Military history


Loudoun’s Offensive


LORD LOUDOUN had been pleased to learn that Pitt supported an all-out war in the colonies, though he doubtless found it disquieting that the minister showed so much eagerness to intervene in the planning of his campaign for 1757. Loudoun had initially intended to send regulars to Pennsylvania and South Carolina to strengthen their defenses, but otherwise to defend the colonial frontier with provincials. His redcoats he would use in a single daring offensive against Québec. When word of Pitt’s plans for the campaign of 1757 arrived at Loudoun’s headquarters, however, he discovered that the minister wanted him first to attack Louisbourg and only then to proceed against the Canadian heartland via the St. Lawrence—a plan with strategic merit, but one that inevitably left the New York–New England frontier exposed to raids, or even invasion, from Canada. Good soldier that he was, Loudoun proceeded according to orders, swallowing his reservations along with whatever resentment he felt at Pitt’s intrusion into his operational planning. Since Pitt had promised a reinforcement of eight thousand regulars for the coming campaign, and since he was making it a point for Loudoun “to be refused nothing,” the commander in chief may not have thought the bargain an especially bad one. Moreover, he believed that his efforts in reforming colonial affairs would contribute to the success of the 1757 campaign, no matter whether its immediate goal was Louisbourg or Québec.1

Loudoun had spent the whole fall of 1756 and much of the ensuing winter trying to impose order on the American war effort. In September and October he concentrated on rationalizing the supply system, introducing efficiency and economy into what had been a notoriously complex and (he believed) corrupt operation. With centralized storehouses at New York, Albany, and Halifax, and with a vigilant commissary of stores working to inspect the victuals for wholesomeness, Loudoun’s new system guaranteed that adequate stocks of equipment, clothing, and provisions would be available to regulars and provincials alike, for the first time in the war.2

Significant as they were, however, Loudoun knew that improvements in procurement, storage, and inventory control would be meaningless without a reliable means of moving the supplies to the forts and troops that needed them. Thus he decided to retain the services of John Bradstreet and his corps of armed bateaumen, despite Bradstreet’s close ties to the detested Shirley. In consultation with Bradstreet, Loudoun undertook the measures without which no successful campaign could ever be mounted against the French, widening roads and improving portages, creating an army wagon train to supplement the services of the expensive and often unreliable civilian wagoners, building standardized supply bateaux and scows, and constructing way stations to shelter supplies and men in transit from station to station. The fall in the cost of moving supplies offers the best index of Loudoun’s success in improving the efficiency of the transport system. In 1756 it had cost nearly sixpence a mile to move a two-hundredweight barrel of beef from Albany to Lake George, which meant that the army was spending more than half the value of the beef itself to carry it sixty miles. By the end of 1757, the same barrel could be transported over the same route for less than twopence a mile.3

Loudoun undertook these reforms to lessen his reliance on Americans, whom he found untrustworthy as well as ungrateful. He followed the same course in dealing with provincial troops, requesting for the campaigns of 1757 less than half the number that had served in 1756. Loudoun also hoped to establish control over the contract-minded soldiers of New England and their rank-conscious officers by changing the method of recruitment. Whereas in the past each province had supplied what amounted to a small complete army, now Loudoun asked the colonies to provide troops in standardized, hundred-man companies, with only one field officer per province ranking above the company commanders. These provincial companies were to be integrated into campaign forces and garrisons under redcoat command.

In this way Loudoun expected to solve the two most intractable problems of 1756. No man could now maintain that his enlistment contract exempted him from joint service with the redcoats, and thus from redcoat discipline; and the commissioning of a single colonel from each province would minimize disputes between provincial and regular field officers over rank and precedence. Although he could not escape using Americans altogether, Loudoun’s clear preference was to use them on his own terms. Even the colonial backwoodsmen who made up the the army’s ranger companies were, in Loudoun’s eyes, temporary substitutes for regulars. Although the unwillingness of most Indians to serve as scouts for the British left him with no choice but to use Americans, Loudoun encouraged junior officers to accompany the rangers on their patrols to learn woodcraft and bush-fighting techniques. Within a year or so, he hoped to be able to form ranging companies under the command of these officers, within regular regiments. Then he would be free to dissolve the troublesome, expensive, undisciplinable American ranger units.4

