Military history


Pitt Changes Course


LOUDOUN AND HIS transports arrived at Halifax on June 30. Admiral Francis Holburne’s Royal Navy squadron dropped anchor there on July 9. By that time no fewer than three French squadrons, including eighteen heavily armed ships of the line and five frigates, had made it safely into Louisbourg harbor—a force that clearly overmatched Holburne’s. Loudoun had been unable to launch his expedition until Holburne had arrived, and Holburne would only proceed once he had determined the strength of the enemy fleet at Louisbourg; but weeks of fog and foul weather kept his reconnaissance vessels from returning with a report. When the fog lifted and the wind finally turned fair on August 4, the first reliable intelligence came in with the arrival of the frigate Gosport, which had taken a French prize carrying a complete list of the ships at Louisbourg.1

Loudoun now asked Holburne the critical question. Could they “attempt the reduction of Louisbourg with any probability of success?” “Considering the strength of the enemy and other circumstances,” the admiral replied, “it is my opinion that there is no probability of succeeding in any attempt upon Louisbourg at this advanced season of the year.” On the same day that Monro watched Montcalm’s men open their siege entrenchments outside Fort William Henry, Loudoun ordered preparations to begin for the return to New York.2

It was a prudent decision; indeed, in view of the recent firing-squad execution of Admiral Byng for failing to do his utmost against the enemy, even a courageous one. To hazard almost the entire regular army in North America by landing it on Cape Breton—late in the year, in uncertain weather, under threat of a superior naval force—would have daunted any but a foolhardy officer, and rashness was never one of Loudoun’s shortcomings. Admiral Holburne’s later experience, moreover, proved that he had decided wisely. After escorting Loudoun’s transports back to New York, Holburne returned to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where, reinforced by four new ships from home, he waited to waylay the enemy fleet when it emerged from Louisbourg. Instead of ambushing the French, however, Holburne found his squadron trapped against the shore of Cape Breton by a hurricane that blew in suddenly from the southeast on September 24. The fleet was within an hour or two of being dashed to pieces on the rocks when the wind finally came round the following day and began to blow from the southwest; but even so, six ships of the line were dismasted and one was completely destroyed. Only three vessels could be sailed back to England. The rest, stricken and unseaworthy, limped to Halifax for repairs. The French, having ridden out the storm in the shelter of Louisbourg harbor, sailed for Brest in October. 3

By then Lord Loudoun was back in New York, trying with customary energy and application to restart a stalled war effort in the midst of newly heightened colonial discontents. His first concern was to regain the military initiative from the French, who had conducted the only successful offensive operations in America since 1755. Loudoun fell to the task immediately and on October 17 was able to inform the duke of Cumberland of his plans for a winter campaign against Ticonderoga. As he explained, there had been no time to rebuild Fort William Henry after his return, and to do that and build a fleet of boats would take most of the coming summer. He therefore intended only to wait for the first sustained frost before marching four thousand regulars and rangers from Fort Edward to Lake George, and then over the ice with light cannon and mortars to attack Fort Carillon’s small winter garrison. 4

This plan, inspired by Rigaud’s attempt on Fort William Henry, might actually have succeeded if the frost had not come late (in February) and with so much snow (three feet) that the expedition could not proceed. In the meantime Loudoun had more than enough to keep him busy. He had to correspond with the governments of the northern colonies, ordering them to recruit rangers for the winter campaign (they were unenthusiastic); with the new governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall, who had lately fallen out with him over the issue of quartering and who seemed bent on outdoing even William Shirley as a subverter of Loudoun’s authority; and with Governor Sharpe of Maryland, who had failed to discipline his assembly after its outrageous defiance of Loudoun’s orders to garrison Fort Cumberland. Moreover, problems with enlistment for the regular regiments required his constant attention, for colonists in every province from Maryland to New Hampshire were not only refusing to volunteer, but actually harassing recruiters. The military humiliations of Oswego and Fort William Henry may have focused popular resentment on the redcoats, or perhaps the forceful and abusive techniques of the recruiters themselves did the trick. At any rate, resistance appeared everywhere and antirecruitment riots erupted in Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire in the fall and early winter of 1757. (Indeed the violence grew so severe in New Hampshire, where a mob waving axes chased one officer and his party for four miles, that Loudoun put a permanent stop to recruiting in the province.)5

