Book Review: Braddock’s Defeat
by David Preston
Oxford University Press, 2015
It’s not often that military encounters get personalized, even when they’re outrageous or pivotal. The Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C has never been known as The Route of Flaminius, and the Battle of Waterloo might be one of the most famous clashes of all time, but it’s never been known as The Fall of Napoleon. It’s a rare, unwanted obloquy to have your name attached to your worst failure. In the annals of military history, the signature example will always be Pickett’s Charge – but in the century before that, the dubious honor went to Braddock’s Defeat.
It’s named for British General Edward Braddock, the chief of the British Army in North America, who in July of 1755 was leading a large and well-armed expeditionary force through western Pennsylvania with the goal of capturing the French Fort Duquesne. Among Braddock’s ranks were a dozen or more names that would later return to the spotlight in the American Revolution, from the general’s aide, 23-year-old George Washington, to such figures as Thomas Gage, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, and, helping to smooth out material supplies, “the aspiring Pennsylvania politician” Benjamin Franklin.
And there was a French army moving through the land, a smaller force augmented by warriors from a variety of American Indian tribes and led by French commander – bear with me now – Captain Daniel-Hyacinthe-Marie Lienard de Beaujeu, a thoroughgoing professional killer who went into battle wearing war-paint and whose troops, encountering Braddock’s army unexpectedly in a glen by the Monongahela, rallied faster and fought harder (even after the nearly-instantaneous death of Captain Beaujeu in a hail of musket fire). As historian David Preston writes in his authoritative new book Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, “the Battle of the Monongahela was more Beaujeu’s Victory than Braddock’s Defeat, for in the end, the British general was outfought by a veteran French Canadian officer and combat leader.”
The taint of that defeat has stuck with General Braddock ever since, as Preston writes, swarming his name with hypotheticals from his day to the present:
The Anglo-centric conceit embedded in the battles name and in prominent historical interpretations suggest that the campaign and battle were Braddock’s to lose. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Had Braddock only allowed the Americans to engage the Indians using their tactics; had British regulars not panicked; had Braddock not alienated potential Indian allies; had he or Thomas Gage, the lieutenant colonel of the 44th Regiment, only seized a tiny hillock on the army’s right flank; had Braddock only followed conventional European protocols more consistently, then the army would have been saved and the battle won.
Preston has done an enormous amount of research to write what will certainly be the definitive account of the battle, searching through in many cases new primary materials in order to construct not only an extensively-detailed account of the battle but also a mini-biography of Edward Braddock himself, who’s generally been dismissed in less exhaustive accounts as an arrogant, hidebound Colonel Blimp figure trying to reproduce the Battle of Blenheim on the twisting footpaths of the Pennsylvania woods and whose final words (after receiving a mortal wound in the battle) – “Who would have thought it?” – are taken as an accurate summation of a clueless officer out of his depth in the New World. Preston fleshes out this standard account considerably, although he’s well aware of the caricature and the basis for it:
The general may have been, as his royal instructions declared, “our trusty and well-beloved Edward Braddock” but his private reputation as a “rough & haughty” man continued to precede him. Walpole maligned Braddock at every opportunity, and acerbically referred to him as “a very Iroquois in disposition,” invoking the contemporary British stereotype of the Iroquois as the most warlike and aggressive of all Indians.
“Like initial battles of other wars,” Preston observes, “the Monongahela defined the military and political character of what was to come.” He claims that Braddock’s Defeat “altered the trajectory of the Seven Years’ War in America,” and he makes a compelling case that’s only slightly hampered by the fact that an equally compelling case for the defining battle of this particular war could go to a disastrous confrontation with the French the year before and not far from the site of Braddock’s Defeat, when British forces fired on a French camp without authorization, sparking an enormous increase in armed tensions in the New World. Those shots were ordered by young Lieutenant Washington, who survived the encounter unscathed. He came out of Braddock’s Defeat unscathed as well – in fact, better than unscathed: he was dubbed “The Hero of the Monongahela.”
Preston’s sweeping account places the Monongahela catastrophe in its broadest context and populates that context with dozens of characters here brought fully to life. It’s a powerfully effective work of fine-focus narrative history. All future accounts of Braddock’s Defeat will of necessity start here.