July 9, 1755 - The French & Indian War and the Battle of the Monongahela
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
July 9, 1755. A British column marching into the wilds of Pennsylvania is about to get an unpleasant lesson in American warfare at the hands of French regulars and their Indian allies. On the banks of the Monongahela, events will be set in motion that determine the fate of North America – not least, the early military education of a 23-year-old officer named George Washington.
The “French and Indian War” from our high school history books was only one part of a much larger global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War, which stretched from the wilds of the American frontier to the heart of Germany and to the shores of India and the Philippines. It was one of a series of great wars between the British and the French – with friends, of course – but it would prove to be one of the most important and dramatic wars in human history. It not only guaranteed the rise of Britain as the world’s global power, but also put events in North America on a collision course with Revolution.
North America in the 1750s was at a crossroads. Three peoples all had a vested interest in the future of a continent. First were the French, who governed Canada from their capital of Montreal; the French empire in North America was lightly populated with white men, and mostly survived off their fur trade with the Indians. Then there were the British and their Thirteen Colonies; although the King had passing interest in North America, the colonists had minds and motives of their own. The third faction was the Native Americans, who were always in danger of being squeezed out by the growing tide of American settlers.
The Indians had to play a dangerous balancing act between alliance with the French or English, and old tribal feuds and long-standing enmities factored into the mix. The Iroquois, usually British allies, had displaced the Shawnee and Abenaki tribes in recent years – who had decided to ally with the French.
In the 1750s, the Ohio Country – the area that is now western Pennsylvania and the state of Ohio – was the new fault line between the French and British Empires. The Ohio Country was full of excellent farmland, lush rivers, and plenty of timber and furs, and as yet untouched by white settlement. The trouble was that no one was 100% sure who possessed the Ohio Country – there were just vague lines on a map drawn in some parlor in London or Paris, and there was no way of knowing where these lines fell. This raised problems for certain citizens of Virginia and Pennsylvania who had started entire business enterprises based on land speculation in the Ohio Country.
The French currently occupied the Ohio Country, and had worked overtime to secure the loyalties of the local Indians – the Delawares, Shawnee and Abenaki. In the wars of old North America, Indian allies were essential; only they knew the countryside and backwoods of the as-yet-uncolonized Ohio Country. Smart French governors like the Louis Coulon de Villiers worked hand-in-glove with the Indians to assure their dominance in the region.
Colonial economic interests drove the Governor of Virginia to send a small force to try and assert the British hold over the Ohio Country. Dominance of this territory would open up new prospects for Indian trading, as well as reassure the worried land speculators – including those in London as well as those in Williamsburg. For this task, Governor Dinwiddie selected a young, ambitious Virginia militia officer, the 22-year-old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington.
Let’s be very clear: this is not the Father of Our Country that we all know and love (statues notwithstanding) today. Washington was a cocky, insubordinate young officer, not at all a grown man, extremely careless and naïve. If you can believe it, his greatest dream in this stage of life was to become an officer in the British Army. (His multiple requests for an officer’s appointment in the King’s ranks went unanswered – wouldn’t THAT be an interesting alternate history!)
In October 1753, Washington left with a small expedition on Dinwiddie’s orders to venture into the Ohio Country and demand that they withdraw from “British territory.” Washington linked up with the Seneca Half-King Tanacharison, a guide and chief currently out of favor with the larger Iroquois Confederacy. He, Tanacharison and the militia made their way to Fort Le Boeuf, where the French greeted their demand to leave Ohio with amusement. The bedraggled Virginians and their youthful officer did not cut an impressive figure, and Washington was given an official answer in a sealed envelope. All courtesy aside, the answer was “no.”
