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The Defeat, The Lesson, The Victory

July 2024
14min read

By studying Braddock’ mistakes, Henry Bouquet outsmarted the Indians who tried the same tricks on him a few years later

West of Chestnut Ridge—the last impressive barrier of what was called the Endless Mountains—a fork of land was formed by the junction of two great rivers. From the north the Allegheny came tumbling down, swift and clear two centuries ago; and moving up from its source somewhere in the southern Appalachians was the Monongahela, a deep, still body of water. Where they met, the Ohio River was formed, receiving the flow of both streams and taking it west to the Mississippi, southward to the sea.

In 1753 the young Virginian George Washington had stopped at this triangular piece of land and entered in his journal his impression of the place. From what he could see, the fork was “extremely well situated for a Fort as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. The land at the Point is 20 or 25 Feet above the common surface of the Water; and a considerable Bottome of flat, well-timbered land all around it, very convenient for building.”

Just two years later, the ambitions of two great empires centered on this pie-shaped chunk of wilderness, as the skirmish between Great Britain and France over fur-trading rights in the Ohio Valley erupted into a struggle for control of an entire continent.

The French had erected a log redoubt at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela in 1754, naming it Fort Duquesne, and during the next eight years that site was the goal of several British-American expeditions—two of which illustrate almost perfectly the changing concept of warfare as it was to be fought in the North American wilderness.

On March 26, 1755, the first of these forces began to assemble at the “proud new town” of Alexandria, Virginia. Understandably pleased by the presence of five governors and a commodore, Alexandria was fairly bursting with pride over the fact that the commander in chief of all the King’s forces in America had seen fit to make the little town his Atlantic base of operations. This man, who was leading the important expedition against Fort Duquesne in person, was Major General Edward Braddock, sixtyish, short, and stocky. He had been in the British Army for 45 years, learning almost all there was to know about army life and regulations: but there was an unfortunate gap in his experience—he had seen almost no fighting.

As part of an ambitious plan, Braddock was to march from Wills Creek in western Maryland to Fort Duquesne, take it, and then head 200 miles north and east to seize Fort Niagara, near the western end of Lake Ontario. While Braddock was thus occupying the enemy in the west, Sir William Johnson was to push the French out of Fort Frederic at Crown Point, clearing lower Lake Champlain.

Leaving Alexandria in the spring, Braddock and his imposing military pageant marched over abominable roads to Winchester and arrived, about a month later, near the headwaters of the Potomac, at Wills Creek. There some skeptical frontiersmen got their first glimpse of European-style warfare as the General rode in his carriage and the drums beat the Grenadiers’ March. While the men were constructing an advance base called Fort Cumberland, Braddock’s deputy quartermaster general, Lieutenant Colonel Sir John St. Clair, was assuring his commander that, with the exception of fifteen miles of rough country, the going between Fort Cumberland and Fort Duquesne would be a lot easier than the Winchester road they had just traveled. Unfortunately for Braddock, St. Clair had not really inspected the terrain he was describing so glibly, except at a distance and from a mountain top. Actually, the steep mountains were covered with virgin forest so thick that men might walk through it for days without glimpsing the sky. Impenetrable undergrowth, rocks, streams, and the high mountains themselves made it extraordinarily difficult country through which to travel, much less move an army of 2,000 men, supply wagons, and clumsy cannon. Braddock would discover this for himself, twenty miles west of Fort Cumberland, when they passed through woods so dense they were known as the “Shades of Death.” Although the distance between Fort Cumberland and Fort Duquesne was only about 110 miles, Braddock’s determination to take a ponderous train of wagons with him meant building a road over nearly the entire route.

By the time Braddock left Fort Cumberland, he had seen enough of America and its inhabitants to make him dislike them intensely. There had been constant delays ever since he left Alexandria, and instead of the 150 wagons he wanted, only 25 were available at Wills Creek. George Washington, who was one of Braddock’s aides, strongly urged the use of pack horses in crossing the mountains, but the British General was a wheeled-vehicle man, and damned the provincials for failing to provide them. Benjamin Franklin used his influence with the Pennsylvania fanners to get the General his wagons, meantime warning him that when his long column became entwined in the mountain wilderness the Indians would cut it into pieces like thread. To this advice Braddock replied, “These savages may be a formidable enemy to raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops they can make no impression.” Likewise he spurned the obviously practical suggestion of his colonial officers that he throw out Indian scouts and rangers well in advance of his main force. Braddock had no understanding of the use of such men, and his failure to employ them cost him what Indian allies he had, the confidence of most of his colonial troops, and the battle itself.

