Military history


Old Strategies, New Men, and a Shift in the Balance

EARLY 1758

PITT’S PLANS for 1758 were not in fact much different from Loudoun’s. In a sense they could not be, for the geography of eastern North America gave only a few options to anyone contemplating “an Irruption into Canada” or the removal of the French forts from the Ohio Country. There were only two promising invasion routes into New France. One was up the St. Lawrence, which meant first taking or neutralizing Louisbourg. The other was along the Lake Champlain corridor, which meant fighting one’s way past Fort Carillon, Fort St. Frédéric, and the forts that guarded the Richelieu River. The third approach, up the Mohawk Valley to Lake Ontario and then down the St. Lawrence to Montréal, remained impracticable so long as the French maintained naval command of Lake Ontario and continued to occupy the forts that dominated either end: Frontenac at its outlet and Niagara at its head. Fort Frontenac held the key to communication between Québec and the interior of the continent. To destroy it would be to render insecure all the posts that lay farther west—Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac, and the Ohio Country forts— and to deprive the French of their trade with the pays d’en haut. Because Fort Duquesne’s strategic importance depended upon its ability to serve as a base for Indian raids, it needed a steady supply of arms, ammunition, and other trade goods. Duquesne would become vulnerable if Fort Frontenac were destroyed, and the drying up of trade would doubtless diminish the local Indians’ affection for the French; yet because much of its food came from the Illinois Country, the garrison itself could potentially survive even in the absence of support from Canada. The only way to be sure of establishing control over the Ohio Country and its Indians was therefore to destroy Fort Duquesne, and that meant building a road across the Alleghenies—either from the upper Potomac, as Braddock had tried to do, or across Pennsylvania.

As he had informed the governors at Hartford, Loudoun intended to attempt campaigns on all these fronts in 1758. By the time he was recalled, Loudoun had planned and begun preparations for a campaign by twelve regiments against Fort Carillon; for a bateau-borne provincial expedition under Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet against Fort Frontenac; for an overland march through Pennsylvania by two battalions under Colonel John Stanwix; and for an amphibious attack on Louisbourg by the six regiments that had wintered in Nova Scotia together with provincials to be sent from New England. Pitt, too, envisioned expeditions against Fort Carillon, Fort Duquesne, and Louisbourg, and later approved of Bradstreet’s expedition against Fort Frontenac; his plans differed, however, in the allocation of forces, for he intended to send many more regulars to America than were already in place and (as we have seen) to augment them with enormous numbers of provincials. But the most significant difference between Pitt’s and Loudoun’s plans lay in the men who would command the expeditions. 1

Although Pitt had named Loudoun’s fat, fussy, indolent subordinate, Major General James Abercromby, commander in chief for North America, he had authorized Lord Ligonier to nominate four new men to take charge of the expeditions of 1758. These were in every way surprising choices, for they had nothing to do with seniority in the service and very little to do with experience in command. To lead the all-important Louisbourg expedition Ligonier had promoted Jeffery Amherst, a forty-year-old colonel who had never commanded anything larger than a regiment, to the temporary rank of “Major General in America.” As acting brigadier under Amherst, Ligonier suggested an even younger man, a lieutenant colonel known mostly for emotional volatility and readiness to criticize his superiors, James Wolfe. Ligonier and Pitt decided to entrust the campaign against Fort Duquesne to Acting Brigadier John Forbes, previously a colonel under Lord Loudoun: a fifty-year-old Scot, originally educated as a physician, who had distinguished himself as an officer of great experience and capacity but who was now so tormented by an inflammatory disease of the skin that he could at times barely move. To aid Abercromby in leading the expedition against Fort Carillon, they agreed upon the promotion to the rank of acting brigadier of George Augustus, Viscount Howe. At age thirty-three, Howe was one of the most promising field officers in the British army and had already gained experience with American conditions by commanding the 55th Regiment in New York.2


Jeffery Amherst (1717–97). Shown here in a postwar engraving based on Joshua Reynolds’s portrait-in-armor as the victor of Montréal, Amherst seems very much a formal and aloof figure. He was; even in 1758, as the newly appointed commander of the Louisbourg expedition, he inspired respect, but not affection, in his subordinates. His most important brigadier, James Wolfe, found him maddeningly uncommunicative and “slow.” Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Except for Abercromby, all of these officers held only temporary ranks because all of them had been promoted ahead of more senior and experienced colleagues. In part that was because Pitt preferred to appoint as his commanders men without independent standing who would ultimately need to rely on him personally; but principally it was because he valued talent. What Amherst, Wolfe, Forbes, and Howe had in common was either a strong reputation for competence or past service under Lord Ligonier in which they had convinced the old campaigner of their capacity. Significantly, since they were being entrusted with commands in a setting where everything depended on maintaining adequate supply services, three of the four (Amherst, Wolfe, and Forbes) had previously demonstrated superior skill as quartermasters or commissaries. Indeed, in view of their uniform lack of experience in command above the battalion level, their administrative aptitude may have been uppermost in Ligonier’s mind when he commended them to Pitt.


