Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The past as present: General Braddock vs. the locals

I’ve just finished reading Lee McCardell’s Ill-Starred General, a biography of General Edward Braddock, commander of the British expedition destroyed by the French and their Indian allies just east of what is now Pittsburgh in July 1755. To my knowledge, this was the largest battle seen in North America up to that date. What is ...

The National Guard/flickr
The National Guard/flickr
The National Guard/flickr

I've just finished reading Lee McCardell's Ill-Starred General, a biography of General Edward Braddock, commander of the British expedition destroyed by the French and their Indian allies just east of what is now Pittsburgh in July 1755. To my knowledge, this was the largest battle seen in North America up to that date.

What is striking is how Braddock blew off warnings from both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin that he was spending too much time worrying about logistics and not enough studying his enemies. The general figured the Indians would scatter the first time they got a gander at crack British regulars. He also thought he could take the French outpost at what is now Pittsburgh in a few days and then proceed to Niagara. He was wrong on both counts.

The vastly outnumbered French figured they would lose if they waited to be attacked, so instead of hunkering down or retreating, they ambushed Braddock's column while it was still in the woods. Interestingly, Daniel Hyacinthe Liénard de Beaujeu, the French commander, much savvier than Braddock about local affairs, went into battle dressed more or less as an Indian and seems to have fought like one until he took a bullet in the head. Two-thirds of Braddock's force was killed or wounded. Bonus fact: Daniel Boone also was at the battle, at least until he and other wagoneers hightailed it out of there.

I’ve just finished reading Lee McCardell’s Ill-Starred General, a biography of General Edward Braddock, commander of the British expedition destroyed by the French and their Indian allies just east of what is now Pittsburgh in July 1755. To my knowledge, this was the largest battle seen in North America up to that date.

What is striking is how Braddock blew off warnings from both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin that he was spending too much time worrying about logistics and not enough studying his enemies. The general figured the Indians would scatter the first time they got a gander at crack British regulars. He also thought he could take the French outpost at what is now Pittsburgh in a few days and then proceed to Niagara. He was wrong on both counts.

The vastly outnumbered French figured they would lose if they waited to be attacked, so instead of hunkering down or retreating, they ambushed Braddock’s column while it was still in the woods. Interestingly, Daniel Hyacinthe Liénard de Beaujeu, the French commander, much savvier than Braddock about local affairs, went into battle dressed more or less as an Indian and seems to have fought like one until he took a bullet in the head. Two-thirds of Braddock’s force was killed or wounded. Bonus fact: Daniel Boone also was at the battle, at least until he and other wagoneers hightailed it out of there.

One good lesson is to heed the locals. As one of Braddock’s Indian allies later put it:

It was the pride and ignorance of that General that came from England. He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often tried to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers . . . .

Braddock seems like a good, solid career soldier, not particularly imaginative, and somewhat irritable, but basically an honest, straightforward guy. He reminds me, among other officers, of General Ricardo Sanchez, who succeeded General Tommy R. Franks in Iraq.

Second bonus fact: Maryland Gov. Horatio Sharpe warned Braddock that the military contractors with whom he would deal were "a parcel of dirty fellows."

Unlikely Iraq connection: One of those contractors was a "Colonel" Thomas Cresap, namesake of Cresaptown, Maryland, home of the notorious Army Reserve unit, the 372nd Military Police Company, which committed most (but not the worst) of the sadistic abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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