THE BRAZEN THROAT OF WAR
FROM FRONTIER FORTS ALONG THE POTOMAC RIVER AND ITS TRIBUTARIES
BY WILLIAM H. ANSEL, JR.
In the world as it was in 1750, France and England
were the dominant powers, each vying for ascendancy over the other.
They were in conflict in many portions of the globe, but especially
so in North America where each claimed vast, contiguous domains, the
boundaries between being vague, obscure and undefined. The French had
peopled portions of Canada and Louisiana, while the English had
settled along the Atlantic seaboard from Georgia to Maine. France
soon conceived the idea of tying its holdings together by
establishing a chain of forts from the Great Lakes down the Ohio and
Mississippi rivers to Louisiana, the principal purpose being to
confine English settlements to the area lying between the Atlantic
Ocean and the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. This rivalry soon
resulted in a world-wide conflict called in Europe the Seven Years
War, but which became known as the French and Indian War in North
America. It brought many campaigns in Europe, each marked by bloody
battles. The conflict spread to the West Indies, then to India and to
the African Continent. When it was over after years of death and
destruction, England emerged as the world's dominant power and as the
custodian of most of the territory formerly controlled by the France
in North America.
In 1753, the French began construction of a fort on a tributary of the Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania. Learning from Indian traders that France was building this fort and had already sent a scouting party to the Forks of the Ohio at what is now Pittsburgh, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of VA, in his official capacity as the King's representative (and probably as an important stockholder in the Ohio Company which had been granted 200,000 acres on the tributaries of the Ohio in 1749), was motivated to send a message to the French warning that they were encroaching on soil claimed by VA and to forthwith remove therefrom. Dinwiddie selected young George Washington to carry this warning. In late October 1753, Washington set out on this journey, traveling from Williamsburg to Winchester and from thence by the New Road to Henry Enoch's at Forks of Cacapon in what is now Hampshire County, WV. He then crossed Spring Gap Mountain to the plantation of Friend Cox at the mouth of Little Capon Creek and from there, he proceeded along the north bank of the Potomac in MD to Oldtown and thence to Will's Creek at the future site of Fort Cumberland, where he met Christopher Gist and others who were to accompany him. Washington and his companions reached the French fort and delivered Dinwiddie's letter to the commander. They were courteously received but no heed was paid to the warning whatsoever. The French commander wrote to Dinwiddie denying Virginia's right to the Ohio territory, and this message, after much hardship suffered by Washington and his companions because of the sever weather, was finally delivered to Governor at Wiliamsburg on January 16, 1754.
Realizing that action was imperative, Dinwiddie then fixed upon a plan to raise a company of one hundred men for the purpose of proceeding immediately to the Forks of the Ohio to erect a fort before the French could take possession of that strategic point. On January 24, 1754, the Governor issued a captain's commission to William Trent with orders to take command of the expedition, and he was further assigned the task of recruiting the necessary men to do the construction work and to oppose the French militarily if necessary. Trent was an employee or factor of the Ohio Company and was stationed at the company's New Store at what is now Ridgeley, WV, at the time of his appointment. He was originally from PA, but was then living in newly created but not yet organized Hampshire County, VA. Since Trent was a well-known fur trader, and as there appeared to be at least three hundred traders doing business with the Indians on the frontier, most of them known to him, it seemed he should have no difficulty in raising the required number. The new captain, however, encountered much trouble in his efforts to enroll men, and about February 1st, when he finally left Winchester for Will's Creek, his party consisted of only forty-one recruits, most of them having been enrolled by Trent's promise, without authority from Dinwiddie, to pay triple wages.
Captain Trent led his men from Winchester along the same road used by Washington a month or so before. He arrived at Will's Creek on February 5th. Trent did not stay long there, but immediately pushed across the mountains reaching the future site of Pittsburgh on February 17th, where he immediately put his men to work constructing a fortification as per his orders.
