Sunday, December 27, 2009

Along the Edge of Two Empires - A Road Trip Into the Past - Part 2

Well, here it is. The final posting of 2009. My last posting a couple weeks ago, in the wake of a road trip up into western Pennsylvania, described the early stages of the confrontation between Great Britain and France as these two European empires attempted to establish hegemony over the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. So here is the rest of the story.

The French won the first round when they defeated George Washington and his colonial militia at Fort Necessity (Great Meadows) in early July 1754 and forced Great Britain to abandon, at least temporarily, its claim to the lands along the Ohio River. That autumn colonial Virginia decided once again to pursue its claim by sending a significant military force to the area of contention, including the Forks of the Ohio.

Although war had not been declared by the spring of 1755, despite the confrontation at Fort Necessity the previous summer, both the British and the French were planning for round two. The British continued to develop a strategy by which it could confront and eventually defeat the French forces situated along the entire frontier separating their respective North American territories - a limited war. The French were more interested in defending their territory than encroaching on British holdings. They consolidated their control in the region with the building of forts and outpost along the various rivers feeding into the Ohio, including Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh). After the first encounter in July 1754, the French improved Fort Duquesne to withstand a siege by a superior British force; the original stockade was replaced and it was protected by water on two side as well as by a maze of defensive trench works.

Great Britain decided that it could not rely solely on colonial militias to get the job done, and so it began to assemble the largest and most potent military force ever seen in North America - an expeditionary force of two regiments (approximately 2400 British regulars) supported by 1100 militia troops from Virginia, Maryland, New York and South Carolina, some of whom had seen action at Fort Necessity the previous summer. In command was General Edward Braddock, a veteran of 45 years in the King’s service, most of it as a member of the Coldstream Guard, although a neophyte when it came to wilderness fighting. George Washington, who was by now well acquainted with the area beyond the Allegheny Mountains, served as Braddock’s aide-de-camp. British strategy called for this force to cross the Appalachians and defeat the French at Fort Duquesne, the keystone to French defenses in the Ohio Valley. They would establish a permanent British presence at the Forks of the Ohio before moving north along the Allegheny River toward the Niagra frontier in an attempt to cut communication and supply lines between New France (Canada) and the Louisiana territory.

Braddock and a thousand British regulars arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in early 1755. They disembarked at Hampton Roads on February 10 and eventually bivouacked in the vicinity of the colonial Virginian capital at Williamsburg. One of the first tasks to be accomplished was to determine which routes across the Appalachians afforded best access to the Forks of the Ohio and the Ohio River drainage beyond. Lieutenant Colonel John St. Clair, Braddock’s quartermaster, found only two principal roads through northern Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge. One was what is now Leesburg Pike running through Leesburg and then crossing the Blue Ridge at Vestal’s (Keyer) Gap, then across the Shenandoah River south of what is now Harper’s Ferry. The other route went west from Winchester, then northwest across the Cacapon Mountains and the Cacapon River, then across the South Branch of the Potomac and northwest to Wills Creek, now known as Fort Cumberland in honor of the Duke of Cumberland, the youngest brother of King George II. Both of these routes were muddy and in very poor condition as the result of winter snowmelt combined with the spring rains. They would have to be improved in order to accommodate the movement of troops and equipment across the mountains to Fort Cumberland. Rafts would also have to be constructed in order to ford the many streams and rivers paralleling the mountain ridges. The original British deployment plans called for troops and equipment to move up the Potomac by bateau, not realizing this river was much too shallow and full of obstructions to permit passage all the way to Fort Cumberland.

St. Clair was bivouacked at Enoch Camp, on the Cacapon River, by early April 1755 and reported to Braddock that road construction in the direction of Fort Cumberland was finally underway. General Braddock and part of his expeditionary force set out from Alexandria and marched southwest toward Frederickburg where they bivouacked for a week. There he met with Benjamin Franklin, then postmaster for the Pennsylvania colony, to discuss supplies and reinforcements supposedly coming from Philadelphia. Other units of the expeditionary forced departed Alexandria and crossed the Potomac into Maryland and marched along the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Frederick. From there they would join up with militia troops arriving from Philadelphia after which they would cross the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to join up with Braddock’s force at Fort Cumberland. In late April this later force left Frederick and marched west across the Blue Ridge, crossing the Potomac and back into Virginia on its westward trek. St. Clair moved up to Fort Cumberland to consolidate forces with those militias from Maryland, New York and South Carolina, before moving westward toward the Forks of the Ohio. Braddock and his force finally arrived at Fort Cumberland on May 10, 1755; it had taken over three months to move the British expeditionary force to the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains although the artillery was still in transit and would not arrive for another couple of weeks. The supply wagons and horses sent from Pennsylvania at the behest of Benjamin Franklin also arrived and it would take another month for Braddock to prepare for the crossing of the Alleghenies on the way to the Monongahela River and Fort Duquesne. Along the way they would have to improve the route Washington and his men cut through the wilderness the previous year, widening it so it could accommodate supply wagons and artillery pieces.

