From Wannabe Redcoat to Rebel: George Washington’s Journey to Revolution

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October 16, 2017
by Geoff Smock Also by this Author

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From the ministry’s point of view, affairs in America really were quite appalling. The unpardonable brashness of a cocksure young provincial had instantly escalated a minor diplomatic dispute in the wilderness fringe of North America into a war between the world’s two great powers – a war for which His Majesty’s government was woefully unprepared. As the legal instigator of the conflict, George II’s ministers suddenly found themselves responding to events an ocean away. With little time to plan, two regiments of British regulars were dispatched to the American continent under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, who arrived in America with all of the traditional European conceptions of warfare and even more of the traditional prejudices towards both colonists and “savages.”

The result was calamity. His plan had been to attack the major French forces stationed in the Ohio Country at Fort Duquesne, only miles from the site of Jumonville Glen – the site of the infamous triggering episode. Having been singularly successful in alienating the Native forces originally disposed to fighting alongside the British, his combined British and provincial army marched into the dense wilderness blindly and, inexplicably, in two separate columns.

Lured into a false sense of assurance by the lack of resistance all the way up to the fort, Braddock’s forces were suddenly ambushed by French and Indian warriors only a few miles from its walls. While Natives fired from behind trees and rocks to devastating effect, British forces indiscriminately returned fire into the woods – and at themselves. After a few hours, two-thirds of Braddock’s forces had been killed or wounded, two of the three officers on his staff had been killed, and he himself had been mortally wounded by a bullet to his back. What was left of his force began a panicked retreat back to Virginia.[1]

Yes, matters were appalling indeed, and without a swift change of fortunes the balance of power in North America would shift decidedly – and perhaps permanently – in France’s favor.

Enter John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun. Every bit the high-nosed, purse-lipped aristocrat Braddock had been, he sailed to America vested with nearly-plenary powers over His Majesty’s forces, dominions, officials, and interests there. He arrived in New York in 1756 determined to insert order in what he saw as a vortex of chaos – a chaos that primarily existed because His Majesty’s provincial subjects were failing to show the proper obedience to the commands of their Crown-appointed betters.[2]

Among the first to congratulate the Earl on his appointment and safe-arrival in America was the very same cocksure young provincial whose blunderings had triggered this mess: George Washington, recently-appointed commander of the provincial “Virginia Regiment” tasked with defending the open frontier of said colony (of which Loudoun was now also the royal governor). Hoping to curry the favor and patronage of his new superior, the young colonel begged leave “to express the deep Sense We have of His Majesty’s great Wisdom and paternal Care for his Colonies in sending your Lordship to their Protection at this critical Juncture.” However troublesome he might find affairs in America, Lord Loudoun could rest assured that Washington and his regiment had “to our Cost acquired a Knowledge of [the French and their Native allies], and of their crafty and cruel Practices, which We are ready to testify with the greatest Cheerfulness and Resolution whenever We are so happy as to be honored with the Execution of your Lordship’s Commands.”[3]

Aside from the glaring blemish at Jumonville Glen, the young Washington’s ascent in Colonial Virginia to that point had been as rapid as it was sweeping. As a younger son from his late father’s second marriage, he had been denied most of the advantages his older half-brothers had enjoyed. Left only a small farm, a few tracts of land, ten slaves, and a shrewish mother who would badger him with guilt the rest of his life, Washington would have to fight through the glass ceilings of the colony’s rigid social strata by virtue of his own aptitude.[4]

In this he was remarkably successful. Conspicuously tall, athletic, and graceful, Washington had spent his boyhood harnessing his ambition towards cultivating himself into a figure that attracted the admiration and respect of those around him – and, more importantly, the patronage of neighboring gentry. He was appointed country surveyor at the age of seventeen and in the span of the next six years would be appointed to lead two separate missions into the Ohio to strengthen Virginia’s and Great Britain’s claims (the second ending with the disaster at Jumonville Glen), serve as the only surviving officer on General Braddock’s staff, and be appointed commander of the colony’s militia force at the age of twenty-three. In the aforementioned disaster outside Fort Duquesne, he was not only the one officer on Braddock’s staff to survive, but distinguished himself for his bravery, helping to organize the retreat despite horses being shot from beneath him and bullets snipping the fabric of his coat.[5] The luster he had lost in America and London following Jumonville Glen shone brightly again after the Battle of Monongahela.[6]

Given the command of the Virginia Regiment soon thereafter, George Washington became a name known and admired in Virginia and throughout the American colonies. He had become an illustrious son of Virginia. All that remained outside his grasp was a regular commission in the British army – and the renowned red coat that came with it.