As the army pushed deeper into the mountains, Braddock lost what little patience he had and was constantly angry over the slow, tedious pace. To speed its progress, he committed the error of dividing his force, leaving a heavy escort with his impedimenta, while he went forward with about 1,500 of his choicest light troops. Besides the British regulars in this advance division, there were several companies of pioneers to cut roads, two colonial companies from New York, some Virginia rangers, and a bodyguard for the commander in chief. The long column covered about four miles.

On the fateful morning of July 9, 1755, the regiments crossed from the south bank of the Monongahela to the north bank at a point close by Frazier’s trading post on Turtle Creek, where Washington and Christopher Gist had stopped on their way to and from Fort LeBoeuf in 1753. This was only about twelve miles from their destination, the little log fort which would certainly fall when Braddock’s artillery was brought into range. A fringe of heavy underbrush extended about 400 yards inland from the north bank, where the ground rose steadily away from the stream, and as the brilliantly arrayed British troops fell into line of march as though on parade, Washington thought it one of the most thrilling sights he had ever seen. In the background was the sparkling, tranquil river, and ahead was the deep, dark forest, overshadowing them with its silent grandeur. To a man, the officers were in high spirits, confident of taking Duquesne with no trouble. They had half-expected a French attack while they were crossing the ford, and when nothing happened Braddock did not even bother to reconnoiter ahead, assuming all was safe. There were a few guides up front, followed by the engineer, busily marking the route and blazing trees which would have to be felled by the carpenters and pioneers to make a road twelve feet wide. (This rather exactly defined width was just enough for the guns and wagons—it was assumed the men could look out for themselves.) From the advance guard to the extreme rear, the column of nearly 1,500 men was strung out over a distance of 1,900 yards.

Braddock’s guess that the French might attack at the ford was not ill-founded. Keen Indian eyes had followed his movements every day since he left Fort Cumberland, and as he never made more than three or four miles a day, the French at Fort Duquesne were constantly aware of his position. The fort was woefully undermanned, and the only hope of thwarting Braddock’s plan lay in surprising him somewhere en route, probably at the ford. Captain Daniel Beaujeu, second in command at Duquesne, was to lead the attacking party; but at the last moment, with the British within striking distance, his Indians refused to move. Marching a handful of white troops out of the fort on July 8, Beaujeu goaded the Indians into joining him by asking: “What—will you let your father go alone? I am sure of beating them!” Because of the brief delay, Beaujeu’s attack on Braddock was not an ambush, but a head-on meeting of two forces at a point where neither quite expected to find the other.

It was two thirty in the afternoon of the ninth, and Braddock’s advance under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage was ascending’ the slope into dense forest when someone caught sight of a conspicuously uniformed French colonial officer. He was observed motioning with his arms to left and right, dividing his forces to encircle head and Hanks of the British column, and a moment later a volley of musket fire, accompanied by a hideous Indian war whoop, echoed through the forest.

After their first fright, the grenadiers delivered a volley, loaded, fired again, and saw Beaujeu and two other French officers fall, along with a score of Indians and Canadians. That was very nearly the last they saw of the enemy. As the Indians disappeared from view, musket fire swept the British left, front, and right; the flankers were driven in: and the whole advance was pushed back fifty or sixty yards, piling into the main body and creating a confused mass of struggling, terrified soldiers who could see nothing of a foe who was attacking them with deadly fire from three sides. Mounted British officers, trying to rally the regulars, made ideal targets and one by one were shot down.

The situation spread out of control as a rumor swept the ranks that the rear guard and the baggage were under attack. Thinking themselves completely surrounded, the men began running back, abandoning two cannons, and ran straight into the fire from their own rear guard. Braddock and Washington came up from the rear to find unutterable confusion, with a mass of men ten or twelve deep firing at random, hitting many of their comrades in the back. Some of the colonials, trying to fight this thing their own way, headed for a place of concealment. The British regulars thought they were French and opened fire on them, while some British officers, recognizing them as Americans, thought they were retreating and refused to send reinforcements.

By this time British morale was as low as their ammunition supply. As their comrades dropped on every side, the frustrated redcoats scanned the woods for a clear shot at the unseen enemy. Occasionally an Indian would run out of the woods long enough to scalp a dead or wounded soldier and then dart back to cover. Washington had two horses shot from under him, and Braddock, desperately trying to form a line of his confused swarm of regulars, was finally shot through the right arm and one lung.

