Learning from Failure
Learn how a young George Washington learned from failures early in his military career.
Mount Vernon recently had the opportunity to sit down with historian David Preston. Professor Preston has recently published a new, definitive account of Braddock's 1755 campaign and the fateful Battle of the Monongahela in which George Washington participated.
Braddock’s Defeat was easily the most consequential battle in North America before 1775. British contemporaries were utterly shocked by this unprecedented defeat of a conventional British army by an irregular army largely composed of American Indian warriors. The battle’s horrific slaughter was also a compelling if macabre story to tell: two out of every three British soldiers who crossed the Monongahela River on July 9, 1755 would be killed or wounded in the space of three to four hours. The Battle of the Monongahela also changed how and where war was fought in America. It prompted British and American military adaptations to campaigning in the wilderness against formidable Canadian and Indian opponents. Braddock’s Road also helped to shift the center of gravity in American warfare from the Atlantic seaboard to the continent’s interior. Finally, no other battle before Lexington and Concord did more to forge a sense of Americanness among the British colonists than Braddock’s Defeat.
There is a perception among historians that Braddock’s Defeat is one of those events that has been “done”—that we have already uncovered everything there is to know about it. During my research in French, Canadian, British, and American archives, I found just the reverse to be true: that there was voluminous archival evidence that had never been brought to bear on this subject. For example, no previous study had ever deeply investigated either the French or the Indian side of the campaign and the battle. The most significant documents uncovered during the research were an Ohio Iroquois warrior’s eyewitness testimony of George Washington and the skirmish with Ensign Jumonville in 1754; a revealing French account of the Battle of the Monongahela drawn from an archive in Normandy; and a description of the British garrison at Gibraltar written by General Braddock.
The Jumonville Affair, in which Washington ambushed and defeated a small French force in May 1754, occurred during a particularly volatile moment during the struggle for the Ohio Valley. Most historians today view Washington’s actions as the opening shots of the French and Indian War (and by extension, the global Seven Years’ War). The new account by an Ohio Iroquois warrior makes clear that Washington literally fired the first shot of the Jumonville skirmish: "Washington begun himself and fired and then his people." However, the French had initiated hostilities, even if bloodlessly, by invading the Ohio Country with monumental force in 1753. On April 17, 1754, they brought 600 regulars with artillery and captured Virginia’s makeshift Fort Trent at the Forks of the Ohio. That conquest shaped the perception of both Washington and British authorities in London that the French had initiated hostilities and that a virtual state of war existed. Washington’s subsequent defeat at Fort Necessity sealed the British government’s decision to intervene with British regular troops to rescue the hapless American colonists.
The French constructed Fort Duquesne in 1754 and it was their strongest fortification in the Ohio Valley. As such, it controlled the most strategic place in North America in the 1750s: the Forks of the Ohio River (where modern Pittsburgh is located), which was a gateway to the trans-Appalachian West and the Mississippi Valley for both the French and British. Braddock’s mission was to besiege and capture the three forts that the French established in the Ohio Valley and, as he consistently told its Native inhabitants in his diplomatic messages, to restore the Indians’ rights to their lands.
Following his death in 1755, General Braddock became one of the most maligned officers in all of military history. His contemporaries as well as modern historians have accused him of every conceivable wrong doing, from marching blindly into an ambush to spurning Indians’ rights to the land. Most of the charges laid against Braddock are either inaccurate or altogether false to the historical record. The evidence actually suggests that Braddock was an experienced and capable officer and administrator who earned high praise for his command at Gibraltar in 1753-54. During his time in America he was an utter realist who understood the challenges and risks he faced, and not the overconfident and arrogant martinet of our mythology.
Seeing the terrain that Braddock’s army surmounted in 1755 was truly an epiphany. One cannot even begin to understand the written sources without visual reference to the mountain ridges, swamps, creeks, and rivers along the expedition’s route. General Braddock’s march across the Appalachian Mountains was one of the most rapid and effective movements through the wilderness in all of American military history. Breaching the Appalachian barrier with a twelve-foot wagon road was a monumental achievement, and enabled subsequent American settlement expansion into the Ohio Valley. The French, for their part, were just as hard pressed as the British in terms of logistics and troop movements to Fort Duquesne. I will never forget canoeing along French Creek (la rivière au boeuf) and scraping bottom in this shallow, rocky stream that considerably delayed French movements. It was a small miracle that convoys of French reinforcements and supplies made it to Fort Duquesne by early July of 1755.
