The Most Improbable Battle in American History?
Everybody loves the underdog. The pesky American college skaters beat the Olympic champion Soviets and it's the stuff of Hollywood (Miracle). The Amazin' Mets take down the mighty Baltimore Orioles in the '69 Series. Joe Namath boasts that the AFL Jets will knock off the powerhouse NFL Johnny Unitas Colts, and son of a gun, they do! Every once in a while, underdogs prevail.
Flash back to summer, 1755. A mighty British army marches deep into the American wilderness to destroy the French stronghold, Fort Duquesne, at the headwaters of the Ohio River. Major General Edward Braddock of the Coldstream Guards leads the redcoated column, backed up by a highly competent group of commanders. They have cavalry, elite grenadiers, and an array of cannon--including huge siege guns. About 2,500 men comprise the column, 1,200 of whom have hurried ahead into the wilderness to besiege Fort Duquesne amidst a horrendous drought, before the fort can be resupplied or reinforced.
Braddock himself is a 45-year veteran of the British army. Says Dr. Paul Kopperman, author of the landmark book Braddock at the Monongahela, "Edward Braddock would then have then been 60 years old; a great deal of military experience, a lifelong officer in a tradition of officers,...He had risen fairly high in the Coldstreams, and yet the best evidence is that he had never actually been at a battle. Certainly he never commanded on the battlefield." But he is highly skilled at logistics--at getting an army ready and marching it into battle. In fact, in many ways he is the perfect leader for such a campaign that will, believes the London command, be what would today be called a "slam dunk."
True enough, the French are doomed and they know it. The drought has really hurt Fort Duquesne, and cut it off from its northern supply line into Canada. The garrison is vastly underprovisioned. Their Indian allies are disgruntled. In the conflict nearly all Natives have gravitated toward the more welcoming French--but the Indians rely on their allies for food and goods. The French commander, Capt.
Claude-Pierre Pecaudy, Sieur de Contrecoeur, sends out detachments to raid the approaching British troops, take scalps, and spread terror. But Contrecoeur reports of Braddock's column, "Their troops marched constantly on guard, always in a line of battle, so that all the efforts of the detachments were of no avail."
Contrecoeur sits helplessly and hears ominous reports about Braddock's approaching juggernaut. Over the course of six weeks, the British carve a road out of the Allegheny forests and march 110 miles from the British outpost of Fort Cumberland (now Cumberland, Maryland) to just 8 miles southeast of Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).
French-allied Indians sent by Contrecoeur watch from the forest as Braddock's flankers
and--at right--the British column, march toward Fort Duquesne.
And it is now that the fates begin to intervene. A French leader, Daniel Hyacinthe Marie Linard de Beaujeu, is newly arrived at Fort Duquesne to relieve Contrecoeur. Beaujeu realizes he will soon be the commander of a pile of matchsticks if he doesn't do something drastic, and at once. There are hundreds of Indians camped about the fort--Indians none too intent on facing Braddock. The natives are excellent warriors--and one of the things that makes them so good is that they know when to attack and when not to.
Beaujeu seeks to ambush the British as their column crosses the Monongahela River at a ford made shallow by the drought. Beaujeu figures he will have a wonderful field of fire from forest cover and mow down redcoats stuck in the river as if in a turkey shoot.
Paul Kopperman disagrees with Beaujeu's approach, "That would have been great from the British point of view," said Dr. Kopperman in a 2002 filmed interview. "So, the men who were crossing would have come back. The British would have brought up their cannon. They would have fired away. They would have been in a position to advance, or certainly, they would have known what the situation was." So the French captain has a plan, albeit a flawed one, and Braddock's army will have every chance to win the day.
Sometime not too long after dawn on July 9, Beaujeu delivers a speech to the assembled throng of Indians--most from the Great Lakes, and including the charismatic French guerrilla leader Charles de Langlade--that includes an impassioned: "I am determined to go out against the enemy! I am certain of victory! What? Will you suffer your father to depart alone?" History records that this speech whips the Indians into a frenzy and they charge out led by some French marines and militia to meet the British column, now just seven miles away.
However, in an interview for When the Forest Ran Red, esteemed Native historian Dr. R. David Edmunds (author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Shawnee Prophet) tells a fascinating part of the story overlooked by popular history for 250 years:
"The French initially wished to attack Braddock as he was crossing the Monongahela, and the warriors agreed. But on the night before, a Potowotomie man from Detroit has a very powerful dream in which he envisions attacking the British in the forest. So when the French try to initiate the attack in the morning, the Native Americans are reluctant to go until the British do get across the river. Then they rush forward, and the French, of course, are swept up with them because they have to be part of the attack themselves."
In other words, the wily Natives know more than they let on. They are dubious of Beaujeu's plan of attacking Braddock during the river crossing. The Indians want no part of an open battle. They haven't survived in unforgiving wilderness for centuries using crazy tactics like that. It's much more to their liking to hit the British in the forest, where the battle will be more even. The Natives are also well aware that the redcoats are marching into Indian hunting grounds--an area where the underbrush has been burned out. This means that there will be an interesting field of fire created in lands that the French-Native force knows much better than do the British.
