How Ben Franklin Became a Colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia
Franklin statue image via Shutterstock
In the 1750s and 60s, Great Britain and France waged war in North America for colonial domination of the continent. Known as the French and Indian War, this American theater was just one part of the larger Seven Years War, which also involved most of the other great European powers of the era.
Benjamin Franklin was a colonial Postmaster General and a member of the Committee of Defense under the Pennsylvania Assembly at the time. At the Albany Congress, Franklin had proposed a plan for bringing the colonies together under some form of central authority. The plan was adopted by the congress, but rejected by colonial governments who feared it would lessen their power.
Instead, as Franklin lamented, “The British government, not choosing to permit the union of the colonies as proposed at Albany, and to trust that union with their defense, lest they should thereby grow too military, and feel their own strength, suspicions and jealousies at this time being entertained of them, sent over General [Edward] Braddock with two regiments of regular English troops for that purpose.”
Franklin was unsure of Braddock, whom he believed “might probably have made a figure as a good officer in some European war,” but was overconfident, and had too high an opinion of the British troops, and too low a one of both the American colonists and their Native American foes. When the two men met, Braddock explained his plans to take the French Fort Duquesne. Franklin cautioned the general that the Indians they were fighting against were “well practiced in ambush,” and one road to the fort in particular “may expose [the army] to be attacked by surprise in its flanks, and to be cut like a thread into several pieces.”
Braddock waved off Franklin’s concerns, saying, “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.” Franklin didn’t want to argue with a general in the area of his expertise, and didn’t push the matter.
Told ya so.
Sure enough, Braddock’s army was soon ambushed by Indians during its march to Duquesne in July, 1755. The troops panicked, and many fled, leaving their provisions and equipment to fall into enemy hands. All told, 714 soldiers were killed and 63 officers were killed or wounded, including Braddock, who was shot in the chest and died a few days later. The soldiers who escaped found their way to Colonel Thomas Dunbar’s camp, and their fear spread through the rest of the army. Dunbar ordered their equipment and provisions destroyed to free up the horses for a quick retreat to the safety of Philadelphia.
“This whole transaction gave us Americans the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British regulars had not been well founded,” wrote Franklin.
With their British protectors in disarray, and the French’s Indian allies attacking settlers throughout the colony, killing and imprisoning hundreds, the colonial government of Pennsylvania saw no choice but to take their defense into their own hands.
The Pennsylvania Assembly passed bills that established, disciplined and funded a voluntary militia. The new militia needed leadership, and the colonial governor asked Franklin to take charge of some troops to bulk up defenses in the northwestern regions of the colony by raising troops and building a line of forts.
“I undertook this military business, tho' I did not conceive myself well qualified for it,” Franklin wrote. “My son, who had in the preceding war been an officer in the army raised against Canada, was my aid-de-camp, and of great use to me.”
Franklin’s militia marched to Gnadenhütten, a Moravian mission (in what is now Carbon County) that had been attacked by Indians, to build a fort there and provide some protection for the Lehigh Valley area. He was careful not to repeat Braddock’s mistakes and positioned flankers out on his sides and scouts in front to keep an eye out for ambushes. Upon arriving at the ransacked settlement, Franklin’s men quickly began chopping down trees to build defenses. “…our men being dextrous in the use of [axes], great dispatch was made,” Franklin wrote. “Seeing the trees fall so fast, I had the curiosity to look at my watch when two men began to cut at a pine; in six minutes they had it upon the ground.”
“We had one swivel gun, which we mounted on one of the angles, and fired it as soon as fixed, to let the Indians know, if any were within hearing, that we had such pieces; and thus our fort, if such a magnificent name may be given to so miserable a stockade, was finish'd in a week, though it rain'd so hard every other day that the men could not work.”
Franklin soon got a letter from the governor, asking him to attend a meeting of the Assembly. On his way back to Philadelphia, he spent a few days in Bethlehem to rest and recover from the campaign. “The first night, being in a good bed, I could hardly sleep,” he wrote. “It was so different from my hard lodging on the floor of our hut at Gnaden wrapped only in a blanket or two.”
After he arrived in Philadelphia, Franklin was given command of a new regiment. When he needed to go to Virginia on business of the Postmaster General, some of his officers decided they should escort him out of town.
“Just as I was getting on horseback they came to my door, between thirty and forty, mounted, and all in their uniforms,” Franklin wrote. “I had not been previously acquainted with the project, or I should have prevented it, being naturally averse to the assuming of state on any occasion; and I was a good deal chagrined at their appearance, as I could not avoid their accompanying me. What made it worse was, that, as soon as we began to move, they drew their swords and rode with them naked all the way.”
Somebody tipped off the colonial Proprietor, Thomas Penn, about the incident and he took great offense. “No such honor had been paid him when in the province, nor to any of his governors; and he said it was only proper to princes of the blood royal, which may be true for aught I know, who was, and still am, ignorant of the etiquette in such cases,” Franklin wrote.
Franklin had sparred with the Penn family before, having proposed in the Assembly to end the tax exemption of their estate, and his military escort appears to have been too much for Thomas to bear.
“He accused me to the ministry as being the great obstacle to the king's service,” Franklin wrote. “And he instanced this parade with my officers as a proof of my having an intention to take the government of the province out of his hands by force.”
Franklin lost his militia commission and the title of Colonel when the British passed a law removing his honors, but he continued to work on ways to keep the colonial troops well-supplied for a while.
But the Pennsylvania Assembly, fed up with Penn, soon had a new task for Franklin. In 1757, he was sent to London to act as the Assembly’s agent in protesting against the Penn family’s political influence, and as a general representative for their interests in England. He was largely unsuccessful in battling the Penns, but would return to the colonies in a few years to play a less martial role in the American Revolution.