On the first volley from the Grenadiers the French Canadian auxiliaries, one half of the non-Indian French forces, turned tail and ran, shouting “Sauve qui peut!” (“Every man for himself!”). On the third volley a lucky shot struck Beaujeu, killing him just minutes into the battle. His second in command, Captain Jean Daniel Dumas, who had been an ardent advocate of the plan to intercept the British, assumed charge….
But in fact there was little for the British to shoot at. The French and Indians crouched behind rocks and trees. The staccato firing from the fringe of the forest and war cries erupted at random. As soon as the Grenadiers heard a report or saw smoke, the assailant had ducked or melted back into the forest or skulked behind another tree. The Grenadiers fired wildly, hitting the ground or wasting their balls in the air. Meanwhile, bunched and exposed, they began to drop under the withering fire poured in on them.
Sir Peter Halkett rode up. A wounded Indian sitting disabled in the field observed him and slowly leveled his gun at him. Christopher Gist saw that the Indian was trying to draw a bead on Halkett but, having just fired his own weapon, he could not reload quickly enough to prevent the Indian from firing. The shot struck and killed Halkett. Gist thereupon stepped up, with his own musket now loaded, and blew the Indian’s brains out. Halkett’s younger son James, a lieutenant in the 44th, went to his father’s aid and was also killed as he attended him.
The worst fire came from the left. However, on the right a group of Indians suddenly took possession of several immense fallen trees and also laid in an annoying fire. An officer and a party of Grenadiers moved up to dislodge them and “by a pretty brisk fire kept our right tollerably easy.”
At the same time, Gage deployed the two 6-pounders that were at his disposal in the van. Ramming them with round and grapeshot, the two guns did great execution. The blast of the artillery and rake of the grapeshot caused the Indians to falter and fall back. With Dumas egging them on, however, the Indians quickly regrouped and began to direct their fire on the soldiers manning the cannon. But even as the gunners were felled by bullets, more moved forward to replace them. The Indians ran from one place to another, requiring the Grenadiers “to wheel from right to left, to desert ye Guns and then hastily to return & cover them.” Nonetheless, the British kept the two cannon firing for a total of some eighty rounds. Despite the initial shock of the cannon fire and the loss of their commander, the French and their Indian allies quickly rallied and began to push the British back along the road. Gage’s Grenadiers fell back upon St. Clair’s pioneers, some fifty paces to the rear. St. Clair came up to see what was happening. A bullet smashed into his chest and shoulder. St. Clair remained on his feet, though grievously wounded.
Meanwhile, Braddock, from his position toward the middle of the column, heard the heavy firing as soon as it started. He sent an aide forward to bring him an account of the attack, but the firing continued so he also galloped up to the front. Once there, he found his men bunched and panic-stricken, dropping right and left. The American troops ran up at the same time. Acting without orders, they inserted themselves into the ranks of the Grenadiers, causing great confusion. Other Americans ducked behind trees and began to take on the Indians in their own fashion, with some effect. One group of Virginians in particular, some eighty men under Captain Waggoner, took up a position behind a large log, five feet in diameter, atop the hill and opened a hot fire on the enemy. However, the wildly firing British regulars mistook them for the enemy and killed fifty of them. Even British officers began to fall from “friendly fire” from their own platoons. Other units in the flying column moved up to the scene of the fighting. The men bunched twenty or thirty deep, convinced that numbers provided safety. In fact, they provided a target, which the enemy continued to decimate with unerring fire.
One British officer noted that the enemy fire made a popping sound, “with little explosion” and “only a kind of Whiszing noise; (which is a proof the enemys Arms were rifle Barrels).” This conclusion is not inconsistent with the earlier reports of Indian facility with rifles. With their superior range, the enemy rifles would have prevented the British with their Brown Bess muskets, which were effective only up to about fifty yards, from approaching close enough to damage their ranks, even if the redcoats could have seen the hidden and moving enemy. Thus the Indians allied with the French, if armed with rifles, would have simply outgunned the English and Americans with superior longer-range weapons and with a particularly devastating effect on the British and American officer corps. If the British officer’s eyewitness observation was accurate (and there is no reason to think it was not), the engagement was probably one of the first battles in history fought with rifles and one of the first in which they may have been a critical factor affecting the outcome.
A thickening cloud of smoke from the black powder of the guns, both muskets and rifles, wreathed the scene and occluded the elusive targets as the British regulars tried to find their marks. British officers were later to declare that they never saw more than five of the enemy at one time during the entire battle. The enemy ousted the British flanking party that had earlier partially seized the hill to the right. They now controlled the high ground.
