New museum charts Braddock's defeat


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The Battle of the Monongahela, in which French and Indians rained musket fire on British soldiers and killed Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock, lasted three hours on July 9, 1755.

The battle to build a museum dedicated to this major military engagement lasted 17 years and was waged by a lone lawyer from Blackridge, who volunteered all of his time and energy. Braddock's Battlefield History Center at 609 Sixth St. in North Braddock opens to the public today.


Braddock's Battlefield History Center
  • Where: 609 Sixth St., North Braddock.
  • Hours: The museum will open today. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Tuesdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Also by appointment. Call 412-651-1793.
  • Admission: Admission is $5 for adults and seniors and $2.50 for ages 6 to 15. Children who are 6 and under are admitted for free.

The new, 5,000-square foot museum represents a decisive victory for Robert T. Messner, a self-taught historian and retired general counsel for Dollar Bank. His tactical arsenal included a willingness to learn about every facet of the battle of the French and Indian War, a dogged effort to collect 250 artifacts and 50 artworks, and the ability to see how a former auto dealership, overgrown with giant weeds, could be transformed into a museum.

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Martin West, a historian who served for 30 years as the executive director of Fort Ligonier, recently toured the new museum.

"I was genuinely impressed by what I saw. It's very professional. Many observers thought that trying to accomplish a visitors center in Braddock was an impossible task. He proved everyone wrong."

Best of all, Mr. West added, the museum occupies land where 250 French soldiers and 600 of their Indian allies, who had rushed from the Point to defend the French-controlled Fort Duquesne, encountered the British forces' advance guard.

"Both sides were surprised to see one another. It's a classic meeting encounter. I emphasize that because people will always ask, 'Is this real?' " Mr. West said.

Braddock's Battlefield History Center is on a 3-acre, pie-shaped parcel that includes the former Clark Pontiac building. Exhibits show how France and Britain fought to win control of North America and its vast resources from 1754 until 1763. Displays include Capt. Robert Stobo's detailed map of Fort Duquesne, which he drew while he was a prisoner of war; a detailed diagram of the musket used in that era by Kit Ravenshear; and excellent Howard Pyle illustrations of the battle that appeared in Scribner's magazine.

There are historically accurate scenes painted by local artists Robert Griffing and John Buxton plus 250 artifacts found on the battlefield. Examples include a sharp spontoon that served as a weapon and a Russian medal that bears the image of Empress Anna Ivanova.

"Many of the soldiers who fought on the British or French side had fought all over Europe," Mr. Messner said, adding that the Russian medal may have belonged to the surgeon general of Braddock's expedition.

Before Braddock met his Waterloo in the wilderness, he conferred with Benjamin Franklin in Frederick, Md. Franklin supplied the expedition with 50 wagons and 500 horses and tried to warn the overconfident Braddock about the fighting prowess of Native American warriors. Braddock insisted his troops were ready for anything.

Later, while writing his classic autobiography, Franklin noted that Braddock's defeat showed American Colonists that guerrilla warfare might be an effective tactic in defeating the British army. He wrote:

"This whole transaction gave us Americans the first Suspicion that our exalted Ideal of the Prowess of British regulars had not been well founded," thus sowing the seeds of the American Revolution.

Several soldiers who participated in the Battle of the Monongahela served later in the American Revolution. A young George Washington had been rebuffed by the French at Fort LeBoeuf, outmaneuvered in a skirmish at Jumonville Glen, and defeated by the French and Indians at Fort Necessity.

At the Battle of the Monongahela, Washington began to acquire an aura of invincibility. Bullets pierced his hat and clothing and a horse was shot out from under him. Although weak with dysentery, he survived. As Braddock lay dying, he gave the young soldier, who was his aide, his blood-soaked sash.

"Braddock's defeat shocked the 13 Colonies and Great Britain that a handful of French and native warriors could defeat this powerful British army," Mr. West said.

The idea of establishing a museum occurred to Mr. Messner one afternoon in 1995 while he looked across the Monongahela River and tried to envision Braddock's 2,200 men, dressed in wool uniforms, wading through 10 feet of water on a hot summer day.

"They wanted to cross where Turtle Creek enters the Mon, where John Fraser had his trading cabin," Mr. Messner said. "Most people want to figure out where things happened. The logistics of what happened here blow your mind."

On their way to the Point, known as the Forks of the Ohio, Braddock's men had marched to Pennsylvania all the way from Alexandria, Va. Out in front of them was an advance team of 200, ax-wielding men, who cut a 12-foot wide road through the wilderness.

Besides his single-minded vision, Mr. Messner's secret weapon was prevailing upon the generosity of local foundations, including USX, Colcom, McCune, G.C. Murphy and Richard King Mellon.

Work on renovating the auto dealership began last September, cost $600,000 and was done by Repal Construction of North Huntingdon. Tom Stevenson, a retired architect from Landmarks Design Associates, oversaw the renovation.

Initially, Mr. Messner established a temporary museum on the second floor of the Carnegie Library in Braddock. Now that the majority of those artifacts are in the new museum, he plans to organize a board, train a corps of knowledgeable volunteers to staff the museum and find a tenant for 7,500 square feet of space that once served as a maintenance area for cars.

He hopes that rental income, along with admissions, showings of movies about the French and Indian War and bookshop sales will help sustain the museum. Someday, he envisions that the three acres of land the museum occupies will become a park with signage that explains key players and locations in the Battle of the Monongahela.

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published August 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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