On November 11, 1758, Brigadier General John Forbes convened a council of war at his headquarters in Fort Ligonier, about 40 miles east of the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne. His staff represented a distinguished collection of experienced and battle-hardened colonels. Sir John St. Clair, his deputy quartermaster general, was a veteran of Major General Edward Braddock’s ill-starred expedition to take Fort Duquesne in 1755. Swiss-born Henry Bouquet of the 60th Regiment of Foot (the Royal Americans) served as his second-in-command. Also present were Archibald Montgomery of the 77th Highland Regiment of Foot (Montgomery’s Highlanders); George Washington and William Byrd, commanding the two Virginia Regiments; and John Armstrong (the ‘Hero of Kittanning’), James Burd and Hugh Mercer of the Pennsylvania Regiment. With what was left of his 6,000-man army poised to strike at Fort Duquesne, and with winter about to trap his army in the Allegheny Mountains, Forbes had to decide whether to advance on the French fortress or to settle into winter quarters until the spring.
Rationally, the decision was an easy one. His troops, having struggled through the wilderness of central Pennsylvania, were poorly fed, sick and deserting in alarming numbers. Provisions were difficult to transport by way of the crude road cut through virgin forests and over the four wall-like ridges of the Alleghenies that lay between Ligonier and Forbes’ supply base in Carlisle; in winter they would be impossible to obtain. The number of hostile Indians encamped at Fort Duquesne was difficult to determine. Unclear, too, was the precise size of the French garrison. Moreover, even if the British and Americans reduced the fort, they were uncertain of holding it throughout the winter. In the laconic conclusion of Lt. Col. Bouquet, ‘The risks being so obviously greater than the advantages, there is no doubt as to the sole course that prudence dictates.’ Forbes and his officers agreed to delay the attack on Fort Duquesne until early the following year.
Within two weeks, however, the circumstances besetting Forbes’ army underwent so dramatic a change that his expedition would stand out, in the words of historian Lewis C. Walkinshaw, as ‘one of the greatest in American history.’ Appreciating this paradox may be counted among the essential challenges confronting scholars of the French and Indian War.
The campaign to seize Fort Duquesne had its origins in the French and British struggle for control of the fertile Ohio River valley. Erected at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers — the ‘Forks of the Ohio,’ site of today’s Pittsburgh — Fort Duquesne revealed its strategic importance soon after its construction. At Great Meadows, Lt. Col. George Washington’s attempt to secure a foothold for Virginia in western Pennsylvania was checked on July 4, 1754, when a French force based at Duquesne forced him to surrender the poorly situated Fort Necessity.
During the summer of 1755, a British expeditionary force commanded by General Braddock set out to seize Fort Duquesne. As nearly every schoolchild has learned since, Braddock’s army, advancing north along the Monongahela, was ambushed and routed, and its commanding officer mortally wounded on July 9. A disaster for Braddock’s combined colonial and royal army, the defeat also allowed the French and their Delaware and Shawnee allies to use Fort Duquesne as a base from which to raid with impunity the British settlements recently established on the western margin of the Susquehanna River.
British colonials on the Pennsylvania frontier panicked and began directing a stream of letters to Philadelphia, as well as to one another, recording the terror that swept through Cumberland and western York counties like a wildfire, and urging their provincial leaders to send soldiers and to build forts. Pennsylvania Governor Robert Hunter Morris could do little, however. Thwarted by a legislature that was dominated by the pacifist Quaker faction, he could not immediately obtain the militia and supply bills needed to meet the emergency. Morris did find a way around the assembly’s stubbornness, though. Invoking powers he enjoyed under royal charter, he raised volunteer units of militia known as ‘associated companies.’ He also initiated the building of a defensive chain of fortifications beginning at the Delaware River and running west and southwest to the Maryland border.
