Sunday, April 04, 2010

Braddock's March!

Our book today is Braddock’s March by Thomas Crocker, and despite the author’s fondest high hopes, the title is likely to be an utter mystery to most Americans. Those who received a meat-and-potatoes Catholic school education might perhaps know the name Braddock and hazily recall that it signifies pre-Revolution America, but even those few nun-tormented souls will be hard-pressed to put any details to the memory – only the few lucky ones who somehow latched onto a great history aficionado, somebody who can really make history come alive (Thom Daly of our own Open Letters comes to mind, especially in his latest piece), will have been made aware of how charged Braddock’s March – and the resulting Battle of the Monongahela – really was.

It started in late February of 1755 when British Major General Edward Braddock and his two regiments (about 2000 men when half of them weren’t sick) arrived in the New World and met straightway with the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie - “two imperiums of colonial power thrown together by fate,” as Crocker aptly put it – to assess the best ways to disrupt the military operations of the French in America. Braddock’s orders were to strike overland in the direction of the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne and capture it, and toward this end he assembled on his general staff a military ‘family’ he hoped could get this job done (among this ‘family’ was the ambitious young ‘captain’ Robert Orme, whose image rather mysteriously fills this book’s cover, despite the fact that the book’s nominal subject didn’t end up liking Orme all that much).

Crocker does an excellent job at telling this story, this is mainly due to the fact that despite his formidable reading on the time period, he somehow never lost sight of what telling history is all about. “But,” he tells us, “the first word on a key to help unlock the mystery of the Braddock campaign: it is a profoundly human story.”

That story is rife with bragging and doomed heroism, rife with double-crosses and double-dealings, and of course it has a tragic ending for Braddock himself, the hard-drinking hard-swearing blustery-yet-capable martinet in charge of what Crocker calls “one of the most important military engagements in the American colonial period.”

It was important, and it was big news – it’s refreshing that Crocker never loses sight of this. Nothing like the size or official capacity of Braddock’s two regiments of trained, drilled, experienced soldiers had ever been seen in the American colonies, and those colonies reacted with suitable awe and an entirely American nerve, as Crocker insightfully points out:
Just as Braddock arrived with orders and an agenda on how to deal with the American colonies, he would have been naïve to think that individual Americans did not have their own agendas for dealing with him. What is remarkable about the Americans’ reaction to the arrival of the expedition is now they viewed it as a grand opportunity to improve their own prospects for advancement.

One of these scheming Americans was George Washington, who’d seen his prospects of military glory - or much of a military career at all – evaporate after the debacle of Great Plains and Fort Necessity (recounted in all its debacle-ness here), and for a few months that summer of 1755, Braddock, Washington, et al pursued an agenda of typically British grandiosity, as Crocker summarizes:
Their aim was to oust the French, win over hostile Indians, and claim a continent. The British troops who made the march were the finest that England had ever sent to America in force. Their route of march slashed like a scar across the center of the American colonies. They blazed a road where only wilderness had existed. They hauled dozens of cannon across mountains that are formidable even now. They faced an enemy whom they did not know. And they were all but wiped out in one of the most humiliating defeats British arms was ever to suffer.

That defeat waits at the end of Braddock’s March – he was killed and his men were routed, driven to ignominious retreat, the whole campaign brought to a summary and pathetic ending on what Crocker calls “the day America grew up.” But there’s one final delight in this book full of delights: Crocker gives us quick thumbnail glimpses of the lives of all his principal characters after the pivotal events covered by his book – and it turns out he’s quite good at thumbnail sketches too:
Commodore Augustus Keppel (1725-1786). Keppel rose to become an admiral and had a highly distinguished career. However, in 1778, he led the Channel Fleet in an indecisive battle with the French off Ushant, Brittany, allowing the French fleet to slip off to America and to challenge British forces fighting the Americans in the Revolution. Keppel was court-martialed as a result of this action, but he alleged that his second-in-command, Sir Hugh Palliser, gave him inadequate support. Keppel was acquitted, but not before the resulting squabble divided the Navy. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has several portraits of Keppel at various stages of his life, including one that features his flagship Centurion in the background. Keppel died in 1786 without issue. However, his collateral family has given us Camilla Parker Bowles, the duchess of Cornwall and the present day wife of Prince Charles.

Naturally, Crocker a bit overstates both the military and the political significance of Braddock’s March – even novices will be able to spot the more egregious locations of his overreaching, and my bet is their reaction will be the same as mine: instant forgiveness, in the face of the enormous conviction and overriding narrative energy of the book as a whole. Braddock’s March is history written exactly as history should be: meticulous in terms of facts, impassioned and argumentative in terms of interpretation, and masterful in terms of presentation. A baker’s dozen iconic American figures – from Daniel Boone to Benjamin Franklin – make spirited appearances in these pages, and the portraits of Braddock and Washington will stick with you for a long time. Don’t miss this book.

1 comment:

Thomas Crocker said...

Thanks for the good review. Glad you enjoyed my book!