Military history


Supply Holds the Key


LIKE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY sieges in general, the reduction of Louisbourg had been a spectacular affair; yet in a purely strategic sense the fortress’s fate was sealed weeks before the first redcoat wallowed ashore through the surf of Gabarus Bay. Neither Amherst’s meticulous siege craft nor Wolfe’s flashier acts of daring but British control of the sea had denied the defenders the hope of withstanding the siege. Indeed, the decisive factor had not even been the twenty-three ships of the line and numerous frigates with which Boscawen patrolled the waters off Cape Breton during the siege, but the growing ability of the Royal Navy to dominate the French in European waters. Two engagements fought there had been critical. First, at the end of February, Admiral Henry Osborne’s Gibraltar-based fleet had prevented a strong French squadron from leaving the Mediterranean with reinforcements and supplies for Louisbourg. Then, at the beginning of April in the Bay of Biscay, Vice Admiral Edward Hawke had interdicted a second Louisbourg convoy off La Rochelle, forcing it to abandon its cargo and armament. The only French vessels to slip through the British net and aid in Louisbourg’s defense were those that rode at anchor under the city’s guns when Amherst and Boscawen arrived. They had escaped from Brest while Hawke had been busy breaking up the much larger convoy of store ships and escort vessels in the Basque Roads. Thus before Amherst had gotten halfway to Nova Scotia, the British navy had tipped the balance in his favor by preventing at least eighteen ships of the line, seven frigates, and more than forty store ships and troop transports from crossing the Atlantic to reinforce the Cape Breton garrison.1

In a more complex way, the ability to control the enemy’s lines of communication would also decide the outcome of the third major Anglo-American offensive of 1758, the long march against Fort Duquesne. Brigadier John Forbes, a man whose spirit toughened even as his body decayed, had begun organizing this expedition in early spring with a plan that was precisely the opposite of Braddock’s. Whereas Braddock had hoped to expel the French quickly and therefore carried a minimum of provisions with his column, Forbes knew that he would need to hold the Forks once he had driven out the French, and that meant transporting vast quantities of food, clothing, ammunition, arms, and trade goods overland from the coast. He moved, consequently, with an almost maddening deliberation, planning the construction of intermediate forts and supply depots, appealing to the governors of colonies in the region for support, and seeking scouts from the Cherokees and other nations. He progressed so slowly that it was the end of June before his troops began to construct the first advanced base of supply (Fort Bedford, at Raystown) in preparation for opening the road toward Fort Duquesne. Moreover, the route that Forbes chose was by no means calculated for speed. Instead of making use of Braddock’s road from the upper reaches of the Potomac watershed on the Maryland-Virginia border, he decided to proceed more or less straight west across Pennsylvania from Carlisle. Preexisting roads traversed less than half this distance, which meant that Forbes’s men had to cut a new wagon trail through a hundred miles of forest and cross two substantial mountain ranges, the Alleghenies and Laurel Ridge, in order to reach the Forks.

Forbes’s slowness allowed not only time for his force to proceed with substantial security but also for two critical developments to take place, both of which severed Fort Duquesne from the support it needed to survive. The first of these was a dramatic military victory, the destruction of Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario in late August. The second was the most important diplomatic breakthough of the war: at about the time Fort Frontenac fell, the Ohio Indians abandoned their alliance with France and made peace with Britain, as the result of contacts established with the help of the eastern Delaware chief, Teedyuscung.2 Although the fall of Fort Frontenac and the neutralization of the Ohio Indians were in no sense coordinated developments, together they determined the outcome of Forbes’s expedition as decisively as Osborne’s and Hawke’s naval actions had enabled Amherst to capture Louisbourg.

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