On top of all this came the necessity of planning four new expeditions for the coming year, a grinding process that required hundreds of hours of information gathering, analysis, writing—virtually all of which Loudoun performed himself—and wrangling with the provincials. As the winter of 1758 wore on, Loudoun found it increasingly difficult to gain the acquiescence of the governors and assemblies of the various colonies. In February commissioners representing the New England colonial assemblies met at Boston, in Loudoun’s absence and without his permission, to determine the numbers of men they would supply for the coming year. He was compelled in response to summon all the New England governors to a meeting at Hartford and lay down the law: their assemblies would provide men according to quotas he would dictate, not numbers to be determined by the legislators’ whim. To his amazement, the governors proved recalcitrant and in the end cooperated only on a minimal level.6

For all his energy, Loudoun now found his job more and more frustrating, more and more taxing. “My Sittuation,” he wrote to his kinsman the duke of Argyll, in February, In only one respect were these complaints exaggerated, for the tireless Scot did in fact manage to take an occasional hour for amusement: his personal accounts showed that during the Christmas week just past he and his guests had somehow found the time to consume “nineteen dozen bottles of claret, thirty-one dozen of Madeira, a dozen of Burgundy, four bottles of port and eight of Rhenish.”7 is that, I am more a Slave to Business than any man alive by having not only the affairs of the Army as a Soldier to manage and that being divided in three or four places and each to provide for without one man to assist me but M[ajor] G[eneral] Abercromby or to consult with but him and he very often at a Distance from me in the time when I want his Advice most.

Besides which I have an Eternal Negotiation to carry on with Governments 1500 miles in length where every Day Produces not only New Plans, which effect the carrying on the Service but likewise meet with all sorts of opposition in it. So that my Business Begines every Day the moment I am out of Bed and lasts from that time to Dinner and from then till nine at night and this from day to day without Intermission or even allowing myself an hower for any Amusements and this for want of propper Assistance under me.

What Loudoun did not know, as he drank health to the king and confusion to the French, would have encouraged him to drink even deeper than he did. Ten days before Christmas, William Pitt had decided to relieve Loudoun of his duties and indeed to change the policies by which he had done his best to fight the war. The content of Pitt’s new measures and the extent to which they departed from what had come before would remain unclear for months to come, since official notice of them would arrive in the colonies only in March. Pitt had in fact been contemplating a new approach to the war for more than a year. Only since the fall of 1757, however, when news of calamities in North America had come raining down on Whitehall along with accounts of even worse developments in Europe, had his position strengthened enough to put them into effect.8

Pitt could change course in the last days of 1757 because recent events had altered the balance of power within the British government, strengthening his position by destroying the influence of his adversary, the duke of Cumberland. The critical development in what was by any measure the worst string of disasters in the war was Cumberland’s capitulation on September 8 to the French, who had trapped him and the Hanoverian army he commanded between the Rivers Aller and Elbe. Nearly encircled and with no prospect of reaching the sea where the British navy would resupply him, Cumberland had tried to make the best of a hopeless position by negotiating a surrender on terms that saved his army. The French commander—Louis-François-Armand de Plessis, duc de Richelieu, victor of Minorca—agreed to hold a parley at the village of Kloster-Zeven.

Richelieu named only two conditions: Cumberland must send home the troops in his army that came from Hesse, Brunswick, and Gotha; and he must withdraw half of his Hanoverian battalions beyond the Elbe, leaving the remainder in internment camps near the port of Stade. These seemed to Cumberland honorable—his troops did not even have to surrender their arms—but back in Britain the Convention of Kloster-Zeven seemed only to heap diplomatic humiliation upon military defeat. The French were left to occupy all of Hanover except for a neutralized zone along the Elbe. Richelieu would be free to turn his attention to his real target, Prussia, where England’s only significant ally, Frederick the Great, was in the direst of straits, facing a Russian invasion in East Prussia, a Swedish invasion in Pomerania, and an Austrian invasion of Silesia that threatened to break through to Brandenburg, and thus Berlin itself. 9

In England the old king wept for shame. George had empowered his son to treat with the French and even if necessary to make a separate peace for Hanover; but this was “a convention shameful and pernicious.” To Newcastle he complained that “his honour and interest were sacrificed by it, that he had been by it given up, tied hand and foot, to the French. That he did not know how to look anybody in the face: that he had lost his honour and was absolutely undone.” He ordered his son back to England immediately. When Cumberland returned in October to defend his behavior, the king treated him with a cruelty notable even by the generous standards of the Hanoverian kings. “Here,” he remarked to his guests on the night that Cumberland reappeared at court, “is my son, who has ruined me and disgraced himself”; then he refused to speak to him at all. That same night the duke sent word that he intended to resign all his military offices. The king accepted his offer with no expression of regret on October 15.10