So in February 1754, Washington was appointed Lieutenant Colonel and commander of a much larger expedition of 300 Virginia militia, with the mission of confronting French forces at the critical area – the Forks of the Ohio, an area in western Pennsylvania where the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers join and create the Ohio. Washington set out for the forks with about 150 militia – hardly soldiers worth shaking a stick at – and some Indian allies, but by April he learned that some 1,000 French had already occupied the Forks and built their own large stockade there. It was a powerful fortress built on good engineering lines that the French had dubbed Fort Duquesne. Washington, realizing that attacking this fort would be stupid, decided to build his own little fort nearby called Fort Necessity.
It’s important to note that the British and French were not at war yet. There was no declared war in Europe at the time, and no one was really looking for one. That was all right, though, because a handful of Virginia colonists and French soldiers scuffling in the backwoods were about to start one of the most important wars in history. What started in the no-man’s-land of the Ohio Country would spread like fire across the world and become the Seven Years’ War. And it was kinda Washington’s fault.
On May 28, 1754, Washington learned that a detachment of French troops was advancing on his position. Since they only had about fifty men, Washington decided on his own initiative to ambush them. This was an impulsive, brash move typical of the young Washington, who was too young and inexperienced to realize the consequences of his decision. The ambush took place and killed half of the French detachment, leaving their commander – Joseph Coulon de Jumonville - wounded. Jumonville had carried a diplomatic message for the British to evacuate; it wasn’t an attack, but a diplomatic mission like Washington’s had been. Before Washington could fix this mistake, his ally Tanacharison – the Seneca Half-King – murdered and scalped the wounded Jumonville, along with several other Frenchmen. Washington, taken by surprise at this unexpected action, just gaped in astonishment as his allies killed the French wounded and prisoners.
The “Battle of Jumonville’s Glen,” as it came to be known, launched the French and Indian War. By July, the French had surrounded Washington’s pitiful army at Fort Necessity and called on him to surrender. With no other option, Washington and his militia laid down their arms and were paroled back into Virginia. 1754 had been a year of hard lessons for young George Washington, but his actions had precipitated something larger. Both the British and French governments had taken notice of this skirmishing in the Ohio Country, and they weren’t about to let the issue rest.
The British government was not looking for or even prepared for a major war with France, but rather than riding events, the events were riding them. The British government dispatched a new Commander-in-Chief for North America, General Edward Braddock, with two regiments of regular troops to put an end to this silly little affair in the wilds of America.
When Braddock arrived, the 23-year-old Washington volunteered to serve as one of his assistants, since he knew the country and had dealt with the French and Indians before. He also hoped to gain Braddock’s sponsorship for his much-desired British commission.
Braddock planned to march from Fort Cumberland, Maryland in May 1755, and began outfitting his expedition. In 1755, even western Maryland was on the outer fringe of colonial settlement, and everything north and west was wild country. Braddock had two regular regiments – the 44th and 48th Foot – as the core of his force, along with various units of American militia and some artillery. With these men, Braddock expected to reach Fort Duquesne easily and capture it before winter.
Braddock crucially failed to understand American warfare. He was a veteran of fighting in the open country and developed roads of Europe. He disdained the militia as a rabble, though, and didn’t see the need to recruit any “savage Indians.” He alienated many Indian chiefs, who either allied with the French or stayed neutral to keep their options open. He also pissed off many colonial governments, who did not supply him with the troops or provisions he needed. One of the only men in Pennsylvania who assisted him was the eager Benjamin Franklin.
The expedition faced a huge logistical challenge: transporting men, equipment, and artillery across the thickly wooded Alleghenies and into western Pennsylvania. Braddock decided to cut a road from Fort Cumberland all the way to Fort Duquesne in order to supply his army. This was against the advice of his American militiamen like Washington, who emphasized the need to travel light; Braddock dismissed their opinions as inexperienced and uneducated. The Braddock Expedition hacked its way through the woods at a rate of two miles a day, making sure that everyone in the Ohio Country knew exactly where they were and what they were doing at all times. This allowed the French at Fort Duquesne to gather in Indian allies and summon reinforcements from Canada. Even though they only had about 250 regulars and 650 militia, the French-Canadians decided to ambush and destroy the British before they reached the fort.
