Background: One of the great battles of the French and Indian War occurred before war was actually declared. The British were the superpower of the 18th century. British General Braddock marched his army from Winchester, Virginia, through previously unbroken wilderness to Fort DuQuesne (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. The French and Indians held Fort DuQuesne, and from there they hoped to take Pennsylvania clear to the east coast, cutting the British colonies in half. In the chapter below, colonials Charley and Ephraim have joined Braddock’s forces on the march to Fort DuQuesne. The following is based on journals of soldiers involved, letters home, military records, and newspaper accounts.
Around campfires, colonial soldiers smeared bear grease on themselves to ward off mosquitoes and heal bramble scratches. Their feet were sore, and their shoulders ached from carrying heavy packs.
“You’re a sorry sight, Charley,” his buddy Ephraim told him. “Your Molly should see you now!”
“You don’t look so good yourself,” Charley replied, “but look at our friends the British. We can at least stand up and scratch ourselves. They look, whipped, don’t they?”
“Aye, they’re not used to our mountains. These Allegheny mountains ain’t much higher’n the ones I grew up in back East, but it seems our high and mighty British army never seen the like.”
“I don’t mind the mountains. I worry about the horses, though. They look to be starvin’, gettin’ weaker every day. Strippin’ leaves off trees can’t be good for ‘em.”
Ephraim said, “There’s naught but leaves for them to eat. If Braddock doesn’t get us to Fort Duquesne pretty soon, we’ll be eatin’ leaves ourselves.”
Charley looked over his shoulder to be sure no one was listening and then said, “I heard Braddock thought there’d be farmers along the way to feed the army, all the way to the Forks of the Ohio. How many farms have we seen since we left Fort Cumberland?”
“How many did ye expect to see? There’s nobody out here but Indians and a few scattered traders. Do ye suppose there’s enough food in them supply wagons to get us to the Forks?”
“Who knows? But we can shoot game,” Charley answered. “Horses need rye and Indian corn. I think we may end up bein’ pack horses ourselves before we get there.”
“When I was on sentry duty last night, I overheard our Colonel Washington talkin’ to General Braddock. Polite as anything, he says, ‘Sir, at this rate it will take so long to reach fort Duquesne that the French will have reinforcements from Canada before we arrive.’”
“And did the general bite his head off the way he cuts everyone else who tries to talk sense to him?”
“Naw, he just sounded real tired and said, “And what do you suggest, Colonel?’”
“So what was Washington’s idea?”
Ephraim drew himself up as tall as he could to impersonate young Washington’s stately manner. “’Divide the forces. Take your best soldiers forward and leave the supply wagons to follow as well as they can. Take only enough for the battle at the fort, and let the occupying forces and supplies come thereafter.’”
Charley nodded his approval. “What did Braddock think of that?”
“He sorta huffed, ‘That is not good military policy, but at this rate snow will fly before we reach Duquesne! Thank you, sir, for your suggestion.’
“Then he hollered for Colonel Dunbar, who come a runnin’, and he told him, ‘I will take a detachment of 500 men, officers, and the two eldest Grenadier companies ahead to attack Fort Duquesne. You and the rest of the army will follow in slower stages with the heavy baggage, heavy artillery and stores. I will have 1200 officers and men, and you will have 850 coming behind. Keep up as well as you can, but we will not wait for you. Is that clear?”
Charley jumped up to take Colonel Dunbar’s part in Ephraim’s replay. “Yes sir!” Charley saluted. Then, breaking character, he grinned. “I hope we’re in the advance. I’d hate to come this far and miss the battle.”
Charley and Ephraim were volunteers from Virginia. For three long months they had drilled. Then the Virginia militia had joined the British regulars at Fort Cumberland, Maryland, where Wills’s Creek flows into the Potomac River. The long march from Winchester, through bogs and over mountains, had toughened them. Each night they had listened to horror stories told by older soldiers around campfires. They felt prepared for anything.
Often Charley thought of Molly, an Irish indentured servant he had met when he visited Philadelphia on leave. Red-haired, gap-toothed Molly had a gift for gab. She made him laugh when she described her master and mistress, a stiff English couple. There was nothing stiff about Molly. He remembered how agile she was when he chased her and how she fit herself under his arm just so when he caught her. He hoped she’d be waiting for him when he returned. He would impress her with stories of battle and his own bravery.
The march from Fort Cumberland to Fort Duquesne was grueling. Overworked horses dropped dead in their tracks. Wagons that had bounced over endless miles of rocks suddenly fell apart. Troops complained of hunger because supplies lagged so far behind, and there was nothing to eat here in this western wilderness.
Nearly every day Indians picked off a few stragglers at the tail of the line. Each night sentries nervously patrolled the camp. The sudden terrifying whoops of the attackers and the blood-curdling screams of their victims rang out in soldiers’ troubled dreams.
Woodcutters hacked the trail just in advance of the army, felling trees and clearing brush for a roadway wide enough for four wagons side by side. The forest was so dense that for miles at a stretch they could see only about ten feet ahead. Some days the army had been able to cover just three miles.
