Military history

CHAPTER 57

Amherst’s Recall

AUTUMN 1763

AMHERST’S ASSUMPTION that Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Niagara would hold out until the campaigns of 1764 could begin was one that seemed reasonable enough to a man sitting at a desk in New York City. The prospects seemed less certain at each of the three critical forts. The garrisons’ survival depended most of all on their supplies of food, a factor far more significant than their stocks of weapons and ammunition. Because they were also heavily outnumbered by their besiegers, the garrisons needed reinforcements as well. Every skirmish took a toll beyond the direct loss of life: with each man wounded or killed, a heavier burden fell on the survivors, who still had to mount round-the-clock guard details and conduct local security patrols outside the walls. And yet if the needed reinforcements arrived without provisions adequate to sustain both themselves and the soldiers and refugees already in the forts, they were worse than no help at all, for they would inevitably deplete the existing food more rapidly than ever. Before the end of the summer, the tricky calculus of manpower and provisions would give the defenders at all three forts cause for gravest concern.

Captain James Dalyell’s relief convoy reached Fort Detroit on July 28. Arriving with twenty bateaux and 260 men—including a variety of companies he had assembled en route from the 55th, 60th, and 80th Regiments, and a detachment of rangers under Major Robert Rogers— Dalyell brought few provisions but a massive desire to earn glory in battle. Because his position as the son of a baronet and as Amherst’s aide-de-camp gave him clout disproportionate to his modest rank, Gladwin could not stop him from ordering the detachment he had brought to attack the Indians. At 2:30 in the morning on July 31 he led a sortie of 247 men out of the fort to attack Pontiac’s camp. Less than an hour later, at a creek soon to be called Bloody Run, he marched them directly into Pontiac’s ambush. When the survivors finally made it back to the fort at eight o’clock, 20 men had been killed, 35 wounded (3 of them seriously enough to die of their injuries soon thereafter), and about 100 had been captured. Dalyell, shot dead in the battle, had his heart cut out and his head impaled on a stake at the Indian camp. 1

With the arrival of Dalyell’s expedition, therefore, Gladwin found himself with twice as many mouths to feed as before and twice as badly off as ever. Had not the sloop Michigan brought a cargo of provisions from Niagara in June and the schooner Huron continued to land supplies in September and October, Gladwin would have had to abandon Detroit or see his men starve. As it was, his troops remained on short rations and so heavily outnumbered that, apart from patrols near the fort, they never again sought contact with the enemy. It was not British pressure that compelled Pontiac to raise the siege on October 15, but rather a combination of circumstances Pontiac could not control: the refusal of the French commandant in the Illinois Country to support the revolt, growing internal divisions among the Indians, and the necessity of beginning the winter hunt. No one in the Indian camp knew it, but on the day Pontiac finally offered a truce, Detroit had less than two weeks’ supply of flour remaining and no prospect of replenishment. 2

Although different in that it yielded a kind of qualified victory rather than an unequivocal defeat, the “relief” of Fort Pitt resembled that of Detroit. It was not until July 18 that Colonel Henry Bouquet succeeded in assembling 460 troops from the remnants of the 42nd, 60th, and 77th Regiments, plus a detachment of rangers. Finding troops fit to march was hard enough, but in the panicked Pennsylvania countryside it proved even more difficult for Bouquet to assemble provisions, cattle, horses, wagons, and teamsters for his troops to escort to Pittsburgh. Having begun late, the expedition proceeded slowly. Pennsylvania’s assembly voted to raise 700 provincials to defend the backcountry only on July 6 and had not yet recruited enough men to garrison the forts along Forbes Road. To his great irritation (“I feel myself uterly abandoned by the very People I am ordered to protect”) Bouquet therefore found it necessary to drop off redcoats, food, and ammunition at undermanned and inadequately supplied posts along the way. When the column reached Fort Ligonier, west of Laurel Ridge, on August 2, Bouquet probably had less than 400 men left to march the last forty miles to Pittsburgh. At Ligonier he paused long enough to abandon the wagons and convert 340 horses into a pack train to haul flour, then ordered his men to march for the Forks on the fourth. Just after noon the next day, moving through hilly, forested country near Bushy Run Creek twenty-five miles from Fort Pitt, they walked into a trap. Within minutes they were fighting for their lives.3

The Shawnees, Delawares, Mingos, Wyandots, Ottawas, and Miamis who beset Bouquet’s force had until lately been subjecting Ecuyer’s garrison to a severe attack, at the height of which they fired on the defenders from the ditch immediately outside the walls of the fort. They had broken off that assault only to destroy the supply train that their scouts had informed them was heading for the Forks. They very nearly succeeded. Halted near the top of a rise called Edge Hill, dominated by higher ground nearby, Bouquet’s men formed a perimeter around the packhorses and cattle and did their best to defend themselves. Without water in blistering heat, under fire by marksmen they could not see from one o’clock until dark, men and livestock alike suffered terribly. That night, knowing that his men could not long survive such torment, Bouquet made a desperate plan. In the center of the perimeter his men had constructed a breastwork from provision bags to shelter the wounded. After the Indian firing resumed the next day, acting on his order, two companies of light infantry abruptly withdrew from their positions on the west side of the perimeter as if to retreat within the breastwork. The Indians, seeing what looked like the beginnings of disintegration, broke from cover and charged the British line—only to find that the light infantry companies had not taken shelter within the breastwork, but instead had assumed firing positions on a ridge flanking the hillside. From there they delivered a volley at the warriors—exposed for the first time since the battle had begun—and then charged toward them with bayonets fixed. As the Indians turned to face their assailants, Bouquet quickly advanced two more companies from the perimeter. When they opened fire, the outmaneuvered and disorganized Indians dispersed into the woods.

