Passing the Mantle: The Complex Relationship between General Edward Braddock and Colonel George Washington

     The British General Edward Braddock and his young colonial aide George Washington are often portrayed as symbols of the antagonism brewing between Britain and her Colonies during the French and Indian War, which would soon burst forth in the form of the American Revolution. This is partly true, but their relationship and the relationship between Britain and America were and are much more complex than has often been portrayed in grade school history texts and Hollywood motion pictures. There was also something deeply human about their interaction that is often overlooked in favor of a more easily understood narrative that chooses sides rather than seeks out the middle way.

   In February of 1755, Edward Braddock, a 62-year-old veteran of the prestigious Coldstream Guards and native of Perth, Scotland, was sent to North America to ostensibly “put the French in their place” and push them further west to make room for the expanding British colonies in the Ohio River Valley. The colonists themselves were enthusiastically behind this push for supremacy, and initially welcomed the regular troops sent from the Mother Country to aid them in the territorial struggle, known as The French and Indian War in America and The Seven Years War in Europe.

     But problems arose almost immediately, involving the proper accoutrement of these newly arrived troops and misunderstandings on both sides. The British viewed the colonists, by and large, as low-life opportunists who tried to get best edge on every deal and refused to obey orders or conform to disciplinary regulations. The colonists, on the other hand, resented the pompous and bullying attitude of the British officers, including Braddock, who refused to acknowledge that the Americans could ever stand on equal footing with them in social, political, or military spheres.

     Nevertheless, both sides realized it would be mutually advantageous to put up with one another in order to successfully overthrow the common enemy. In the process, a variety of interesting Anglo-American relationships were forged, turning some people into long-time friends, some into long-time enemies, and others into something in between. Still, “all for one and one for all” proved easier said than done in the majority of these instances.

    Meanwhile, Colonel George Washington, a 23-year-old officer in the first Virginia Regiment, was just coming off the disgrace of firing on French dignitaries, losing control of his tomahawk-wielding Indian allies, and getting bottled up in his ill-constructed, valley-based Fort Necessity. He managed to get out of the jam only after promising the French commander he would stay off the field of battle for a year. But then General Braddock selected him to be one of his aides. Maybe, in spite of Washington’s past blunders, Braddock saw a spark of talent in the young man and wanted to be the one to bring it out.

     The general soon took to mentoring Washington in the methodical and oft times brutal ways of the regular British army, in which soldiers were often flogged within an inch of their lives for minor offenses, and strict discipline ensured that they were a feared fighting machine on the fields of Europe, with precision and coordination to match their best continental competitors. And yet in America, frontier warfare required more flexibility and imagination to meet with success, especially when facing off against Native American tribesmen. Braddock was an regular officer of the old school, who was adept at teaching but loathe to learn anything new. These contentions were to be brought to a head as they set out to capture Fort Duquesne in Western Pennsylvania so that the British would have a stronghold in the Ohio River Valley.

     On July 9, 1755, as the British troops marched towards Fort Duquesne, Washington was feeling sickly from a nasty bout with dysentery, and Braddock advised him to keep to the rear for the sake of his health. But Washington was determined to stay where the action might be, perhaps in order to redeem himself as a fit officer. Also, he seemed to have hopes of convincing Braddock to alter his tactics to better fit the North American theatre. But the general’s ego would never allow him to even consider taken advice from a subordinate colonial, and he bellowed that he had a mind to “thrust a blade through his body” should he dare to be so presumptuous again.

    Evidently Braddock felt a bit sorry for going so over-the-top a few minutes later, especially since his young charge was looking pretty miserable, and even had a pillow tied to his saddle. So in his bluff yet slightly affectionate manner, he called his other aides over and made a general announcement that, although he had advised him to the contrary, young Washington had determined to make a local hero of himself and turn out as sick as a dog. Hence, it was their duty to look after the under-the-weather pup and make sure they were on-call to assist him. No doubt this embarrassed the proud young man, but he swallowed it the best he could, perhaps knowing that the general meant well, and it was his way of trying to patch-up his latest and greatest (thus far!) rant. But this was just the beginning of the ordeal.

     Along the Monongahela River, 10 miles from their destination, the British came into contact with the French and their Indian allies making a sortie from Fort Duquesne. Colonel Thomas Gage was the young British officer in charge of the advance guard. By nature mild-mannered and bookish, he had a knack for doing the exact wrong thing in combat situations. When he realized they were being surrounded by creepers in the woods, he decided for some bizarre reason that everyone should just STOP while he figured out the best-laid text-book solution to elude and/or counteract war-painted Indians shrieking and shooting from behind trees. Hence Gage ordered his column to stop…but failed to alert the brush-cutters behind them who crashed into the soldiers, causing total confusion, and more so as the other ranks behind the wood-cutters got entangled with them! By now, the British were hopelessly entrapped, and the French and Indians opened fire. It was doomed to be a massacre form the very start.

