Tag: history

Who Would Have Thought It?

Pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs, 16:18


Four decades of service in His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards had given Edward Braddock courage, intelligence, and toughness, but it had failed to embed in his character the one virtue he needed most: humility.

Braddock was the first English general to set foot in the American colonies, and he had not been sent on a pleasure tour. His task was to drive the French from the contested Ohio Valley, and he intended to make a quick job of it.

As the Commander-in-Chief of North America, Braddock set the strategy for all British forces on the continent. He was not the sort of man to sit in a comfortable chair while other men fought, however, so he took personal command of a force of 2,100 British Regulars and colonial militia charged with capturing a series of French forts.

The first stop for this expedition was to be Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh). Impatient with the slow progress of his army through the wilderness, Braddock  split his force in two. About a third of his men stayed behind in a supply camp so that the remaining 1,300 could move forward to Fort Duquesne more quickly.

Only a few miles from the Fort, Braddock’s men ran square into a force of about 800 enemy fighters. Braddock was not intimidated. He may have held a grudging professional respect for the 70 French Marines in the company, but he knew that the 150 Canadian militiamen and 600 Indian warriors before him had never seen anything like the highly-disciplined British Regulars at his disposal.

As he expected, the enemy broke after the first volley of British musketry. How could they not? That wall of fire and lead would have intimated even a well-trained European infantry force. It must have been absolutely devastating for a bunch of undisciplined colonial trash and their savage allies.

At this point, however, the expected thing stopped happening. The French and Indian force scattered, but it didn’t retreat. Instead, it spilled out into the woods on either side of Braddock’s force and picked off Braddock’s men from behind the trees with startling accuracy.

Braddock’s men had never experienced fighting like this, and they retreated in chaos, running headlong into Braddock, who was leading reinforcements up from the main body of men. The commander struggled to regain order, swearing and threatening, but it was too late. The panic spread from company to company with such incredible speed that the entire force was soon reduced to chaos.

In the three hours of bloody, confused slaughter that followed, over half the British force was killed or taken prisoner. As the survivors and camp followers–including women and children–crossed the Monongehela River in a desperate attempt to avoid certain death, Indian warriors picked them off from the shore. Some even swam into the river to scalp the recent victims. The injured, left behind by their panicked comrades, were unceremoniously killed by the victors. Some were taken as captives.

Braddock himself was shot in the lung and was evacuated by wagon from the field of battle. What went through Edward Braddock’s mind during his last five agonizing days of existence?

Perhaps he remembered the warning of a Pennsylvania politician named Benjamin Franklin, “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march is from ambuscades of Indians.”

At the time, Braddock’s response was dismissive, “The savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regulars and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”

Braddock no doubt thought better of his response. Perhaps he even revised his opinion of the “raw American militia.” One such, a young Virginian named George Washington who had served as his aide, offered to lead his men into the cover of the trees and direct them to fight like the enemy. His response to Washington at the time was, “I’ve a mind to run you through the body. We’ll sup today in Fort Duquesne or else in hell!”

Braddock’s prediction rang true. The five days that followed after Washington loaded him onto that wagon must have been hellish indeed. Perhaps he also used this time to reflect on his rejection of the advice of his own Indian advisors.

Looking back on the expedition later, his chief Indian advisor, Monacatootha,  remarked, “He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often endeavored to advise him and to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers, but he never appeared pleased with us.”

Ignoring Monacatootha may have been Braddock’s most grievous error in judgement. Ben Franklin and George Washington, were, at the time, relatively inexperienced in military affairs after all. Monacatootha, on the other hand, had seen more battles than Braddock himself and could be expected to understand the enemy better than anyone in the expedition.

We can’t know what went through Braddock’s mind in those last days and hours, of course, but his final words give us a clue.

“We shall know better how to deal with them another time,” he said, adding, “Who would have thought it?

The Messiness of Myths

In 1947, historian Otto Eisenschiml referred to the Civil War as “The American Iliad.” He was on to something there.

This month’s issue of The Civil War Monitor features an article by another historian, Mark Grimsley, who observes, “…it is obvious that the Civil War routinely functions as a national myth, a way to understand ourselves as Americans. And like the classic mythologies of old, it contains timeless wisdom of what it means to be a human being. Homer’s Iliad tells us much about war, but it also tells us much about life. The American Iliad does the same thing.”

The political issues that caused and sustained the war are still very much with us. I have a hunch, however, that long after those concerns are past, Americans will continue to return to this national myth.

Myths are not powerful because they are lies, but because they are true. That is, they tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and they convey that truth in a way that mere history cannot.

For many, myself included, I think that what draws us to the war is the same thing that draws us to Shakespeare or Jane Austen: a fascination with the human condition. In the Civil War, we find a cast of characters who possess the full spectrum of human virtue and vice, and they manifest their characters on a grand scale.

But, here’s where it gets very, very tricky. Austen drew on her careful observation of real life to create the characters and events in her novels, but they are not histories. Mister Darcy may or may not have been based on John Parker, but no one in their right mind would suggest that we ought to revise Pride and Prejudice in light of new historical information about Parker. Likewise, though Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was based on the life of a real person, scholars don’t insist on rewriting his dialogue to fit the historical facts.

Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, are a different matter. They are, at once, both myths and historical figures of great scholarly interest–and those two roles are constantly in tension.

If we found that Austen’s impressions of John Parker were greatly in error, it would change nothing of substance in Pride and Prejudice. The great value we see in that work of art would not be touched.

If we discover, on the other hand, that Robert E. Lee’s motives during the Gettysburg campaign were different than we assumed, however, our cherished myth loses some of its potency.

When people dig in over the issue of the Confederate Flag, it may not just be an issue of disagreeing over historical facts. They are defending a myth that is meaningful to them. That myth, and the understandable desire to cherish it, may, in turn, influence how they interpret the historical facts.

No one seriously argues with a Roman historian based on the power of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but people can and do argue with historians of the American Civil War based on their longstanding understanding of figures like Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln and the meaning those stories have in their own lives.

It is, I think, possible to hold on to the value of the myth while acknowledging the historical reality, but I believe that’s a damn tough thing to do.

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