Review: Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, by David Preston. Oxford University Press, 2016. Reviewed by David A. Powell

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome back guest historian David A. Powell. 

When George Washington opened fire on a small party of Canadian militia commanded by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville in May of 1754, he fired the first shots of what would eventually become the French and Indian War – and the Seven Years War across the rest of the globe. Many scholars have also acknowledged that this incident set the spark for what would become our own American Revolution.

Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, by David Preston.

Of course, Washington intended none of those things; instead he was carrying out the British Crown’s policy of staking claim to and defending the Ohio Country, lately disputed between France and Britain.  However, Jumonville’s death set irreversible forces in motion, not the least of which was the capture of Washington’s own company of Virginia Colonial Militia at Fort Necessity by a much larger French response in June of 1754.

The direct consequence of that encounter was the creation of a new British army, including two regiments of regulars and a train of artillery, rushed from Ireland and England to re-assert Crown control over the forks of the Ohio. Command of this new expedition fell to Major General Edward Braddock. Arriving in 1755, Braddock’s mission was to lead this new force from Fort Cumberland, in western Maryland, to the site of the French Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh.) That campaign ended in disaster on July 9, 1755 when Braddock’s column collided with a combined force of French and Indians just a dozen miles short of Duquesne, resulting in horrific British losses – including Braddock.

Not surprisingly, this story has been fertile ground for historians. Fine monographs have already been written on the campaign, as well as on the French and Indian War as a whole. Having a particular interest in the period, I have read a number of those works. Naturally, I was curious when I first heard of Dr. David Preston’s new book exploring the campaign.

Preston, a professor at the Citadel, has delivered a tremendous book. Combining new research and close analysis of previously known sources, he provides fresh new perspective on General Edward Braddock, his ill-fated expedition, and the French & Indians opposing him.

Preston finds that Braddock, far from being an unyielding martinet uninterested in either the “savages” or using Colonials, worked hard (if unsuccessfully) to bring Indian warriors into his force, and showed more respect for the colonial elements under his command than some previous historians have portrayed. A number of factors precluded Braddock’s success here, but it was not for want of trying.

Where Preston’s interpretation really shines is in exploring the French and Indian sides of the war. A new account of the battle, located in a French archive, casts new light on the French efforts to defend Fort Duquesne – a venture whose success was by no means a sure thing. Preston also explores the Indian Nations’ complex and diverse reasons for casting their support with the French, which was also not certain. Preston makes it clear that the French defense was in many ways based on fortuitous circumstances rather than planning, especially in regards to the timing of the campaign.

Preston’s detailed description of the battle in question on July 9 presents a clear and detailed exploration of the sequence events as far as they can be known; where the author speculates he notes that, and explains the basis of his interpretation. Above all, his narrative is well-written, exciting and drama-filled.

Preston also excels in his summation of the long-term impact of Braddock’s defeat, both on the fortunes of British North America in the two years following the battle (which ran from bad to disastrous) and on the longer term consequences: the development of light infantry and ranger tactics, leadership, and the growing rift between American colonials and England.

Students of both the Seven Years War in America and the American Revolution will want to read Braddock’s Defeat. Get your copy today.

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