At about 2:30 p.m., George, still at Braddock’s side, was surprised to hear the unmistakable pops of muskets, followed a couple minutes later by the crash of mass directed fire. The column shuddered to a halt, and Braddock immediately ordered messengers ahead to determine what was happening. Within a couple of minutes, he received confused reports from young officers indicating that the vanguard had run into French and Indian troops, with volleys erupting directly in front of Gage’s men and resulting in an indeterminate number of casualties.
As updates continued to stream in, Braddock remained composed and, apparently completely at ease on his horse, made no effort to move forward. George pulled his mount next to the general and volunteered, “Sir, if you would like, I would be pleased to go to Colonel Gage and the van and provide you with a more complete report of conditions.”
Confidently surveying the troops, Braddock spoke without looking at George. “As you were, Colonel. I am receiving regular reports. Our calmness inspires the men. I can’t have you gallivanting off in a huff. My aides-de-camp must be at my side if the battle becomes hot. I am confident this is an exploratory force of French and Indians charged with preventing us from simply walking up and taking the fort without a shot.”
As he said it, George’s temper flared: It is more than that! And we are sitting in the middle of the road like pigs awaiting slaughter. George added, with more urgency than he intended, “Our preliminary reports say in excess of three hundred French and Indians, General.”
“Never believe the initial reports, Colonel; they are almost always wrong.” Then, Braddock muttered to himself, “Where are the goddamned cannons? Gage, what the hell are you waiting for?”
George liked Thomas Gage and desperately wanted to find out what was going on and, if possible, join the fight. Then, in apparent response to the general’s whispered plea, came the twin boom of Gage’s six-pounder cannon. A cheer went up from the British lines.
Slapping the top of his leg with obvious pleasure, the general exclaimed, “There you go, Colonel; that will put the fear of God into the savages!” Turning to Orme, Braddock ordered with calm military precision, “Please instruct Lieutenant Colonel Burton forward to reinforce the vanguard.”
Word came that Gage’s troops had executed classic formations: kneeling, firing, reloading, and firing in ranks in turn. This mass firing, along with the use of the cannons, was apparently met with some initial success. However, there were also indications that Indians were moving down either side of the column and enveloping the British’s unprotected flanks, limiting the British’s ability to bring their superior firepower to bear.
The war whoops and battle screams of the Indians began in the surrounding woods, terrifying the British soldiers. The instant the fighting began, the unarmed road builders under St. Clair began moving to the rear. When the Indians increased their battle yells, a controlled retreat by the unarmed men turned into a full sprint, unnerving the regular soldiers who remained as road builders ran past them to the rear.
George was next to Braddock when a disturbing report arrived that Gage had apparently ordered his grenadiers to fix their bayonets and form a line of battle to rush the hill on the British right flank. The grenadiers followed the first order but then, in terror and confusion, refused to move forward as the Indians appeared to materialize from all sides.
Within fifteen minutes of the first shots, the French and Indians had moved along both sides of the British line and had taken control of the hill on the British right that Gage had neglected to secure. The concentrated British formations were ideal targets for French and Indian snipers shooting from cover. Now directed fire began to rain in from all sides, especially from the hill overlooking the right side of the British line.
Around him, George could see the main body of soldiers were nervous and fidgeting. Glimpses of running Indians could be seen in the woods. It was increasingly apparent that the French and Indians were using the trees and terrain as cover to fire on the British. Periodically a French rifle would ring out, a nearby British soldier would scream, and a volley of British guns would blindly return fire at the hidden source of the shot.
A wounded St. Clair, shot in the shoulder and chest, was pulled on a gurney before Braddock. Delirious, St. Clair bizarrely shouted at Braddock in Italian. Braddock, without breaking stride, responded in the same language.
Amazed, George turned to Orme, who explained, “St. Clair laments that we are all going to die and should retreat. The general told him—rather directly—to shut his mouth.”
George then heard St. Clair switch to English and gasp, “For God’s sake, the rising on our right.” Then he collapsed onto his gurney, unconscious.