Braddock quickly sized up the danger. Pulling a large white handkerchief from his pocket, he tied his three-cornered hat about his head and galloped about the front. Taking charge, he ordered the colors advanced in different places to try to separate the men of the two regiments. He ordered the soldiers to group and fire in platoons. However, on the narrow road, and with hostile fire coming in from all directions, the maneuvers were impossible. Braddock stormed back and forth on his charger, raging at the men, calling them cowards and striking them with the flat side of his sword. Within two and a half hours, the British retreated three or four times, but each time Braddock and his officers rallied them.
Braddock realized that he would never prevail unless he dislodged the enemy from the high ground. He ordered Burton up with eight hundred men and three big 12-pounders. The convoy closed up. However, before Burton’s men could reinforce the front, they ran into Gage’s retreating vanguard and St. Clair’s crumbling pioneers. All was a mass of confusion. St. Clair, still conscious, stumbled toward the general. Babbling in Italian which he had apparently learned during his service with Count Browne, St. Clair declaimed to Braddock that he was defeated, all was ruined. Braddock, who had vacationed in Italy and also may have spoken some Italian, cut him off scornfully. St. Clair then told him that “by the fresh bleeding of his wound he did not expect to Survive many minutes, and therefore could have no Interest in dissembling or saying what he really did not think.”
“For God’s sake, the rising on our right!” St. Clair cried in English as he pointed, and he passed out.
Braddock glanced up at the hill and agreed. He passed the order to Burton, who rallied some men of the 48th and led them and a force of Grenadiers against the crest of the rising slope. The charge began to attain traction. But then Burton and several Grenadiers dropped, and the remainder crumbled and retreated very fast, leaving their officers shouting at them and even begging, but to no avail.
More officers, acting with the utmost bravery, threw themselves into the breach, but their men would not follow. The officers “dropped like leaves in Autumn.” Majors, captains, lieutenants, ensigns, subalterns, all down, wounded and dying, in the peppering fire from the forest and gullies. Orme and Morris fell, both wounded, hors de combat. So did Horatio Gates of New York, shot through the left breast and no longer able to use his left arm. Lieutenant Spendelow of the Royal Navy was shot and killed. Captain Tatton of the 48th lay dead from the “friendly fire” of his own men, as did Captain William Polson of Virginia and Captain Cholmondeley of the 48th.
More Americans, especially the Virginians, rushed to the scene of the hottest action to try to engage the enemy on their own terms. Fighting frontier fashion, the Americans took to the high ground, firing from behind trees and rocks, while the faltering British huddled in a wavering mass on the road and fired wildly. Washington, “on horse-back, tho’ very weak and low,” rode into the thick of the battle, accompanying Braddock and encouraging the Virginians. At one point Washington asked Braddock if he could post the men behind trees to continue the fight. Braddock’s servant later recalled hearing the general curse and respond, “I’ve a mind to run you through the body! We’ll sup today in Fort Duquesne or else in hell!” The Virginians fought from behind trees anyway, and Washington had to be content with the “charming” song of the bullets playing all around him while he attended Braddock as his only remaining unwounded aide. Though his clothing was pierced by bullets four times and two horses were shot out from under him, Washington was not hit. Scaroyady and the Indian guides fought alongside the Americans with bravery that was noted by all.
The fighting only grew worse. Braddock galloped to and fro in the thick of the battle, trying in vain to rally his men in the face of a hail of bullets. Braddock had four horses shot out from under him, and bullets pierced his clothing several times. But with dwindling officers, the soldiers were helpless to obey. And, as they had been supplied with only twenty-four rounds, their ammunition began to run low. The soldiers stripped cartridges from the dead and wounded to use. A bullet slammed into the head of young Shirley, Braddock’s secretary, riding at his side. He was killed instantly.
After Burton’s failed attempt to take the hill, the cannon, including the rear pieces protecting the baggage, kept up a reasonable rate of fire, getting off between twenty and thirty rounds. They soon had to be abandoned, however, because their guard had all been killed. Gage next fell wounded. The enemy was now spread out on all sides of the column and attacking it from front to rear and firing on every part. The British and Americans fought to the death, terrified of the Indians and knowing that no quarter would be given. At one point the enemy seized the colors of one regiment. Chaplain Hughes retook them and lived to tell the tale. He later remarked that he was “the first Chaplain who ever saved a Pair of Colours, which I took within fifty yards of the Cannon, when the Enemy were Masters of them.”