Governor Dinwiddie realized that Captain Trent's men could not remain long in the Ohio country if the French should decide to expel them. Reinforcements must bye rushed to him at the earliest possible moment. Dinwiddie thereupon ordered three hundred additional Virginians to be recruited, and he gave command of these troops when collected to Joshua Fry, who was commissioned at the rank of colonel, with George Washington lieutenant-colonel and second in command.
Fry and Washington immediately began a campaign to raise the necessary men. They were aided in this respect by other officers whom Dinwiddie had commissioned for the expedition, including Captains Andrew Lewis, Robert Stobo, Adam Stephen and Lieutenant George Mercer. The recruiting program did no succeed to the satisfaction of Governor Dinwiddie. He realized that time was of the essence and that men must be forwarded to Captain Trent's support at once. Therefore, when Washington reported
that he had enrolled about one hundred fifty men, Dinwiddie directed him to move immediately with this small force to Will's Creek. Colonel Joshua Fry was instructed to continue his efforts to acquire troops and to move after Washington as soon as the necessary men could be found.
Colonel Washington left Winchester for Will's Creek on April 18, 1754. He had with him one hundred fifty-nine men and eleven officers divided into three companies. He had a train of only twelve wagons to carry his ammunition and other supplies, all pulled by horses in poor condition. Washington took the road by way of Joseph Edward's on the Great Cacapon River at present Capon Bridge, WV, and by Job Pearsall's on the South Branch River at what is now Romney. While on the march, he was met by a courier who informed him that the French had moved to the Forks of the Ohio and had captured the fort that Trent had under construction.
Washington hastened on the Will's Creek and then immediately proceeded west across the Alleghenies with his inferior force. There he met a party of French and Indians under command of a Frenchman named Jumonville. A skirmish ensued between the opposing parties and Washington's men killed Jumonville, together with nine of his companions and took twenty-one prisoner. Knowing that the French would not allow this defeat to go uncontested, Washington then retreated to a place called the Great Meadow where he hastily erected a small stockade which he named Fort Necessity.
Meanwhile, Colonel Joshua Fry had left Winchester on May 25th for Will's Creek with one hundred men and five officers divided into two companies. They followed the same route that had been pursued by Washington and his troops. While on the march down Patterson's Creek, Colonel Fry's horse stumbled and fell, throwing him to the ground with such force that he sustained a sever injury. He was carried on the Will's Creek where he died on May 31st. The death of Colonel Fry left George Washington temporarily in command of all the troops. Major George Muse within a few days led Fry's men across the mountains to join Washington's little army, reaching him on June 9th.
While Colonel Fry and his officers were engaged in the recruiting campaign, Governor Dinwiddie busied himself corresponding with his fellow governors in the Carolinas, Maryland and New York in an effort to secure additional troops and munitions. Governor Glen of South Carolina appeared to be the first to respond favorably, and through his efforts, a company of regular British army troops, known as the Independent Company of South Carolina, was ordered to VA. Captain James Mackay, holding a commission from the King of England, was in command of this company of one hundred men.
Captain Mackay and his men arrived at Hampton, in VA, on May 1st, and by the latter part of the month, they were in Winchester. This company was well equipped, with the exception that it lacked wagons and horses, items which were difficult to purchase at any price in Frederick County and adjoining Hampshire. By one method or another, sufficient transport was acquired, and on June 3rd, the company left Winchester for Will's Creek following the same road used by Washington and Fry. By June 8th, Mackay had reached Will's Creek. Spending but a short time there, he marched his troops over the mountains to aid Washington, who was then encamped at the Great Meadows. Mackay reached his objective on June 14th. This South Carolina detachment was the only reinforcement Washington received from any source outside the bounds of VA during the campaign. New York eventually furnished two companies commanded by Captains Thomas Clark and John Rutherford, while North Carolina furnished a force under command of Colonel James Innis, but these troops all arrived too late to aid Washington.
On July 3, 1753, the French and Indians, numbering about seven hundred, appeared before Fort Necessity. Washington withdrew his forces into this stockade and entrenchments to await an attack that was not long in coming. During the course of the fight, a heavy rain came up, the downpour being so great that much of the gunpowder was rendered useless, leaving the Virginians and South Carolinians without means of continuing the fight. As night came on, the French commander made an offer to Washington that if he would surrender, the and his men would be allowed to march back to Will's Creek with their equipment and all the honors of war. This offer was finally accepted and the next day, July 4th, the fort was surrendered. Washington then marched his defeated forces back to Will's Creek, leaving the French in complete control of the Ohio Valley.