Cumberland’s resignation, the previous relegation of Henry Fox to the profitable oblivion of the paymaster generalship of the forces, and the king’s willingness in the aftermath of Kloster-Zeven to listen to Pitt’s advice with a new respect left Pitt better able than ever before to shape and implement policy. Cumberland’s disgrace deprived his supporters of influence to such an extent that all responsibility for financing and supplying the war effort now fell into the hands of the duke of Newcastle, while control of the navy, army, and diplomatic corps fell more or less exclusively to Pitt. Without real restraint from any quarter in Parliament or at court, Pitt could direct the war in accordance with his “system,” as he would come to call the pragmatic, fluid mixture of strategies that he was now free to apply. Although it marked a less radical departure than he was apt to claim in later years, Pitt’s system would finally reverse the balance that had hung so heavily against Britain.11

The heart of Pitt’s system was his intention to hold the line against France where it was strongest, in Europe, while striking at its weakest point, North America. To do so, Pitt planned to take advantage of Britain’s greatest strength, its navy, to achieve naval superiority on the Atlantic and thus to prevent France from resupplying its troops overseas; this would in turn enable Britain’s relatively small army to cooperate with its much more numerous American colonists to overwhelm Canada’s defenders. Pitt’s ultimate goal, the elimination of France as an imperial presence in North America, was by far the most original and distinctive aspect of his plan, for no one before him had conceived of any Anglo-French war as an opportunity to strike at the sources of French wealth. Indeed, Pitt intended to attack French colonies not only in North America, but anywhere—in the West Indies, West Africa, India—that opportunities to profit from French weaknesses might present themselves.

To be free to concentrate British force on France’s empire, Pitt had to insure that the British army would not be drawn into the fighting on the Continent, where French and Austrian armies inevitably had the advantage. To sustain his resolve not to send “a drop of our blood . . . to be lost in that sea of gore” which was Germany, Pitt’s system required that Britain subsidize its German allies—most of all Prussia—virtually without limit, so as to keep France preoccupied while British forces conquered its empire. There was, of course, nothing new in British subsidies to European allies. What made Pitt’s approach unusual was the scale on which he proposed to subsidize, for he would soon ask Parliament to approve payments to Frederick and other German princes that vastly outstripped any Britain had ever made. 12

Pitt also proposed, as he had argued was necessary since 1755, to defend the home isles not with the army, but rather to rely upon a reformed militia or territorial force based in the counties. This measure conformed nicely to the preferences of many backbench M.P.s, country squires who disliked the standing army both because it was expensive and because it could be used to exert direct control over their localities. Their support for a militia defense, then, was critical to sustaining Pitt’s program in the Commons. The militia was crucial for another reason, too: it would free up army units stationed in England to cooperate with the home fleet in making “descents,” or raids, on the French coast. If the French wished to protect their Atlantic ports, he reasoned, they would have to divert troops from their operations against Germany. Pitt had gotten this idea from Frederick, who as early as 1756 had pointed out that “if France strips her Channel coasts to form her army [for Germany], the English fleet can profit by it and . . . spread an alarm the whole length of Brittany and Normandy.” The descents would employ only a few thousand men and sailors, Pitt thought, and by lessening French pressure on the Prussians might indefinitely forestall the need to send troops to Frederick’s support.13

Pitt’s approach to the war in the colonies essentially inverted every policy Braddock and Loudoun had pursued. Because everything in his plans depended upon the conquest of New France, Pitt needed to tap America’s strengths as never before, and particularly its manpower. He knew that Halifax had long before advocated raising large numbers of provincials to use against Canada, only to have the idea discarded by Cumberland, who preferred to use regular troops. Moreover, he had talked to experts on the colonies—notably Sir Charles Hardy, governor of New York, whose opinion of Loudoun had taken a turn for the worse after the Louisbourg expedition, and Thomas Pownall, who never hesitated to serve his own interest at the expense of former patrons—and from these had concluded that Loudoun’s efforts to unify the colonies had served only to antagonize the colonists and frustrate the war effort.14