Washington’s welcome letter to Lord Loudon was the second attempt in a long-standing, clumsy bid at attaining this. Having had to serve as an unpaid volunteer on the staff of Braddock or take a demotion in rank, just in the squirearchy of Colonial Virginia. Mount Vernon. All that remained outside his grasp was a regular commission in theit had been his conviction that, had Braddock survived, he would have been awarded his commission; and he saw, or at least hoped for, a bright personal future in the official ranks of the British Empire. It was not enough to be a favored son of Virginia — he hoped to be a favored Son of Britannia.

It was not to be, and the frustration of this ambition, in the British military and later as a civilian in the upper-reaches of colonial Virginia’s planter class, would mark not only Washington’s life, but in turn the life of the British Empire and its American colonies. Washington desired the loftiest heights of office, wealth, and prestige, and in every way he was thwarted by the British imperial system. Not only did the rigidity of that structure prevent the young provincial from breaking into it, but it also hindered, in his view at least, his ability to fully prosper socially and economically within his own provincial world. His failure to attain a British commission became the first in an expanding list of grievances the young (and ultimately middle-aged) Washington would accumulate towards the British Empire – a list that would eventually reach a critical mass.

The story of George Washington’s unsatisfied aspirations thus becomes a story of the individual revolution of George Washington – a personal journey from loyal servant and armed defender of Britannic rule in America, to one of its most prominent critics, to the individual most responsible for its demise. The weaknesses of an imperial system that forced the American colonies into rebellion and then failed to prevent it from gaining their independence has long been a topic of historical conversation, but as Washington biographer Ron Chernow has written, the rejection of the tall Virginian reflected perhaps its greatest, most fatal flaw.[7]

It said something about the imperial system that it could find no satisfactory place for this loyal, able, and ambitious young subject. The proud Washington had been forced to bow and scrape for a regular commission, and … he had acquired a powerful storehouse of grievances that would fuel his later rage with England.[8]

Britannia forced George Washington (and many others) from its arms.[9] In so doing it created forces opposed to itself that accomplished what the might of the French Empire had failed to: the near total destruction of its North American empire.

Denied a redcoat, George Washington began a world-history changing path towards donning one in blue.

With his would-be patron Braddock dead, Washington had set his aspiring eyes on his successor, and his congratulatory letter was the first of many sent to Lord Loudoun hoping to affix himself firmly in the Earl’s favor. But George Washington made for a poor courtier, and his attempts at flattery were, in the unforgiving words of James Thomas Flexner, “as clumsy as an elephant’s attempts to do a deep court curtsy.”[10]

When servile letters failed to achieve their intended effect, Washington took temporary leave from the Virginia Regiment and travelled uninvited to Loudoun’s headquarters in Philadelphia to meet with the aristocrat face-to-face. In this too he was met with indifference, forced to cool his heels in the city for weeks before securing an audience. When he did, his reception from the Earl was as dismissive as it was brief. He was chided for leaving his post, told to follow the directions of Virginia’s lieutenant (and de facto) governor Robert Dinwiddie, and then ordered to divide his forces throughout the Virginia frontier. Before being able to sputter a response, Lord Loudoun turned his back and signaled that the interview was at an end.

Chastened by the haughty condescension he and many other American colonists were beginning to expect from British officialdom, Washington returned to Virginia convinced that his brave service and personal merit were not receiving their proper reward. Added to the military vexations he was enduring at the time, it was beginning to dawn on Washington that advancement in Virginia’s provincial military was one thing, advancing into and up the stratified ranks of the British Empire was quite another.[11] Merit had little currency – “interest” amongst those who wielded power back in Whitehall did. Interest was the currency. And Washington had none – at least none in the halls of power that truly mattered in Westminster.

