Braddock’s Defeat: Battle of Monongahela

The first engagement of the, yet to be declared French & Indian War, was an entirely colonial affair. Tensions had grown between British and French traders in the Ohio Country, the French dispatched numerous expeditions to reinforce their claim to the territory, culminating in the construction of Fort Duquesne, a star fort, at the Forks of the Ohio.  It became inevitable that tensions in the Ohio Country would come to a head. 

A plan for Fort Duquesne (source)

1754, saw both British and French expeditions active in the region, a force of Virginia colonial militia, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, had been ordered to “act on the defensive… you are to restrain all such offenders and in case of resistance to make prisoners of, or kill and destroy them.”   By early May Washington was actively seeking out the French, word of their location was brought by an Indian ally, Tanacharison, who informed Washington the enemy were camped “about seven miles northwest of Washington’s position.” The Virginia militia quietly advanced on the French encampment, surrounding Captain Joseph Coulon de Jumonville and 35 of his men, they took up positions behind the cover of rocks and trees.  When the French were alerted to the militia’s approach they opened fire, Washington described the action in his diary:

“Marching… in the Indian manner: we were advanced pretty near to them… when they discovered us… I ordered my company to fire… the action, which only lasted quarter of an hour, before the enemy was routed.”[1]

Washington’s account of the battle is interesting in that he refers to the ‘Indian manner’ of marching. This indicates that the militia were accustomed to using Native tactics while in the backcountry. Similarly, Washington’s attack used the tactic of ambush,  which had been highly developed by Native Americans during their game hunting, while not unique to the New World, the terrain was ideally suited to this tactic. The Jumonville Affair, as the skirmish became known, was one of many small engagements that escalated tensions in the Ohio Country.  In 1754 the British government made the decision to mount a major expedition against the French positions at the Forks of the Ohio.

A year after the Jumonville Affair the first engagement to involve British regular troops took place. A force of 2,100 provincials and regulars, made up of two weak regiments dispatched from Ireland, the 44th and 48th Foot totalling just under one-thousand men. These regulars were augmented with several quasi-regular provincial companies and one of the heaviest siege trains ever assembled in North America consisting of ten cannon, four howitzers and fifteen mortars.[2]  This force advanced slowly along the banks of the Monongahela River towards Fort Duquesne.

The commanding officer of this force, Major General Edward Braddock, was a soldier of some forty years experience, having served in Flanders and Gibraltar. However, neither of these posts were particularly active and he had little conception of irregular warfare. Braddock made the mistake of underestimating both his Native allies and enemies. He was overconfident, feeling the Natives of the Ohio Valley would be no match for the “King’s regular and disciplined troops.” He treated his Native allies and the few frontiersmen who volunteered arrogantly, this poor relationship with the men who would be the eyes of his army had grave consequences.

Compagnies Franches de la Marine (source)

Braddock’s force advanced in good order, and did not expect to encounter the enemy before they reached their objective. Discontent among the few Native scouts Braddock possessed meant that his army was left blind as they refused to scout towards Fort Duquesne. After a difficult approach during which a road had had to be built to bring up the army’s siege train, just 10 miles short of Fort Duquesne Braddock’s column collided with a Franco-Indian force on the 9th July 1755.  Word of the British approach reached Duquesne from Franco-Native scouts, the fort was weakly garrisoned and not capable of withstanding the European style siege Braddock intended. It was decided that a preemptive attack was the best option, under the command of the experienced frontier officer Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu a force of 108 French regulars of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, 150 Canadian militia and a body of 640 Native allies, from numerous tribes including Ottawas, Illinois, Chippewa’s and Potawatomi left Fort Duquesne and moved to intercept the British. 

As French and British scouts clashed Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gage, the commander of the British vanguard, ordered forward two companies of grenadiers, the column’s elite troops, to disperse what he believed to be a Native scouting party. The initial British volley killed de Beaujeu and caused the Indians to briefly fall back. They quickly reengaged the redcoats enveloping the advanced guard. The French and Indians filtered through the trees on both flanks of the British column making “a sudden fire from the woods, which put the troops into great confusion.” [3]

Stephen Walsh’s artistic interpretations of the battle of Monongahela  (Monongahela 1754-55, R. Chartrand, 2004)

A contemporary letter describes how “the savages and Canadians kept on their bellies in the bushes and behind the trees, and took particular aim at our men and officers especially.”[4]   This targeting of officers caused chaos and confusion with troops firing wildly unable to see their enemy, the same correspondence describes how the regulars “threw away their fire.” Confusion gave way to terror as panicked men retreated headlong into the rest of the column which was still advancing causing a rout, at 4pm General Braddock, who throughout the engagement tried to rally his men, was mortally wounded. The enemy utilised the confusion and smoke screen of the redcoats musket-fire to attack at close quarters as the battle progressed the head of the column was forced back throwing the rear units into disarray until a rearguard was formed allowing survivors to fall back across the river. The casualty estimates vary, but it is thought the British suffered approximately 970 casualties. In comparison the French and Indian losses were startlingly light with just 23 killed and 20 men wounded. 