James Wolfe (1727–59). In every sense Amherst’s temperamental opposite, Wolfe was bold to the point of rashness, and only good luck (and a timely death) can account for his reputation for tactical brilliance. This watercolor by George Townshend, a subordinate who came to detest him, ironically shows him in a more appealing light than any other contemporary portrait; his sharp nose and weak chin almost inevitably invited caricature. Courtesy of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal / Musée McCord d’histoire canadienne, Montréal.

These officers were to head the largest forces that had ever operated in North America. The command Amherst was to lead against Louisbourg consisted of 14 regular battalions, 5 companies of American rangers, a company of carpenters, and a train of siege artillery: nearly 14,000 men in all. Abercromby was given 9 regiments of regulars and the provincial troops of the colonies north of Pennsylvania—about 25,000 men—to hold New York, attack Ticonderoga, and “irrupt” into Canada. Forbes was to lead 2,000 regulars and about 5,000 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina provincials against Fort Duquesne. Even without including sailors, marines, and the enormous miscellany of artificers, bateaumen, wagoners, sutlers, and other camp followers who supported the armies, the campaigns of 1758 would go forward with nearly 50,000 Anglo-American troops under arms: a number equivalent to two-thirds of the whole population of Canada.3

Against these evidently overwhelming forces New France could muster 6,800 regular troops, about 2,700 troupes de la marine, and the Canadian militia, which included all able-bodied habitant males between fifteen and sixty years of age and numbered perhaps 16,000 men. At most the marquis de Montcalm would be able to field half as many men as the British could throw against him; but his problems in defending Canada only began with the imbalance in manpower. The Indian auxiliaries that had formerly been more than adequate to offset the British advantage in numbers were nowhere to be seen in the spring of 1758. In large part this was because a smallpox epidemic had ravaged the villages of the pays d’en haut following the previous campaign, convincing many nations that the French had sent bad medicine among them. The Ottawas were said to be entertaining “evil designs” and the Potawatomis seemed “indisposed” to offer any aid; in Wisconsin the Menominees had grown so far alienated that they actually attacked a French fort and killed a trader’s family.4

Of even more pressing concern than the absence of the Indians was the extreme shortage of food supplies. The harvest failed in 1757 for the second year in a row. In normal times Canadian wheat had commanded four to five livres per minot; by January of 1758, a minot cost fifteen livres—supposing one could find a person willing to sell. In order to stretch out the scarce grain resources of Canada, peas had been mixed with flour in the making of bread since 1756. By the winter of 1757–58 even that expedient no longer sufficed, and the ration of bread and of other staples had to be reduced for civilians and soldiers alike. In December 1757, the colony government cut the beef ration, which was supposed to be a pound a day but had long stood at half that, to a pound and a half a week. In place of beef the butchers supplied horse meat and, when available, codfish. At first the women of Montréal had pelted Governor-General Vaudreuil’s door with their substitute rations, but the protests subsided when it became clear that Canadians could eat horse meat or no meat at all. As the winter wore on, food supplies dwindled to the vanishing point. By early April, Québec’s daily bread ration was down to two ounces. A month later, with unstable weather holding up the spring planting, the weekly meat ration had dropped to a half-pound of beef or horse, a half-pound of salt pork, and four ounces of salt cod. Only the arrival of a convoy of ships from France on May 22 averted actual starvation in Québec, where “some of the inhabitants [had been] reduced to living on grass,” but the necessity of diverting food supplies to the campaigns meant that the suffering of the civilian population did not cease. By the beginning of June, the daily bread ration had yet to rise above four ounces a day.5

The famine winter of 1757–58 can be blamed only in part on the failed harvests of 1756 and 1757. In normal times Canada produced enough grain to sustain its own population with enough left over to feed an additional twelve thousand people. During any average war year rations had to be found for at least fifteen thousand regulars, troupes de la marine, Indian warriors, and militia on permanent assignment, which meant that even bumper crops would have had to be supplemented with shipments of food from France. By the fall of 1757, however, the British navy had established effective blockades at Gibraltar, along the Channel coast, and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Thus to arrive safely in Canada, any French merchantman had to run a gauntlet of Royal Navy vessels twice as well as avoid Anglo-American privateers on the high seas. The only reliable blockade-runners were French warships sailing en flûte, or stripped of most of their cannon: a configuration in which they could outsail virtually any ship in the British navy. But most flutes carried official dispatches and reinforcements; their typical cargoes of powder, shot, and Indian trade goods contributed little food to the colony’s meager supply.6