    Finally, news reached Braddock and his aides in the rear that the battle had broken out, and they galloped to the front. Again, Washington saw the lunacy of trying to use European tactics in this situation, but Braddock insisted the men should hold to their ranks and fire in accord, as if on a battlefield facing an opponent directly. Any man caught taking cover and abandoning his post would be instantly executed as a coward and deserter. This was the way Braddock had been trained when he was the same age as Washington, and it had served him well for some 40 years. He could not and he would not be convinced that it could fail him now. But the men could not see their enemies, picking them off from behind the trees, to pour a volley into them. This was pure guerilla warfare, for which the British were woefully unprepared

     As the situation spun out of control, Washington begged Braddock to allow his men to take cover and save themselves from the slaughter. Braddock emphatically refused, and he himself stayed in the hottest part of the action to set an example. Both he and Washington had multiple horses shot out from underneath them, but kept getting back into the saddle. Meanwhile, the general’s other two aides were shot down. Now the “sick pup” was his sole support. But the feeling between the two was none-too-amicable as the casualties mounted and the folly of Braddock’s stubbornness became increasingly apparent. Still the general rode through the thick of the battle with bullet whizzing around him, flashing his sword and trying to steady his men, while at the same time slashing down any who dared to run. Washington continued to plead with him to change his orders, but the general only swore at him and mocked him as a “beardless boy.”

    One of the many tragic scenes taking place in the meantime was the death of Sir Peter Halkett, a high-ranking British nobleman and officer whose two sons were fighting under his command during the battle. When he was shot off his horse, his younger son went over to help him, and was himself shot and killed, with his arms still around his father. His man-servant then went to try to rescue both of them, and was also shot. His one surviving son would be haunted by this, and go off to find his brother and father’s remains several years later. He did discover their skeletons, still clinging to each other as they had fallen, and had them buried wrapped in their native Highland tartan.

    As the day grew late and the dead and dying littered the woods along the Monongahela River, Washington made a final desperate plea: this time that Braddock should call a retreat. The old general gazed at his decimated command and was overcome with the realization of what he had done. Finally his pride had been punctured, and he agreed to order a retreat. But just then a bullet smashed into Braddock’s side. Legend has it that it was fired by a colonial, whose brother had been cut down by Braddock for leaving his post. The general reeled in the saddle and fell to the ground, before he could give the word to pull back. Now Washington was the only one left to try and restore some sense of discipline and carry out an orderly retreat. He rode wildly along the lines as the bullets whizzed around him, tearing holes in his coat as he tried to direct the frantic survivors who had now decided it was every man for himself.

    The colonials were particularly fed up with their British counterparts, and hijacked officers’ horses to escape. They also were none-too-keen on helping Brits in any meaningful way to get off the battlefield. One badly wounded redcoat recalled that he had asked an American to help him. Instead, he presented his musket and shot at him, in order to “save him” from a worse fate at the hands of the Indians! Fortunately for the Brit, yon Yank proved to be a terrible shot, and the bullet ricocheted off the tree the wounded man was leaning against. The redcoat had already been sold a bum horse in America, and now decided never to ask help from an American again! However, he did manage to flag down a fellow Brit who rescued him at long last.

    Meanwhile, Washington returned to his fallen general, and with another officer started to carry him off the field. But Braddock now had something of an emotional break-down, realizing the full extent of the carnage. “I don’t want to live!” he groaned. Then he asked that he be given a pistol and left there to face the Indians with the others too badly wounded to run. He said that they would have a better chance of getting away without him. But Washington ignored the melt-down and helped get Braddock into the back of a wagon which was driven off the field.   

   The bullet had penetrated Braddock’s lung, and although his breathing became labored, he still remained conscious and fairly lucid. He called Washington over and ordered him to go check on Colonel Gage, who was still back on the field. Washington did so, and was relieved to find Gage, wounded in the thigh yet still hobbling around giving orders. In fact, it seemed that Gage’s true talent for administrative organization had finally kicked in, and he had managed, against all odds, to rally the stragglers and survivors into an orderly formation. After Gage calmly assured him that everything was under control (“Keep calm and carry on”, what?), Washington returned to the general.

