by David L. Preston
Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xx, 460 pages.
Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0199845328
Revisiting that Famous Ambush in the Woods
Practically since it was fought the in July of 1755 the narrative of the Battle of Monongahela has placed responsibility for the defeat wholly on Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock and his personal failings. That narrative is upended by this excellent new work on the battle by David Preston. Preston has not only gone back to re-read the British archives and accounts of the events of 1755, he has also for the first time brought in French and Indian sources, giving a whole new picture of the campaign and battle.
This allows Preston to show the impressive logistical effort required for the French and Indian force under Capt. Daniel de Beaujeu to move from Montreal to the Ohio Forks in the summer 1755, by canoe and land. The book is capped by a striking reassessment of the battle itself that shows that it was largely an Indian victory of superior “bushwhacking” tactics against a densely packed column of European regulars. While the French troops recoiled after their initial contact with the front of the British column, the Indians flanked the column on both sides, pouring a devastating fire into the column. The proof of the superiority of the Indian tactics in the densely wooded terrain of the battlefield is in the disparity of casualties, around 50 French and Indians killed & wounded versus 700-1,000 British and colonial troops.
Preston argues convincingly that the British regulars and generals of 1755 did not understand Indian warfare, and that had any other another general been sent, similar tactics would have been employed against the French-Indian force with similarly bad results. Monongahela was a great learning experience for the British and led to new light infantry tactics and units that ultimately helped win the French & Indian War.
Preston concludes with several interesting arguments connecting the 1755 campaign to the American Revolution and the subsequent history of White-Indian warfare in North America. On the American Revolution, he maintains that the Monongahela demonstrated first, that British regulars could be beaten by irregular forces and tactics, and second, that it began the process of driving the American colonists and Britain apart due to British efforts to blame the colonial provincial units for the defeat, when they had sacrificed themselves to save the regulars from total destruction. The later general Thomas Gage, who commanded the British grenadiers at the Monongahela, would see his regulars mauled at Lexington and Concord by bushwhacking tactics employed by American militiamen like those who had fought by his side in 1755 led by the Col. George Washington, Braddock’s aide.
Preston’s more interesting conclusion is that the Monongahela provided an important memory for Native Americans in future conflicts with Europeans and a template for how to beat them, employing swift movement and bushwhacking tactics. This resulted in important battlefield successes against the United States in the 18th and 19th Centuries, as late as at Little Big Horn.
Note: A volume in the Oxford University Press series “ Pivotal Moments in American History,”
Braddock’s Defeat is also available in e-book and audiobook format.
Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews for StrategyPage include, Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective