IN January, 1755, General Braddock was despatched from Ireland, with two regiments of infantry, to co-operate with the Virginian forces in recovering the command of the Ohio. The arrival of Braddock excited enthusiastic hopes among the colonists. The different provinces seemed to forget their disputes with each other and with Great Britain, and to enter into a resolution to chastise the French, at whatever cost. At the request of the British commander, a meeting of the governors of five of the colonies was held at Alexandria, at which they determined to undertake three simultaneous expeditions. The first of these was to be conducted by Braddock, with the British troops, against Fort Duquesne; the second, under the command of Governor Shirley, now honored with the commission of a general from the king, was intended for the reduction of the French fort of Niagara, and was composed of American regulars and Indians; the third was an expedition against Crown Point, to be undertaken by a regiment of militia.
The orders brought by Braddock divested the colonial generals and field-officers of all rank while serving with British officers of the same grade, and made company officers subordinate to those of the regular army. This left Washington without rank in the new army; yet he was eager to take part in the expedition, and at Braddock's request he joined him with the rank of aide-de-camp. The army proceeded by way of Frederic Town and Winchester to Will's Creek, which was reached about the middle of May. Here a long halt was made, to obtain wagons and horses, though Washington strongly opposed the delay, and recommended an immediate advance, before the French could reinforce their posts on the Ohio. Finally the wagons were obtained, through the strenuous exertions of Benjamin Franklin and his personal influence with the farmers of Pennsylvania. On the 10th of June the army recommenced its march. As it proceeded very slowly, Washington advised a rapid advance of a portion of the troops, leaving the rear division, with the baggage, heavy artillery, etc, to follow more slowly.
This advice prevailed in the council, and, being approved by the general, he advanced on the 19th of June, with twelve hundred chosen men, and officers from all the different corps, leaving the remainder, with most of the wagons, under the command of Colonel Dunbar, with instructions to follow as fast as he could. Notwithstanding this arrangement, Braddock advanced very slowly, "halting to level every mole-hill and to erect bridges over every brook, by which means he was four days in advancing twelve miles."
Washington was now prostrated with a severe fever, and was obliged to remain with the rear division. He rejoined the general on the day before the battle, and was then able to sit on horseback, though still very weak.
On joining Braddock's division on the 8th, at the mouth of the Youghiogheny, Washington was surprised to find them, though within fifteen miles of the fort, marching in regular European order, in as perfect security as if they were on the wide plains of the Eastern Hemisphere, or in a peaceful review, on a field-day, in England. They marched without advanced guards or scouts; and the offer of Washington to scour the woods, in front and on the flanks, with his Virginian provincials, was haughtily rejected.
A considerable bend in the Monongahela River, and the nature of the banks, made it necessary for the army to cross it twice before they reached the fort. On the morning of the 9th of July, everything being in readiness, the whole train crossed the river in perfect order, a short distance below the mouth of the Youghiogheny, and took up their line of march along its southern bank, in high spirits. The garrison of the fort was understood to be small, and quite inadequate to resist the force now brought to bear upon it; exulting hope filled every heart; and no one doubted that he should see the British flag waving, next day, over the battlements, and the enemy obliged to retire to Canada or surrender themselves prisoners of war. The march on that morning is described as a splendid spectacle, being made in full military array, in exact order, the sun glancing from the burnished bayonets to the scarlet uniform of the regulars, with a majestic river on the right, and dark, deep woods on the left. Not an enemy appeared, and the most profound silence reigned over this wild territory. The only countenance among them which was clouded with care or concern was that of Washington, who, as he rode beside the general, vainly represented that the profound silence and apparent solitude of the gloomy scenes around them afforded no security in American warfare against deadly and imminent danger. Again, and still vainly, did he offer to scour the woods in front and on the left with the provincial troops. The general treated his fears as the effects of fever on his brain, and the provincials were ordered to form the rearguard of the detachment.
About noon they reached the second crossing-place, within ten miles of Fort Duquesne, and at one o'clock had all crossed the river in safety. Three hundred men under Colonel Gage formed the advance party, which was closely followed by a party of two hundred; and last of all followed the general with the main body, consisting of about seven hundred men, the artillery and baggage.
After crossing the river, the road along which they marched led for about half a mile through a low plain, and then commenced a gradual ascent of about three degrees, the prospect being shut in by hills in the distance. About a hundred and fifty yards from the bottom of this inclined plain, and about equidistant from the road leading to the fort, commenced two ravines, from eight to ten feet deep, which led off in different directions until they terminated in the plain below. Covered as these ravines were with trees and long grass, and the British having no scouts, it was impossible for them to discover their existence without approaching within a few feet of them. Up this inclined plain, between these ravines, General Braddock led his army on the afternoon of the 9th of July.
While the English were thus leisurely advancing, the scouts of the French kept the commandant at Fort Duquesne accurately informed of their motions and their numbers. Believing the small force under his command wholly inadequate to the defence of the fort against three thousand men, with a formidable park of artillery, as his scouts had represented them, he was hesitating what course to pursue, when Captain de Beaujeu offered to lead a small party of French and Indians to meet the enemy and harass his march. It required a great deal of persuasion to induce the Indians to engage in what they considered an impossible undertaking; but, possessing their confidence, he finally subdued their unwillingness, and induced about six hundred of them to accompany him. With these and about two hundred and fifty French and Canadians, he intended to occupy the banks of the Monongahela and harass the English as they crossed the river. It was only on the morning of the 9th that he was ready to start on this expedition, and when he arrived near the river his spies reported that Braddock had already crossed. Finding that he was too late to pursue his original plan, de Beaujeu placed his followers in the ravines before mentioned, between which the English were seen advancing along the road.