Notwithstanding Colonel John Armstrong’s destruction of the Delaware staging point of Kittanning in the autumn of 1756 — a great morale-booster to the people of the Pennsylvania frontier — the French and their allies continued to harass the frontier with lightning guerrilla raids. They also launched several well-organized military operations in the latter part of 1757 and early 1758. The British colonists soon reported ‘a large Body of Troops…with a Number of Waggons and a Train of Artillery,’ in the words of John Dagworthy, marching south along the Braddock road toward Fort Cumberland in Maryland. Even as they threatened the southern access into the Ohio Valley, the French also began advancing east along a northerly route from Forts Niagara and Duquesne toward Fort Augusta on the Susquehanna (today’s Sunbury), Pennsylvania’s most powerful frontier outpost. At one point, Colonel Conrad Weiser reported that the French had actually cut a road to within 10 miles of Augusta.
Late in 1758, the British finally countered with a grand strategy for reversing the tide. In a three-pronged offensive, they would attack the French at their stronghold in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia; drive them from the Champlain–Lake George valley of New York by taking Fort Carillon; and eliminate the small chain of forts extending south from Lake Erie to Fort Duquesne. To accomplish that third objective, the War Office appointed Brig. Gen. John Forbes to command a combined provincial and Regular British expeditionary force.
Instead of using the old Nemacolin Indian trail that ran west then northerly from Fort Cumberland in Maryland as Braddock’s army had done, Forbes decided to blaze a new trail to the west. Besides its association with his predecessor’s disastrous campaign, the old road required several river crossings over the treacherous Monongahela and Youghiogheny. Forbes wanted to take a shorter route, using only one easy crossing (of the Juniata), which could also give him easier access to Pennsylvania’s fertile eastern farmlands and its busy port.
Forbes did not completely abandon the old Braddock road, however, and even had work parties clearing and grading it. He believed that by not irretrievably rejecting the Braddock road, while simultaneously advancing on Duquesne over a route even he had not worked out completely, he would have a ready alternative route should he change his mind and keep the French uncertain of his movements, thus compelling them to widely disperse their reconnaissance elements. In this he succeeded, for by the time Duquesne’s commandant, Franois-Marie Le Marchal de Lignery (Ligneris), had obtained unambiguous intelligence regarding the route of Forbes’ advance, the British had virtually secured their foothold at Fort Ligonier.
Building his road involved Forbes in two significant difficulties. First, nobody was certain how to penetrate Pennsylvania’s largely uncharted western forests, nor where or how to clear an adequate way over four or five steep ridges of the Alleghenies that could carry not only 6,000 soldiers but also the continuous supply columns and wagons required to sustain that army.
Second, the Virginians, led by Colonel George Washington, did not want Pennsylvania to open a route into the Ohio territories, which both provinces claimed. Virginia’s own interests lay in repairing the Braddock road that already gave it direct access to the Forks of the Ohio. This resistance by Virginia burgeoned into a major dispute within Forbes’ command and threatened to undermine his campaign.
Before the new road could be cut, its route had to be determined. In 1755, Pennsylvania’s James Burd had already started to open a road part of the way in order to provide Braddock with supplies from eastern Pennsylvania. The older Burd road thus solved the problem of getting Forbes’ army from Shippensburg to a point somewhat west of Raystown (today’s Bedford). Forbes and his engineers decided to strike northwest from the point where Burd’s unfinished route turned southwest. The principal obstacle to determining how to proceed involved discovering suitable passes through the Allegheny and Laurel Ridges. A great deal of time was lost in reconnoitering a feasible route.
Forbes, however, was not content merely to survey and construct a new road. Determined to avoid Braddock’s mistakes, he carefully laid down a network of fortified supply depots and encampments along the new road within convenient distance of one another. In addition, therefore, to having some 1,000 men felling trees, moving boulders and crudely grading the roadbed, and to the hundreds standing guard against attack, he had to divert sorely needed manpower to erect and then garrison his storehouses and stockades.
