A collection of Benjamin Franklin tidbits that relate Philadelphia's revolutionary prelate to his moving around the city, the colonies, and the world.
Pacifist Pennsylvania, Invaded Many Times
Pennsylvania was founded as a pacifist utopia, and currently regards itself as protected by vast oceans. But Pennsylvania has been seriously invaded at least six times.
|General Edward Braddock|
The defeat of General Braddock at Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) in 1755 was not a turning point of the French and Indian War, because although the French won the battle, they lost that War, they also lost Canada in the Seven Years War that followed, and eventually had to sell what remained of their American dream in 1804 as the Louisiana Purchase. The French dream was an empire stretching in an arc from the St. Lawrence River to New Orleans, leaving the British only the thirteen Eastern seaboard colonies.
Nevertheless, the disastrous defeat of the Redcoats was a real turning point in the attitudes of two direct participants, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington of Virginia, and Pennsylvania's political leader, Benjamin Franklin. Both men greeted the arrival of Braddock's troops in America with great relief because it was increasingly evident to them that the Colonies themselves were too indecisive to survive. Both of them were in a unique personal position to see that the French and their Indian Allies were serious about conquering the backcountry, even likely to do so. These two staunch British patriots, therefore, threw themselves into the crisis, with Washington eventually having two horses shot from under him, taking charge of the retreat after Braddock's death. And Franklin pledged his considerable personal fortune on Braddock's behalf, almost losing it and spending the rest of his life in debtor's prison as Robert Morris would later actually do. These two men knowingly laid their lives on the line for the British Empire and came very close to losing everything else for their King and country.
Franklin had retired seven years earlier, a rich man at the age of 42. We now know that he lived like a gentleman for another 42 eventful years. Puttering with science and public works, he joined the Assembly in 1750. It was not long before he was the political leader of the Colony, in a peculiar struggle with the dominant Quaker party who not only opposed war for their own self-defense but were enraged that the Penn family had turned away from Quakerism and refused to be taxed for the defense of its colony. The Governor was appointed by the Penns, with an express contract not to agree to any taxation of the Penn holdings. Since it began to look to Franklin as though everybody was trying to commit suicide rather than spend a farthing, he greeted the arrival of General Edward Braddock's redcoats with great relief. But then Braddock himself turned out to be a brave but exasperating ninny.
Braddock's plan was to take the old Indian trail from the Potomac River to the Monongahela (now Route 40), fording the Monongahela just below its junction with Ohio at Fort Duquesne, then blowing up the French fort with artillery. He had brought plenty of troops and cannons on his ocean transports, but he needed horses and wagons from the colonies. When he was warned of the dangers of Indian ambush in the wilderness, he made a much-quoted response, "These savages may be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the king's regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they would make an impression." The other thing he said was if he didn't get wagons and horses pretty damned quick, he was going back home to England.
Within two weeks, Franklin and his son William collected 259 horses and 150 wagons for him. But to do so, they had to overcome the Pennsylvania farmer suspicion that the swaggering English General wouldn't pay for the goods. To persuade them, Franklin made a public pledge to stand behind the debts with his own money, and his word was known to be good.
The other thing wrong with Braddock's plan was that the trail wasn't wide enough for the wagons and gun carriages, so he had so sent a body of axeman ahead of the troops to widen the road. Progress was at times as slow as two miles a day, plenty of time for word to be taken to Fort Duquesne that the British were coming with cannon. Since it was clear that the Fort could not withstand a siege army, the French commander ordered his troops to attack Braddock as he was crossing the Monongahela. It was meant to be an ambush, but the two armies blundered into each other on the trail, and the Indians simply fought the way they knew best, from behind trees. Two-thirds of the British were killed and most of those captured were burned at the stake. The death toll would have been even higher, and probably would have included Washington, except the Indians, ignored French orders and delayed pursuit to collect scalps. And by the way, all of Franklin's wagons were burned.
Franklin spent an anxious two months since his later reflection was that the loss of 20,000 pounds sterling would surely have ruined him. However, he was lucky that Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, an old friend of his, was appointed at Braddock's successor, and Shirley ordered the debt to be repaid out of Army funds.
The American Revolution would not come for another twenty years, but you can be sure the Braddock episode had an important impact on the minds of both Franklin and Washington. The British Army was not invincible. It was not even very smart.
Originally published: Tuesday, August 17, 2004; most-recently modified: Friday, September 20, 2019