Injury added itself to insult when Washington contracted a severe case of dysentery soon after his return from Philadelphia in the Spring of 1757. Deeply ill and haunted by the specter of the untimely deaths of his father and half-brother Lawrence, he nevertheless put aside his wounded pride and a nagging conviction that he would soon fall victim to “the grim king” to make a third (and final) attempt to secure the patronage of a high-ranking British official.[12] This time it was John Forbes, charged in 1758 to at long-last subdue the French and Indian forces in the Ohio Country and achieve what Braddock had failed to: the capture of Fort Duquesne.[13] Washington wasted no time laying on the flattery. “It gives me no small pleasure to find we have an Officer of your universal good Character, and consummate Prudence to Command in this Expedition: and it is with equal degree of pleasure I congratulate you on the promising prospect of a glorious Campaign.”[14]

Washington was interested in more than Forbes’ favor and the commission that might bring; he was also hopeful that expelling the French and subduing their Native American allies would open up the lands of the Ohio Country to him and other land-hungry Virginians. Despite protestations otherwise, it was in his and the colony’s interest that the eventual advance on Fort Duquesne progress along the road he had cut years before in the expedition that had led to Jumonville Glen – and that Braddock had taken in his ill-fated attack. “I do not know so effectual a way of [reaching Ft. Duquesne] … as by the communication of Fort Cumberland and Genl Braddocks road,” he wrote to Forbes, “which is in the first place good, and in the next, fresh; affording good food if the weather keeps open …”[15]

Forbes (rightly) suspected that Washington’s financial interest, and not his military judgment, undergirded this counsel. Dealing with his own case of dysentery (unlike with Washington, his would prove mortal), and consumed with the Herculean task of winning Native American support for the British, he ignored Washington’s advice and began construction of an alternate route leading out of Pennsylvania – Virginia’s northern neighbor and rival for primacy in the Ohio Country.

In a significant blow to Washington and Virginia, it was along this route that the combined British and provincial force would advance in the closing months of 1758. Progressing as far as Braddock had years before, Forbes’ forces were pleased to hear the sound of a loud explosion – the French had abandoned Ft. Duquesne and, with it, predominance in the Ohio Country.[16]

After nearly-uninterrupted frustration and failure, the war in North America was taking a decisive turn towards the British. For Washington personally though, it was coming to an end. After years of aggravation defending an open frontier from Indian attack, and bloodying his head trying to break into the iron strictures of the imperial apparatus, he was done with military service. He had experienced no problems courting influential patrons inside the Tidewater elite of Colonial Virginia, and as a result had risen to be the highest-ranking military officer in the colony – as well as one of its most well-known, respected citizens. The glass ceiling of Virginia’s hierarchy, though, only catapulted him into a collision with the concrete ceiling of the British hierarchy – and Washington was done trying to break through. Having made a name for himself, purchased Mount Vernon from his half-brother’s widow, won election to the House of Burgesses, and married the wealthy widow Martha Custis, Washington was ready to trade his sword for his plow. From thence on, he would enjoy the comforts and profits of life as a gentleman farmer and power-broker in Virginia.

The ink had scarcely dried on his resignation and farewell to the officers of the Virginia regiment before he was sending orders to London for all the finer things a member of the planter elite was expected to have – a “Fashionable Sett of Desert Glasses… 2 pair of fashionable mixed, or Marble Col[ore]d Silk Hose… 1 Suit of Clothes of the finest Cloth & fashionable Color,” and, for his sessions in the House of Burgesses and other public appearances, “Half a dozen pair of Men’s neatest Shoes and Pumps” – among many other items.[17]

The next decade of Washington’s life would be consumed with the management and expansion of his plantation at Mount Vernon, a schedule interrupted only by bi-annual House of Burgesses sessions, dinner parties, Freemason meetings, and the occasional night of cards at nearby taverns. Yet for as much as the squire of Mount Vernon prospered in stature and wealth in the middle years of his life, he and Americans throughout the thirteen colonies continued to find themselves wrestling with the British lion.

