May 29, 1755.

After an arduous journey of about twenty miles along the eastern branch of the Youghiogheny River, aide-de-camp George Washington convinced Braddock to split his army. Colonel Thomas Dunbar continued along the road with the wagons, while Braddock rushed ahead with about 1,300 men. The plan was for Braddock's men to make needed improvements to the road as they went, without being slowed by the wagons. Unfortunately, that also meant that needed supplies were always behind them, and food shortages quickly became rampant. The lack of food was compounded by disease, and both of these problems were complicated by the need to constantly stop and widen the road and/or build a bridge. Progress was so slow that at times it took 18 hours to cover 3 miles. Although Braddock's army did meet light resistance from Native Americans along the way, most of it was in the form of isolated sniper attacks that were easily repulsed and caused few injuries.

route of Braddock's expedition
route of Braddock's expedition

As the British/American force neared Fort Duquesne it had to cross the Monongahela River, march two miles east, and then re-ford the river at Frazier's Cabin. Braddock expected both crossings to be heavily contested, but no resistance was encountered at either. The final crossing was made on July 9, and Braddock re-formed his army for the final seven-mile push to the fort. Since resistance to this point had been minimal, Braddock thought it likely his army's ordeal was almost over and that all that remained was to take possession of the fort, which he was beginning to think had already been abandoned by the French.

What Braddock did not know was that the French had been alerted to his approach. Knowing that the fort could not withstand a British assault, French Captain Liénard de Beaujeu and about 30 French and 300-600 Indians planned to ambush Braddock's column, but he encountered an advance guard led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage first. De Beaujeu was killed in the opening volleys, but his second-in-command, Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas, rallied his men and pushed them through the trees. Quickly outflanked and wounded, Gage ordered his men to fall back, just as Braddock's column approached. Chaos ensued as Gage's men ran headlong into Braddock's men, and the situation was made even worse by the cloud of gunpowder smoke gathering on the battlefield. Braddock continually rode around the battlefield trying to restore discipline, while the French and Indians continued to fire into the panic. What little military discipline remained fell apart when Braddock fell from his horse with a bullet wound to his chest. While Braddock was being carried off the field, Washington was able to form up a rear guard to allow many of the survivors to escape. The French and Indians continued to fire until the last of Braddock's men made it back across the river, but did not pursue them.

French and Indians ambush Braddock's army
French and Indians ambush Braddock's army

Braddock succumbed to his wound on July 13, and was buried in the middle of the road; after the burial, his army marched over the grave to eliminate any trace of it to prevent its desecration by Native Americans. All total, the British suffered 456 killed (including 26 officers) and 422 wounded ( 37 of them officers), while the French and Indians are believed to have only suffered about 30 killed and wounded. Colonel Dunbar abandoned the march on Fort Duquesne and withdrew the rest of Braddock's army towards Philadelphia. George Washington's actions after Braddock was wounded earned him great distinction, which eventually led to his being named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

the burial of Major General Edward Braddock
the burial of Major General Edward Braddock

SEE ALSO
George Washington
Benjamin Franklin
Revolutionary War

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Colonial Period, 1607-1775