The Extraordinary Battle in Braddock that Shaped U.S. History
At Braddock’s Battlefield History Center, Robert T. Messner commemorates the town’s French and Indian War history.
photos by mark simpson
The Little League ballfield in Braddock, Pa., is no different from dozens throughout the region. Its historical significance, however, may be hard to match — and the young sluggers rounding the bases have no way of knowing that colonial American history occurred under their feet.
For many years, no location in Braddock commemorated the Battle of Monongahela (often called “Braddock’s Defeat”), a brutal and significant fight early in the French and Indian War. Braddock’s Battlefield History Center, which opened in August 2012, now is helping the community to understand how vital its town was to the founding of America.
“This is an extraordinary battle that is pretty well-known the world over,” says Robert T. Messner, the center’s founder and director. “But [it] has been incredibly underappreciated by the people of western Pennsylvania.”
In May 1755, Gen. Edward Braddock led an expedition with the goal of claiming Fort Duquesne from the French for the British. He was following in the footsteps of George Washington, who as a young soldier had attempted to negotiate with French forces at Fort Le Boeuf (in modern-day Erie County) in 1753; Washington roundly was rejected. The following year, he would surrender Fort Necessity to French and Indian forces.
When Braddock returned, he brought Washington — whose reputation was somewhat lacking — as an aide de camp, solely because Washington was familiar with the area. On July 9, 1755, Braddock’s forces ran into a French and Indian contingent in present-day Braddock. Despite being outnumbered, the French and Indian forces quickly surrounded the British troops on higher ground and killed the vast majority of them, including Braddock himself.
As the decimated troops struggled to escape the chaos and begin a retreat, it was Washington who took charge. “Through this three-hour engagement, he’s riding up and down, showing great leadership to the troops,” Messner says. “Washington gets a great reputation for his bravery … Twenty years later, he shows up in Philadelphia campaigning to be the commanding officer of the American Revolution … It’s largely on the basis of the credentials he has here that they pick him.”
Messner, a self-taught historian, retired attorney and veteran, began working to establish a home for this history in 1994; in 1999, he opened a temporary exhibit on the second floor of the Braddock Carnegie Library, where he is a board member.
The finished center includes more than 250 artifacts and 50 works of art that illustrate, explain and commemorate the battle and its larger significance. Paintings and reproductions of historic documents show where and how the fight unfolded, and artifacts recovered from the battlefield — including an unexplainable Russian medal — bring history to tangible reality.
The center is the result of a 20-year campaign to give Braddock a home for its most significant moment. “It appalls me that it wasn’t done a long time ago,” Messner says. “[For] this community that was really looking down on itself, I needed something positive. And I know that the reception of this site has been great in the community.”
[609 Sixth St., North Braddock; braddocksbattlefield.com]