Late in the fighting, while mounting one of his relief horses beneath a large tree and giving orders for yet another attempt to seize the ridge, Braddock took a bullet through his arm and into his lung. No longer able to ride, but conscious and in agony, he lay on the field of battle attended only by his servant Bishop and later by the head of his bodyguard Captain Robert Stewart of the Virginia light horse and the wounded Orme. After the battle, several of his own men took credit for having fired the shot that hit Braddock. There was particular persistence to the claim by an American enlisted man, Tom Fausett of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, that he had shot Braddock to avenge the death of his brother, whom Braddock caught cowering behind a tree and ran through with his sword. Fausett was a hot-blooded, rough-hewn character who swore by his story. Fausett’s claim has never been proven or disproven, despite a thorough effort by Sargent to debunk it. Fausett stuck by his story all his long life, and it was widely believed in western Pennsylvania, where he settled after the war.
Not long after, in late afternoon, the British line began to break. It started with the wagon drivers to the rear of the column. Fearing a defeat, they unhitched their horses from the wagons and gun limbers and galloped away so quickly that even if by a miracle the English had turned the tide they would have had no horses left to draw the train forward. Among those who cut loose their horses and galloped away was a twenty-year-old sharpshooter-turned-wagoneer with Captain Dobbs’s North Carolina Independents named Daniel Boone, a gentry-born frontiersman who was later to earn the epithet “Panther” for his exploits in the wild. The battle may well have been nearing its end when Boone finally joined the fleeing throngs. In any event, having fled the battlefield, he continued on to eastern Pennsylvania, having to kill a fierce Indian who tried to block his path in the Juniata region. The story provided early grist for the self-invented legend of Daniel Boone. Another retreating wagoneer was Boone’s friend Daniel Morgan, who was later to become an American general and master of irregular tactics in the Revolution.
Then, at about five o’clock, “as if by beat of Drumm,” the entire army “turned to ye right about & made a most precipitate retreat every one trying who should be first.”
Orme, though badly wounded in the thigh, tried to arrange to have Braddock carried off the field. In the headlong rush to retreat, he could get no one to help. He even offered to bribe men with sixty gold guineas, but none came to his aid. Disgusted and wanting to die “like an old Roman,” the general at last refused to be carried off the battlefield. However, Orme disobeyed him and, with the help of Washington and Stewart, removed Braddock’s red officer’s sash and used it as a sling to carry him to the rear of what was left of the column.16 There, in the baggage train, they found a two-wheeled tumbrel to remove him from the field of battle. As he was being eased into the cart Croghan came up. Braddock eyed Croghan’s pistols and asked for them so that he might put an end to it and die with honor. Croghan ignored the request.
The Indians swooped down from the forest in pursuit. Screaming war cries and with their tomahawks flailing, they attacked and butchered the fleeing British and Americans, who were dropping their arms and shedding their clothes in order to run faster. With the general now safely off the field, Washington galloped to the upper ford of the river to try to stem the continued flight of the men and found the wounded Gage already there employed in that effort. Washington returned to the general’s side.
One British officer, wounded in one leg and the other heel, sat down at the base of a tree begging every soldier that ran by in retreat to shoot him dead. A Virginian stopped and turned to him. “Yes, countryman, I will put you out of your misery. These dogs shall not burn you.” He then put his piece to his head, but the British officer changed his mind at the last instant, cried out and dodged behind the tree. The gun fired and missed. The American ran on. Soon after, Lieutenant Grey, who was with a rear unit, ran by as the firing died down and had the officer carried off.
The Indians chased the fleeing soldiers down to the banks of the Monongahela. As the soldiers ran across the river, “they shot many in ye Water both Men and Women, & dyed ye stream with their blood, scalping and cutting them in a most barbarous manner.” One officer recorded three weeks later: “I cannot describe the horrors of that scene, no pen could do it. The yell of the Indians is fresh on my ear, and the terrific sound will haunt me till the hour of my dissolution.”
One foot soldier, Duncan Cameron, a private in the 44th and a battle-hardened veteran of campaigning in the Low Countries, was stunned in the initial action and left for dead. He awakened, to find that his own unit had retreated, the enemy was in hot pursuit, and the immediate area of the battlefield was for the moment deserted by friend or foe. He therefore sought refuge in a hollow tree and through a knothole watched the Indians wreaking terror on the survivors. At one point an Indian looked directly at the knothole, and Cameron shook with panic. But his foe did not see him and resumed his scalping of the fallen redcoats, many of them still alive and screaming in agony. Cameron saw the French commander Dumas try—without effect—to stop the Indians from scalping those who were not quite dead. Cameron later retreated under cover of darkness.