Military history

CHAPTER 8

General Braddock Takes Command

1755

EDWARD BRADDOCK’S two regiments, the 44th and the 48th Foot, would not arrive until March 10, three weeks after he disembarked in Virginia, but Braddock was not a man to wait around. By February 23, he was already at Williamsburg conferring with Governor Dinwiddie about the coming campaign. Braddock had been the duke of Cumberland’s choice to assume the supreme command in North America not because he was an able tactician or even a particularly experienced battlefield leader, but because he was a noted administrator and disciplinarian who was also politically reliable. As Dinwiddie brought him up to date on developments in Virginia and the neighboring colonies, Braddock began demonstrating the qualities that Cumberland so valued in him, in a blunt, imperious way that would endear him to few colonists. The Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly had refused to appropriate money to support the army’s operations, had they? Braddock fired off a letter to Governor Robert Hunter Morris deploring “such pusillanimous and improper Behaviour in your Assembly,” and threatening to quarter his troops on the province, should the Pennsylvanians fail to provide the support he required, without delay. The merchants of Albany, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were still trading with the French at Montréal and Louisbourg, were they? He sent dispatches ordering the governors of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania to attend him at a conference he would convene with the governors of Virginia and Maryland at Annapolis in early April: then he would instruct them on how properly to conduct a war. And so it went through all of March, as Braddock issued a stream of commands and directives for quartering, provisioning, enlistments, and dozens of other organizational matters, imparting direction and energy to a war effort unlike any ever seen in North America. 1

When Braddock finally convened his conference with the colonial governors, it was at Alexandria, Virginia, not at Annapolis, and in the middle of April, not the beginning, but his energy was as undiminished as his sense of how to prosecute the war was uninformed. Braddock never understood that the virtually viceregal powers granted in his commission and his instructions gave him great formal authority but little real influence; never appreciated the extent to which persuasion rather than command would be needed to mold a colonial war coalition. At Alexandria he treated the governors as if they were his battalion commanders instead of men who would have to cajole stubborn, suspicious, locally minded assemblies into supporting the common cause. Rather than seeking their advice, he simply read his commission and then laid out as much of his plan of the year’s campaigns as he thought they needed to know. First, he informed them, there was the matter of money: the colonies were to contribute to the common fund that would pay for military operations, and each governor would be responsible for the fulfillment of his province’s obligations.

As for the military operations themselves, Braddock revealed that Admiral Edward Boscawen was being sent with a fleet to the Gulf of St. Lawrence with orders to prevent reinforcements from reaching Canada, thus inhibiting the ability of the French to resist the land campaigns that would proceed under his own direction. Braddock’s two regiments, the 44th and the 48th, were already on their way to Wills Creek, from which they would depart as soon as possible on an expedition against Fort Duquesne. The 50th and 51st Regiments, deactivated at the end of King George’s War and lately resuscitated, were to march under the command of William Shirley from Albany to seize the French fort of Niagara, at the head of Lake Ontario. After driving the French from the Forks of the Ohio, Braddock’s force would move north along the Allegheny, rolling up the remaining western forts; then he and Shirley would join forces at Niagara in the autumn. Braddock surprised Shirley with the news that he had been named as major general and second-in-command of all British forces in America—a position for which the governor had more than enough talent but no training whatsoever. William Johnson, summoned to the conference from his home and trading post in the Mohawk Valley, was equally surprised to receive not one but two commissions. Braddock told him that he had been named both superintendent of the Iroquois and other northern Indians and commander of an expedition composed of Mohawk warriors and provincial soldiers from New England and New York, which would proceed to Lake Champlain and seize Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point. Finally, Braddock confirmed that a fourth expedition, which he had already ordered to be outfitted in Boston, would eradicate two French forts from the Chignecto isthmus in Nova Scotia.2

It was a madly ambitious plan approved by men studying maps in London unaware that their ignorance of American geography, politics, and military capacities had foredoomed it to failure. Indeed it was less one plan than two, each of which contradicted the other. Its projected expeditions against Crown Point and the Nova Scotia forts had simply been appropriated from a scheme that Shirley had concocted the previous fall. He intended them as cooperative intercolonial campaigns that, like Louisbourg in 1745, would yield both military victory and a rich harvest of political patronage. When he had proposed these ventures to the ministers, he did not know what plans they were making for Braddock; when the ministers approved his plans in December, they had not fully worked out the implications of what they had set afoot.