Once he had arrived at Fort Cumberland, Braddock quickly realized that the countryside there was completely foreign and unknown to the inhabitants of lower parts of Maryland and Virginia. Strategies would have to be developed and revised in order to successfully pursue British military goals beyond the Alleghenies. On June 10, 1755, Braddock left Fort Cumberland with roughly 2000 troops - British regulars and colonial militiamen along with a few sailors to man large artillery pieces taken off a Royal Navy vessel. Following the same route used by George Washington during his 1753 and 1754 expeditions to western Pennsylvania, they moved very slowly as they improved the original route to handle the supply wagons and artillery. It took a week to advance just over 20 miles beyond Fort Cumberland. In order to expedite the advance toward Fort Duquesne, Braddock then divided his command and continued toward the Monongahela with approximately half his force along with some of the supply wagons and the artillery. Unfortunately this strategy failed. Braddock and the advanced elements of his force passed the ruins of Fort Necessity, burned by the French the previous summer, on June 25. From there they hacked their way across the remaining 50 miles, arriving on July 8 among the steep hills and valleys along the eastern bank of the Monongahela, not far above the confluence with the Youghiogheny River some ten miles below Fort Duquesne where 200 French soldiers and 600 Native Americans were bivouacked. The rest of the British force remained some 20 miles in the rear and out of effective range to support or reinforce the advanced column.

Surprised that they had not encountered any French patrols, Braddock and his men forded the Monongahela on July 9, returning to the western bank a few miles south of Fort Duquesne. They advanced northward in more favorable terrain to avoid possible ambush by the French troops. They then recrossed the river to the eastern bank with direct access to the fort. The British force was a mile-long column as it advanced toward the northwest and the fort. Soon alerted to the approaching British force, and realizing they did not have sufficient manpower to adequately defend the fort, a French contingent dispersed into the surrounding forest hoping to catch the British in an area where a smaller French force would have the high ground advantage. They quickly surprised and surrounded Braddock and his men and after a series of rather intense skirmishes lasting a couple of hours, the French forced the British into a chaotic and panicked retreat with very heavy casualties, including the mortally wounded Braddock who was carried from the field. At this point the British resolve evaporated and the battle turned into a rout as the British troops fled eastward into the woods, abandoning their supply wagons and artillery pieces. Washington, who came through the encounter unscathed, led the remnants of the British force back across the Monongahela in the direction of Great Meadows.

Four days later - on July 13, 1755 - General Braddock died of his wounds not far from Great Meadows and the ruins of Fort Necessity. He was one of almost 500 British dead. Washington buried Braddock in an unmarked grave in the middle of the road they had cut through the forest. The rest of the British dead were left to molder on the battlefield where they fell. More would die during the retreat to Fort Cumberland. The French suffered far fewer casualties; only 28 died during the fighting along the Monongahela. The British retreated to Fort Cumberland, and eventually back across Pennsylvania to a winter encampment near Philadelphia. The French remained in complete control of the lands beyond the Alleghenies.

Between 1755 and 1757 the British suffered a number of embarrassing defeats, but by 1758 they were gradually overwhelming the French on all fronts. That spring, a British force of almost 1400 regulars and 3600 colonial militiamen, almost twice the size of the one led by Braddock in 1755 and now under the command of Brigadier General John Forbes (and with St. Clair once again serving as quartermaster general), departed Philadelphia and crossed the Allegheny Mountains for a third time, finally capturing the Forks of the Ohio and driving the French out of the Ohio country for good. The original plan called for this force to march to Fort Cumberland and then follow the same route used by Washington and Braddock. But this route had proved unsuccessful in the two earlier attempts, and Forbes, at the recommendation of St. Clair, marched his forces directly across central Pennsylvania, cutting a new route over the Allegheny Mountains in order to attack Fort Duquesne from the east.

By July 1758, an advance British column had pushed forty miles beyond the eastern front of the Alleghenies, to Loyalhanna Creek where Fort Ligonier was constructed some 40 miles east of Fort Duquesne. In September, while Forbes and the main element of his expeditionary force moved across the Alleghenies toward Fort Ligonier, an advance reconnaissance in force was sent to within five miles of Fort Duquesne and its approximately 2000 French defenders. In response, French raiding parties were sent out to dull the British advance and once again skirmishes with heavy British casualties ensued; an almost carbon copy of the Braddock defeat three years earlier as the British staggered back to Fort Ligonier. The French subsequently attacked that fort in October 1758 before the British could regroup and lay an effective siege to Fort Duquesne. The confrontation was brief, but the French showed that they still held the upper hand even if they were becoming increasingly isolated in their citadel at the Forks of the Ohio.

Forbes and the remaining British troops arrived at Fort Ligonier in November 1758 and began to plan for a concerted and final advance on Fort Duquesne. Unfortunately, winter had come to the mountains of western Pennsylvania. As difficult as it would have been for Forbes to lay siege to the French fort, its defenders, without adequate food and supplies, were equally unprepared to withstand a lengthy siege.

On November 24, 1758, an advanced British force, including George Washington, having constructed a road to the banks of the Monongahela River near where Braddock was defeated in 1755, heard explosions coming from the direction of Fort Duquesne only a few miles away. It was discovered the following day that the French had abandoned and blown up Fort Duquesne and retreated up the Allegheny River or down the Ohio toward territory still firmly under French control. A small British contingent was left to defend the Forks while Forbes and most of his expeditionary force returned to Philadelphia in early 1759. Although Forbes survived the campaign, he was no luckier than Braddock. He died shortly after returning to Philadelphia.

In 1760, the British established Fort Pitt at the site of the former Fort Duquesne, fearing renewed attempts by the French to regain lost territory and strategic advantage in the west. Instead the French opted to protect their vital interest in the south and north. Great Britain believed that by defending its colonies against French encroachment it would guarantee their fealty to the crown. No one knew at that time that 21 years later, George Washington, who had been a key participant in Britain’s three attempts to defeat the French in western Pennsylvania, would stand at the command of the Continental Army as it prepared to drive the British out of North America once and for all . . . with French support.

NEXT: It’s Time to Bone the Duck

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