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Alexandria and the Braddock Campaign

Braddock Road is a well-known road in Alexandria. At one of the road's intersections sits a cannon that is pointed west. The cannon symbolizes a military campaign led by British Major General Edward Braddock. The location of the cannon designates the starting point of Braddock's campaign, which left Alexandria in April 1755.

Although it is not well known, Braddock’s Campaign was a major event in American history. In world history, it was also the start of a world war with the British and French as the principal opposing sides. At Alexandria History Tours, we are committed to telling the story of the Braddock Campaign on all of our tours. We cover it extensively on the George Washington and Revolutionary War tours.

The Braddock Campaign was a military expedition that the British launched to remove the French from the Ohio River Valley. Specifically, the British wanted to oust the French from Fort Duquesne, which is near present day Pittsburgh. In 1755, the British and French both claimed rights to the land west of the Alleghany Mountains.

Prior to the Braddock Campaign in 1755, George Washington had been sent on two missions to expel the French from the Ohio River Valley. During the first expedition in 1753, the French simply refused to leave. The second expedition in 1754 was much bloodier. Washington’s campaign ended in a battle at Fort Necessity. Ultimately, Washington and his force of Virginia militiamen were overwhelmed by the French and forced to surrender Fort Necessity on July 4, 1754.

The surrender papers caused an international incident. Between the poor weather and bad French translation, Washington inadvertently confessed to “assassinating” a Frenchman named Jumonville. Several days prior to the battle at Fort Necessity, Washington and his Indian allies attacked a French force led by Jumonville. The French claimed that their forces were on a diplomatic mission. On the other hand, Washington felt that the French were spying with the intent to attack.

After the surrender of Fort Necessity, the British accelerated their plans to force the French out of the Ohio River Valley. Thus, in February 1755, General Braddock arrived with two regiments of British regular soldiers in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Braddock then moved to Alexandria and by late March had formally established his headquarters at John Carlyle’s beautiful stone house in the center of town.

John Carlyle was a Scottish merchant, who married a woman named Sarah Fairfax. Carlyle was one of the founders and trustees of the recently established Alexandria. The first city lots were auctioned on July 13, 1749. Carlyle bought two half-acre lots (42 and 41) on the bank of the Potomac River. He and his wife then spent the next several years building their beautiful Georgian-style home, which was completed sometime around 1752.

When General Braddock arrived in Alexandria, John Carlyle wrote to his brother about his experience hosting the general. From Carlyle's letters, we know that General Braddock was an unpleasant house guest, who treated his hosts with little respect. Carlyle felt the British were very condescending towards the American colonists. The following passage (edited slightly for clarity) is from a letter Carlyle wrote to his brother:

They dismissed us and them and by some means or another came in so prejudiced against us, our Country, and such that they used us like an enemy country and took everything they wanted and paid nothing, or very little for it, and when complaints was made to the commanding officers, they cursed the country, and inhabitants, calling us spawn of convicts.

This was one of the first instances of British regular soldiers being quartered in the American colonies. We can already see the seeds of resentment being planted. The British treated the American colonists like second-class citizens. This sense of disrespect and condescension eventually motivated John Carlyle and other Alexandrians to seek independence from the British monarchy.

Furthermore, while holding his headquarters at Carlyle's house, Braddock hosted an important meeting of five royal governors from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. John Carlyle described it as "the Grandest Congress held at my home ever known on the Continent." During the meeting, these officials, who represented the interests of the British crown, discussed how to pay for what was expected to be an expensive military campaign.

The royal governors did not think the colonists would voluntarily pay for the campaign unless parliament forced their hand with a tax. At this point, General Braddock penned a letter to Sir Thomas Robinson, the British Secretary of State, and said, “I cannot but take the Liberty to represent to you the necessity of laying a TAX upon all his Majesty’s Dominions in America.”

Thus, twenty years before the first shots at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the wheels of the American Revolution were in motion at a beautiful stone house on N. Fairfax St. in Alexandria. The central policy that drove the colonists towards rebellion was being proposed to pay for the high costs of what the British called the Seven Years War and Americans know as the French and Indian War.

The significance of the Carlyle House is that it reminds us that taxation policies were being discussed from the beginning of the war. It is also a crucial lesson in the unintended consequences of war. War is expensive and resource intensive. The political ramifications of war might not be felt for decades if not an entire generation later.

Braddock led his massive force from Alexandria shortly after the meeting with the royal governors. His first stop was at Fort Cumberland, which is today Cumberland, Maryland. Luckily for Braddock, Benjamin Franklin did help with the logistical needs of the campaign. Franklin was able to procure and provide wagons for Braddock’s massive supply train.

As the campaign proceeded west from Fort Cumberland toward Fort Duquesne, Braddock’s army cut a path through the wilderness to clear the way for the army and its supplies. As a result, the most significant achievement of Braddock’s campaign was the fact that it helped develop a new road to the west. In an era with no interstates, the Braddock Campaign developed one of the first major road systems. The result would be further westward expansion especially after the French and Indian war ended in 1763.