Seeing that the Crown Point and Nova Scotia expeditions would primarily use provincial soldiers—troops paid by their own colonies, who enlisted for specific campaigns and terms of service not exceeding one year—the ministers evidently understood Shirley’s plans as complements to the expeditions that would employ regular regiments to seize Forts Duquesne and Niagara. But the two provincial expeditions would consume men and matériel, making it much more difficult to recruit enough colonists to fill the ranks of both the understrength 44th and 48th and the reactivated 50th and 51st Regiments; the sheer number of simultaneous campaigns would strain the ability of the provinces to provision them all. It was inevitable that recruiters, quartermasters, and commissaries from the various armies would compete for men, arms, shelter, clothing, and supplies; that expenses would therefore be driven up, preparations would be retarded, and the prospects that any expedition could succeed would be proportionally diminished.3

The men who had studied the maps in London, moreover, had seen rivers and lakes and roads as open corridors for the advance of the expeditions. According to their plans, Braddock would follow Washington’s road toward the Forks, then ascend the Allegheny to French Creek and Lake Erie, in order to meet Shirley at Niagara. Shirley could make his way from Albany to Lake Ontario via the Mohawk and Onondaga Rivers, then paddle on to Niagara. Except for a couple of short portages, Johnson’s provincials and Indians would be waterborne on the Hudson, Wood Creek, Lac St. Sacrement (Lake George), and Lake Champlain, all the way from Albany to Crown Point. But no map in London showed that Washington’s road was a wretched track through heavy forest, every mile of which would have to be widened and graded to allow Braddock’s supply wagons and artillery carriages to pass; or that its route afforded little forage for the horses and cattle on which his troops would rely for transport and food. No one in a clean, well-lit Whitehall office could easily have imagined the degree to which rivers could be choked with dead-falls or subject to great seasonal variations in flow, or how evidently short portages could turn into killingly difficult stretches of rough and swampy terrain. None of the planners foresaw the difficulty of hiring or building the thousands of boats and wagons that would be needed to carry men and supplies; nor did they evidently conceive that the military inexperience of commanders like Shirley and Johnson would prove an obstacle. Nor, finally, did anyone think that it might be difficult to persuade Indians to guide the troops through woods that so few English colonials knew. If such things troubled the staff officers at Whitehall, they kept their worries to themselves, for they planned the campaigns as if they were reviews to be conducted in Hyde Park.

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Braddock marches to the Ohio, 1755. This detailed campaign map was part of a set of six plans and maps published in 1768, along with a pamphlet by Captain Robert Orme, one of General Edward Braddock’s aides. It shows the route of march from Fort Cumberland, on the north branch of the Potomac, across the Allegheny divide into the Youghiogheny (“Yoxhiogeny”) drainage, the Monongahela Valley—and disaster. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Braddock clearly had no idea that the plans he was outlining at Alexandria were impossible to execute. Shirley and Johnson and the governors did and tried to tell him so—to no particular purpose. When the governors unanimously protested that a common defense “Fund can never be established in the Colonies without the aid of Parliament,” Braddock brushed them off. They simply had to do it, and soon; he would be drawing on discretionary funds until the provinces paid up. When Shirley and Johnson advocated delaying Braddock’s own expedition until Niagara—the strategic choke point on the supply line for Fort Duquesne and all its supporting posts—could be captured, Braddock refused to consider the option. He admitted that their arguments had force but considered himself bound to proceed according to the instructions he had received from Cumberland’s hand. Nor would he alter his route to the Ohio, despite the fact that an approach through Pennsylvania would be a hundred miles shorter than one that started in Virginia. His instructions ordered him to proceed “up the Potomach River, as high as Will’s Creek,” and he would do so. Braddock was by no means a stupid man, but he was not a particularly flexible one either, and he was above all loyal. He had risen high in the service of his king not by virtue of his creativity, but his ability to follow orders. Nothing he had heard at Alexandria inclined him to forsake lifelong habits of obedience.4

But nothing the other participants in the conference had heard at Alexandria enabled them to forgo their own preexisting habits of belief and behavior, either, much less their old alliances and attachments. Shirley and Governor Morris of Pennsylvania left Alexandria together, traveling to New York to begin preparing Shirley’s campaign against Niagara by contracting for the expedition’s supplies. Their arrangements made excellent sense. Morris had superb business contacts in Philadelphia, the provisions capital of North America; Shirley had equally good relations with Bostonian merchants like Thomas Hutchinson; both had connections to powerful English merchant houses. Now, at New York, they joined forces with a firm headed by Morris’s nephew, Lewis Morris III, and Peter Van Burgh Livingston. The connections thus forged gave Governor (and now General) Shirley the ability to contract for the supplies he needed in all of the major North American markets as well as in London. Even more important, Shirley’s ability to award supply contracts gave him patronage to strengthen his political allies in all three of the major northern provinces.