George noticed for the first time what St. Clair was talking about. “He raises a good point, Robert!” George shouted above the battle’s din. He pointed to the hill. “I believe the general should move our men there.”
A frustrated Orme replied, “The general believes in firepower, not maneuver.”
As if responding to Orme’s comment, nearby artillery began to fire, but the gunners failed to find any target and mainly contributed smoke and noise to the confusion with no adverse effect on the enemy.
Meanwhile, Gage’s vanguard retreated as its ranks were decimated by enemy fire. Gage’s men, along with St. Clair’s already fleeing road builders, smashed like waves into the main body of soldiers that, under Lieutenant Colonel Burton, were moving forward. The soldiers met each other at the base of the hill now held by the French and Indians, just as St. Clair had feared. The telescoping line was now a morass of men moving forward and backward, with units mixed in terrified confusion. Almost the entirety of Braddock’s whole army was now squeezed into an area less than 250 yards in length and about a hundred feet wide, while the rear guard was still about a half mile behind. French and Indians fired volleys of arrows and ball with virtually no chance of missing. Not only did the Indians have the advantage of cover, but they also shot with rifles that had greater range and accuracy than the British smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets.
Braddock became incensed at the disorder. He slapped men with the side of his sword, bellowing, “Get back to your standards, men! There is no retreat here. Move to your officers and return fire!”
George recognized the need to move men into the woods and engage the enemy while also presenting a less inviting target. Turning to the general, George yelled, “General, we must not crowd the men! Please, General! Let me lead some men out into the bush!”
A blazing Braddock spat back, “As you were, Colonel! We need to organize our men to attack and mass fire against these heathen bastards.” George acknowledged the order and turned back to the men to hide his disgust.
About forty-five minutes into the battle, George began to see the noose tighten as the French and Indian movement along either side of the British line had created an elongated half moon of French and Indians surrounding Braddock’s troops. The hair-raising shouts of the Indians, coupled with steadily increasing fire, left the British feeling trapped and defenseless.
As George approached Orme, a bullet grazed George’s side and hit Orme squarely in the thigh, staggering his horse. Amazingly, Orme stayed in the saddle, and, without missing a beat, he reached into his bag and pulled out a sash, tightly winding it around his injury.
“Robert, you are wounded!” George pleaded. “You should move to the rear.”
“There is no rear, my friend, and I can’t leave you and the general. It appears the bullet went straight through. Unfortunately it also seems to have wounded my horse. I’ll stay with him as long as I can.”
With George, Morris, and the wounded Orme at his side, Braddock was moving up the line toward the front of the column. They continued perhaps another twenty yards when suddenly Braddock’s horse collapsed from a shot to the head. Braddock deftly jumped from the saddle, and without any apparent concern for his own safety, he turned to Orme and said, “Down you go, sir. You are wounded, and I need your horse.”
“My horse has been injured, General, but he still seems to ride well,” said Orme as he hopped down and helped the general mount.
“It’s just a nick below the saddle,” Braddock said. “Your leg and the saddle were kind enough to absorb most of the energy, Captain. You will remain here with these troops and provide direction.”
George dismounted and helped Orme to a nearby tree. “Do make an effort to stay out of trouble, Robert,” George said with forced levity.
Grinning despite the pain, Orme retorted, “Don’t worry about me, you blasted fool. You are the largest target out here. I’d say keep your head down, but there is nowhere to hide that enormous body.”
The men’s conversation was suddenly cut short by the bark of General Braddock, “Goddamn it, Washington! You are with me, sir!”
George and Braddock trotted along the line. Periodically George would see flicks of Braddock’s uniform spray in the air as French and Indian soldiers directed overwhelming fire on the high-sitting general.
After almost an hour of battle, men all along the line continued to drop from sniping fire and Indian arrows. Nevertheless the British remained tightly packed, falling back on training that was designed to provide mass fire in the open fields of lowland Europe.
What had started as a crystal-clear day now appeared like a foggy morning, with white powder smoke from cannon, musket, and rifle obscuring targets. Shots of canister, essentially giant shotguns, were being directed into any identified concentrations of French and Indians with minimal effect, hitting more trees and leaves than enemies. A dry dust filled the air, mixing with insects and heat to create the perfect cocktail of misery for all as canteens ran dry.