He had begun his public career surveying the verdant lands of the Ohio Country, and ever since had seen potential profit both for himself and for Virginia. Then the obstacle had been the French in the region and their indigenous allies. With that presence gone, Washington and many others were vexed to confront another: British imperial policy. Immediately following end of the Seven Years’ War and French abandonment of North America, Washington and other investors formed the “Mississippi Land Company” to petition the King for thousands of the newly acquired acres in the West.[18] They were denied. Instead, His Majesty issued the Proclamation of 1763 – forbidding any of his subjects “on Pain of our Displeasure” from claiming or settling lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.[19] Most of His Majesty’s American subjects were incensed – the reason they had fought against the French for so many years had been to secure access to the wealth that lands west of the Appalachians promised. Inexplicably, they had no sooner replaced the French obstacle than a British one took its place.

Washington, for the moment, remained unperturbed. Instead he prepared, beginning a correspondence with William Crawford, a former officer in the Virginia Regiment who was well-acquainted with potential lands in the Ohio Country (indeed, he was living there in violation of the Proclamation), to establish a partnership “to secure some of the most valuable Lands” currently closed off by the Proclamation. Washington was convinced that the Proclamation itself was but a temporary measure “to quiet the Minds of the Indians & must fall of course in a few years.” In the interim, it was incumbent upon men interested in their own and their colony’s future prosperity to hunt out “good Lands & in some measure Marking & distinguishing them for their own.”[20]

Washington’s and Crawford’s partnership was designed to take advantage of a war-time proclamation from Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie offering thousands of acres of land in the Ohio Country as compensation for those serving in the Virginia Regiment. Crawford informed Washington of potential real estate, promised him that he “may Depend upon my Loosing no time” in surveying those lands, and that he would keep their joint-ventures a “profond secreet.”[21]

Aside from the management of Mount Vernon, Washington’s efforts to find and secure the choicest lands in the Ohio for himself and other Virginians (in this case, he did not see a distinction between his private and Virginia’s public interests) would consume the lion’s share of his time and energy until the War for Independence.[22] From his correspondence with Crawford and others, to using his office as Burgess to arrange legislation, to personally surveying potential lands in the West, Washington was determined to be primed and ready once London opened up the Ohio Country.[23]

It was not to be. After years of time and money invested, Washington was left aghast at word that Lord Hillsborough, British secretary of state for American affairs, had ruled that the promised bounty lands applied to British regulars and not to provincial soldiers.[24] “I conceive the services of a Provincial Officer as worthy of reward as those of a regular one,” he complained, and “can only be withheld from him with injustice.”[25] Coupled with news of the Quebec Act, which extended the territorial borders of Canada into land prized by Washington and other Americans, Washington’s anger was reaching a fever pitch.[26] To him, these actions were “among many other proofs” of Hillsborough’s and the British ministry’s “malignant disposition towards us poor Americans; founded equally in Malice, absurdity, & error.”[27]

Washington had reached a breaking point, for these developments not only recalled to mind all of the condescension and prejudice he had confronted in his interactions with British superiors over a decade before, but came in addition to personal economic hardships – the “other proofs” – he felt were being placed on him for the benefit of other interests in England. Prevented by law from selling his crops to non-British entities, he had long been convinced that he was being forced to sell at below-market prices.[28] Land rich, but cash poor; this only exacerbated Washington’s debt with – and feeling of dependence on – British merchant houses.[29]

The accretion of these private complaints, along with the more widespread public grievances Americans were harboring towards Britain, not only made Washington feel like a second-class citizen, but also caused him for the first time to start seeking a personal destiny outside the British sphere. His first step in this direction, small but significant, had been to embrace the boycott of British imports taxed by Parliament, and he uncharacteristically took an active legislative role in the House of Burgesses to see it enacted.[30]

In private correspondence, his language was also growing increasingly radical. To fellow Burgess George Mason he excoriated “our lordly Masters in Great Britain,” who would “be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom.” As early as 1768, years before the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, he had already decided that American use of force was not out of possibility, though it “should be the last resource.”[31]

With matters continuing to worsen in the years to follow, Washington privately, but decisively, decided that the time for protests and petitions was passing. To long-time benefactor George William Fairfax, he asserted that England could rest assured “that Americans will never be taxed without their own consent” and that Boston’s cause resisting the Coercive Acts was “the cause of America.”[32] In a missive to Fairfax’s brother Bryan, he added his conviction that continued pleas with the ministry would do more harm than good, as they “would only bring disgrace upon us” and “weaken our cause.”[33]