As the sun began to sink, the troops collected around their wagons. There was no abatement of fire from the woods, and the wagon drivers, perceiving that the shots were beginning to come from behind, cut loose their horses and rode off to safety. The struggling, terrified troops crowded into the passage leading back to the ford, and somehow Washington found a small cart which still had its team, put Braddock into it, and got him across the river just ahead of some Indians who began scalping helpless soldiers who had fallen exhausted in the water. On the south bank, Washington rode off through the darkness to try to reorganize the scattered remnants of what had been an army. The disaster was almost total: sixty-three officers had been killed or wounded (Washington was the only one of Braddock’s aides to survive) and 914 men—or 977 casualties in a force which numbered 1,459.

After looting wagons and bodies, the Indians returned to Fort Duquesne where the French commander scarcely believed what had happened. Long into the night the hideous victory celebration went on, the Indians in scarlet British coats dancing around funeral pyres of twelve prisoners who were burned alive on the Allegheny’s bank. A horrified Pennsylvanian who was a prisoner in the fort watched them torture one man: "… They had tied him to a stake and kept touching him with firebrands, hot irons &c and he screaming … the Indians in the meantime yelling like infernal spirits.”

Meantime, in the engulfing darkness, the exhausted and wounded British crawled away from the battle scene, their groans and pitiful cries for help sounding through the black night. Braddock was transferred from the cart to a hand litter, and later when his soldiers refused to carry him he somehow managed to mount a horse and endure the agony of his wound on the rocky road. One of his men heard him mutter, almost to himself, “Who would have thought it?” and again, “We shall know better how to deal with them another time,” but at 9 P.M. on July 13, Braddock died. Washington selected a place in the road, had a trench dug, and after burying the General, ordered troops and wagons to march over the grave to conceal it from the French and Indians. Not until 1824, when some workmen repairing the road dug up a skeleton and an officer’s insignia believed to be Braddock’s, was the grave discovered. As for Fort Duquesne, after Braddock’s retreat there was no British force west of the Alleghenies to challenge the little French outpost, and the bones of Braddock’s men whitened in the wilderness for three years before another attempt was made.

In 1758 Brigadier General John Forbes was given the task of taking Fort Duquesne and breaking the French link between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Instead of Alexandria, he selected the older, well-provisioned city of Philadelphia as a base; and against the advice of Washington, who was in his command, abandoned the old Braddock route from Fort Cumberland in favor of a new road west from Raystown, or Bedford. Forbes had learned from Braddock’s defeat that he had to have a fortified advance post to fall back on in the event of defeat, so Fort Ligonier was constructed. The British commander was seriously ill on this campaign (he was, in fact, slowly dying and had to be carried along much of the wilderness route in a sling between two horses), and had it not been for his enormous will power and a brilliant second in command, Henry Bouquet, who executed his plans, the expedition might have ended like Braddock’s. Instead, the outnumbered French garrison burned Fort Duquesne while Forbes was hacking his “Great Road” across the Alleghenies, and the British built a new fort on the site, naming it Fort Pitt in honor of the British statesman.

By 1763 William Pitt’s plans to drive the French from North America had succeeded, and the colonists rejoiced in the belief that peace was assured at last. This illusion was quickly destroyed by the Indian tribes who, generally dissatisfied with the white men’s peace, joined in an uprising led by Pontiac and inspired a general Indian uprising that brought terror to the entire frontier. Between May 16 and June 22, ten English forts fell to Pontiac, their garrisons massacred; and Detroit, Ligonier, and Pitt were besieged. To relieve the latter two, the British commander Sir Jeffery Amherst sent Colonel Henry Bouquet, one of the few qualified Indian fighters in America.

Born in 1719 in Switzerland, Bouquet began his military career at the age of seventeen, and by 1763 he combined a thorough knowledge of European warfare with seven years’ experience on the American frontier. In complete contrast to Braddock, he had a remarkable awareness of Indian psychology and tactics and a knowledge of how to combat them.

Amherst gave Bouquet the remnants of two Highland regiments, members of the Black Watch who had just returned from the siege of Havana and who were more fit for the hospital than for frontier duty. To these the Swiss soldier of fortune added what volunteers he could pick up in Pennsylvania, most of them German emigrants, and headed for Carlisle to gather supplies and transport. Arriving there on July 1, he found that no preparations had been made, but he proceeded with his usual energy to equip and train his little army. Eighteen days later he set out for Fort Bedford, arriving on July 25. There he left his sick, picked up thirty backwoodsmen as guides, and set out along Forbes’ route toward Fort Pitt, more than one hundred miles to the west. Although this road, if it could be called that, put him into contact with more settlements and lessened his supply problem, Bouquet appreciated fully the formidable nature of the forest and the dangers hidden within it at every step. He stationed his wagons and cattle in the center of the caravan, put out advance, rear, and flank guards, and sent selected and experienced frontiersmen far to the front to scout for the enemy.

