The struggle for mastery in North America between the English and the French, begun at the end of the seventeenth century (King William’s War), was by the middle of the eighteenth century moving to a climax. The British — as they should be described after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707 — were by mid-century demographically by far the strongest power in the continent, their settlers in New England, the Middle Atlantic colonies and the South outnumbering the French of New France (Canada) by a million to fifty thousand. The geographical position of the French was, however, dominant. Not only did they control the St Lawrence river, ‘the great highway into the continent’, they also occupied the Great Lakes and, by an overland route hinging on the future metropolis of Chicago, extended their power to the upper reaches of the Mississippi, from which, through a chain of forts, it descended to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. They were also pushing eastward from the Mississippi — Missouri basin into the complex of river systems which joins it via the waterways of the Ohio and the Tennessee. That region, known to Americans as the ‘Old North West’, was in mid-century a no man’s land. Through the river system, the French had easy access to it, and so the opportunity to occupy the western descents from the Appalachian mountain chain, which confined the British to the Atlantic coastal region. The British, well aware of French ambitions, were meanwhile seeking to break across the Appalachians from Virginia, set up posts in the Old North West and to bring French America under attack from a new direction.
In 1754 a British military expedition, led by Colonel George Washington, invaded the area, with the object of building a fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. On arrival he found that the French had already built a fort on his objective (modern Pittsburgh) and he was forced to withdraw. In the following year, however, a much stronger expedition of troops sent from Britain, under the command of General Edward Braddock, arrived in Virginia, crossed the Appalachians and set out for the Monongahela. On 9 July, after a long and difficult march, it was ambushed by the French just short of their objective. Braddock’s 2,000 men, who included Americans as well as British, suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of 900 French troops and their Indian allies, the survivors escaping as best they could through the wilderness. The victory of the French demonstrated their superiority in forest fighting. It was, however, their last American victory. In the following year, at the outbreak of the Seven Years War, they became embroiled in a campaign which would lead to the total destruction of New France in 1763.
On Wednesday the 9th Inst, We were advanced within 9 miles of Fort du Quesne, & in order to reach it were to pass the Monongahela in 2 different places. by 2 in the Morning Col: Gage with the 2 Companies of Grenadiers, to wch I belonged, with 150 Men besides was ordered with 2 six pounders, to cross the River, & cover the March of the General wth the Rest of the Army. This We executed witht any disturbance from the Enemy, and when we had yet possession of the Bank of the sd crossing, we were remained drawn up, till the general came with the rest of the Army, & passed the River in a Column. The Ground from thence to the French Fort, we were told was pretty. good, & the woods open, but all upon the ascent [.] Col: Gage was then ordered with his advanced Party to march on, and was soon followed by the general. We had not marched above 800 yards from the River, when we were allarmed by the Indian Hollow [i.e. holloa], & in an instant, found ourselves attacked on all sides, their methods, they immediately seise a Tree, & are certain of their Aim, so that before the Genl came to our assistance, most of our advanced Party were laid sprawling on the ground. our Men unaccustomed to that way of fighting, were quite confounded, & behaved like Poltrons, nor could the examples, nor the Intreaties of their officers prevail with them, to do any one [what was ordered]. This they denied them, when we begged of them not to throw away their fire, but to follow us with fixed Bayonets, to drive them from the hill & trees, they never minded us, but threw their fire away in the most confused manner, some in the air, others in the ground, & a great many destroyed their own Men & officers. When the General came up to our assistance, men were seized with the same Pannic, & went into as much disorder, some Part of them being 20 deep. The officers in order to remedy this, advanced into the front, & soon became the mark of the Enemy, who scarce left one, that was not killed or wounded; when we were first attacked, It was near one o’Clock, & in this Confusion did we remain till near 5 in the Evening, our Men having then thrown away their 24 Rounds in the manner above mentioned, & scarce an officer left to head them. They then turned their backs, & left the Enemy in possession of every Thing. What officers were left, endeavoured to rally them at the first crossing of the River, but all to no purpose, terrified at the notion of having no Quarter & being scalped, they ran witht knowing where & most of them threw their Arms from them [.] The French & Indians not imaginingour Pain & Consternation were so great, as they really were, pursued us no further than the first crossing otherwise 100 of them, might have cut the Remainder of us to Peices. We marched all night in the utmost horrour & distress, most of us wounded, without a bit of anything to eat & nothing to cover us. On Friday the 11th We arrived at Col: Dunbars Camp 56 Miles from the Place of Action. our Strength before the Engagement amounted to 1100 Men.
Killed & wounded 823.
Note: This account has never been in print, nor have I ever seen a reference to it. The manuscript, of which the preceding is a transcript, is Hardwicke 136, document no. 6, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Dunbar’s account follows one by British A in the Hardwicke Papers. The two reports are in different hands, probably neither that of the eyewitness himself. Both are rather rough. Ms. 6 is headed ‘Extract of a Letter from Lieutenant Dunbar — Wills Creek 20th July 1755.’