By mid-December 1757, Pitt knew that if the American assemblies were to be transformed from centers of resistance into sources of men and money, he would have to reverse entirely the course of colonial policy. Instead of treating the colonies like subordinate jurisdictions and requiring them to finance the war effort by forced contributions to a common fund, Pitt resolved to treat them like allies, offering subsidies to encourage their assemblies to aid in the conquest of New France. Rather than continuing to demand that civil authority, in the persons of the colonial governors and legislatures, submit to military power in the person of His Majesty’s commander in chief, Pitt resolved to withhold from Loudoun’s successor direct authority over the provinces. In the future, as always in the past, the governors would receive their instructions directly from the secretary of state for the Southern Department. By this new grant (or more properly, restoration) of autonomy to the provinces, by offering inducements to cooperation rather than by seeking to compel union among them, Pitt hoped to create a patriotic enthusiasm that had not been much in evidence since 1756.15

Finally, because not only provinces but provincials would need to demonstrate this enthusiasm, Pitt also decided to reverse the policy that had made all provincial field officers rank only as eldest captains while on joint service with regular units. In the campaigns of 1758, he decreed, provincial majors, colonels, and generals would enjoy a status equivalent to their counterpart ranks in the regular army, ranking as juniors only to the regular officers of comparable grades.

In order to implement these policies, Pitt needed supporters not only in the Commons and at court, but in the armed forces, and these he also found in the fall and winter of 1757. He had already nominated George, Lord Anson, to the post of first lord of the Admiralty. This was a politic choice in that Anson was an important ally of Newcastle; but it was also a prudent one, for Anson was a capable administrator who fully supported Pitt’s navalist approach to the war. As a replacement for Cumberland at the head of the army, Pitt secured the appointment of another Newcastle supporter, General Sir John Ligonier—at an astonishingly vigorous seventy-seven not only an immensely experienced officer, but probably the ablest general to wear a red coat between Marlborough’s time and Wellington’s. Together Anson and Ligonier would serve as chiefs of staff to Pitt and, in an unprecedented example of cooperation between army and navy, implement the strategic system by which Pitt proposed to win the greatest victory in English history.16

WHEN WILLIAM PITT gained control of strategy and policy late in 1757, the war entered a new phase. Thereafter the army and navy would conduct descents on the French coast—a series of militarily indecisive operations that would indeed diminish the proportion of its army that France could commit to Germany. At Pitt’s urging, the king would renounce (probably illegally, on a technicality) the Convention of Kloster-Zeven. Thereafter George II, acting as elector of Hanover, would appoint one of Frederick’s most capable military protégés, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, as commander of the Hanoverian army; and Parliament, at Pitt’s insistence, would take the Hanoverian army into British pay as a continental proxy for British troops. Great Britain would begin to pour vast quantities of subsidy money into Hanover’s and Prussia’s treasuries. Despite predictions to the contrary, Parliament would meekly submit to every request for funds—in part because Newcastle controlled patronage distribution and could ensure support for the ministry’s money bills in the Commons, and in part because the financiers in the City of London were usually delighted to float the loans that Newcastle required. The members of the ministry would begin to work together well, largely because Pitt’s energy and willingness to accept responsibility for the war earned him Newcastle’s admiring support. Although relations between the two were never free of strain, their complementary activities would impart a momentum to the war effort that it had never before seen. 17

On the Continent, the fortunes of war would favor Frederick once more. At the Battle of Rossbach, on November 5, Frederick overwhelmed a French army under the prince de Soubise, inflicting casualties at the unheard-of rate of ten to one. Rossbach literally turned the tide against France, which now evacuated Saxony. With barely a pause, Frederick marched his army nearly two hundred miles eastward into Silesia, where he engaged the forces of Count von Daun at Leuthen on December 5. This battle, the tactical masterpiece of Frederick’s career, left one-third of Daun’s army dead, wounded, or captured, and forced the Austrians to withdraw from Silesia. Meanwhile, in Hanover, Prince Ferdinand had given Richelieu formal notice of the renunciation of Kloster-Zeven and moved his army into the field. Before the end of the year the French withdrew to the Aller River and dug in at the town of Celle, abandoning half the territory they had conquered during the summer. 18

Thus stood politics in Britain, and the war in Europe, at the end of 1757 when William Pitt informed North America’s colonial governors of the new course he intended to pursue in North America. He had had Ligonier canvass the army for the most capable young field officers available, to be sent to America in the spring; he had approved elaborate plans for the coming year’s campaigns. Everything would now depend upon the war in America. Surely Pitt realized more acutely than anyone else that his whole system rested upon the supposition that British arms could succeed there, where British arms had as yet achieved nothing. But would new measures and new men mobilize the latent strength of the colonies and redeem the losses of Braddock, Shirley, and Loudoun? To the man who in an unguarded moment had said that he knew that only he could save his country, no question could be more important; no answer awaited with more dreadful anticipation.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!