On August 2 he raised the siege of Fort Ligonier, left his wagons and oxen, and pushed off for Fort Pitt. Bouquet knew the perilous defile of Turtle Creek, near the site of Braddock’s disaster, where the narrow path was flanked on one side by a wall of rock and on the other by a precipice dropping off to the river below. Thinking the Indians might ambush him there, he determined to march as far as Bushy Run on the second day out of Ligonier, and after darkness fell, to cross Turtle Creek in a forced march. But about one o’clock on the afternoon of August 5, as he was approaching Bushy Run, the rattle of guns halted his advance guard. Despite his precautions, it looked as though Bouquet had been surprised as easily as had Braddock.

The principal difference between the two commanders became apparent at once. Bouquet had prepared for such an eventuality, and his advance guard fell back according to plan, a reserve enclosed his supplies and horses, and the troops formed into line. To improve his defensive position, Bouquet led a bayonet charge by the Highlanders—whose war cry was as ferocious and bloodcurdling as that of the Indians—and broke through the Indians to take a solid position on a hill surrounded by woods. Soon it was apparent to Bouquet and his men that they were surrounded on all sides by a force far superior to their own, and their only choice under the circumstances was to form a defensive ring around the supplies and hope for the best. Several bayonet charges broke through the attackers, but the Indians disappeared each time only to appear on another quarter. For seven uninterrupted hours the fight went on—twice as long as the engagement in which Braddock was defeated—and as night fell Bouquet was still completely surrounded. He had sixty killed or wounded, he had no water, and there was no hope of relief; yet the men’s confidence in Bouquet was such that there was no panic. By the light of a lantern the Colonel calmly wrote a detailed dispatch to Amherst which is a classic of its kind. Expressing his “admiration of the cool and steady behaviour of the troops,” he described the heat, fatigue, and thirst which were “more intolerable than the enemy’s fire,” and concluded: “We expect to begin [again] at daybreak. I fear unsurmountable difficulties in protecting and transporting our provisions, being already so much weakened by the loss this day in men and horses.”

As dawn filtered into the gloomy aisles of the forest, the Indians’ attack was renewed more fiercely than ever. Their fire on Bouquet’s force became practically incessant, and while the Indians seemed to gain in strength and confidence, Bouquet’s line was definitely wavering. As the morning wore on, Bouquet realized that his only hope of avoiding slaughter was to draw the Indians from their cover into a compact body enabling his regulars to deal them a decisive blow.

Understanding the Indian character, Bouquet was able to devise a coup de guerre which his disciplined men, dead-tired and harassed though they were, could execute. He knew that the Indians, frenzied with success, were awaiting eagerly the first signs of retreat which would give them the cue to leap forward and massacre his men. To create such an illusion, he ordered two companies to fall back toward the core of his circle. As they did so, he had the troops on either side of the vacant sector spread out thin to cover twice their former front, and then fall back quickly.

As Bouquet expected, this feint entirely deceived the Indians. Led on by his ruse, they rushed forward in a mass toward the gap created by the withdrawal. It was all his thin line could do to prevent them from bursting through, but meantime the two companies which had apparently retreated were moving swiftly out of Bouquet’s circle into the forest vacated by the Indians. Their movement covered from sight by a densely wooded depression, they appeared suddenly and unexpectedly on the right flank of the advancing Indians, whose dense confused mass offered a perfect target for a withering volley. This was followed with a savage bayonet charge by the Highlanders.

The shock proved irresistible. The Indians were driven like cattle around the perimeter of Bouquet’s position, enabling his other companies to pour a concentrated fire into them as they crossed each front. After delivering another volley before the Indians could rally or reload, four of Bouquet’s companies united in pursuit, driving the Indians into the forest in complete rout.

The victory at Bushy Run, which raised the siege of Fort Pitt and opened the upper Ohio Valley again to settlement, has been called the best contested battle ever fought between whites and Indians. The latter had surprise, experience, and numerical superiority in their favor; yet they were decisively beaten by a man who had the resourcefulness to snatch victory from defeat.

Bouquet had learned many lessons from Braddock’s campaign. Unlike his hapless predecessor, he established a strong advance base from which a new assault could be launched if his own failed. He moved his troops with a minimum of delay and gained mobility by leaving his impedimenta behind. Although he had only half as many men, and no reserve behind him, as Braddock had, and although he was surprised in spite of his elaborate precautions (none of which Braddock took), he was able to win in the face of far greater odds. Bouquet’s willingness to learn the techniques of Indian warfare, his experience, and his study of the enemy’s temperament and tactics, gave him the resourcefulness which meant victory.

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