|This Week in History
November 22-28, 1758
General Forbes and Colonel Washington Capture Fort Duquesne from the French
On November 25, 1758, the American goal of recapturing France's Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio River became a reality. The terrible defeat of Gen. Edward Braddock's expedition in 1755, as it marched to attack the fort, had postponed any immediate return to the future site of Pittsburgh. As the French and Indian War raged in America, the Seven Years War in Europe saw Britain's East India Company fighting France for control of a worldwide empire. But in the beginning years of that war, Britain suffered defeat after defeat, and the French hurled their Indian allies against the American frontier with impunity.
George Washington, who had assumed command of the Virginia Militia on the frontier, established a chain of forts up and down the Shenandoah Valley, but Indian raids directed by the French had pushed the majority of American settlers back across the Blue Ridge in the aftermath of Braddock's defeat. Those who stayed clustered around Washington's forts for protection, and members of the militia camped and drilled at Greenway Court, the residence of Lord Thomas Fairfax, who had also refused to seek the safety of the Tidewater.
The command of all the British troops in North America was held by John Campbell, the Earl of Loudoun. Not known for bravery or competence, the Earl was described by Benjamin Franklin as a man "entirely made up of indecision. Like St. George on the signs, he was always on horseback, but never rode on." In 1757, George Washington travelled to Philadelphia to meet with Lord Loudoun about the desperate condition of the defenses on the Virginia frontier. Washington proposed that the British and Americans take the offensive by attacking Fort Duquesne while the French were busy fending off a multi-pronged British attack on Canada. Loudoun turned him down, insisting that the middle and southern colonies were to maintain only a defensive position.
That same year, however, William Pitt took over the British government and determined to add France's American possessions to the British Empire, just as France's outposts in India were also being captured by Britain. As a result, Gen. John Forbes was dispatched to command a second expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. Many Americans, especially Washington and Franklin, saw in this an opportunity not only to end the Indian raids on the frontier, but at last to break beyond the Appalachian Mountains and settle the future Midwest. Britain, too, was well aware that her possible victory over France could lead to an attempt for independence by her colonies, and there were factions inside and outside Parliament which warned of this result.
But the investors in Britain's East India Company were eager for the looting opportunities which an empire provided, and they backed the conflict to the hilt. Forbes was a brave and efficient soldier, and he had studied Braddock's letters back to England as well as the tactics of the fatal battle on the Monongahela. Braddock's description of the difficulties posed by his thickly wooded and mountainous route convinced Forbes that he should build a new road straight west through Pennsylvania. Forbes also decided to build a series of fortified supply posts along the way, so that he would be able to retreat to them in case of a defeat, yet still be able to mount an attack at another time.
Washington opposed building another road when one already existed, especially since the time taken to build it could delay the attack until the next year. As commander of the First Virginia Militia, he and his troops were deployed to repair Braddock's Road, but this was only a feint to confuse the French. Meanwhile, the troops under Forbes built a new road to Raystown, Pa. (the present Bedford), where they built a rear base consisting of a fort, storehouses, and a hospital. When Washington's troops reached Fort Cumberland on Braddock's Road, they were commanded to move north and join Forbes at Raystown.
Meanwhile, at Fort Duquesne, the new French commander, Marchand de Ligneris, suffered from lack of supplies and dwindling troops. The projected new British attacks on Canada made Montreal nervous about reinforcing the western posts, while the activities of the British Navy off the entrance to the St. Lawrence River made resupply of Canada difficult. Fort Duquesne now relied on the French posts to the west, such as Detroit, Michilimackinac, and especially the Illinois settlements for the delivery of food supplies and troop reinforcements.
But de Ligneris had served for 20 years on the frontier, and he was not about to give up without a fight, even though he had orders to abandon the fort if the British and Americans reached it. He sent out parties to scout both Washington's and Forbes's progress, and when he heard the Cherokees were fighting for the English, he raided their villages in North Carolina, trying to draw them back south and out of the impending battle. The progress on the Pennsylvania road was so agonizingly slowit almost ground to a halt at Laurel Hillthat Forbes's second-in-command, Col. Henry Bouquet, sent forward a contingent of 1,000 men through the dense forest to Loyalhanna, only 40 miles from Fort Duquesne. Now de Ligneris knew from which direction the threat was coming, and he hurled hit-and-run attacks against the soldiers, trying to delay them until the snow fell and forced them into winter quarters.
The repeated Indian attacks drove the British soldiers into a panic, and Bouquet saw that something had to be done immediately. He authorized Maj. James Grant to take a force of 800 men on a night raid of Fort Duquesne. The result almost brought the British to a repeat of Braddock's defeat. Only a small contingent of Virginians from Washington's regiment kept the rout from becoming another full-scale massacre. And this time, the survivors had a base at Loyalhanna that they could retreat to.
During the planning stage of the expedition, Washington had written to Forbes requesting that his Virginia Militia be deployed as a body of light troops in the advance guard. One of the lessons he had learned from the circumstances of Braddock's defeat was that such an expedition into the wilderness needed a large advance and flanking party which could give early warning of Indian attacks.
Washington had written that, "If any argument is needed to obtain this favor, I hope, without vanity, I may be allowed to say, that from long intimacy with these woods, and frequent scouting in them, my men are at least as well acquainted with all the passes and difficulties as any troops that will be employed." Now, after the attacks at Loyalhanna and the disastrous night raid, Washington was given the command of a division, partly composed of his Virginia militia, to act as the advance of the main body of troops, to clear the road, send out scouting parties, and repel any Indian attacks.
When all the troops were assembled at Loyalhanna, a council of war determined that it was impracticable to advance further due to the lateness of the season. The delaying tactics of de Ligneris were about to bear fruit, when prisoners who were brought in described the weakened state of the garrison at Fort Duquesne. The council reversed itself and decided to press on, without baggage, and with only light artillery.
With Washington's division in the lead, the army proceeded cautiously, passing first the whitened bones of Braddock's soldiers and then the bodies of Grant's troops. When Washington's advance guard reached Fort Duquesne on Nov. 25, they found it abandoned by the French. When he knew the British Army was within one day's march, de Ligneris had embarked his troops on boats, blew up his powder magazine, set fire to the fort, and retreated down the Ohio River by the light of the flames.
British military successes in Canada led finally to its surrender by the French. But the end of the French and Indian War did not lead to the hoped-for settlement of the Ohio Valley by the Americans. No sooner was the Treaty of Paris signed, than an Indian named Pontiac united the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes tribes to attack all the British frontier posts, and all but two fell. To protect his "beloved" American subjects from this convenient conflict, King George decreed that no American was allowed to cross and settle beyond the mountains.
The French, knowing that Britain's victory had been a fatal triumph, began to send intelligence agents to North America to determine the mood and plans of the Americans. The Compte de Vergennes, who was to play a pivotal role in supplying the Continental Army with munitions through Beaumarchais, and in negotiating the peace settlement which would grant America her independence, was at this time the French Ambassador to Constantinople. He wrote then that the British conquest of Canada would remove the threat of French-sponsored Indian attacks which had kept the Americans east of the mountains. "They will no longer need her protection; she will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her, and they will answer by striking off all dependence."