Loudoun’s reforms and his plan for 1757 reflected his disappointments in 1756 and seemed likely to solve the problems that had hobbled that year’s misbegotten campaigns. Quartering remained a difficult issue— Loudoun’s legal position was as weak as his men’s need for housing was desperate—but progress seemed likely to result from Pitt’s willingness to introduce a bill authorizing the billeting of troops in American private homes. Until such a measure could be secured, Loudoun contented himself with his usual tactic of threatening to take quarters by force, a system that effectively produced colonial cooperation, if not goodwill. After a trial of strength between the commander in chief and the mayor and town council of New York late in 1756, the provincial assembly agreed to build a barracks on Manhattan to house the first battalion of the Royal American Regiment. At about that same time, Philadelphia’s city government and the Pennsylvania war commissioners were knuckling under to Loudoun’s threats and making the new provincial hospital available as a barracks for the regiment’s second battalion; in 1758 the Pennsylvania assembly would follow New York’s example and build permanent accommodations.5

So developed what Loudoun came to recognize as a common pattern of requisition, refusal, threat, and (finally) submission: informal ways of dealing with the colonists, perhaps, and not altogether legal ones, but methods that nonetheless produced the effect he desired. “I have taken these measures,” he had explained to Fox, “because they appear to me right, and . . . I hope they will appear to You in the same light[.] If they do not, I shall alter them whenever I receive directions to do so; but I do expect to get through, for the People in this Country, tho’ they are very obstinate, will generally submit when they see You [are] determined.” 6 If Loudoun realized that his tactics of force and the casualness of his concern for the law were alienating the colonists, he did not show it. Winning the war, not coddling Americans, was his concern. Besides that, he harbored no particular animus toward colonists per se: he coerced anyone who differed with him, with complete impartiality. Governors who, hoping to preserve amiable relations with their assemblies, hesitated to comply with his requisitions were the first to feel the lash.

Loudoun’s conviction that the colonists were incapable of selfsacrifice and his determination to bring the colonies into line by whatever means necessary manifested itself in another initiative that, like quartering, produced short-run results at the cost of eroding colonial affections. This was the instruction that Loudoun issued to the governors in early March 1757, to lay an embargo on all trade from their provinces, in effect prohibiting all ships, other than those engaged in official military business, from leaving port. As early as the previous October, Loudoun had received reliable evidence that at least one prominent Boston merchant was “carrying on a Correspondence with, and supplying the People in Canada.” Even before that, he had suspected that “there are many more in this Situation, Particularly among the dutch in Albany,” and he could hardly have missed hearing the perennial reports of illicit trading between the northern provision merchants and the sugar planters of the French West Indies.7

At first Loudoun had not known what to do. Governors, under the influence of their assemblies, were unlikely to arrest those guilty of trading with the enemy when the offenders included some of the most prominent merchants—and assemblymen—in the colonies. He himself could not prevent flagrant smuggling at New York, literally in his headquarters’ backyard, and he was too distant from the other port cities to do anything more on his own; the home government was too distant and preoccupied to do more than raise a meaningless hue and cry against the practice. The embargo was Loudoun’s answer. By prohibiting all ship clearances except those that he or his subordinates ordered for military purposes, he would effectually cut off illegal commerce along with the rest. At the same time, he would also keep word from leaking out about the intended expedition against Louisbourg, insure that he would have enough shipping on hand to undertake it when the time came, and guarantee that adequate supplies of food would be available in the ports to provision it at reasonable rates.8

To order such a measure lay well within Loudoun’s authority as commander in chief, and the governors of all the colonies from Virginia to the north complied without hesitation. Temporary embargoes in time of war were nothing new—several provinces acting on instruction from the Board of Trade had imposed them in 1755 and 1756—and the merchants in the various ports did not protest. Indeed, the very universality of the measure may have prevented them from doing so, for it guaranteed that no one port would gain at the expense of any other. The merchants did not immediately understand that Loudoun intended his embargo to remain in effect indefinitely. But as the weeks passed, the price of flour and corn in Philadelphia plummeted in markets glutted by unshippable stocks of provisions; the Virginia and Maryland tobacco crops remained locked in warehouses or stowed in the holds of ships riding at anchor; the price of bread skyrocketed in Boston while the departure of cod fishermen on the spring fare was indefinitely delayed.