Nature withheld its benediction of Forbes’ enterprise throughout that summer and fall of 1758, with one of the rainiest seasons in anyone’s memory. The road flooded repeatedly, its clay and rocky bed becoming impassable. Landslides blocked passage and torrents often washed away the road where it traversed the mountain passes. Great numbers of wagons, bearing between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds of supplies, simply became marooned; worse, the stumps and boulders left on the road destroyed them by the hundreds.
Never fed adequately, hundreds of soldiers became ill with respiratory and intestinal infections. Surviving letters reveal that many of Forbes’ officers became bedridden for long periods of time. Forbes himself was extremely ill throughout the campaign. In fact, Forbes, trained for a profession in medicine probably at the University of Edinburgh, realized he was a dying man (he survived until March 11, 1759). Although he identified his fatal disease as the ‘bloody flux,’ he seems to have suffered from more than one affliction. Blinded by migraines, dehydrated, brutally constipated, barely able to walk at times of severest attack, he could find no rest, nor could he get out of bed. One of the sad spectacles the soldiers often witnessed was that of their commanding officer being carried along the road in a litter slung between two horses as he struggled heroically to catch up with the advance companies, from Carlisle to Shippensburg, to Fort Loudon, to Fort Bedford, over the tortuous mountains, to Fort Ligonier on Loyalhanna Creek. Yet, even though he could not even write out his communiqués on certain days, his mind remained acute, his perseverance undiminished.
As if Forbes’ physical infirmities were not torment enough, there is strong indication in the extant documents that he had been virtually abandoned to his own resources by his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. James Abercromby, and the Crown’s agent for Indian affairs, northern district, Sir William Johnson. Still, Forbes refused to quit. As he wrote on October 25 to his second-in-command, Bouquet, ‘Whatever you and I may suffer in our minds, pray let us put the best face upon matters, and keep every body in Spirits.’
At least part of what Forbes alluded to in his phrase’suffer in our minds’ points to the demoralizing effects of the shortages and the rivalrous conflicts undermining his command structure. During the planning stage, moreover, the British sought participation by the southern Indians. Mortal enemies of the Iroquois, ‘protectors’ of the Shawnee and the Delaware, the Cherokees and Catawbas would provide Forbes with invaluable support in reconnaissance and guerrilla operations against the French and their own Indian allies. In May 1758, about 650 southern Indians had gathered at Winchester, Va., with 400 more expected. Unfortunately for Forbes and his staff, he noted that the Cherokees and Catawbas came ‘almost naked, and without arms.’ They required provisioning and a constant supply of gifts. Accordingly, an enormous sum of 8,000 pounds was allotted to keeping Forbes’ Indian allies equipped and content. They also required activities to sustain their interest, having little patience with the slow, meticulous advance executed by Forbes.
By June, the southern Indian allies had begun deserting in large numbers. Forbes himself wrote Abercromby that ‘wee shall not be able to keep the Cherokees notwithstanding all the pains and expenses that they have cost us.’ All but about 160 had abandoned the army by July. To make matters worse, word came back to Forbes that the bored Cherokees encamped in Virginia had started attacking and scalping the settlers.
As the Indians continued to desert and became more difficult to manage, Forbes complained to Bouquet about their ‘bullying’ behavior and ‘most sordid and avaritious [sic] demands.’ Bouquet, who had to deal with them directly and daily, summarized what must surely have been the army’s prevailing feeling: ‘Our Indians are rascals who are worth neither the trouble nor the expense they have cost.’
Of more serious concern was the composition of Forbes’ 6,000-man force, a polyglot collection of competing ethnic and political interests. The principal British contingent was the 77th Highland Regiment of Foot, Montgomery’s Highlanders. To this were added several companies of the 60th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Americans, whose ranks consisted mainly of Germans from the middle colonies and whose officers included European, some British, but mostly Swiss German and Swiss French. The 60th was commanded by Colonel Bouquet, a professional soldier from Switzerland who, in 1763, would win a two-day battle at Bushy Run and go on to suppress the bloody war initiated by Chief Pontiac.
