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Following the British failure to capture Fort Duquesne in 1754, British authorities assigned General Edward Braddock the task of venturing to the Forks of the Ohio and removing the French presence from the region. Accompanying Braddock on the expedition was George Washington, who served as aide-de-camp. Although only a volunteer, Washington played an instrumental role in saving Braddock’s army from utter annihilation during the French and Indian War, thereby restoring Washington's reputation as a competent leader after his defeat at Fort Necessity the previous year.
On July 9, 1755, as Braddock's men labored to clear a path to serve as a road for future British armies, the French and their Native American allies launched an attack. The Battle of Monongahela lasted several intense hours and witnessed the near destruction of Braddock’s forces. Amidst the fighting, Braddock realized retreat was his only option and issued orders to that effect. Moments later, a bullet struck Braddock's right arm and pierced his lung. With Braddock lying on the ground, conscious but incapable of directing the retreat in person, it was left to aide-de-camp Washington to effectively carry out Braddock's orders and coordinate the retreat.
Washington's first order of business was to get Braddock to safety. Fortunately for Washington, most of the opposing forces chose to loot the battleground rather than pursue Braddock's men across the Monongahela River. Momentarily out of harm's way, Braddock ordered Washington to rally the fleeing troops. As best he could, Washington was able to collect nearly 200 men—an insufficient number to stage a strong counter-attack. With increasing despair, Braddock ordered Washington to locate Colonel Thomas Dunbar and retrieve the men and supplies that were being held in reserve.
Carrying out his assignment, Washington located Dunbar seven miles away. Although Washington desired to return to Braddock's side, he was overcome by fatigue—having been on horseback for well over twelve hours straight—and was forced to rest until the following morning. The next day, Braddock and the remainder of the army reached Dunbar's camp and plans began anew to orchestrate a deliberate retreat. Unable to effectively lead, Braddock relinquished command to Dunbar. Braddock struggled on for another day before dying at night on July 13, 1755.
The following day, Washington fittingly chose a spot along Braddock's road and buried his commanding officer. Fearing that enemy soldiers would attempt to locate Braddock's body, Washington directed the wagon train and foot soldiers to march over the recently disturbed earth to cover any signs of Braddock's recent burial.
For the remainder of the retreat, Washington spent time caring for and comforting fellow staff-officers, Roger Morris and Robert Orme, who were being carried along on horse-litters. The sight of Morris and Orme served as a reminder to Washington of the absolute defeat Braddock's army suffered at Monongahela. Of the 1,459 men in Braddock's expedition, 977 were wounded or killed—including sixty-three officers. Although technically not in command, Washington earned hero status for saving the British army from complete destruction at The Battle of Monongahela.
Matthew A. Byron, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
Young Harris College
Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Ferling, John. The Ascension of George Washington. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Washington. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
"George Washington to Mary Ball Washington, 18 July 1755" (Written following Braddock's defeat)