When the three hundred under Gage came near the head of the ravines, a heavy discharge of musketry was poured in upon their front, and immediately after another upon their left flank. This was the first notice which they had of the presence of an enemy. Braddock was completely surprised. Gage ordered his men to fire, and though no enemy was visible, yet they poured such a discharge upon the spot where the smoke of the first fire was still to be seen, that the Indians, believing that it proceeded from artillery, were upon the point of retreating. Their indecision was but for an instant, for the advance, falling back upon the main body, threw them into confusion; and instead of following the example of the Indians and taking to the trees, or opening upon their invisible foe a discharge of grape, they were ordered by Braddock to maintain their ranks and advance. Captain de Beaujeu was killed by the first discharge of Gage's men, and Captain Dumas, who succeeded him in the command, immediately rallied the Indians, and, sending them down the ravines, ordered them to attack the enemy on each flank, while he, with the French and Canadians, maintained his position in front. Then commenced a terrible carnage. The British, panic-struck and bewildered, huddled together in squads, heeded not the commands of their officers, who were riding about madly urging them to advance, but they only fled from one side of the field to be met by the fire of an invisible foe on the other side; and then they would gather in small parties as if they hoped to shield themselves behind the bodies of their friends, firing without aim, oftener shooting down their own officers and men than Indians. Their only hope would now have been to separate, rush behind the trees, and fight man to man with their assailants; but Braddock insisted on forming them into platoons and columns, in order to make regular discharges, which struck only the trees or tore up the ground in front. The Virginians alone seemed to retain their senses. Notwithstanding the prohibition of the general, they no sooner knew the enemy with whom they had to deal, than they adopted the Indian mode of fighting, and each for himself, behind a tree, manifested bravery worthy of a better fate.
Meanwhile the French and Indians, secure behind their natural breastworks, aimed deliberately first at the officers on horseback, and then at others, each shot bringing down a man. The leaders, selected by unerring aim, fell first. Captains Orme and Morris, two of the three aides-de-camp, were wounded early in the action, and Washington was the only person left to distribute the general's orders, which he was scarcely able to do, as he was not more than half recovered from his illness. Notwithstanding the neglect with which his warnings had been treated, he still aided the general with his mental as well as his physical powers; though the troops lay thick around him in slaughtered heaps, he still gave the aid of salutary counsel to his ill-fated chief, and urged it with all the grace of eloquence and all the force of conviction. Riding in every direction, his manly form drew the attention of the savages, and they doomed him to destruction. The murdering rifles were levelled, the quick bullets flew winged with death, and pierced his garments; but, obedient to the Sovereign will, they dared not shed his blood. One chieftain especially singled Washington out as a conspicuous mark, fired his rifle at him many times, and ordered his young warriors to do the same, until they became convinced that he was under the special protection of the Great Spirit, and would never die in battle, when they desisted. Although four balls passed through Washington's coat, and two horses were shot under him, he escaped unhurt.
Washington's conduct in the action is described by an eye-witness whose verbal account is thus given by Mr. Paulding: "I saw him take hold of a brass field-piece as if it had been a stick. He looked like a fury; he tore the sheet-lead from the touch-hole; he placed one hand on the muzzle, the other on the breach; he pulled with this, and he pushed with that, and wheeled it around as if it had been nothing. It tore the ground like a barshare. The powder-monkey rushed up with the fire, and then the cannon began to bark, I tell you. They fought and they fought, and the Indians began to holla, when the rest of the brass cannon made the bark of the tress fly, and the Indians come down. That place they call Rock Hill, and there they left five hundred men dead on the ground."
After the slaughter had thus continued for three hours, General Braddock, after having three horses killed under him, received a shot through the right arm and the lungs, and was borne from the field by Colonel Gage. More than one-half of the soliders who had so proudly crossed the river three hours before were now killed or wounded, and the rest, on the fall of the general, fled precipitately. The provincials, who were among the last to leave the ground, were kept in order by Washington, and served to cover the retreat of the regulars. The officers in general remained on the field while there seemed any hope of rallying their troops, and consequently, out of eighty-six engaged, sixty-three were killed or wounded. Of the privates, seven hundred and fourteen fell. The rout was complete, and the more disgraceful in that it was before an inferior enemy, who attacked without the least hope of such success, and during the whole battle lost but forty men. Most of these were Indians killed in venturing out of the ravine to take scalps.
Captain Dumas thought his force too weak to pursue the fugitives, who fled precipitately until they had recrossed the Monongahela, when, being no longer in imminent danger, they again formed. Colonel Washington hastened forward to bring up wagons and other conveyances for the wounded.
General Braddock, under the particular charge of Captain Stewart of the Virginia forces, was at first conveyed in a tumbril; afterwards he was placed on horseback, but being unable to ride, he was obliged to be carried by soldiers. In this way he was transported until the night of the 13th, when they arrived within a mile of Fort Necessity, where he died, and was buried in his cloak, in the road, to elude the search of the Indians, Washington, by the light of a torch, read the funeral service over his remains.
The news of the defeat soon reached the rear division under Colonel Dunbar. The greatest confusion for a time reigned in his camp. The artillery stores were destroyed, the heavy baggage burned, and as soon as the fugitives arrived he took up the line of march with all speed for Philadelphia. Colonel Washington proceeded to Mount Vernon, Justly indignant at the conduct of the regulars in the late engagement, though his own bravery and good conduct in the action gained him the applause of all his countrymen.
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