George knew the men were petrified at the prospect of being captured. They had all seen the Indians’ handiwork on the mutilated bodies of unlucky British soldiers separated from the column. It was this fear, more than anything else, that kept them together.
Everything about this engagement—the sights, sounds, and smell—was different for George. When his men had endured the onslaught at Fort Necessity, the incessant rain and stifling humidity had deadened the sounds and smells of battle. In contrast, today the dust-filled air carried sound with horrifying clarity. The acrid smell of gunpowder stung everyone’s eyes, and the men’s faces were covered in powder from biting cartridges to refill and fire their muskets. At Fort Necessity, the Indians’ arrows were both silent and largely inaccurate. Here, George would periodically hear the twang of a bow, closely followed by the scream of the arrow hitting home. Even the perspective was different. He sat high on a horse here, whereas at Necessity, he slogged in the mud. Finally, most importantly, George did not face the burden of ultimate command in this battle. He relayed orders and observed the mêlée, but he was not the man fundamentally responsible. This detachment gave him the perspective he recognized he was missing at Fort Necessity.
While the British soldiers were a crowded, paralyzed mass of mindless confusion, the Virginians instinctively took charge and began moving out into the trees and fighting “bush style,” effectively pushing back the French and Indians. Moving in small groups, the men used the undergrowth, trees, and rocks for cover as they deftly approached the French and Indian position.
One group of 170 Virginians attempted to deploy into the woods. However, British officers mistook the blue-clad Virginians for French Canadians and directed mass fire, wiping out the officers and all but five of the Virginia soldiers, despite their screams that “We are English!”
Any soldiers taking the initiative and moving forward to engage were also almost immediately cut down by friendly fire. While clouds of smoke obscured vision, the misdirected fire was caused more by raw terror and a lack of leadership. George saw a Virginia soldier aggressively move forward to engage the enemy. Suddenly, the man’s skull exploded like a melon hit with a hammer. George knew it was equally likely the bullet came from a friend as from a foe.
The narrow road and fire coming from all directions made traditional maneuvering virtually impossible. Still, Braddock, with George at his side, rode up and down the lines, haranguing his men to form platoons. But Braddock was unable to organize movement into any particular direction. Meanwhile, men had to avoid being run over by periodic riderless horses racing to the rear—another reminder of the dwindling number of officers.
The battle raged into its second horrendous hour, and the British line continued to absorb appalling losses. Faced with an untenable situation, the English took cold comfort in the rote actions of practiced drill: biting a powder cartridge, ignoring the foul taste of the saltpeter, priming the pan, pouring the balance down the barrel, ramming the ball and wad down the barrel, and firing. Even the sting to the face of powder igniting in the pan and the slam of the butt into a soldier’s shoulder provided an illusion that “something” was being done. These soldiers could maintain this rate of fire at three to five times per minute, faster than any trained army in the world. The practiced actions had always meant victory. Reassuring as it might be, the rote motions had little effect on a hidden and protected enemy that mercilessly fired from cover on the huddled British.
The sound of passing bullet and ball became so omnipresent that George began to almost forget the air was filled with death. He was reminded of his true situation when, as the general paused to berate soldiers, Washington and Braddock were both simultaneously thrown from their horses. George, whose horse died instantly, was aware enough to jump off his saddle so as not to be pinned, but he hit the ground hard. The general’s horse whinnied and buckled, yet Braddock was able to dismount as the animal began to collapse. Again without missing a beat, the general pulled his pistol and shot the horse in the head, immediately calling for a new animal to be brought up. George’s horse was likewise replaced.
As George and the general moved along the line with their new mounts, they stopped under a large low-hanging tree to give orders to the surrounding troops.
What is going on? George thought as he noticed bits of leaves and bark falling down around the general wherever he went. With a terrifying realization, George understood that enemy fire was literally tearing the leaves from the trees in Braddock’s wake in an attempt to shoot him. He watched in awe as the general offhandedly wiped the debris from his face, apparently indifferent or unaware of its cause.