Moreover, a pervasive corruption exacerbated the problems that overwhelming demand, poor harvests, and blockades had created. King George’s War and the current conflict had so distorted Canadian economic life that the leading sector of trade was no longer in fish, furs, and skins, but rather in military supplies and provisions. Contracting was the responsibility of the colony’s chief civil administrator, or intendant; and François Bigot, the man who occupied that post from 1744 through 1760, had no compunctions about using his position to create a monopoly for himself and his partners, a group called la grande société. Bigot’s business correspondent in Bordeaux would ship cargoes of provisions and luxury goods, at government expense, to Bigot, who in turn remitted government bills of exchange to pay the correspondent. In peacetime Bigot’s partners sold these cargoes on the open market and divided the profits with the intendant. In time of war, Bigot could sell the cargoes to the Crown (which is to say, to himself, as the officer responsible for provisioning the king’s forces in Canada) at a tremendous markup. Meanwhile Bigot’s agents bought Canadian grain at prices fixed by law at from five to seven livres per minot; milled it, at government expense, into flour; and sold the flour to the Crown—that is, to Bigot—at the market price, which eventually reached twenty-six livres. When famine ensued, it was Bigot, who as intendant was responsible for civil welfare, who sold rations of publicly owned flour to the populace at a government-subsidized price. What this system lacked in ethical purity it more than made up for in profits. By the winter of 1757–58 Bigot had grown so rich that he was able to sustain gambling losses in excess of 200,000 livres without visibly suffering in his style of life.7

Bigot never failed to keep the army supplied but he did it at a staggering expense to Crown and colony. Together with the skyrocketing costs of provisions, military expenditures sent the domestic economy of New France into an inflationary spiral that was entirely out of control by the beginning of 1758. At the end of King George’s War, the French treasury was annually spending 2,000,000 livres on Canada; by 1755, 6,000,000; and by the end of 1757, 12,000,000. Imperial administrators tried to stem the tide of Canadian paper money they believed was fueling this grotesque inflation by sending specie to pay the regulars and buy their provisions, but the appearance of gold and silver merely accelerated the rate of depreciation. Merchants speculating in grain sold only to the army, which could pay in gold, and refused to sell to fellow Canadians trying to pay in depreciated paper. This intensified food shortages and drove up prices on the open market; farmers began refusing to sell their produce for any price, hiding it from Bigot’s agents; and Gresham’s law operated inexorably to drive gold and silver out of circulation. When Bigot tried to salvage the situation by making it a crime to refuse payment in paper money, he only succeeded in aggravating the problem. The tons of coin shipped to New France simply vanished, melted down into plate by the bourgeois and buried by the peasants in hoards that would not be dug up again until peace had returned to their ravaged, hungry land. 8

None of this made the army easier to provision, and all of it helped convince Montcalm and his officers that they had been sent to defend a people so abandoned to self-interest that they were barely worth saving. Relations between Montcalm and the governor-general, never cordial, deteriorated. By the beginning of the campaign season in 1758 they were barely on speaking terms, communicating in letters that breathed an icy mutual contempt. Montcalm believed that Vaudreuil, technically his superior, was so committed to a strategy of using Indian allies and guerrilla warfare to defend Canada that he would do anything to undermine Montcalm’s more “civilized” strategies, which was mostly true; that Vaudreuil expected him to fail and intended to make him the scapegoat for the loss of New France when it occurred, which was not altogether untrue; and that Vaudreuil was in league with Bigot, which was false. Vaudreuil believed that Montcalm disdained him as a member of the Canadian aristocracy, which was true; that Montcalm did not appreciate the value of the Indians as allies, which was also true; and that Montcalm was militarily incompetent, which was not. Each complained copiously about the other in official dispatches. Eventually Montcalm felt it necessary to send two personal emissaries back to France—ostensibly to plead for more support, but in reality to make his case against Vaudreuil and Bigot. Vaudreuil rushed his own representative to Paris, in order to arrive ahead of Montcalm’s men.

The wrangling between Vaudreuil and Montcalm arose from an antagonism between Canadian provincials and representatives of the imperial metropole quite similar to the tension that produced such bitter disputes in the British colonies during Lord Loudoun’s regime. In the case of New France, however, there was no Pitt to decide the issue by recalling one of the contending parties. Despite all their mutual complaint and maneuvering, Louis XV decided to leave both in place, honoring Montcalm with promotion to lieutenant general, placating Vaudreuil with the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint-Louis, and urging the governor-general to consult closely with the commander in chief on all matters civil and military. Thus the weakness at the center that was already evident at the beginning of 1758 would only grow worse, while the shortages of men and supplies that so desperately straitened the defenders of New France would remain unrelieved.9

What neither Vaudreuil nor Montcalm realized was that the king and his ministers regarded their disputes as trivial because they were quietly writing North America out of France’s grand strategy. In the late winter and spring of 1758, the attention of Versailles and the military resources of France were both coming to center on the army in Hanover, the defense of the Channel coast against British raids, and the potential of mounting an invasion of England. No flood of foodstuffs, no tide of troops, would relieve the shortages that crippled New France. Insofar as warships would be employed in American waters in numbers large enough to be decisive, they would defend the valuable sugar islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, not succor the hungry, unprofitable colony against which the English were about to fling such overwhelming force.

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