Review by: John Grady, Fairfax, VA
David Preston’s Braddock’s Defeat is not only a blow-by-blow battle account but a long overdue re-examination of the forces that eventually drove France from North America and gave colonial Americans confidence in their own abilities to eventually take up arms against Great Britain. The French and Indian War, as it is most commonly known in the United States, exploded into a world war that saw France not only lose Canada but its foothold in India as well. For years after, France nursed a grudge to get even with the British and would wait twenty years for that chance.
Preston, a history professor at The Citadel, identifies the difficulties that plagued the expedition from the start. Among these: experienced American officers would always be outranked by British officers; the route it took to reach the small fort in the Ohio valley (despite the herculean efforts of the Sir John St. Clair to build a road and keep an army fed); the overrated competence of the “Independent Companies” from South Carolina and New York; and the readiness of the undermanned regiments sent from Ireland to provide the toughness and discipline required to wage a land campaign in North America using European tactics. In all, the British force would number between 1,100 and 1,400, with all but 200 coming from overseas.
Braddock himself comes across better as a commander than American myth places him. When the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, selected him to command the expedition, he was making his choice based on his personal experience—both had served in the Coldstream Guards. He also understood Braddock’s “effectiveness and popularity” when he commanded at the recently taken Gibraltar.
From the first shouts of “The Indians are upon us” on 9 July 1755, the battle quickly turned against the British. They were now in a clearing with a thick forest of white and red oaks and walnut trees, with a 1,200-foot steep ridge to bedevil them. Yet in the first encounter, the advance guard held its own against the French force, which numbered about 250 men, primarily marines.
Soon, however, Braddock’s army was engaged with a force of 600 to 700 Indian warriors. “The Native forces at Braddock’s defeat were essentially an army of skilled light infantry and were unquestionably the most disciplined units on the field,” Preston writes.
The attack also showed coordination with the French commander, but “the battle did not become one of annihilation” because they never closed the circle on the British. They kept attacking along Braddock’s f flanks. As more and more gun smoke rose, the Indians very often took aim at the officers “who were often conspicuously mounted on horseback in scarlet red coats and gleaming gorgets.” By the end only two British field officers remained fighting. The others were either dead or severely wounded. Compounding the problem, the retreating British were also being killed by “friendly fire.”
“Panic was a cause, but not a primary cause of the catastrophe,” states Preston, who suggest readers look at the terrain as being a deciding factor. The Americans, a number of the Virginians having already fought in the Ohio country, showed remarkable cohesion in the battle and paid a heavy price for it in trying to cover the retreat.
Braddock comes through as a brave soldier, and after his last and eventually mortal wounding, he knew all was lost. Like an ancient Roman general, he probably wanted to kill himself. Instead, he was moved painfully by hand and tumbril and lingered in great pain until he died. Braddock’s Defeat is a wonderful work, filled with the detail that comes not only from libraries, archives, letters, memoirs, and manuscripts, but Preston’s walking the paths that led Edward Braddock to his doom.