Although several other smaller units from Maryland and the Carolinas participated, the principal provincial contribution came in the form of three battalions of the Pennsylvania Regiment, who were mostly Scots-Irish, and the two Virginia Regiments commanded by William Byrd and George Washington. Although the Pennsylvania Regiment was riddled by contentiousness, desertion, some drunkenness, and other behavior Bouquet and Forbes often regarded as unprofessional, the Virginians — Washington, particularly — at times actively conspired against Forbes’ decision to open the new road. That involved actions and attitudes beyond mere foot-dragging, even to the point of trying to get rid of the general himself.
Several of Washington’s letters reveal his anger over Forbes’ and Bouquet’s refusal to yield to his incessant arguments — he had converted Deputy Quartermaster General Sir John St. Clair — but none speaks so unambiguously as his September 1 communication to John Robinson. In it, Washington complained of how ‘our time has been misspent.’ He wondered whether Forbes could actually ‘have Orders for this,’ and then answered his own question: ‘Impossible.’ If necessary, Washington wrote, he would journey with the upcoming Virginia mission to England, there to apprise the king ‘how grossly his [Honor] and the Publick money have been prostituted.’ Not mincing words, he concluded that he ‘could set the Conduct of the Expedition in its true colours, having taken some pains, perhaps more than any other to dive into the bottom of it.’
When he discovered that Washington was engaged in an effort behind his back to have him declared unfit for command, Forbes was understandably furious. Notwithstanding his anger, though, he saw Washington’s plot for what it was, a maneuver to advance Virginia’s claim to the western territory and to prevent Pennsylvania from asserting its own. Writing to Bouquet, he remarked on ‘a very unguarded letter of Col. Washington’s’ that had fallen into his hands, one that allowed him to see to ‘the bottom of their Scheme against this new road, A Scheme that I think was a shame for any officer to be Concerned in.’ Those were hard words for the future commander in chief of the United States.
Washington evidently attempted to learn from his indiscretion. Though he continued to exult in the expedition’s imminent failure because Forbes ignored his arguments for using the Braddock road, evidence suggests that he executed his orders with professional diligence.
As if forging his disparate, rivalrous, often openly factious international army into a unified force were not enough, Forbes had another problem. His fellow Scot, St. Clair, was apparently incapable of getting along with anyone. Although his position as deputy quartermaster general did not fall within the military command structure — St. Clair was only a lieutenant colonel on loan from the Royal Americans — he was the man who fed, armed and clothed the army. He had, moreover, to deal with widespread corruption, avarice, stingy provincial legislatures, pervasive British bureaucratic inefficiency; with farmers who did not want to supply their wagons and horses to men who would probably never return them; and with roads and passes that washed out, disappeared, and destroyed his precious wagons. A man of short temper and no tact, St. Clair antagonized everyone — farmers, bureaucrats and fellow soldiers alike.
Although he had indeed gained valuable experience as deputy quartermaster general under Braddock, St. Clair’s contentiousness originally inclined Forbes to prefer another man to oversee logistics and provisioning. St. Clair, however, was well-connected and received the commission. His objections overridden, Forbes remained guarded in his written complaints about St. Clair. ‘He is a very odd Man,’ he allowed to Bouquet in one letter, ‘and I am sorry it has been my fate to have any concern with him. But more of this hereafter’ — that is, more on Sir John when he might enlarge on his feelings without committing himself to writing.
Apparently dissatisfied with his highly important position in supply, St. Clair insisted that his title’s final emphasis on ‘general’ conferred upon him the rank of Forbes’ second-in-command. Repeatedly, St. Clair meddled in the army’s military affairs and operations. In one astonishing instance, he brought the expedition to a standstill by having Virginia Lt. Col. Adam Stephen placed under arrest for insubordination to his presumed authority to command.
