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GEORGE WASHINGTON: Braddock's Defeat


By Judy Leithe

By the mid-1700s, France had significant influence over the French colonists in Canada and North America, as well as trading relationships with many indigenous tribes.  At the same time, King George III was the ruling monarch of the thirteen colonies on the east coast, and the British had also established ties with the Iroquois Confederacy and controlled most of upstate New York and parts of the Ohio Valley.  

When the French refused to dismantle Fort Duquesne and other French forts along the Ohio River, in 1755, the British Parliament sent Brigadier General Edward Braddock to Virginia with orders to “Take command of the French in North America!”

General Braddock had served in the British Army since the age of 15.  He was now a plump 60-year-old man, steeped in the formalities of the British military and, accustomed to having ample supplies and uniformed soldiers at his disposal.  In his opinion, the American Colonists were undisciplined backwoodsmen who did not even have the resources to supply his campaign with horses, wagons, or even food.  Fortunately, he had the opportunity to meet Benjamin Franklin who was instrumental in arranging needed supplies from the more established and prosperous Pennsylvanian farmers.  

It was clear that General Braddock had no knowledge of the kind of wilderness that was in store for him.  After learning about a Virginian man who had experience travelling to and from the Ohio Valley, Braddock enlisted 22-year-old George Washington as his unpaid aide-de-camp.  However, Braddock was unwilling to take his tactical advice to have his army learn to fight like natives and frontiersmen by using the cover of surrounding forests.  Instead, Braddock insisted on parading his brightly-clad army in full view of his adversaries.  Washington was also dismayed by Braddock’s rude behavior.  Neither did his arrogance sit well with other colonials nor with the Iroquoi warriors; the very people Braddock needed most in his upcoming combat with the French and their Canadian allies.   

In sharp contrast to Braddock, a portrait of Washington closely matches the description of Colonel Washington.  In a report written by a fellow officer during their time in 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 and his 1,500 “redcoats” forged through the forests of the Ohio Valley, with colonial troops following, they were caught in 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 trapping the shocked British troops in a 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 as possible to safety.  It was also noted that throughout the battle, Washington was ill with a high fever.  General Braddock was accidently shot in the chest, possibly by one of his own men, and died on July 13, 1755.

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, 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 initial 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.  In 1770, fifteen years after the war, 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 on 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
 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.  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. 

George Washington’s self-discipline, composure, and his unmatched courage on the battlefield was recognized by friend and foe alike. On September 11, 1777 the British landed a large contingent of soldiers in Pennsylvania near Brandywine Creek.  Among the troops was Captain Patrick Ferguson, known as the best marksman in the British army, whose mission was to pick off American officers.  George Washington was his prime target and he now had the famed general in his sites.  Instead of firing, Ferguson felt ashamed at the idea of ambushing this impressive man so he called out to Washington, who looked directly at him before slowly cantering away.  Later, Ferguson said “I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him…but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty—so I let him alone.” 

Throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War, there were numerous battlefield instances which could have ended the life of George Washington.  It is unquestionable that his exceptional bravery, leadership and steadfast commitment to the cause of freedom for his country, won the war for America against the powerful British army.