Reverberations of a Doomed Expedition

What possibly could the tattooed mayor of a small rustbelt town, a subway station in an urbanized corridor and the towering historical legacy of George Washington all have in common? If you guessed a failed 1755 British military expedition — and I imagine you probably did not — then you would be correct. The Twelve Mile Circle is often about strange threads running between and through geography and history but I have to admit that this may be one of the more improbable set of connections I’ve stumbled upon. In a sense it’s three completely different stories. They all just happen to share a single thread.

Mayor John Fetterman

John Fetterman Mayor of Braddock
SOURCE: Colbert Report, February 25, 2009. Watch Video)

Let’s start with John Fetterman who was elected mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania in 2005. Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh, is a case study of what happens when a location becomes so intertwined with a single industry that it cannot function without it. Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill here in 1873 (and his first library) and the town grew around it. More than thirty thousand people lived here by the 1950’s but today if has dropped nearly 90% from its peak population along with the precipitous decline of the Pennsylvania steel industry. There are fewer than three thousand people in Braddock today.

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Mayor Fetterman came to Braddock as part of AmeriCorps, which is similar to the Peace Corps but with a focus on improving disadvantaged areas within the United States. He decided to remain in town after he completed his AmeriCorps service. The mayor pursues revitalization initiatives under the banner, "destruction breeds creation" and his commitment leads him to tattoo his body with the dates of each murder committed in Braddock during his watch.

Don’t be fooled by appearances. Mayor Fetterman has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and the town is making progress as it reinvents itself.

The Subway Station

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Go ahead and drill into this Street View image of an elevated subway station on the Metro system in Alexandria, Virginia by pressing the little plus (+) sign in the upper left corner. Notice the writing on the pylon. This is the Braddock Road station. Hmm… Braddock, Pennsylvania… Braddock Road. Indeed, the connection begins to reveal itself.

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Braddock Road is a well-known residential and commuter thoroughfare through Northern Virginia. It begins here at the Metro subway station on the western edge of "Old Town" Alexandria and stretching in various non-contiguous segments through the heart of suburbia, terminating not too far away from Dulles International Airport.

The Expedition

Notice the course of the Braddock expedition, starting at Alexandria, Virginia and terminating just outside of Fort Duquesne, at present-day Pittsburgh. The two "Braddocks" represent the beginning and the end of a major military incursion.

Braddock Military Expedition
SOURCE: Wikipedia via the United States Army Center of Military History; in the public domain.

General Edward Braddock served as the commander-in-chief for all British troops in the American colonies. Britain and France clashed over territory as they built their respective empires, a conflict called the French and Indian War in the colonies but more widely known as the Seven Years’ War. Fort Duquesne belonged to France, and by extension, they controlled a gateway to the Ohio Country and a large swath of the continental interior.

General Braddock and his troops left Alexandria and set out first for Cumberland, Maryland. Many people believed he used Braddock Road as he traveled through Northern Virginia, and the pathway became so synonymous with him that it took his name. I remember as a child hearing a legend about General Braddock supposedly burying two cannon barrels filled with gold coins somewhere along the route in the vicinity of Centreville. The story explains that his troops became mired in mud and muck and had to lighten their load before proceeding further. Thoughts of buried treasure filled my childhood dreams. Sadly the legend has been thoroughly debunked.

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In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that the expeditionary force didn’t take Braddock Road at all. Rather, they almost certainly took the Middle Turnpike. The modern Route 7 largely follows the path of the old turnpike as it runs through Tyson’s Corner and Leesburg on its way to Winchester. The road named for General Braddock today is the wrong one.

From Cumberland, the expeditionary force of more than two thousand men headed towards Fort Duquesne, expecting to capture it easily. French forces with Native American allies attacked the British troops ten miles short of the destination at the Battle of the Monongahela. It turned into a massacre and a route. General Braddock suffered a gunshot wound during the battle and died during the retreat. This is considered one of the greatest British military debacles of the colonial era.

One of the few bright lights was the General’s young aide-de-camp who was able to form a rear guard long enough to allow the retreating British forces to disengaged in a somewhat orderly manner. He was hailed as a hero and would go onto bigger things later in the century. His name was George Washington.

2 Replies to “Reverberations of a Doomed Expedition”

  1. Washington traveled through the same area twice before: First to deliver the ultimatum by the British to the French @ Ft LeBoeuf(Now Waterford, PA), which thereby started the 7Years War, and secondly, as assigned by the Virginian Governor, Dinwiddle, to march on Ft Dusquene and remove the French.

    The first trip gave the British the information they need for the area, and the second trip ended as another disaster defeat at Ft Necessity.

    Interestingly enough, there is a historical designation named “Washington’s Trail” from Virginia to Waterford commemorating the first trip. Also, there is a statue of Washington in Waterford that is claimed to be the only statue of him in a British (Virginia Militia) uniform.

    Washington’s Trail:

  2. The city of Braddock reminds me of Cairo, IL who’s population zenith in 1907 was 20,000 and as of the 2000 census is 3,632. The downtown is almost completely abandoned and generally a place you would probably want to avoid stopping in. I think you did mention it in a previous posting where the only way to get from Kentucky to Missouri by road is through Illinois at Fort Defiance State Park.

    I wish the city of Braddock much luck in recovering!

    Josh from NYC

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