With the campaign’s success precariously dependent upon the efforts of its deputy quartermaster general, it took all of Forbes’ and Bouquet’s self-control and diplomacy not to dismiss St. Clair altogether. ‘I am not So thoroughly informed of all the Rules of the English army as to take upon me to determine the Extent of your Power as a Q[uarter] M[aster] G[eneral],’ Bouquet wrote St. Clair with dry ascerbicy. ‘But I know that in all other Services, They have no right to command as such: You do not act in this Expedition as Colonel, but as Q.M.G. only.’ Without countermanding the temperamental St. Clair openly, Bouquet and Forbes found ways of tacitly treating Colonel Stephen as though he still exercised his commission.
That the entire command teetered on the edge of disaster was emphasized by a significant military reversal. As the army inched closer to the Forks of the Ohio, Forbes and Bouquet desperately required concrete intelligence concerning exact distances to the fort, the extent and state of its fortifications, the morale of its garrison, and the number of Shawnees and Delawares encamped about the stockade. At the head of about 800 men, Major James Grant was sent to reconnoiter Fort Duquesne and its environs. Instead of strictly following his orders to conduct his reconnaissance in secret, however, Grant split his force in two, then baited the French by literally beating his drums. The French obliged. Marching out of Duquesne on September 14, they destroyed Grant’s forces in pitched battle, killing and capturing hundreds.
By November, it had become fairly evident that the British could not hope to reduce Fort Duquesne before the winter set in. Forbes and his staff concluded as much at the war council held on the 11th of that month. The next day, the French again attacked, this time nearer the main British base camp at Ligonier, and though they were driven back, events occurred that in a way epitomized how lost Forbes’ army had become.
The French struck at advance positions commanded by Colonel Washington. Military records of this skirmish are remarkably few and terse, but more details appeared in an anonymous account in the November 30, 1758, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The writer reported that during the engagement another element of Forbes’ army, hearing the attack, hurried through the dusk to Washington’s assistance. But they were soon fired upon by the very soldiers they had come to assist. Before the confusion was sorted out, some 14 Virginians had been killed by friendly fire. Much later, in 1818, William Findley set down a recollection of Washington’s own account, told to him years earlier. Findley wrote that ‘the parties met in the dark and fired upon each other till they killed thirty of their own number; nor could they be stopped till he [Washington] had to go in between the fires and threw up the muzzles of their guns with his sword.’ Two units of Forbes’ army shooting at each other by night on the shores of the Loyalhanna must have brought Forbes’ expedition to its nadir. Stalled at the boundary between the wilderness and civilization, the British resigned themselves to a depressing and possibly fatal delay, within marching distance of their ultimate goal. Yet, at that darkest moment, everything turned around.
During the French attack, the British had taken several prisoners who revealed that the French soldiers at Duquesne were extremely weak, hardly fit to defend the fort. The French had drastically reduced the garrison; their Delaware and Shawnee allies were leaving. Provisions were almost gone — in fact, the British later discovered that the French had begun eating their horses. The defending garrison was actually far worse off than the attacking army.
How had the French at Duquesne, recently powerful enough to launch, if not execute, two expeditions, against Fort Cumberland in Maryland and Fort Augusta in Pennsylvania, come to this pass? Generally speaking, they lacked the resources — great numbers of men and great quantities of materiel — that the British could rely on. Add the fact that their outposts were situated too far from their sources of supply, and the advantage they had won and come to enjoy became precarious indeed. Nova Scotian Lt. Col. John Bradstreet of the Royal Americans demonstrated how vulnerable Duquesne’s supply line was on August 27, 1758. On that date, he captured the principal French supply depot at Fort Frontenac (Cadaraqui) on Lake Ontario and destroyed vast amounts of provisions destined for Forts Niagara, Detroit and Duquesne, together with the boats that were to deliver them.