    Again Braddock seemed distraught, and begged Washington to be his emissary and get through enemy lines to the nearest British fort in order to bring back reinforcements and much-needed medical supplies for all. It was a near suicide mission, but Washington, exhausted and increasingly ill though he was, did not hesitate, and galloped off through the woods. It was an all-night ride through the pitch-black wilderness, surrounded by hostile Indians on all sides, and it was a miracle he got through alive. Dismounting in the fort, he just managed to blurt out that the battle was lost, Braddock was dying, and help was needed immediately. Then he almost collapsed, and had to be ushered inside the fort and given a cot to lie down on.

     Meanwhile, the next few days of Braddock’s retreat elapsed. They were painful, lingering ones for the general. Sometimes he was coherent, and able to give orders. Sometimes he went into rants, repeating, “It’s all over!” and “Who would have thought it?” (Washington might have raised his hand then…but the subject was better not broached!). After a while the suffering from being jostled in the wagon became excruciating, and he had to be carried by two soldiers using his long ceremonial military sash as a make-shift stretcher. Finally, he declared that he would just remount his horse, and proceeded to ride along propped up until weakness overcame him, and had to be put back in the wagon.

     When the party finally paused for a rest, we can only imagine all the thoughts that must have assaulted Braddock as he lay gasping in his tent. The army had been his whole life. He had no family, and few friends. Who would remember him after he had gone? Who would think of him as a person, and not just identify him with the massacre at Monongahela where he had decimated his own command? British and Americans, soldiers and female camp followers, officers of the highest ranks and privates of the lowest, all had been cut down in the blood-bath, and were still being tormented by the Indians searching for scalps and booty on the field. Many of the captives would be gruesomely tortured and burned alive.

    Braddock must have known he would be painted as the butcher, the madman who refused to allow his men to save their lives by taking cover, and who had hacked them down if they tried. But would they ever think that that was the way he had been trained to keep his men safe? In Europe, it was stand together and fire as a force or be destroyed. But this was not Europe. And it was too late to go back now. The blood was on his head. He did not want to live to face the guilt, the shame, and dishonor of a trial in London. Why did they not just leave him where he fell?

     His thoughts must have turned to Washington. That young, impudent, stubborn little fool! He should have stayed to the rear instead of trying to show off. But he had done well under fire…marvelously well in fact. The gangly, sickly fellow had done the work of three aides, and remained staunchly at his post in the face of enemy bullets and Braddock’s own curses and insults. Did he hate him for being haughty now, as he was riding through the wilderness alone? Or was he lying dead somewhere, hacked apart by Indians, a final casualty of Braddock’s folly? No, not that! It mustn’t end that way! Perhaps Braddock had been unable to see it through the smoke of battle and the fire of his own pride, but now he felt…a twinge of a different sort of pride. A pride in a boy not his own. But he had no boy of his own to be proud of, to carry on his legacy, and honor his name. This one…this young colonial would have to do it. 

    Braddock called over his loyal manservant and spoke to him kindly, telling him that he had seen enough of war in his service, and should take up farming in America. He said that he should now go into the service of Mr. Washington, and to be sure to take as good care of young man as he had taken care of Braddock. Then he instructed that his long scarlet ceremonial sash be given to Washington as well. It had once belonged to Braddock’s father, also a military man, and embroidered with the date he had joined the army, 1705. It had been given to Braddock upon the death of his father, to carry with honor. But Braddock had no son to pass it on to. The closest person to it was Washington.

    Then Braddock had two letters dictated. One was a report of the battle in which he exonerated the conduct of the officers (including Washington), but severely censured the conduct of the men. It was an old-fashioned fall-back in the aftermath of a disaster in order to preserve the authority of the leaders, allowing the lower ranks to take the blame for disorderly conduct. This was the age of the class system, and with it came breaches of justice in the name of preserving confidence for those in command and maintaining society. Braddock was complicit in this.

     The second letter was written to one of Braddock’s only “friends”: George-Anne Bellamy, a young actress back in England with whom he had a complex relationship. She was the illegitimate daughter of one of his old army comrades who had been abandoned by her vain actress mother and rakish father. Braddock had helped raise the girl, and they grew to be mutually devoted. Whether the relationship remained purely platonic or branched into something more upon her adolescence, she obviously loved him dearly, and he turned into an almost completely different person around her. His usual crusty veneer fell away, and he became as gentle as a lamb.

   Interestingly, George-Anne commented in her memoirs that she never understood why some people complained of Braddock’s rudeness, since he was always the epitome of sensitivity around her. In fact, it was said she was one of the only people who could get him to change his mind or show clemency to those for whom she acted as intercessor. Now, as he lay dying, he knew how effected George-Anne would be by his death, but true to his soldier’s code, he remained unemotional in his message, instructing that she simply be informed Braddock had died bravely at the head of his troops.

