When Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock landed at the Hampton docks on Feb. 20, 1755, the dashing commander-in-chief of British forces in North America was eager to put his long transatlantic journey behind him and burnish his reputation by defeating the French on the frontier.
But less than 6 months later, his expedition to the Ohio Valley was cut to pieces in a defeat still remembered as a milestone of military arrogance and ineptitude, while the young Virginia militia officer who carried the mortally wounded Braddock from the field and saved what remained of his rattled men transformed the disaster into a springboard for his own legend.
Writing to his wife after his own narrow brush with death, 23-year-old George Washington did his best to describe the bloody rout at Monongahela, where only his stand-out bravery and ability to lead enabled the shattered English troops to escape and regroup without even worse losses.
Then he confessed to the thrill he felt at the whistling sound of the enemy's bullets.
"All the senior British officers were dead, leaving Washington in command. He had two horses shot out from underneath him -- and four bullet holes shot through his coat," said Virginia Historical Society curator William M.S. Rasmussen in 1999, when the letter was put on view as part of a landmark VHS exhibit called "Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed."
"In a nutshell, it tells you about the incredible physical hardships he endured -- not many people could do what he did in such a situation. It also tells you he had an instinct for the military life and leading soldiers in battle."
Braddock's fateful scorn for Virginia and its inhabitants wasn't shared by everybody who landed at Hampton as part of the expedition sent to fight the French and Indian War.
Among those pleasantly surprised by the bustling colonial port and its famous King's Arm Tavern was diarist Charlotte Brown, the widowed sister of a British officer, who described her meal there as ample and delicious when her ship arrived in Virginia about a month later.
The capital at Williamsburg pleased Braddock no better during the months he spent there waiting to launch his campaign.
He wrote scathingly of the governor's "folly" and the assembly's "roguery," then complained about his Virginia troops, "whose slothful and languid disposition renders them unfit for military service."
When he rejoined his encamped force near Alexandria in June, moreover, Braddock dismissed the advice of both Washington and Benjamin Franklin regarding the potential for Indian attacks on his badly exposed, 4-mile-long column.
"These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia," he wrote in a contemptuous reply to Franklin just before marching to the northwest.
"But upon the king's regulars and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression."
Nearly 1,000 redcoats were killed or wounded in the subsequent July 9 battle.
Braddock died four days later.
Yet despite the calamitous scale of the defeat, Washington's heroism in retreat planted the seeds of a military legend that -- nearly two decades later -- made him the foremost candidate for command of the Continental Army during the Revolution.
His own pride can be seen in a 1774 portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale, in which Washington donned his old French and Indian War uniform as a reminder of his prowess in battle.
Braddock's 1755 landing was commemorated by the Colonial Dames of America in 1916, when they erected a monument incorporating a Civil War-era Rodman gun, 38 cannonballs and a plaque off Victoria Street on the Hampton waterfront.
"Near this monument disembarked...Edward Braddock, major-general and commander-in-chief of all the British forces in America," it reads.
"His coming marked the the beginning of an important stage in the war which lost to France all her extended American possessions."
-- Mark St. John Erickson