Cut off completely from Québec and Montréal, Commandant Lignery also lost the diplomatic war being waged to obtain and preserve Indian support. By means of Forbes’ behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the Philadelphia Quakers to obtain the crucial Treaty of Easton (October 1758), and through the heroic efforts of the Moravian missionary Christian Frederick Post, who negotiated with the Indians virtually within the shadow of Fort Duquesne, the formerly hostile Delawares and Shawnees had agreed to make peace with the British and began returning to their homes.
Immediately upon hearing the new intelligence regarding the French weaknesses, Forbes ordered units of the Pennsylvania Regiment, 1,000 strong and commanded by Colonel Armstrong, to march on Duquesne the next day. A few days later, he followed with the main body of the army, 4,300 effective men.
With his garrison starving and his Indian allies deserting, Lignery had no choice but to send his French militia back to Illinois and Louisiana. After obtaining undisputable evidence that Forbes’ army was resolutely marching on his remaining garrison of about 400 men, he decided to cut his losses and retreat, after destroying what he could. On November 24, scouts brought news to Forbes’ advance road cutters that Fort Duquesne was on fire. The army heard a tremendous explosion about midnight.
On the following morning, the entire force advanced along the trail, where they discovered the corpses of those killed at Grant’s defeat. They also saw with horror and rage the corpses of numerous captured comrades fastened on stakes, where they had been tortured and murdered –‘so many Monuments of French Humanity,’ in the words of one writer.
That day, Forbes’ expeditionary force took possession of the Forks of the Ohio and renamed the burned stronghold after British Prime Minister William Pitt. The same men who had only days earlier perceived themselves trapped, as it were, just below the summit of their goal now experienced jubilation that admitted almost no limits. They had suffered, but they had persevered and had been rewarded, as if by the gift of grace. Several letters announcing the investment of Duquesne expressed the army’s elation, but none so unequivocally as an anonymous notice that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette: ‘….Blessed be God, the long look’d for Day is arrived, that has now fixed us on the Banks of the Ohio! with great Propriety called La Belle Riviere….These Advantages have been procured for us by the Prudence and Abilities of General FORBES, without Stroke of Sword….The Difficulties he had to struggle with were great. To maintain Armies in a Wilderness, Hundreds of Miles from the Settlements; to march them by untrodden Paths, over almost impassable Mountains, thro’ thick Woods and dangerous Defiles, required both Foresight and Experience…consider…his long and dangerous Sickness, under which a Man of less Spirits must have sunk; and the advanced Season, which would have deterred a less determined Leader, and think that he has surmounted all these Difficulties, that he has conquered all this Country, has driven the French from the Ohio, and obliged them to blow up their Fort….Thanks to Heaven, their Reign on this Continent promises no long Duration!’
In the surviving written record of the Forbes campaign — in the Pennsylvania and Virginia archives, and particularly in the letters of officers Forbes, Bouquet and Washington — present-day scholars can detect intimations that the new way west was, if only subconsciously, often viewed as something other than merely a military road. It led toward the setting sun, backward in time, into barbarism and a wilderness where no other roads existed and where the blood-edged tomahawk reigned supreme. At times, the march invited comparison with Biblical and classical descriptions of hell, as it certainly did for Colonel Stephen when he wrote, ‘a dismal place! [it] wants only a Cerebus to represent Virgil’s gloomy description of Aeneas’ entering the Infernal Regions.’
Yet, this transit through nightmare, despair and the dark night of the soul was an essential prelude to the miraculous reversal. Snaking its way slowly through a gloomy, forsaken no man’s land, Forbes’ army finally ascended, in the words of the anonymous report to the Pennsylvania Gazette, into ‘the finest and most fertile Country of America, lying in the happiest Climate in the Universe,’ a vast fabled garden watered by the fairest and loveliest of all rivers — La Belle Riviére.
In its own unwitting way, the Forbes expedition of 1758 anticipated in miniature the myth inspiring the pioneers’ movement westward as they struggled, blindly at times, to take possession of the North American continent.
This article was written by James P. Myers and originally published in the December 2001 issue of Military History. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!