What Started the American Revolution?

Why is there a road and metro station in Alexandria, Virginia named after a man who first set foot in Virginia on February 20th of 1755 and was dead less than 5 months later? A man whose actions may have sparked a Revolutionary War that started 20 years after his death. We need to know more about Major General Edward Braddock.

Step back in time

Let us turn back the clock and visit the town of Alexandria in 1755. Washington DC does not yet exist.

Imagine the excitement of growing up in Alexandria in 1755. You can smell the tobacco as it comes from the warehouses and is loaded into ships waiting in the Potomac river. It was one of the major seaports in the new world. The Virginia colony was well established, almost 150 years old. The British colonists were trying to expand their territory further west as they explored this new continent.

Alexandria is a loyal British town with respectful streets such as King, Queen, Prince, Princess, and Duke. It is in the colony of Virginia, one of the 13 that existed. The king of England at this time is King George II.

Let’s add some people to our drama. The first is a young man of 23 with reddish brown hair. A tall man who stands 6’2”. He drew up the first survey map of Alexandria at age 16. He was born in Virginia and had just inherited an estate about 10 miles north of Alexandria. His name, George Washington. This was not the George you see on the dollar bill. That is from a portrait of George at age 64, just 3 years before his death. No, our George of 1755 is young, strong, single, and he loved to dance with the ladies. He has great plans for improving his new home at Mount Vernon.

A second actor in our unfolding drama is John Carlyle, a Scottish Merchant who moved to Alexandria and established a successful business. He had a large stone house built on a high bank overlooking the Potomac River which was just completed two years previously. He is also loyal to England and loves the success he had made in this new country. He became the first overseer of Alexandria, Virginia.

John Carlyle House, Alexandria, Virginia

Now we need a conflict and it was provided by the French. They were also exploring and claiming territory in this new continent. The British colonists were encountering resistance from the French who were teaming up with the Indians. A year before in 1754, George Washington (a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia) had been defeated by the French in western Pennsylvania.

As the friction between England and France increased over disputed land west of Virginia, John Carlyle became involved with supplying goods to the Virginia forces. He was well connected and knew young George Washington.

Let us now bring to the stage Major General Edward Braddock. Born in Scotland, he entered the military at 15. Forty-four years later he reached the rank of Major General. He was appointed commander and chief of all military forces in the colonies. Dispatched from England to defeat the French, He arrived in Virginia and traveled to Alexandria with 1200 British troops. He took over John Carlyle’s house for 3 weeks while he was making preparations.

At this point in history, the British were often quite arrogant. In just 2 years India would be taken over by Britain’s East India Company so perhaps we can understand some of General Braddock’s bravado. When advised by Benjamin Franklin to beware of American Indian ambushes, he replied:

“These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”

John Carlyle was initially excited to have General Braddock at his house. He even wrote to his brother in Scotland,

“There was the Grandest Congress held at my home ever known on the Continent.”

General Braddock had a meeting with 5 colonial governors at the Carlyle house. One of the purposes for this meeting was to put forth the idea of collecting funds from the colonists to support the cost of the war with the French and Indians.

Meanwhile, John Carlyle’s initial excitement over his famous guests turned to disgust as the General wore out his welcome. Carlyle again wrote to his brother that General Braddock had abused his furnishings and was a man,

“too fond of his passions, women and wine…”

George Washington had his own issues with the British. He was upset that he was unable to obtain a commission in the British Army. His Virginia militia rank was looked down upon by the British. The British often had their most junior officers placed above more senior ranking members of the Virginia militia. In order to avoid this humiliation, Washington volunteered as and unpaid volunteer aide-de-camp in Braddock’s army.

Braddock left Alexandria in the Spring of 1755 with over 2000 men, including some of the Virginia militia, some local Indians, and of course George Washington. It was an impressive logistical feat to transport such a large contingent of troops, cannons, and supplies 250 miles through the wilderness into western Pennsylvania.

The details of the battle are another whole story but the result was the British were defeated by a much smaller force of French and Indian fighters. General Braddock was shot and died 4 days later along with over 500 other men. George Washington helped evacuate the remainder of the troops.

George Washington wrote to his mother about the battle. He begins:

“HONORED MADAM: As I doubt not but you have heard of our defeat…”

Is there any doubt this man was destined for greatness?

“I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me.”

The effect of General Braddock’s defeat in 1755 cannot be underestimated. The mighty British had lost to a far smaller force, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the colonists. The war would go on for 7 years as the French and Indian War (In England it was referred to as the Seven Years’ War). The colonists were eventually taxed to pay for the British troops needed. The meeting of the colonial governors at the Carlyle House helped sow seeds of discontent within the colonists. In 20 years, the Revolutionary War would begin.