So marching northwest through the forest toward Fort Duquesne is a powerful, heavily armed elite British force of 1,200. Hurrying southeast along a river trail is a mob of perhaps 300-500 Indians and French soldiers. [Note: a prisoner at Fort Duquesne stated, "I computed their number to be about 300." George Washington would refer to the attackers as "a handful of men." Accounts vary wildly, but it seems logical that the force was relatively small, numbering no more than 400.]
It's now past noon. The July sun beats down overhead. The men of Braddock's command are hungry, lips parched, feet little more than bloody stumps inside shoes worn out from the incredible march. History doesn't tell us if these troops have stripped out of their wool uniforms in the heat, but it's likely they are in shirtsleeves for the final push.
They advance behind road builders frantically clearing a path in the forest to bring up wagons and light cannon. At about 1 o'clock, the vanguard of the column reaches a deep ravine. They pause to reconnoiter. Back a ways, Braddock is deciding about tomorrow's assault on the fort.
Suddenly ahead British flankers make out the mob of approaching French and Natives. Both sides experience a frozen moment. Quick decisions made in this instant will shape the fates of great empires.
The British make the first good decisions. Lt.-Col. Thomas Gage, commanding the lead grenadiers, forms up his men in line of battle and orders volleys fired into the French mob at 200 yards. Musket balls zip among the great oaks at a high trajectory deep into the forest. The first rain of grenadier firing produces the most unlikely result.
A bullet smacks into the forehead of young Capt. Beaujeu and he is dead before his body hits the ground. Now outnumbered three to one, with their commander killed, the guerrilla forces should flee the field. It would be human nature; they know the odds; they can see the quality of their foe. Their leader is struck down in the first moment of battle! From the distance they hear the grenadiers cheer a lusty, "Huzzah!" and "Long live the king!" The chilling voices echo in the magnificent Monongahela basin.
Beaujeu's mob does not turn and run. Instead, in a remarkable twist of irony, the killing of Beaujeu actually helps the French cause. Says Fred Anderson, author of the Parkman Prize-winning Crucible of War:
"The Canadian infantry and the troops de la marine are no longer under anyone's command, and they don't know what to do. We know that they seem to be disorganized. But the Indians are liberated from command at that moment, and they know exactly what to do. They simply begin to take an individual approach to the battle."
The Native contingent is elated! Now there's no boss! They are classic freelancers on their own hunting grounds and they want two things: loot and scalps. The French marines and militia become spectators as the Natives melt into the forest to the right and left of the British grenadiers. The occasional bang, bang of musketry becomes a steady rattle, answered periodically by a strident BOOM! from grenadiers firing highly disciplined volleys--at nothing but empty forest.
Before long, the Natives are feeling their oats. The scalp halloo picks up and now it's Native voices that echo in the hills. It is a blood-curdling sound the British have dreaded hearing. They have spent two months listening to stories about the demon savages cutting throats in the night. And now the savages aren't bogey men in nightmares--they are real, and only yards away.
Sir John St. Clair, a ranking British officer that day, said, "We began to feel the enemy's fire and to hear their shouts. I ran to the front to see what the matter was, when I received a shot through the body. I then went up to General Braddock at the head of his own guns and begged of him for God's sake to gain the rising ground on our right to prevent our being totally surrounded."
St. Clair is actually reporting on about a half hour's worth of action. He had moved forward to the position of the grenadiers, who are cut down left and right. He has been shot, blacked out, and is carried back toward Braddock. By the time he and the general have their exchange, the tide has turned, and the British column is now collapsed in on itself--the vanguard retreating back toward the river, and the rear guard rushing forward toward the sound of the guns. Before long, the entire British force is jammed together in a relatively small space of forest, and serving as targets that the Indians simply can't miss.
White-clad French regular troops fire down from forest cover at Braddock's army in the road below.
Things go from bad to worse for Gen. Braddock. By now the French troops have rejoined the fray, seized some British light cannon, and turned them on the army in the road. It is now a question of battlefield decisions. Braddock has done his best to adapt the fighting style of his troops to the kind of combat they are likely to face. In a Paladin on-camera interview, Dr. Stephen Brumwell, British author of the bestseller, Redcoats, discusses the general's foresight: "Before he marched his troops into the wilderness, he went to great lengths to try and prepare for what they might encounter. He modified their equipment; he modified their tactics." Perhaps if his troops had undergone the kind of war games common to modern armies, they might have performed better. But the enemy fires from forest concealment, and their firing and scalp halloos unnerve the veteran British troops already suffering the intense summer heat. As the British retreat, they leave dead and wounded on the forest earth--and in the distance they can see the Indians pounce upon their fallen comrades, taking scalps and looting bodies.
It has become, in the small space of an hour, hell on earth. It would have been merciful, perhaps, if Beaujeu had brought a thousand or two thousand fighters that day. But he brought only a few hundred, so it takes a frightfully long time for their concentrated fire to break the redcoats. Says Dr. Brumwell:
"...it is often said that the British troops who fought at the Monongahela were cowards....But to my way of thinking, the fact that these men stood their ground for three hours...having taken horrific casualties, speaks volumes for their motivation and also for their discipline."
It's all history. The mighty British army is bending like a tree in stiff wind. Will it break? Will the underdog prevail? What is the secret of Braddock's Luck? We urge you to witness it all in the Paladin DVD Special Edition, When the Forest Ran Red. Order now from this web site, or call 1.866.831.4840.
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