- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009



By Thomas E. Crocker

Westholme, $28, 335 pages

Reviewed by Aram Bakshian Jr.

Every weekday, thousands of Washingtonians wrestle with rush-hour traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. Few of them know that, more than 250 years ago, the same route echoed to the tramping feet of red-coated British infantry commanded by the “Generalissimo of All His Majesty’s Troops in North America,” Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, a heavy-drinking martinet who had spent more of his military career on parade grounds than on battlefields before commanding the first Royal Army ever to serve on the American mainland. Its march out of Georgetown and up what is now Wisconsin Avenue was only the beginning of a harrowing three-month, 250-mile trek through the wilderness. Today, it would be remembered as a triumph of engineering and logistics - an awesome victory of man over nature - had it not ended in a bloody military defeat.

It’s still hard to decide which was the greater achievement: the grueling march of a cumbersome 18th-century army, complete with a ponderous train of siege artillery, from coastal Virginia through vast stretches of Maryland and Pennsylvania forests and mountains, or its last-minute rout by a handful of ambushing Frenchmen and hundreds of their Indian allies.

Both Braddock’s epic march and subsequent destruction are brought to life by Thomas E. Crocker in “Braddock’s March,” his impeccably researched account of an important but largely forgotten chapter in American history. Mr. Crocker, a prominent Washington attorney, has done his job with all the thoroughness - and none of the dryness - of a professional historian.

He also has an excellent eye for his characters, capturing them in a few choice pen strokes. For example, the duke of Cumberland, King George II’s favorite son and commander in chief of the entire British army is “a victim of his Hanoverian genes, a pop-eyed young man with a bullet head and the torso of a whale.” It was Cumberland who drew up the plans for Braddock’s expedition, envisioning it as the key element in a quick campaign to drive the French from North America. It all looked so simple on paper. After all, the entire population of New France amounted to only 80,000 scattered souls. Britain’s 1.2 million Colonists along the Atlantic seaboard outnumbered them by more than 10 to 1. Besides, the Royal Navy ruled most of the waves, most of the time, making it much harder for French supplies and reinforcements to reach Canada on those rare occasions when the mother country, ruled by the indolent Louis XV, bothered with such matters.

Unfortunately, the campaign that Cumberland and his cronies had drawn up in London was based on false assumptions. For example, plans to send men and guns by water up the Potomac River suffered from a fatal flaw. The rapids and Great Falls just above Georgetown - which weren’t on Cumberland’s maps - rendered the water route unnavigable. The distance of the land march was also dangerously underestimated because of faulty intelligence. As often happens in war, what looked like a cakewalk to the paper pushers behind the lines would prove to be a nightmare for the men on the ground.

Besides, Braddock’s force was probably inadequate for the great task it was assigned. It consisted of only two understrength, mediocre regiments of British line infantry, an oversized, overweight Royal artillery contingent, a small naval detail (the sailors performed particularly well, proving much more adaptable to wilderness conditions than their army equivalents), a few Indian scouts and about 400 makeshift colonial troops - some of them experienced frontier fighters, but others hastily recruited jail bait.

The expedition was also plagued by transport and supply problems from the start, and riven with conflict between Braddock’s cliquish young staff officers and his more experienced regimental commanders, not to mention the inevitable British-colonial tensions, aggravated by the fact that any British officer, no matter how low his rank, took precedence over any colonial officer, no matter how high his rank.

Yet, against all odds, Braddock’s men hacked their way through the endless forests and triumphantly crossed the Monongahela River in parade order with banners flying … only to be ambushed and routed, on July 9, 1755, a mere eight miles short of their objective, the strategic French outpost of Fort Duquesne (on the site of what is now Pittsburgh).

In a few hours, Braddock’s army was destroyed, he was mortally wounded and two-thirds of his troops were casualties. An even worse slaughter was prevented when the retreating remnants were rallied by a young Virginian serving as a volunteer on Braddock’s staff … by the name of George Washington. In the end, after vast new expenditures in men and money, the British would drive out the French. But, once the French menace was removed - and the Crown tried to collect some of the costs from the newly secure Colonists - we were on the road to revolution.

It all adds up to a stirring tale with an impressive supporting cast. Besides Washington, many other Braddock alumni would gain fame in the War for Independence, including three young British officers: Horatio Gates (who stayed in the Colonies and led American forces to another wilderness victory over a British army at Saratoga in 1777); Charles Lee, who also served as a general on the American side in the Revolution and Thomas Gage, who stuck with the Crown, commanding British forces in Boston and ordering the march on Lexington and Concord resulting in “the shot heard round the world.” Two obscure wagon drivers on the Braddock expedition, Daniel Boone and Daniel Morgan, would also gain later fame, the former as a skilled frontier fighter and settler and the latter as a successful field commander during the revolution, defeating a British army at the Battle of Cowpens.

Even wily old Benjamin Franklin puts in a cameo appearance in “Braddock’s March.” When the governors of Virginia and Maryland failed to come across with promised supplies and transport, it was Franklin who rushed to Braddock’s assistance, providing men, wagons and provisions from Pennsylvania. He also enjoyed the last word on the whole doomed enterprise.

In his memoirs - conveniently written after Braddock’s defeat and death - Franklin claimed to have warned the stubborn Englishman of the fate that might await him: “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march is from ambuscades of Indians, who, by constant practice, are dexterous in laying and executing them….” According to Franklin, Braddock’s response was dismissive: “He smil’d at my ignorance.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to three U.S. presidents. His writing on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts has been widely published in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom.

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