When the news of the Fort Necessity affair reached London, the British government began in earnest to create an expeditionary force that would be capable of crushing French influence in North America. According to the plan adopted, and which was principally initiated by the Duke of Cumberland, a three-pronged offensive was contemplated, one against Niagara and the Frontenac in Canada, another up the Hudson Valley to Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and the third against the new Fort Duquesne which the French were constructing at the Forks of the Ohio. The Duke of Cumberland chose Major General Edward Braddock, who had spent forty odd years as an officer in the Coldstream Guards, as commander in chief of these forces. The movement against Niagara and Frontenac was later place under the command of Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, while General William Johnson was named to command the expedition against Crown Point. Braddock elected to direct the forces against Fort Duquesne in person. Born in 1695, Braddock was thus sixty years of age when the assumed the responsibility of the war effort against the French in North America.
To accomplish the reduction of Fort Duquesne, and in addition to artillery and other army supplies, General Braddock brought with him from Europe the 44th and 48th regiments of infantry consisting of five hundred men each. The 44th regiment was under the Command of Colonel Sir Peter Halkett, while the 48th was under the direction of Colonel Thomas Dunbar. These troops were carried across the Atlantic on thirteen transports and the ships finally straggled into Chesapeake Bay over a period extending from the second to the sixteenth days of March, 1755. The transports then proceeded up the Bay to the mouth of the Potomac, and thence up that stream to the new town of Alexandria, VA, where the troops debarked. There Braddock brought his two regiments to full strength of seven hundred men each by enrolling provincial troops from wherever he could get them, but principally from PA and VA.
The troops camped in and around Alexandria for nearly a month while the commanding general was recruiting men, organizing supplies and transport, and looking about a multitude of other army matters. Finally, in early April, everything appeared to be in order to begin the movement to the Forks of the Ohio, the first unit of the army beginning the march to Will's Creek on April 5th. According to the recommendation of Sir John ST. Clair, Braddock's quartermaster general, the army was divided, the regiment of Sir Peter Halkett pursuing a road entirely on VA soil to a point near Winchester, while Colonel Dunbar's regiment crossed the Potomac at the mouth of Rock Creek followed the MS side of the river to the new town of Frederick. General Braddock reached Dunbar at this place on April 21st.
While at Frederick, Braddock was joined by Governor Horatio Sharpe of MD, by Benjamin Franklin of PA, and by young George Washington of VA, the latter being there at the invitation of the General to join his official family as an aide. Braddock soon learned there was no wagon road leading from Frederick to Will's Creek on the MD side of the Potomac, so Dunbar was ordered to march his men to the Conocoheague Creek where Williamsport, MD is now located, that he might cross the Potomac into VA so as to reach the road being traversed by Sir Peter Halkett's troops. On May 1st, Dunbar's men ferried across the river into VA and then proceeded south to a point within five miles of Winchester where the Halkett road was encountered. The army then proceeded west along Halkett's route, it being the same road used by Washington while carrying Dinwiddie's message to the French and then by Captain Trent.
Five companies of Halkett's regiment reached Will's Creek on May 3rd. Dunbar's regiment did not reach there until May 10th. The commanding general had left Frederick on May 2nd, crossed the Potomac River at Swearingens's ferry at Mecklenburg (Shepherdstown), and rode directly to Winchester, arriving on May 3rd, George Washington accompanying him. Braddock remained at Winchester until May 6th attending to army matters, and on the next day, he resumed his journey to Will's Creek. Braddock and his party overtook Colonel Dunbar while the latter was encamped at Oldtown. From there, he marched the sixteen miles to Fort Cumberland with Dunbar's regiment, where as commanding general, he was greeted with a blowing of bugles, a beating of drums, and the firing of seventeen guns.