    Braddock’s last hours continued to be plagued with fits of delirium. The doctors who finally arrived to treat him realized he was beyond help, both because of his ruptured lung, blood loss, and his own death wish. It was hard for those around him not to pity him, even though many were embittered over his stubborn pride and unyielding sense of superiority that had cost so many lives. Perhaps they realized he was suffering for all of it inside. He knew what would become of his reputation, and the sheer magnitude of the human cost was not lost on him either. He had given up on life, and now prepared with befitting stoicism to face death alone. Seeming to seek some comfort amidst his raging thoughts, he murmured to himself, “We will know better how to deal with them another time…” And then he died. It was July 13, 1755.

    Washington returned to the British camp to learn that Braddock had left him his butler and his sash, and that it was his duty to perform the Christian burial rites for the general since the regimental chaplain had been severely wounded. But when it came time to deliver a eulogy, he found it hard to contain his own sizzling anger at what he had been forced to endure under Braddock, watching his Virginians butchered due to British incompetence and arrogance. Perhaps this was one of the defining moments of Washington’s life, realizing that he was different from the British, even as he was intricately bound up with them.

   So his eulogy was blunt and to point: Braddock’s good and bad qualities were decidedly mixed, and he could be arrogant, stubborn, block-headed, foolish, a rage-a-holic, and just plain rude! But still, he admitted, he was also brave, honest, and generous to those whom he favored. There was a definite edge in his tone, nonetheless, and when Braddock was laid in a common grave below the road so the Indians could not mutilate the corpse, few believed Washington had buried the hatchet. He proved this by joining the throng of Braddock detractors in the aftermath of the battle.

   Washington’s criticisms became so scathing at a certain point that one of Washington’s friends who had also fought under Braddock wrote him a letter begging him to cease and desist. This friend remarked that he had never expected him to join in the cat-calls against their old chief, even though the man’s character was being dragged through the mud in almost every newspaper across Britain and the colonies. After all, he said, Braddock himself had not been one to sully another man’s reputation behind his back out of malice. If he wanted to take them to task, he would do so to their face. He may have been rough and rude at times, but he cared about honor. He also cared about Washington. He may not have always known how to express his feelings, but he did. People were callously saying that Braddock’s death was of no consequence to anyone, that that he was as good dead as alive; now his friend begged Washington to break the painful trend.

    The fact was that Washington was struggling to make sense of his own mixed emotions. There was no doubt that he had come to love his old mentor too, and the anger at being mistreated by him on the battlefield stung all the more because of it. His own father had died when he was but a boy, and his beloved half-brother Lawrence, who had been an officer under the command of British Admiral Edward Vernon, had recently succumbed to illness, leaving him his manor of Mount Vernon. Washington had yearned to find his place in society as a British officer, only to meet with a series of red-tape hold-ups and self-inflicted disasters.

    What hopes must have been aroused when he was selected by General Braddock to be his aide! At last, he must have thought, his dream of recognition would be realized. And yet at Monongahela, the young American realized that he would never be allowed to become what Braddock was…the impenetrable walls of the class system would never allow it. Braddock would not heed advice from him because he was a “mere colonial”, and Washington knew he would be doomed to remain a second-class citizen forever if he remained within the British sphere. His high spirits and manly ambitions could not stomach that. This was exacerbated by Braddock’s own blazing temper directed at him. For Washington, it was the feeling of being rejected by two parents: one was his semi-father-figure Braddock, and the other was Mother England.

    With all these emotions raging, Washington had to watch Braddock shot. No matter the suppression of the class system, the plausible father-son antagonism, or the horrors of the hour. To watch the man he had assisted day in and day out, who had often shown him a gruff yet sincere kindness, and who had proven himself to be a brave if fatally stubborn man suffocating with blood gushing from his lung must have shaken him to the core. And then he had been given his blood-stained sash, the symbol of his mentor’s honor, and the honor of his father before him who had served king and country. The implications were deeply profound, and were not lost on Washington. For Braddock, it had been an act of passing the mantle, and saying in one gesture all the things he had been unable to put into words before the end.

    In spite of his initial verbal hostility to his late mentor, Washington took the sash and put a place of honor in Mount Vernon. But when he was called away from home on his travels, he always took the sash along with him. Even after he had joined in rebellion against the British and became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he still kept this heirloom from his old British superior among his personal belongings on his many campaigns, and brought it safely back home with him again. What were his reasons for keeping this tangible link to the past so near to him at all times? Perhaps it is one of the more unique demonstrations of that “special relationship” that Britain and America have always shared, and always will share. Some roots run too deep for anything to pull out.

By Rosaria Marie

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