By early July 1755, Braddock’s forces crept closer to Fort Duquesne. An advance party called a “flying column” proceeded forward across the Monongahela River. After crossing the river, the French and their Indian allies launched a devastating ambush against the British and American provisional forces. The result was chaos and confusion on the British side. As it is known today, the Battle of the Monongahela took place on July 9, 1755. Casualties quickly mounted for the British and were estimated between 900- 1,000.

During the bloody withdrawal, General Braddock was wounded. A doctor named James Craik helped provide medical care for the wounded Braddock. Dr. Craik and George Washington later served together during the Revolutionary War. In fact, the two men began a lifelong friendship in 1754 during the campaign that concluded with the surrender of Fort Necessity. Their friendship continued until George Washington’s own death on December 14, 1799.

Dr. Craik moved to Alexandria and lived in a house on Prince St. before moving to a beautiful Federal-style house at 210 Duke St. The house on Duke St. recently sold for $4.88 million. Dr. Craik was one of the three doctors that attended to Washington on his deathbed. But, in July 1755, he was doing his best to help General Braddock survive. Unfortunately, his efforts were unsuccessful as Braddock died on July 13, 1755.

Braddock’s body was buried along the wagon road to keep it hidden. The British feared that it might be dug up and desecrated for propaganda purposes. It wasn’t until 1804 when Braddock's hasty grave was discovered. Since then, Braddock’s body has been given a proper burial at Fort Necessity Battlefield, which is maintained by the National Park Service.

While Braddock’s Campaign was a military failure, it did open the American frontier in a way that previously had not happened. Thus, it was a long-term successful endeavor in the broad scope of American history.

But the expedition was costly. The subsequent military operations that continued until 1763 drained British resources. As previously mentioned, the British already had ideas on how the American colonists would help shoulder the financial burden.

Beyond the taxation policy, there are a few additional consequences of the Braddock Campaign that led to the Revolutionary War. First, as noted in Carlyle's letter, we see that the British treated American colonists as second-class citizens rather than fellow Englishman. Indeed, this happened when George Washington was denied a commission in the British regular army. As a Virginia militia officer, he was also put under the command of lesser ranking British officers. Since the British did not treat the American colonists as equals, resentment developed and would intensify over the next two decades.

In Virginia, the feelings of ill-will finally exploded in the summer of 1774. The sentiments were formally put on paper in a document called the Fairfax Resolves. George Mason and George Washington wrote the 24 resolves at Mount Vernon on July 17, 1774. The following day the 24 resolves were proposed to a committee of Fairfax citizens. Washington chaired the committee. The Fairfax Resolves passed at the Alexandria courthouse on July 18, 1774. The first resolve reads as follows:

1. Resolved that this Colony and Dominion of Virginia can not be considered as a conquered Country; and if it was, that the present Inhabitants are the Descendants not of the Conquered, but of the Conquerors.

Reading Carlyle's letters, it is clear that as early as 1755, the American colonists felt that the British treated them like a "conquered country." Thus, it should come as no surprise that John Carlyle was a signatory of the Fairfax Resolves almost 20 years later.

Second, George Washington served during the Braddock Campaign as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General Braddock. Washington spent much of the campaign in agonizing pain from dysentery. However, after the ambush was sprung, Washington helped lead a withdrawal of troops and did his best to restore order amid the madness of retreating British soldiers. In fact, Washington was shot through his coat four times, but never hit. He also had two horses shot from under him. But he continued to lead after Braddock was wounded. As a result, Washington distinguished himself as a military leader, who could rise to the challenge during a time of crisis.

Almost twenty years later in June 1775, Washington’s leadership and military experience were recognized by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington’s role in the Braddock Campaign was another reason to select the impressive Virginia farmer to command the Continental Army. Indeed, Washington was selected for the role on June 15, 1775. He formally assumed command of troops outside of Boston on July 3, 1775.

Finally, during the Braddock Campaign, Washington witnessed firsthand the inadequacy of British troops. In fact, Washington thought that Virginia militia soldiers showed more courage and tenacity during the fight than the highly touted British regulars. One must imagine that this left a long-term impact on Washington and other colonists that served with Braddock.

There are many reasons why the colonists chose to rebel against the British Crown. These reasons are laid out in the Declaration of Independence. However, rational people choose to fight a war only when they believe that they can win it. Without a reasonable hope for success, taking up arms would be suicide. Therefore, we can imagine that Washington may have remembered the failure of the British regulars to fight a war on colonial soil. He would have remembered how colonial militiamen fought bravely when it was their homes and livelihood at stake. He would have concluded that his countrymen were up to the task of taking on the world's most powerful military.

The Carlyle House is now a museum where visitors can learn about the Braddock Campaign and see the room where Braddock met with the five royal governors. At Alexandria History Tours, we also stop outside the Carlyle House on our guided walking tours to discuss the historical events that happened there.

Since the Carlyle House was built in 1752, it is the site of 271 years of extraordinary history. Braddock’s stay in Alexandria to plan his campaign is one of the most important moments not only in the history of Alexandria but also America.


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1 Comment

Nice post, Tim!

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