Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution.
By David L. Preston
New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 2015
Reading terrain in relation to the adversary is often the key to tactical victory. It also makes for the beginnings of a first-rate military history, as David L. Preston demonstrates in his profound Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution. Preston paddled, hiked, and drove his way to an excellent analysis of the maneuver and decision-making of the French, Indians, British, and colonists during this epic campaign in the 1755 American wilderness. His on-the-ground treatment of events renders this study the definitive work of the first conventional British ground operation of the French and Indian War, and as Preston shows, with wide-ranging implications for Europe in the Seven Years' War, and eventually, the American Revolutionary War.
Hesitant at first to purchase what I considered yet another treatment of this infamous engagement, Preston's excellent lecture at the Ohio Country Conference convinced me to rethink my impression. I was more than rewarded. Braddock's Defeat is one of the most thorough military history accounts of any topic, combining detailed strategic, operational, and tactical examinations with the best of modern military history's cultural considerations. In so doing, Preston revives Braddock's reputation as a sensible military man, sensitive to the need to cultivate indigenous allies, while placating the infighting colonists. The Indians themselves become the main agent of victory for the battle, acting in conjunction with French officers and cadets in crushing the British flankers and pouring deadly enfilading volleys into Braddock's beleaguered column.
Preston's uncovering of rare Indian voices in the record adds brilliantly to this analysis. Braddock's defeat was a matter of initial Indian success in an ambush, in a fashion similar to what I have discovered occurred repeatedly in the Great Narragansett War (traditionally King Philip's War). An initial accurate volley into a European column negotiating difficult terrain by a large number of concealed Indians usually led to a rapid and decisive Indian victory. Although it may have been more useful in the section about the battle itself, the counterfactual allusion to how Braddock might have reacted tactically is a critical piece of Preston's analysis (315-316). Subsequent Indian fighters, like Henry Bouquet, Robert Rogers, and "Mad" Anthony Wayne, employed such tactics against Native Americans, perhaps making good Braddock's supposed final words, "We shall better know how to deal with them another time" (273). As with many commands unprepared for the enemy, there was no next time for Braddock and many of his troops who were killed in action and mutilated in accord with Indian cultural affinities in war.
Preston does not conclude with new consideration of Indian material, but uncovers original French sources in Caen's archives and elsewhere which produced, among valuable maps, a hitherto unknown account of the French battle plan. I once attended the lecture of a well-known and popular Second World War historian, who, when asked about the German sources he had examined for his massive volumes, replied he had not considered them. Wrong answer. Preston avoids this one-sided pitfall of writing military history by examining both Native and French sources. He also reveals American historians have usually filtered the extant English primary sources on Braddock through an American-Whiggish lens, distorting the British commander's ability as a field commander and effective purveyor of colonial-Indian policy.
Preston's championing of irregular warfare in the "Consequences" and "Epilogue" sections, however, establishes a sense of false dichotomy between European "conventional" and American "irregular" warfare. (He also sometimes conflates ranging and light infantry tactics, which were not always identical.) The Western-Near Eastern tradition of light infantry musketeers developed in earnest during the endemic warfare, between the Ottoman Turks, particularly the Janissaries, and the Spanish Habsburg's light infantry in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean theater. Gustavus Adolphus later employed light infantry effectively during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In the New World, John Mason of Connecticut utilized light infantry and ranging tactics (some of which he had experienced in the Thirty Years' War) in the Pequot War (1636-1637), as did later Connecticut leaders and Massachusetts' Benjamin Church in the Great Narragansett War (1675-1676). Wayne Lee in Barbarians and Brothers also details the circulation of irregular military methods within the Anglosphere.
Preston should have given his audience the "Paul Harvey" by detailing the other side of the story concerning conventional forces' initial losses. For every Braddock's defeat, there was a Quebec, for every St. Clair's debacle (Battle of Wabash), a Fallen Timbers, for every Isandlwana (Anglo-Zulu War), a Battle of Ulundi. This treatment of irregulars extends in the American case to George Washington (whose excellent treatment in the book is noteworthy), who sought not to build a perfect hybrid of conventional and irregular units, but rather to utilize light infantry and irregular tactics in complementary fashion for decisive conventional combat. This relationship does not apply in the inverse, as the operations in Quebec (1759) and Yorktown (1781) were both war-ending conventional campaigns. While David Hackett Fischer (who wrote an editor's note for Braddock's Defeat) demonstrates in Washington's Crossing the utility of American light forces to set the stage for conventional battle--the reverse remains untrue--conventional forces do not usually set the stage for war-ending victories of irregular or militia forces.
This book must be read by those interested in early American, ancien regime European, or military history. Preston has crafted a truly special and remarkable account.
Reviewed by LTC Jason W. Warren, Concepts and Doctrine Director, Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College