It was a magnificent arrangement, and one that could not have been better calculated to enrage the lieutenant governor of New York, James De Lancey—for bad as it was that the De Lancey family’s firm was being cut out of the contracting bonanza that the Niagara expedition would bring, it was worse that all the contracts to be let in New York would benefit De Lancey’s mortal enemies, the Livingston-Morris faction. Shirley, typically, had used a military expedition to create commercial advantages for his friends and patronage resources for himself, while at the same time dealing a blow to a political rival. For the moment De Lancey and his kinsman William Johnson were powerless to respond. Both, however, were men who knew how to nurse a grudge, and they would do what they could to show William Shirley that he had been too clever by half.5

For his part, Johnson had urgent business to transact in the Mohawk Valley, and after conferring with Lieutenant Governor De Lancey hastened back to his estate, Mount Johnson. From there he directed preparations for the Crown Point expedition and opened negotiations with the Iroquois, on whose cooperation much would depend in the summer’s campaigns. As usual, great delays attended the arrival of Onondaga’s representatives; indeed it was not until June 21 that Johnson kindled the fire for a great conference, attended by over a thousand Iroquois chiefs, warriors, and dependents. The superintendent had three goals. First, he hoped to obtain Onondaga’s commitment to send warriors to aid Braddock in his expedition against Fort Duquesne. Second, he needed to secure Mohawk support for his own expedition against Fort St. Frédéric. Finally, he intended to do everything he could to insure that Shirley’s expedition against Niagara would have no Iroquois aid whatever.

By brilliant diplomacy Johnson secured his every objective at the conference. The Iroquois for their part wanted two concessions from the new superintendent—London’s repudiation of the fraudulent land cession Lydius and Woodbridge had negotiated for the Susquehannah Company at the Albany Congress, and a reduction in the size of the grant that Conrad Weiser had simultaneously secured from Chief Hendrick. Johnson readily agreed, and on July 4 the conference adjourned. As usual in diplomatic encounters between the Iroquois and the English, more had been said than accomplished. The Iroquois promised to go to Braddock’s aid and accepted the arms and presents that would have enabled them to do it—had not the lateness of the season and the great distance to be traveled prohibited their warriors’ departure. Johnson himself, thanks to his long personal connection with the Mohawks, fared better: two hundred warriors would accompany his provincial army against Crown Point.6

Braddock lingered briefly at Alexandria to attend to a few organizational details after the conference broke up, then rode off to catch up with his army. He found it on April 22 near Frederick Town, Maryland, in the midst of “a fine Cuntry, Plenty of Corn and Milk,” mainly “inhabited by the Germans.” There he also met two ambitious colonials, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Washington had declined the opportunity to serve as a commander of Virginia provincials in order to join Braddock’s expedition as a “volunteer”—a gentleman serving without pay in a junior officer’s capacity, in the hope of either being commissioned in the field or obtaining his commander’s patronage. Because Washington came with Dinwiddie’s endorsement and because he knew the Ohio Country better than any other gentleman in Virginia, Braddock invited him to join his official family and serve as his aide-de-camp.7

Benjamin Franklin was another story. He had ostensibly come to Frederick Town in his capacity as deputy postmaster general for the colonies, to arrange for the efficient exchange of dispatches between the army and the coastal cities. In fact, the real purpose of his trip was that the Pennsylvania Assembly—concerned that Braddock “had conceived violent prejudices against them”—had chosen him as the man likeliest to smooth out relations between their province and the general. Luckily, Braddock’s deputy quartermaster general, Sir John St. Clair, had been unsuccessful in hiring wagons and horses in the Virginia and Maryland countryside. Franklin seized the opportunity to ingratiate himself and his province by offering to procure 150 wagons with teams from southern Pennsylvania.

Braddock, whose expedition could not move without draft animals, teamsters, and wagons, was relieved to meet at least one cooperative American and advanced the Philadelphian several hundred pounds. Franklin quickly composed two broadsides and appealed to his acquaintances throughout the Pennsylvania backcountry to call together meetings and read the announcements. One broadside specified generous terms of payment for animals, wagons, and service as a teamster; the other announced that “Sir John St. Clair, the hussar, with a body of soldiers, will immediately enter the province” to seize whatever horses and wagons the army needed, if they were not promptly subscribed. The latter was not even a half-truth, but it worked a gospel wonder: within three weeks 150 wagons and teams, along with perhaps 500 packhorses, had arrived in Braddock’s camp at Wills Creek. At the same time a train of 20 packhorses arrived from Philadelphia, each animal staggering under a load that included a half-dozen cured tongues, two smoked hams, two gallons of Jamaica rum, two dozen bottles of good Madeira, sugar, butter, rice, raisins, tea, coffee, and other items. They were gifts to the junior officers of the 44th and the 48th Regiments, forwarded by a grateful Pennsylvania Assembly, at Franklin’s suggestion. Braddock continued to entertain his doubts about American legislatures in general. Benjamin Franklin, however, had removed from his mind all reservations about Pennsylvania’s.8

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