April 12th marks the 258th anniversary of the start of the British expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. The junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers was strategically important for the fur trade and westward expansion. The British were determined to secure this important site from the French, who had dominated the region. To that end, they sent one of their most experienced military leaders, Major General Edward Braddock, and well trained British troops.
This must have been a very alien land for the British, unused to the harsh reality of a country that was still very wild. In order to reach their destination, his troops would have to build the road they were to travel from Cumberland to present-day Pittsburgh. Braddock’s adviser on the expedition was a young George Washington, who had become very familiar with the country because of his own travels, who commanded a company of Virginia militia. The group split with half traveling through Virginia and half traveling through Maryland, with the intention of meeting at Cumberland. The Maryland contingent crossed from Alexandria to the Mouth of Rock Creek, landing on April 12. They then traveled north following roads that today encompass parts of River Road,Old Georgetown Road, and Route 355 (Wisconsin Avenue, Rockville Pike, Hungerford Road, and Frederick Road).
The weather in early April, 1755 was warm and sultry; probably similar to what we have been experiencing the past few days. You can only feel a little sorry for those British redcoats, traveling in their heavy wool uniforms on rough roads and uphill almost all the way. By the 15th, the weather had changed from hot and sultry to cold and rainy. By the time they camped that night at Dowden’s Ordinary in present-day Clarksburg, things had turned to snow and travel was treacherous.
They woke the next morning to what sound like blizzard conditions with “the snow being so violent we were oblig’d to beat it off the tents several times for fear it would Breck the tent Poles,” as one soldier reported. They couldn’t move until the 17th, when the weather cleared.
Was such bizarre spring weather a portent of what was to come? Shades of global warming? If only Braddock had headed the signs…
When they finally reached Cumberland in May, they were faced with a dreary sight – not enough food, guns, ammunition, horses, or wagons, to properly continue the expedition. Undeterred, Braddock left half his force to await supplies and forged on. It was rough going. His men had to build a road that could handle the traffic created by a marching army. It wasn’t until July that they approached their destination where they were at a clear disadvantage. British troops were used to battlefield combat, using orderly fighting methods. The French had quickly adopted the fighting style of the Native Americans to whom they were allied and which worked better in the heavily wooded country.
Braddock and his men were ambushed. They were trapped on the road they had been building, surrounded on all sides by the enemy, it was a massacre. By the time the British could retreat, General Braddock had received a mortal wound.
And so today, in the low lying areas along the River Road and the Great Road, residents have said they can hear the sounds of an army marching…eternally marching to their death.