Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

GEORGE WASHINGTON: Braddock's Defeat


By Judy Leithe

By the mid-1700s, France had significant influence over the French colonists, as well as good trading relationships with many indigenous tribes, in Canada and North America. The British had authority over the thirteen colonies on the east coast, and had established ties with the Iroquois Confederacy, which controlled most of upstate New York and parts of the Ohio Valley.

When the French refused to dismantle their forts along the Ohio River, the British Parliament sent Brigadier General Edward Braddock to Virginia with orders to, “Take command of the French in North America!” Washington had been following events in the Ohio Valley, and the potential for British conflict with the French. He loved his farm life at Mount Vernon, however, at twenty-two, he was considering a possible career in the British Army, as well. So, when he learned that Braddock had arrived with the British army, he sent a letter to the general congratulating him on his mission. After learning about Washington’s knowledge of the wilderness country, Braddock offered him a position as his aide-de-camp. This was not the position Washington sought, but having had no real military training, he joined Braddock with the belief that this would be the first time he would be in a campaign led by an experienced, professional officer – or so he thought.

General Braddock was sixty years old. He was short, stout, and bad-tempered. He had little experience in battle, and no knowledge of the kind of wilderness tactics that were in store for him. As his aide, Washington was dismayed by Braddock’s rude behavior. Neither did his arrogance sit well with the colonials or the Iroquois; the very people Braddock needed most in his upcoming combat with the French and their Canadian allies.

In sharp contrast to Braddock, the portrait of Washington, shown here, appears to closely match the description of the twenty-six-year-old Colonel Washington written by a fellow officer during the French and Indian War. It reads, “He had an impressive bearing and was an excellent horseman. He stood 6’ 2 1/2” tall and weighed 175 pounds; he was broad shouldered and muscular; his hands were large and well formed, and he wore size 13 boots; he had reddish-brown hair and had a fair complexion; his demeanor was calm and controlled; he focused his clear blue-grey eyes on those with whom he spoke, and was a good listener.”

As General Braddock’s army of 1,500 brightly-clad “redcoats” forged through the forests of the Ohio Valley, with colonial troops following, there was a surprise attack by about nine-hundred French-led troops. The first assault came from Canadian warriors who descended on them with blood-curdling war whoops catching the shocked British troops in a well-planned crossfire offensive. As they tried to escape the mayhem, French troops blocked their paths. In a panic, the redcoats began firing their rifles indiscriminately, hitting some of their own troops.

During the blistering attack, Washington had horses shot out from underneath him, but he quickly mounted available horses and continued directing as many of his fellow officers and soldiers to safety as possible. It was also noted that throughout the battle, Washington was ill with a high fever. General Braddock was shot in the chest, possibly by one of his own men, and died on July 13, 1755. Prior to dying, he gave Washington his leopard skin saddle blanket, which can be seen in a portrait of Washington, appearing in a later essay.

During the massacre of Braddock and his troops, nearly a thousand men were either killed or wounded. Word quickly spread, that although he performed heroically, Washington had been killed. However, after the battle, Washington rode on to the British Fort Cumberland, in Maryland, to recuperate from his illness. While there, he wrote a letter to his brother John, dated July 18, 1755, in which he exhibits a wry sense of humor in his telling of the events of the recent battle with the French forces:

“Dear Brother,  
As I have heard, since my arrival at this place (Fort Cumberland, Maryland), a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech; I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you that I have not, as yet, composed the latter. But, by the all-powerful Dispensation of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation; for I had four Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me; yet escaped unhurt, although Death was leveling my companions on every side of me!”

The French and Indian War began in the Ohio Valley, in 1754-55, but remained at a stalemate for several more years. The open hostilities between Britain and France continued and spread to Europe, marking the beginning of a larger imperial war known as, The Seven Years’ War; some call it the first world war. Spain sided with France and also declared war against Britain. Despite facing this formidable alliance, the British naval strength ultimately succeeded in seizing the French Caribbean Islands, Spanish Cuba, and the Philippines. After Spain’s failed invasion of Britain’s ally, Portugal, diplomats from the French and Spanish governments began seeking peace with Britain. This costly war finally ended with The Treaty of Paris in 1763. The treaty secured significant British territorial gains in North America, including all of the French territory east of the Mississippi River, as well as the Spanish territory of Florida.

While preparing for the campaign against the French, General Braddock offered the colonials parcels of the Ohio frontier in exchange for their combat services. Washington was intent on seeing to it that the British kept their promise to these veterans as well as to the families of fallen soldiers. Fifteen years later, in 1770, Washington was permitted to notify all claimants that surveying of approved lands would proceed, and once completed, the lands would be parceled out to the rightful recipients. Washington led the four-man surveying party which consisted of William Crawford, who was a fellow veteran and surveyor, Joseph Nicholson, scout and interpreter, and Dr. James Craik. Craik was a lifelong friend of Washington’s, and attended him in the final hours before his death, on December 14, 1799.

The party set out from Fort Pitt to explore possible bounty sites, and to stake out the “Soldier’s Land,” as well. At their campsite off the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, Washington’s group was approached by a small party of native braves, and their Chief, who had been tracking the colonial party because their Chief had long wanted to meet Washington. A council fire was kindled, Nicholson served as interpreter, and Craik took notes of what was later known as, The Indian Prophesy. Turning his full attention on Washington, the Chief proceeded by saying:

“I am a Chief and ruler of many tribes. My influence extends to the waters of the Great Lakes, and to the far Blue Mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle. It was on the day when the white man’s blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld this chief (Washington). I called to my young men and said, mark you tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red-coat tribe – he hath an Indian’s wisdom and his warriors fight as we do – himself alone exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies. Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, did not miss – ‘twas all in vain; a power mightier far than we, shielded him from harm. He did not die in battle. I am old, and soon shall be gathering to the great council fire by my fathers, in the land of shades, but ere I go, there is something bids me speak in the voice of Prophesy. Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his Destinies; he will become the chief of many nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire. I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle.”