Sketch map of Battle of Monongahela depicting Braddock’s initial contact with the Franco-Indian force and the subsequent envelopment of his column.  (Monongahela 1754-55, R. Chartrand, 2004)

The traditional discourse on Braddock’s defeat offers several explanations: the inflexibility of Braddock himself and reliance on ill-suited European linear tactics. Monongahela has come to be seen as a classic example of the mistake of using orthodox European tactics in the confines of a North American forest. With historians describing Braddock’s campaign plan as “thoroughly European.”  Others argue that Braddock “encountered a form of battle foreign to his experience and for which he had little in the way of theoretical guidance.”
While individual “British troops panicked because their officers proved incapable of leading them effectively in a chaotic wilderness battle.” However, other historians have noted that Braddock made various efforts to prepare his regulars for local conditions by modifying clothing and discarding surplus kit as well as ordering the complex regulation platoon-fire system to be simplified. These prudent actions are certainly not the mark of an incompetent commander.

Contemporary accounts firmly lay the blame with Braddock’s apparent neglect. An article in the The London Magazine, (Sept. 1755) accredited blame to “a shameful neglect in not previously searching the woods and thickets, by small flanking parties of Indians.”    A letter to William Pitt notes: 

“that keeping rank and firing platoons lost general Braddock and his army” and that “it is unpardonable neglect of duty to be surprised… when a few brisk men scattered for two hundred yards each side will prevent it.”[5]

These contemporary theories are correct, while the troops were failed by the majority of their officers and their own inexperience in fighting in the wilderness a key reason for the massacre was Braddock’s inadequate use of scouts to protect his column. His poor treatment of his Creole and Native allies meant he had almost no troops capable of irregular warfare which put his army at a serious disadvantage in the type of country he was navigating. By the later stages of his advance he could muster just eight Mingo scouts. British light infantry was nonexistent In 1755, it took an unprecedented defeat like Monongahela to highlight the need for specialist troops capable of fighting the enemy in their own way.

Battle of Monongahela (source)

The impact of the Battle of Monongahela is difficult to understate. It was one of the largest examples of irregular warfare during the French and Indian War. For the most part la petite guerre was fought on a much smaller scale by forces as small as a dozen men or as large as several hundred. The destruction of a professional British army by a relatively small, predominantly Native force had been unimaginable. The lack of effective British light infantry and the disregard for provincial irregular forces sealed the fate of Braddock’s expedition. As the war progressed the British army would pursue numerous avenues in an attempt to match their opponents proficiency in bush fighting; from partial reliance on Creole irregulars to the formation of their own corps. After Monongahela no inferior guerrilla force would ever overcome a substantial body of British regulars again.


[1] Washington’s Report quoted in Anderson, Crucible of War, p.53
[2] Rogers, British Army of the C18th, p. 23
[3] ‘The Monthly Chronologer’, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Vol.24, (Sept. 1755), p.395 
[4] Letter from A. Stephen to J. Hunter, 7/18/1755, re-Braddock’s Defeat at Fort Duquesne, Quoted in P. E. Kopperman, Braddock at the Monongahela, (Pittsburgh, 1992), pp.226-7
[5]Letter from W. Corry to W. Pitt, 1756 quoted in P. Paret,'Colonial Experience and European Military Reform at the End of the Eighteenth Century’, Historical Research, vol.37, (1964), p. 47 


Image One Source
Image Two Source

Image Three Source

Image Four Source

Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, F. Anderson, (2000)
Redcoats: the British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763, S. Brumwell, (2002)
Monongahela 1754-55: Washington’s Defeat, Braddock’s Disaster, R. Chartrand, (2004)
Braddock at the Monongahela, P. E. Kopperman, (1992)
The British Army of the 18th Century, H.C.B. Rogers, (1977)

Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan: Baltit Fort, Karimabad, Hunza Valley.

The beautiful view of the Hunza Valley from one of the balconies of the Baltit Fort which is an ancient fort above Karimabad. The foundations of the fort dates back to 700 years, with rebuilds and alterations over the centuries.


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