The Battle of the Monongahela took place on 9 July 1755 in the vicinity of present-day Braddock, Pennsylvania, ten miles upstream from Pittsburgh during the French and Indian War. A British force under General Edward Braddock, moving to take Fort Duquesne, was defeated by a force of French troops, with its Native American allies.
The defeat marked the end of the Braddock expedition by which the British had hoped to capture Fort Duquesne and gain control of the strategic Ohio Country. Braddock was mortally wounded in the battle and died during the retreat. The remainder of the column retreated southwards and the fort remained in French hands until its capture in 1758.
The battle has often been incorrectly portrayed as an ambush by the French and Indian forces; they were in fact as surprised as the British were at the start of the engagement.
Braddock had been despatched to North America in the new position of Commander-in-Chief, bringing with him two regiments (the 44th and 48th) of troops from Ireland. He added to this by recruiting local troops in British America, swelling his forces to roughly 2,200 by the time he set out from Fort Cumberland, Maryland on 29 May. He was accompanied by Virginia Colonel George Washington, who had led the previous year's expedition to the area.
His expedition was part of a four-pronged attack on the French in North America. Braddock's orders were to launch an attack into the Ohio Country, disputed by Britain and France. Control of the area was dominated by Fort Duquesne on the forks of the Ohio River. Once it was in his possession, he was to proceed on to Fort Niagara, establishing British control over Ohio.
He soon encountered a number of difficulties. He had been scornful of the need to recruit local Native Americans as scouts, and had left with only eight Mingo guides. He also found that the road he was trying to use was slow, and needed constant widening to drag artillery and supply wagons along. Frustrated, he split his force in two, leading on a flying column head with the slower force coming on behind with the cannon and wagons.
His flying column of 1,300 crossed the Monongahela River on 9 July, within ten miles of their target, Fort Duquesne. Despite being very tired after weeks of crossing extremely hard terrain, many of the British and Americans anticipated a relatively easy victory—or even for the French to abandon the fort upon their approach.
Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the French commander of the fort, had around 1,600 French troupes de la Marine, Canadian militiamen and Native allies. Concerned by the approach of the British, he despatched Captain Liénard de Beaujeu with around eight hundred troops, largely native warriors, to check their advance.
The French and Indians arrived too late to set an ambush as they had been delayed and the British had made surprisingly speedy progress. They ran into the British advance guard, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage. Seeing the enemy in the trees, he ordered his men to open fire. Despite a very long range for a musket, their opening volleys succeeded in killing Captain Beaujeu.
Unconcerned by the death of Beaujeu, the Indian warriors took up positions to attack. They were fighting on an Indian hunting ground which was well-favoured to their tactics, with numerous trees and shrubbery separated by wide open spaces. Although roughly a hundred of the Canadians fled back to the fort, Captain Dumas rallied the rest of the French troops.
As they came under heavy fire, Gage's advance guard began taking casualties and withdrew. In the narrow confines of the road, they collided with the main body of Braddock's force, which had advanced rapidly when the shots were heard. Despite comfortably outnumbering their attackers, the British were immediately on the defensive. Most of the regulars were unused to fighting in woods, and terrified by the deadly musket fire. Confusion reigned, as several British platoons fired at each other. The entire column dissolved in disorder as the Canadian militiamen and Indians enveloped them and continued to snipe at the British flanks from the woods on the sides of the road. At this time, the French regulars began advancing from the road and began to push the British back. General Braddock had ridden forward to try and rally his men, who had lost all sense of unit cohesion.
Following Braddock's lead, the officers kept trying to reform units into regular order within the confines of the road, mostly in vain and simply providing targets for their concealed enemy. Cannon were used, but in such confines of the forest road, they were ineffective. Braddock had several horses shot under him, yet retained his composure, providing the only sign of order to the frightened British soldiers. Many of the Americans, lacking the training of British regulars to stand their ground, fled and sheltered behind trees, where they were mistaken for enemy fighters by the redcoats who fired upon them. The rearguard, made up of Virginians, managed to fight effectively from the trees—something they had learnt in the previous years of fighting.
Despite the unfavourable conditions, the British began to stand firm and blast volleys at the enemy. Braddock believed that the enemy would eventually give way in the face of his men's discipline. Despite lacking officers to command them, the often makeshift platoons continued to hold their crude ranks.
Finally, after three hours of intense combat, Braddock was shot in the lung by an Indian sniper and effective resistance collapsed. He fell from his horse, badly wounded, and was carried back to safety by his men. In the wake of his wounding, and without an order being given, the British began to withdraw. They did so largely with order, until they reached the Monongahela River, when they were set upon by the Indian warriors. They attacked with hatchets and scalping knives, after which panic began to infuse the British troops and they began to break ranks and run, believing they were about to be massacred.
Colonel Washington, although he had no official position in the chain of command, was able to impose and maintain some order and formed a rear guard, which allowed the remnants of the force to disengage. By sunset, the surviving British forces were fleeing back down the road they had built, carrying their wounded. Behind them on the road bodies were piled high. The Indians did not pursue the fleeing redcoats, but instead set about scalping and looting the corpses of the wounded and dead, and drinking two hundred gallons of captured rum.
Of the approximately 1,300 men Braddock led into battle, 456 were killed outright and 422 wounded. Commissioned officers were prime targets and suffered greatly: out of 86 officers, 26 were killed and 37 wounded. Also, of the 50 or so women that accompanied the British column as maids and cooks, only 4 returned with the British—with around half being taken as captives. The French and Canadians reported 8 killed and 4 wounded; their Indian allies lost 15 killed and 12 wounded.
Braddock died of his wounds on July 13, four days after the battle, and was buried on the road near Fort Necessity.
Colonel Thomas Dunbar, with the reserves and rear supply units, took command when the survivors reached his position. Realising there was no further likelihood of his force proceeding to capture Fort Duquesne, he decided to retreat. He ordered the destruction of supplies and cannon before withdrawing, burning about 150 wagons on the spot. His forces retreated back toward Philadelphia. The French did not pursue, realising that they did not have sufficient resources for an organised pursuit.
The battle was a devastating defeat, one of the most disastrous in British colonial history. It marked the end of the Braddock expedition, which many had believed contained overwhelming force, to seize the Ohio Country. It awakened many in London to the sheer scale of forces that would be needed to defeat the French and their Native allies in North America.
The inability of the redcoats to use skirmishers, and the vulnerability this caused for the main force, had a profound effect on British military thinking. Although Braddock had posted a company of flankers on each side, these troops were untrained to do anything but stand in line and fire platoon volleys, which were unsuited to such conditions. Learning from their mistakes the British made much better use of skirmishers, often carrying rifles, who could protect the main body of troops from such devastating fire, both later in the French and Indian War and in the American War of Independence.
Because of the speed with which the French and Indians launched their attack and enveloped the British column, the battle is often erroneously reported as an ambush by many who took part. In fact the French had been unprepared for their contact with the British, whom they had blundered into. The speed of their response allowed them to quickly gain the upper hand, and brought about their victory.
The French remained dominant in the Ohio Country for the next four years, and persuaded many previously neutral Native tribes to enter the war on their side. The French were eventually forced to abandon Fort Duquesne in 1758 by the approach of the Forbes Expedition.
The battle is portrayed in the novel Savage Wilderness by Harold Coyle.
Because of the important role the battle played in the career of George Washington, it is often featured in portrayals of him.