On the night of July 8, the Indians in the alliance sent a secret delegation to Braddock’s force. They met with Washington and asked him to have the British halt their advance – if the British held up for a bit, the Indians could negotiate a peaceful French withdrawal. Washington, who understood the French-Indian alliance and could think of his own troubles with Indian allies, recommended this to Braddock, who refused. Braddock had almost reached Fort Duquesne – why on earth would he negotiate now?
On July 9, 1755, the British finally reached the Monongahela River about 10 miles south of Fort Duquesne and pushed across without opposition. Braddock’s men moved in a tight column, banners flying and drums beating, in the European style that they were used to. 1300 men led the advance, while 600 others stayed back with the baggage train and expedition’s animals. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage led the advance guard of 300 grenadiers and two cannon – in twenty years, it was Gage who would order the redcoats to Lexington and Concord. Washington tried to warn Braddock that this close formation would not do well against the French and Indians, who fought in loose, camouflaged positions, but Braddock insisted on fighting in the style of gentlemen.
Gage’s advance guard collided with the French and Indians, both sides catching the other by surprise. In the ensuing skirmish, both sides panicked, the French commander was killed, and many Canadian militia fled, but the French and Indians recovered quickly and began a lethal fire. Braddock had 1300 men and the French only 600, but the British were in unfamiliar country, bunched together and surprised by the attack.
The French and Indians drove back Gage’s force, which collided with the main body in the narrow confines of the road. The two forces became intermixed and confused as accurate musket fire peppered the column. The British dissolved in disorder as the Canadians, French and Indians lapped around them and soon threatened to surround them completely. With fire coming from every direction and the poor Redcoats milling around in confusion with no enemy to shoot at, the column began to fall apart. The French regulars, fighting in traditional style, came charging down the road. This combination of conventional and skirmish tactics was the correct way to fight in North America.
As the British officers struggled to regain order and put their units back together, most provided excellent targets for the enemy. In the confusion, many British units fired at colonial militia that were coming to their rescue. The British artillery had no target and was ineffective. The red coats stood out in the underbrush.
Washington would later claim that Braddock had earned his admiration – not for his conduct of the expedition or battle, which were both utter failures, but for his behavior in battle. Braddock was steady and calm, a towering figure on horseback doing his best to rally his men. This may have boosted morale, but it was a bad idea on the Monongahela. Several hours into the fight, Braddock was shot off his horse, mortally wounded.
With Braddock dead and the British officers losing their minds, it fell to Washington to take charge. Though he had no official place in the chain of command, Washington organized a rearguard and managed to hold off the French and Indians long enough for the remnants of the British force to get away. The remnants of the expedition escaped in the night, with the wounded and captured left to the mercy of Indian captors – who usually either scalped them or took them prisoner, many never to be seen again. Such was warfare in North America.
Braddock’s Defeat, sometimes called the Battle of the Monongahela, was the first large-scale action of the French and Indian War. It was a disaster for the British, who found it convenient to blame Braddock – after all, he was dead, buried at the old site of Fort Necessity where he lies today. The expedition had been nearly annihilated, with almost 70% casualties. Of the 50 women who came along as maids and cooks, only 4 turned up at the end. Even though the British still outnumbered their French and Indian enemies, they were demoralized and retreated all the way back to Maryland.
The Seven Years’ War would consume the world, and the French and Indian War would consume the continent. Prime Minister William Pitt would lead Britain to victory; when they finally captured Fort Duquesne, the British would name it after their great leader – Pitt’s Fort, or Pittsburgh. At the war’s end, the British would rule all of North America – and decide that maybe the colonists should start paying taxes. You know how that ends.
Braddock’s Defeat, though, had a lot to teach young George Washington. The importance of logistics, the use of discipline, the need for good training, and – perhaps most importantly – how to bounce back. Losing a battle didn’t mean losing the war if you could keep your army alive. This lesson, more than any other, would serve General George Washington very, very well.