The procession stretched for four or five miles along the trail. It was the largest military force ever seen in North America. There were 1,445 British regulars, 262 regulars in colonial independent companies, 449 provincial volunteers from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, and a few friendly Indians. There were even 30 sailors using block and tackle to drag howitzers and cannon from the British ships over the mountains and across rivers.
Dysentery cramped and weakened many soldiers. Colonel Washington himself was so sick that he had to stay behind with the supply wagons for a few days. But today he was back with his men, looking pale but determined.
Today would be the payoff. Today this mighty British army, supplemented by colonial regiments, would wipe out the French garrison at Fort Duquesne and settle forever whether England or France would control the Ohio country. Charley and Ephraim were in the advance.
July 9, 1755, was a fine, bright day. Charley and Ephraim’s spirits were soaring as they marched in formation toward Fort Duquesne. Jaunty fife and drum music carried them forward to what was bound to be a great victory over the outnumbered French. Far ahead they could see the British flag leading the parade. Their weapons gleamed in the sunlight, and everyone wore their best linen uniforms.
About two P.M. the army re-crossed the Monongahela River to the north shore, only ten miles from Fort Duquesne. As Charley and Ephraim stepped ashore, they heard a commotion up the hill toward the front units.
Indian yells curdled the air. Shots rang out from all directions. Smoke rolled through the woods. Ephraim shouted, “It’s begun! The French didn’t wait for us to attack.”
Utter chaos loomed ahead. This wasn’t the kind of battle the British army had anticipated. Charley’s eyes stung and his nose wrinkled from smoking guns. His ears rang with shrill Indian whoops and screams of dying men. His mouth was cottony with fear, and his legs trembled under him as cannon fire rocked the ground.
Colonel Gage’s advance party had passed the first hill and was mounting the second when suddenly they came face to face with French troops and Indian warriors. Both sides fired, and the French commander was killed immediately. Indians, stunned by the roar of the cannons, were about to retreat. Then the French officer second in command ordered his troops to lead the Indians into flank positions and attack the British from the sides.
British soldiers formed their traditional rows. Colonel Gage ordered bayonets fixed for a charge up the hill to the right where the heaviest shooting was coming from. But his men were so terrified by the yells of Indians hidden in the brush on either side that they would not budge.
General Braddock was behind Sir John St. Clair’s detachment. Hearing the commotion, Braddock ordered Colonel Burton and his men to the front to aid Colonel Gage. Then Braddock and Colonel Washington moved forward, leaving the Virginians at the rear.
General Braddock tried to rally his troops, but they refused to fight when they could not see the enemy. The invisible enemy seemed to be everywhere. Braddock, furious, stormed at his soldiers and called them cowards. He even hit some of them with the flat of his sword, but still they refused to move. St. Clair’s forces were crowding them from behind, and enemy fire came from the other three sides. Hunkered down, the British regulars shot at puffs of smoke from whatever direction they came, hoping to hit the enemy.
The Virginia troops were more accustomed than the British to fighting Indians. Charley was relieved when his captain called, “Men, split ranks and take cover behind trees or bushes.”
For the first time since they had recrossed the river, something made sense. Charley and Ephraim threw themselves behind a fallen log. From there, they fired toward the enemy on either side.
“I can’t see what I’m shooting!” Charley shouted.
“Don’t matter. Aim for the smoke. We just need to get out of here alive!”
The British in the center were shooting Virginians on the sides without knowing it and being wounded by Virginia gunfire themselves.
Some of the Pennsylvania wagoners, finding themselves unexpectedly in the midst of a battle, panicked. unhitched their horses, abandoned their wagons, and fled toward the river. Their wagons clogged the battlefield. Whatever was in them became plunder for the French and Indians.
General Braddock saw his officers fall, one after another. His own horse was shot dead. He jumped off, grabbed the reins of a rider-less horse, mounted, and continued leading the attack. Four more horses were shot out from under him. Finally a bullet tore through his arm and lodged in his lung. He fell into the arms of a Virginia captain.
Colonel Washington seemed to be everywhere. Indians took particular aim at him. Though his coat was full of bullet holes, he was uninjured. Finally the Indian chief ordered his men to stop trying to shoot the tall colonial. The Great Spirit must be protecting him.
Charley, crouched between a tree and a bramble bush, fired his musket until his ammunition was gone. He grabbed a gun and pouch from a dead soldier and fired some more. The woods were crawling with Indians. They crept from tree to tree, some shooting, some using tomahawks or knives. And always they kept up that awful yelling.
Charley saw an Indian ready to throw his tomahawk at Ephraim. Charley inched away from his tree and raised his gun. A terrific pain between his shoulder blades paralyzed him. He couldn’t breathe. Then a hand grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. Charley saw a knife blade coming toward his forehead. He screamed in excruciating pain as his scalp was peeled back. Suddenly released, he fell forward, blood pouring into his eyes. He collapsed. His lungs felt full; he couldn’t breathe in or out. “Molly,” he whispered. Then his body went limp and the world went black.