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Chapter 17

ARRIVAL AT FORT CUMBERLAND--LETTERS OF WASHINGTON TO HIS FAMILY--PANIC OF DUNBAR--FORTUNES OF DR. HUGH MERCER--TRIUMPH OF THE FRENCH.


The obsequies of the unfortunate Braddock being finished, the escort continued its retreat with the sick and wounded. Washington, assisted by Dr. Craik, watched with assiduity over his comrades, Orme and Morris. As the horses which bore their litters were nearly knocked up, he despatched messengers to the commander of Fort Cumberland requesting that others might be sent on, and that comfortable quarters might be prepared for the reception of those officers.

On the 17th, the sad cavalcade reached the fort, and were relieved from the incessant apprehension of pursuit. Here, too, flying reports had preceded them, brought by fugitives from the battle; who, with the disposition usual in such cases to exaggerate, had represented the whole army as massacred. Fearing these reports might reach home, and affect his family, Washington wrote to his mother, and his brother, John Augustine, apprising them of his safety. "The Virginia troops," says he, in a letter to his mother, "showed a good deal of bravery, and were nearly all killed. ... The dastardly behavior of those they called regulars exposed all others, that were ordered to do their duty, to almost certain death; and, at last, in despite of all the efforts of the officers to the contrary, they ran, as sheep pursued by dogs, and it was impossible to rally them."

To his brother, he writes: "As I have heard, since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you that I have not composed the latter. But, by the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability, or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, though death was levelling my companions on every side of me!

"We have been most scandalously beaten by a trifling body of men, but fatigue and want of time prevent me from giving you any of the details, until I have the happiness of seeing you at Mount Vernon, which I now most earnestly wish for, since we are driven in thus far. A feeble state of health obliges me to halt here for two or three days to recover a little strength, that I may thereby be enabled to proceed homeward with more ease."

Dunbar arrived shortly afterward with the remainder of the army. No one seems to have shared more largely in the panic of the vulgar than that officer. From the moment he received tidings of the defeat, his camp became a scene of confusion. All the ammunition, stores, and artillery were destroyed, to prevent, it was said, their falling into the hands of the enemy; but, as it was afterwards alleged, to relieve the terror-stricken commander from all incumbrances, and furnish him with more horses in his flight toward the settlements.

[Footnote: Franklin's Autobiography.]

At Cumberland his forces amounted to fifteen hundred effective men; enough for a brave stand to protect the frontier, and recover some of the lost honor; but he merely paused to leave the sick and wounded under care of two Virginia and Maryland companies, and some of the train, and then continued his hasty march, or rather flight, through the country, not thinking himself safe, as was sneeringly intimated, until he arrived in Philadelphia, where the inhabitants could protect him.

The true reason why the enemy did not pursue the retreating army was not known until some time afterwards, and added to the disgrace of the defeat. They were not the main force of the French, but a mere detachment of 72 regulars, 146 Canadians, and 637 Indians, 855 in all, led by Captain de Beaujeu. De Contrecoeur, the commander of Fort Duquesne, had received information, through his scouts, that the English, three thousand strong, were within six leagues of his fort. Despairing of making an effectual defence against such a superior force, he was balancing in his mind whether to abandon his fort without awaiting their arrival, or to capitulate on honorable terms. In this dilemma Beaujeu prevailed on him to let him sally forth with a detachment to form an ambush, and give check to the enemy. De Beaujeu was to have taken post at the river, and disputed the passage at the ford. For that purpose he was hurrying forward when discovered by the pioneers of Gage's advance party. He was a gallant officer, and fell at the beginning of the fight. The whole number of killed and wounded of French and Indians, did not exceed seventy.

Such was the scanty force which the imagination of the panic-stricken army had magnified into a great host, and from which they had fled in breathless terror, abandoning the whole frontier. No one could be more surprised than the French commander himself, when the ambuscading party returned in triumph with a long train of packhorses laden with booty, the savages uncouthly clad in the garments of the slain, grenadier caps, officers' gold-laced coats, and glittering epaulettes; flourishing swords and sabres, or firing off muskets, and uttering fiendlike yells of victory. But when De Contrecoeur was informed of the utter rout and destruction of the much dreaded British army, his joy was complete. He ordered the guns of the fort to be fired in triumph, and sent out troops in pursuit of the fugitives.

The affair of Braddock remains a memorable event in American history, and has been characterized as "the most extraordinary victory ever obtained, and the farthest flight ever made." It struck a fatal blow to the deference for British prowess, which once amounted almost to bigotry, throughout the provinces. "This whole transaction," observes Franklin, in his autobiography, "gave us the first suspicion, that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British regular troops had not been well founded."


Washington Irving