Braddock's forces spent much of the month of May in the march to Will's Creek, the last segment of the army reaching there on May 30th, it being Captain Dobbs' one hundred man North Carolina ranger company. After having assembled all his forces at Will's Creek, Braddock found that he commanded more than nineteen hundred men and officers, consisting of the two British regiments and twelve companies of provincial troops from VA, MD, NC, SC and NY. Only eight friendly Indians were included in this army. Being expert trackers and scouts, the lack of savages and their skills was to cost Braddock dearly in the campaign ahead.
The army remained at Fort Cumberland until June 7th, when Halkett's regiment left the camp and began the toilsome march across the mountains toward the Monogahela following a trail marked out by Colonel Thomas Cresap and an Indian named Nemacolin in 1750. On succeeding days, other units of the army followed Halkett. ON the 10th, Colonel Dunbar's regiment left Fort Cumberland bringing up the rear. The steep mountains, roads filled with stumps and rocks, swamps and deep streams caused the army tremendous difficulties. The march was unbelievably slow, but Braddock urged his forces forward day after day. At times, the grades were so steep and rough that it became necessary to double up the teams in order to move the wagons at all. The artillery caused especial problems, being heavy and cumbersome. A company of seamen with the army used block and tackle to move the guns up the steep places.
It was not until July 9th, that the army reach the Monongahela River at a point approximately ten miles south of Fort Duquesne. To avoid a ravine that might harbor the enemy, Braddock caused his forces to twice ford the Monogahela. After emerging from the river following the second crossing, the army was suddenly assailed by a force of French and Indians in ambush. The attack was as violent as it was unexpected. The British and Colonial forces were fired on from two sides as well as in front. The British became panic stricken and huddled together like sheep in the newly cut road. Only the provincial soldiers attempted to make a contest of it. In less than two hours, Braddock's army broke in full retreat and made for the fords of the Monongahela, where many more men were shot in crossing the river. The British lost eight hundred ninety-six men, exclusive of officers, killed, wounded and captured in this debacle. General Braddock was among those mortally wounded. Of this eighty-nine officers, twenty-six were killed and thirty-seven were wounded. The French and Indians lost not more than sixty killed or injured. Washington took charge of the retreat and conducted the remnants of the army back toward Fort Cumberland. Braddock was carried along with the army, but he soon succumbed to his injuries and was hastily buried in the road over which the army was retreating. Washington reached Colonel Dunbar and his regiment which had been held in reserve forty miles east of the field of battle. Dunbar had eight hundred or more troops with him, but after hearing the news of the battle, he lost his nerve entirely. He destroyed army supplies worth more than one-half million dollars, and then ordered a rapid retreat to Fort Cumberland. From there, he continued his retrograde movement until he finally reached Philadelphia, where he went into winter quarters in the month of August.
The Braddock disaster and the withdrawal of troops left the VA, MD and PA frontiers open to unhindered attack by the French and their Indian allies, and the whole Upper Potomac region was soon overrun by howling savages bent upon murder, pillage and arson. The settlers realized fully what was in store for them. Many retreated to more heavily populated areas, while others concluded to remain on their farms and to construct defenses as a means of meeting the Indian threat. Governors Dinwiddie in VA, Sharpe in MD and Morris in PA were all cognizant of the dangers faced by the settlers and all were sympathetic to their situation. Each tried to aid in every way possible. But Governors Sharpe and Morris were confronted with recalcitrant Assemblies that refused to appropriate fund to build forts and to enlist troops to garrison them. In MD, Lord Baltimore would not consent that his vast land holdings be taxed so as to raise the necessary funds, while in PA, the Penns took the same position. In the latter colony, Governor Morris had the added problem of an Assembly controlled by Quakers who were opposed to war in any dimension, and who would not vote funds for any military purpose. It was not until he spring of 1756, that the VA and MD Assemblies appropriated funds for the construction of forts and for the enlistment of soldiers to aid the settlers in their struggle with the enemy. In the same year, Governor Morris was successful in extracting some funds from PA Assembly, and the construction of forts in all three colonies then proceed at a rapid pace.
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