With this belief, Washington traveled as one of Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in September 1774 dressed in his old military coat – an implicit signal to the other delegates that he was not only prepared to take up arms, but also to lead them. The gesture had its intended effect, and in the eyes of his fellow delegates the man in the flesh lived up to his old martial reputation. His deportment had “an easy Soldierlike Air,” wrote Connecticut delegate Silas Deane, and he spoke “very modestly, & in cool but determined Style & Accent.”[34]

As Washington had desired, the Congress passed a resolution calling on the respective colonies to organize their militias in preparation for an increasingly likely conflict.[35] Departing Philadelphia in October, there was little doubt in his own mind that this was where events were heading. Americans would not meekly “submit to the loss of those valuable rights & privileges which are essential to the happiness of every free State, and without which, Life, Liberty & property are rendered totally insecure.” Neither he nor any American wanted conflict, but “more blood will be spilt on this occasion” should the ministry choose to persist in its belligerence “than history has yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America.”[36]

Time would quickly prove him right, as word of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord rapidly spread throughout the colonies. “Unhappy it is … that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast,” he mourned, “and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative!”[37] Less than six months after returning from the First Continental Congress, Washington packed a newly designed buff and blue uniform into his carriage and returned to Philadelphia for the Second. This time he left Mt. Vernon not only in the knowledge that war was coming (indeed, had come), but that he was very likely to play a significant role in it. After nearly twenty years, it was time to trade back the plow for his old sword.

On June 14, Washington and the other delegates of the Second Continental Congress created an “American continental army.” The next day, Thomas Johnson of Maryland rose to formally nominate Washington to be its commander-in-chief. The assembled delegates elected him unanimously that same day.[38]

Nearly two decades after his ill-fated quest for a regular commission in the British army, George Washington received his commission – but instead of donning the redcoat of the British, he would be donning the buff and blue of her rebellious American colonies.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 


[1] Fred Anderson, The War that Made America (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 55-73.

[2] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 144-146.

[3] George Washington to the Earl of Loudoun, July 25, 1756, in John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 81. I have modernized some of the spelling in Washington’s letters for the sake of clarity.

[4] For Washington’s inheritance from his father, see note in “Deed for Ferry Farm Land” from W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 5. For a discussion of Colonial Virginia’s social stratification, See Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 16.

[5] For a description of Washington’s role at “Jumonville Glenn” and his first military experience on Braddock’s staff, see Anderson, Crucible, 42-65.

[6] John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of An American Icon (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 28-29.

[7] For some of the more recent, exemplary examinations of the British system as related to the management (and mismanagement) of the American colonies, see Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (New York: Vintage Books, 2014) and Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[8] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 92.

[9] The other prominent example is Benjamin Franklin. For a superlative examination of his own metamorphosis, see Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).

[10] For this quote and an overall account of Washington’s desperate attempts to garner Lord Loudoun’s patronage, see James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: The Forge of Experience (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1956), 169-175.

[11] For a description of the trials Washington experienced defending an open frontier from Native American attack, see Geoff Smock, “Experience, Policies, Failures: President Washington & the Native Americans.” Journal of the American Revolution. March 12, 2017, https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/03/experience-policies-failures-president-washington-native-americans/.

[12] “I have in appearance been very near my last gasp … I once thought the grim King would certainly master my utmost efforts and that I must sink in spite of a noble struggle.” Washington to Richard Washington, October 20, 1761, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0050. For a discussion of Washington’s fatalistic views towards his own mortality, see Peter R. Henriques, “The Final Struggle between George Washington and the Grim King: Washington’s Attitude toward Death and an Afterlife.” In Don Higginbotham, ed., George Washington Reconsidered (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 250-71.

[13] Anderson, Crucible, 233.

[14] Washington to John Forbes, April 23, 1758, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-05-02-0102.

[15] Washington to Forbes, November 16, 1758, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0112.

[16] Anderson, Crucible, 267-285.

[17] For Washington’s farewell to his officers, see Washington to the Officers of the Virginia Regiment, January 10, 1759, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0152. For his orders to London, see “Enclosure: Invoice to Robert Cary & Company, 1 May 1759,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0166-0002.

[18] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 55-56.

