The Young Hero: George Washington and the Battle of the Monongahela
In early 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock and two regiments of Redcoats arrived in Virginia. A 45-year veteran of the British Army, Braddock was named commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America and entrusted with the task of capturing the major French stronghold at Fort Duquesne, near the Forks of the Ohio River (near modern-day Pittsburg). While working hard to plant his first spring crop at his home of Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington received a letter inviting him to serve on Braddock’s personal staff. Washington, who turned 23 years old that February, ultimately agreed to serve as a volunteer aide to the British commander-in-chief. In May, Braddock’s army of some 2,100 British Regulars and 500 colonial militia ventured into the treacherous wilderness and set out for Fort Duquesne.
After lumbering along very slowly, Braddock’s army finally reached the Monongahela River, roughly ten miles from Fort Duquesne, in early July. Although Washington had warned General Braddock to remain vigilant against ambushes and other improvisational tactics used by the French and Indians, the British commander had no doubts about the military power that he wielded. As he once expressed to Benjamin Franklin, “These savages may be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the king’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they would make any impression.” That arrogant attitude and ignorance of the cunning fighting ability of the French and Indians would lead to fatal consequences for General Braddock and his soldiers.
After crossing the Monongahela, Braddock’s army was ferociously attacked by the French and their Indian allies in a wooded ravine on the far side of the river on July 9, 1755. As historian James Thomas Flexner points out, “The British regulars were entirely untrained in fighting out of formation, as individual men.” Facing an enemy that encircled them and fought from behind trees and other good pieces of high ground, Braddock’s troops were cut to pieces by an enemy that they often could not even see. The losses were so severe that historian Ron Chernow writes, “So many intrepid British officers were killed or wounded-nearly two-thirds of the total-that it led to a complete collapse of the command structure.” Among the casualties was General Braddock, who had four horses shot from under him and was mortally wounded during the fighting.
A mortally wounded General Braddock is surrounded by his aides as he rests against a tree at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. George Washington stands to Braddock's right. (Photo Credit: The Westmoreland Museum of American Art)
In the midst of the bloody chaos and confusion experienced by General Braddock and his army at the Battle of the Monongahela, George Washington was a tower of strength. Still recovering from a case of dysentery and suffering from painful hemorrhoids, Washington had strapped cushions to his saddle earlier that morning to help deal with the jolting agony of being on horseback. Despite his afflictions, he was fearless under fire and rode all over the battlefield. Washington was so active during the fight that he had two horses shot out from underneath him and four bullets tore through his hat and uniform. Dr. James Craik observed Washington on the unforgiving field of fire and reflected, “I expected every moment to see him fall. His duty and station exposed him to every danger. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him.” Considering that he had not been seriously wounded or killed despite the whirlwind of death all around him, Washington himself believed that “the miraculous care of Providence,” which was the word he often used to refer to God, had protected him “beyond all human exception.”
With Braddock down, Washington was ultimately catapulted into a position as “the only person then left to distribute the [wounded] general’s orders.” Pushing past his “weak and feeble condition,” he effectively supervised a retreat of the survivors and ensured that Braddock was evacuated back across the Monongahela. Among Washington’s responsibilities was an order to ride forty miles through the night to track down reinforcements under Colonel Thomas Dunbar. As Chernow writes, “By now Washington had been on horseback for twelve excruciating hours, yet he gathered up the energy to ride all night and execute Braddock’s command.” The following day, Braddock and the other survivors reached Dunbar’s camp. After General Braddock’s death on July 13 and his subsequent burial, Washington helped to guide what remained of the army as it completed its painful retreat.
Regarded as the first major clash in what became the French and Indian War, the Battle of the Monongahela was a crushing British defeat. Of the roughly 1,400 men in Braddock’s army, his force suffered approximately 977 killed or wounded, including 63 officers. Although outnumbered, the 900-man-strong French and Indian force lost only 23 dead and 16 wounded. Despite the overwhelming setback, Washington’s role in saving the remnants of Braddock’s bloodied army from total ruin did not go unnoticed. Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie hailed the young warrior as the “hero of Monongahela,” and many other prominent individuals wrote to Washington to express their admiration for his heroism.
Click here to read more about George Washington and his experiences in the French and Indian War.
American Battlefield Trust: George Washington.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of the Monongahela.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Washington and the French & Indian War.
History.com: French and Indian War.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.
Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.