Everywhere except New York—insulated from the misfortunes of the other colonies by the presence of the army with its large supply demands—Loudoun’s embargo caused painful economic dislocation. He either did not grasp or did not care that it convinced colonial merchants and tobacco planters of his indifference to their welfare. Despite their increasingly urgent pleas, Loudoun refused to lift the ban. Why should he, since the protests of the various assemblies were motivated (he thought) by mean self-interest and the pressures of smugglers to resume their trade? Ultimately it was the Burgesses of Virginia who forced the issue in early May by refusing to grant a supply of money to the army unless the embargo was lifted. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie acquiesced—thereby convincing Loudoun that he was trying to enrich himself at the expense of the war effort—and soon thereafter Maryland’s governor agreed to lift the embargo on his colony’s trade, so as not to forfeit Maryland’s share in the London tobacco market to the earlier arrival of Virginia’s leaf. Loudoun, furious but powerless to arrest the governors and legislators of two colonies, had no choice but to allow the reopening of trade, which began on June 27, seven days after the departure of his fleet for Louisbourg. He made no effort to hide his disgust at what he saw as the pusillanimous conduct of the governors and the virtual treason of the colonial assemblies.9

As all these measures illustrated, Loudoun was moving steadily toward the creation of a de facto military union of the colonies, of a sort not greatly different in its effect from the plan that the Albany Congress had proposed and the colonial assemblies had uniformly rejected. That the colonists would resist and resent his measures seems not to have bothered a man whose conceptions of responsibility derived from his experiences as a courtier and military officer, and who cared as little for the niceties of law or the expedients of politics as for the technicalities of trade. When he sailed from New York harbor with the Louisbourg fleet, Lord Loudoun was disappointed by the lateness of his departure—he blamed the backwardness of the colonies in making preparations, the tardiness of the Royal Navy in providing an escort, and the unfavorability of the winds—but had no reason to doubt that he had increased the likelihood of the expedition’s success. He had systematized the war effort in America, corrected the abuses that Shirley had fostered, and struck a blow against trade with the enemy. For the first time, an American campaign would go forward with efficiency, economy, and real prospects for success.

Loudoun’s great invasion fleet, numbering more than a hundred sail and carrying six thousand troops, cleared Sandy Hook on June 20—nervously, for the promised escort of Royal Navy warships had not arrived and the transports were for all practical purposes defenseless; but the commander in chief was convinced that he could wait no longer. He had done everything in his power to prepare for the campaign. In February he had met with the commissioners representing the New England provinces at Boston to organize the northern war effort for the year. In March he had convened a meeting of the governors from Pennsylvania to North Carolina at Philadelphia and delivered his instructions for the defense of their frontiers. From Philadelphia he had gone on to meet with both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey assemblies, to compose differences between themselves and their governors and to assure (insofar as possible) that intragovernmental conflicts would not hobble the war effort. He had provided for the defense of the lake frontier in New York with two regular regiments and 5,500 provincials and had performed the unprecedented feat of getting the provincials into the field on schedule. Not least of all, he had mounted the largest seaborne expeditionary force ever to sail from an American port, under conditions of tighter security than anyone had ever managed before. All these accomplishments paid tribute to Loudoun’s vigor, administrative skill, and attention to detail. All of them augured well for the success of this, the best-planned, -manned, -equipped, and -coordinated campaign in the history of British North America. But other developments were already looming when Loudoun’s fleet weighed anchor, against which no amount of planning could have prevailed.10

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