[19] George III, “The Royal Proclamation”, October 7, 1763, accessed November 5, 2016 from The Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/proc1763.asp

[20] Washington to William Crawford, September 1767, in Rhodehamel, ed., Writings, 123-126.

[21] Crawford to Washington, September 29, 1767, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0024.

[22] W.W. Abbot, “George Washington, the West, and the Union,” in Higginbotham, ed., Washington Reconsidered, 199-203.

[23] See Washington’s diary for his surveying expeditions in The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 2, 14 January 1766 – 31 December 1770, Donald Jackson, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 277–328. For a general summary of Washington’s efforts to establish claims for himself and Virginia in the West following the Proclamation, see Ferling, Ascent, 63-66.

[24] Ray Raphael, “Why Did George Washington Become a Revolutionary?” Journal of the American Revolution. August 28, 2016, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/02/why-did-george-washington-become-a-revolutionary/.

[25] Washington to Thomas Lewis, February 17, 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0360.

[26] Geoff Smock, “Blame Canada: The Quebec Act & the American Revolution.” Journal of the American Revolution. January 12, 2017, https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/01/blame-canada-quebec-act-american-revolution/.

[27] Washington to James Wood, February 20, 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[28] See Washington to Robert Cary & Company, September 20, 1765, in Rhodehamel, ed., Writings, 113-117.

[29] For examples of Washington’s debt frustrations, see Washington to Robert Stewart, April 27, 1763, 108-109; and Washington to Cary & Company, August 10, 1764, 110-111; Ibid.

[30] Chernow, Washington, 146-147.

[31] Washington to George Mason, June 6, 1768, in Rhodehamel, ed., Writings, 130.

[32] Washington to George William Fairfax, June 10, 1774, Ibid., 150.

[33] Washington to Bryan Fairfax, July 4, 1774, Ibid., 153.

[34] Silas Dean to Elizabeth Deane, September 10, 1774, in John P. Kaminski, ed., The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 471.

[35] Ferling, Ascent, 78-79.

[36] Washington to Robert McKenzie, October 9, 1774, in Rhodehamel, ed., Writings, 160.

[37] Washington to George William Fairfax, May 31, 1775, Ibid., 164.

[38] Richard R. Beeman, Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 224-231.

2 Comments

  • Technically, the Battle of the Monongahela was not an ambush of the British by the French and their native allies, but rather a meeting engagement. Both sides were on the move and bumped into each other. The French did not have time to set the ambush they had planned, as the British column had advanced toward Fort Duquesne faster than expected.

    The British had superior numbers (about 1300 to fewer than 900), and the British advance guard responded promptly, engaging the French and Indians at long range and then falling back toward the main body. But the main body, under Braddock, reacted clumsily. The French and Indians attacked from concealed positions in the woods, tactics with which Braddock and his men were not familiar (but which colonials such as Washington had tried to warn them about). Faced with fire from an enemy they found difficult to see, the British troops panicked and fled. Only Washington’s courageous command of the rear guard (even as he had not yet recovered from dysentery) saved Braddock’s command from annihilation. As it was, the British and colonials suffered over 900 casualties, while the French and Indians suffered fewer than 100.

  • There is another interpretation that Braddock was not actually that ignorant of the native ‘s tactics. He did have light infantry who protected the flanks, and he positioned his best soldiers the grenediers in the most exposed areas. Indeed the British army never really changed its approach thoughout the war. Forbes advanced to Fort Donesque the same way Braddock originally did, albeit by a different route. When Braddock first started, he advanced very slowly and methodically, with one large and relatively imperivious coloumn. This coloumn was attacked throughout its march to Fort Donesque before Monongahela. However this advance was too slow, to slow for both Braddock’s personal ambition and too slow in the eyes of local colonial interests, who impatiently wanted the French out of the Ohio valley with immediacy. Braddock’s fatal mistake was not necesarily his small unit tactics which remaned largely unchanged in any case, the mistake came when he split his force and created the “flying column” which advanced quickly ahead of the main force.The flying coloumn was hit by the French militia force and was outnumbered, it fell back into the path of the main force. This created a deadly confusion which cost the coloumn its prized cohesion. Had Braddock kept to the original tactic of advancing methodically, the French may have found it impossible to stop him

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