It says something of Braddock’s wisdom that he solicited Washington’s involvement in his expedition, as he recognized the young Virginian’s knowledge and experience gained in 1753 and 1754 in the Ohio Valley. Washington became a volunteer aide-de-camp in General Braddock’s military “family.” But Braddock and Washington ultimately personified the larger relationship between the British Empire and the British colonies in America—one already beset by political tension and discord in 1755. Although Washington spoke of the “Affection” that Braddock bore him, he also recalled heated disputes with the general and his aides over the British colonies’ loyalty and political order. And more fundamentally, Washington’s participation as a volunteer aide reflected his broader frustration over British authorities’ prejudicial treatment of colonial officers bearing commissions from a governor.
This is an important question, for it requires us to seriously examine the winning side and to question our conventional emphasis on alleged British “blunders” as the principal reasons for Braddock’s defeat. Using a French account from the 1750s, I established the identities and backgrounds of the French officer corps at the Monongahela. The French were led by many veteran officers with deep experience in irregular warfare and Indian diplomacy. As the new French account of the battle demonstrates, Captain Daniel-Hyacinthe-Marie Liénard de Beaujeu led the French and Indian forces with consummate tactical skill until he was killed in action. But Native warriors—who composed two-thirds of the allied army—deserve the lion’s share of credit for defeating Braddock. They were truly the most disciplined troops at the July 9th battle, using marksmanship, terrifying war cries, and an envelopment of Braddock’s column to defeat this unprecedented threat.
The Monongahela transformed Washington’s reputation, military career, and the trajectory of his life. A young officer who had been stained with humiliating defeat and capitulation at Fort Necessity became a genuine celebrity in the British world as reports circulated of his dauntless courage at the Monongahela. Even British regular officers praised his conduct during the battle as he delivered the general’s commands and attempted to rally the army in its final moments. Washington carried the military lessons of the Monongahela forward into his commands of both the Virginia Regiment and the Continental Army two decades hence. Washington shaped his Virginia Regiment as a hybrid force—one that was capable of regular and irregular operations and used tactics drawn from his experience at the Monongahela. In that respect, Washington was not a military conservative who simply molded his forces into pale imitations of the British armies of Braddock and Forbes.
Washington’s reaction to the Monongahela was also strikingly theological. The experience seared him with a sense of God’s providence in his life. One of Washington’s letters immediately after the battle emphasized “the wondrous works of Providence! the uncertainty of Human things!” that he had seen in Braddock’s catastrophic defeat. We also know from his 1776 letter to fellow veteran Adam Stephen that even twenty-one years later, Washington still gratefully remembered the “Providence that protected us” at the Monongahela.
There is a mistaken assumption that Braddock’s Road follows modern U.S. Route 40 (the old National Road). Most of the Braddock’s Road remains on private property in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and only intersects with U.S. 40 at a few spots. The many scars of Braddock’s Road visible today were created by the thousands of settlers who used the road to settle the west in subsequent decades. The traces most accessible to the public are located at the Fort Necessity National Battlefield and also near St. John’s Rock at the crest of Big Savage Mountain in western Maryland (part of the Savage River State Forest). I recommend Norman Baker’s guidebook, Braddock’s Road (2013) to anyone interested in tracing the expedition’s route.
The battlefield of July 9, 1755 is located at the town of North Braddock, Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh. Urban development and the U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works cover all of the battlefield today. But many of the terrain features noted on eighteenth-century British military maps are readily apparent despite that development. The “rising ground” and the forbidding heights, up which Braddock’s men launched their forlorn attacks, are plainly visible. I also encourage visits to the Braddock Carnegie Library—where Emanuel Leutze’s painting of the battle is displayed—and to the Braddock’s Battlefield History Center on 6th Street, which is located at the very spot where the battle erupted. Modern 6th Street corresponds to another terrain feature visible today—the ravine or gully that ran perpendicular to the British line of march, and also the location where Captain Beaujeu’s body was found following the battle.
I am writing a sequel to Braddock’s Defeat which will focus on George Washington’s career in the later years of the French and Indian War, particularly during John Forbes’s Expedition in 1758.
David L. Preston is an award-winning historian of early America with a special interest in war and peace among the French, British, and Indian peoples of the eighteenth century. He is currently the Westvaco Professor of National Security Studies at The Citadel, where he teaches cadets and officer candidates about U.S. military history and early American history. He went on to earn his doctorate in American history at The College of William & Mary, where he studied with the influential ethnohistorian Professor James Axtell. His first book, The Texture of Contact (2009), was hailed as an innovative study of how French, British, and Indian communities coexisted near the Iroquois Confederacy between 1667 and 1783. Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution grew out of Preston's interest in the French and Native perspectives on the battle. Preston's research in archival collections in the U.S., Britain, Canada, and France uncovered new evidence on Braddock's Defeat, including a revealing French account of the battle and an Iroquois warrior's account of George Washington and the Jumonville Affair. The author also gained "ground truth" from his extensive fieldwork, such as walking Braddock's Road and canoeing along the Allegheny River and French Creek.