When the battle ended, Bouquet’s men were able to move to Bushy Run for water, but that was all. They had lost fifty men killed and sixty wounded, a quarter of their strength. The Indians had destroyed so many horses that Bouquet ordered the entire stock of flour destroyed in order to use the surviving animals to carry the wounded to Fort Pitt. The exhausted, battered column took three more days to limp the last twentyfive miles to Pittsburgh. There Bouquet quietly suspended his plan to “extirpate” the “vermin” that had so nearly exterminated him. Limited not only by the extreme insecurity of his position and the continuing illnesses of the Havana veterans in the ranks, but also by the demands of men in the 60th Regiment for the discharges that were due them, Bouquet never found it possible to patrol more than a mile from the fort. At length he did assemble a detachment to return to Fort Ligonier for supplies, and another convoy to escort Pittsburgh’s women and children back east of the Alleghenies and return with more provisions. But that was all. The pack trains that brought the food Pittsburgh needed to survive the winter succeeded in making the trip only because the Indians abandoned operations against the fort and the road, left the area around the Forks, and reestablished their villages downriver in the Scioto River drainage. Like Detroit, Pittsburgh survived the winter of 1763–64 not because the British had broken the Indians’ siege but because the Indians, no longer able to delay the winter’s hunting, had lifted it.4

While Gladwin watched his supplies dwindle at Detroit and Bouquet tried to recuperate from his costly victory at Pittsburgh, the Senecas struck severe blows at the most important western post of all, Niagara. There geography was the critical factor, and the Senecas made masterful use of it. No supplies could pass from Canada or New York to Detroit, or indeed to any western location, without first being off-loaded at Fort Niagara, portaged around the falls over a twisting nine-mile road, and reembarked at a small fort on Lake Erie, near the mouth of Buffalo Creek. On September 14, where this trail skirted the edge of the ravine near a whirlpool called Devil’s Hole, at least three hundred Geneseo Senecas, Ottawas, and Chippewas attacked a supply train and annihilated both the wagoners and their escort. When two companies of the 80th Regiment nearby tried to come to the rescue, half were killed or wounded. In all, seventy-two men died and eight survivors suffered wounds. Worse, if anything, than the casualties was the fact that the Indians now controlled the portage road, ending all efforts to resupply Detroit.

Weeks passed before the Niagara garrison achieved even a tenuous command of the portage, and even then the Senecas were able to attack a six hundred–man expeditionary force headed for Detroit on October 20, killing eight and wounding eleven. By this time the weather had grown so bad that communication over the lake was virtually impossible. The expedition intended for Detroit, its departure delayed by the attack, foundered in a storm on November 7; seventy men drowned. Thereafter efforts to resupply Detroit from Niagara had to be suspended, and only Pontiac’s truce saved the fort. Major Gladwin held on, in the end, not because he received adequate supplies from his own army, but because the raising of the siege allowed him to send half his men back to Niagara and to buy enough food from the local habitants for those who stayed to survive the winter.5

image

The Niagara portage. A British engineer’s depiction shows the route along which cargoes had to be carried between Little Niagara, a port two miles above the Falls, to the Lower Landing at the foot of the last rapids, where water carriage could resume. Fort Niagara lies seven miles downstream to the north (left on this map). An inscription near the center of the image indicates the “Place where Lt Campbell was defeated by the Indians, Septr 14th 1763”— the point at which the road ran closest to the edge of the cliff above the river. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Amid so much failure, the most promising prospect for the British in the fall of 1763 was the one diplomatic initiative Amherst had been willing to countenance—the conference Sir William Johnson held with delegates from the Six Nations (less the Geneseo Senecas) and the Caughnawaga Mohawks during September. There, at his new mansion, Johnson Hall, the northern superintendent appealed to Onondaga’s self-interest to nudge the Confederacy from its posture of hostility-tinged neutrality into one of tentative cooperation. Alliance with the British would, Johnson argued, enable the Six Nations to reassert dominion over the Ohio Country and their breakaway dependents, the Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos. It was an argument calculated to appeal to the assembled Iroquois chiefs, who agreed to negotiate with the belligerent Senecas and to cooperate militarily with the British by raiding against the Delawares and Shawnees during the winter and helping the redcoats to restore control throughout the west in the coming year.

These were in fact substantial achievements, but it remained clear to Johnson that they would amount to nothing unless Amherst agreed to resume diplomatic gift-giving on a scale comparable to that practiced during the war. Since it was obvious that he would never agree to that, Johnson stepped up a campaign that he had already begun to undermine the commander in chief’s position at home. Both by direct correspondence with the Board of Trade and by encouraging his deputy, George Croghan, to travel to London and offer expert testimony on the crisis in Indian affairs, Johnson aimed to bring Amherst down, just as he had once brought down William Shirley.6

EVEN WITHOUT THE formidable enmity of Sir William Johnson, in the autumn of 1763 Amherst’s days as commander in chief would have been numbered. Although he had been slow to inform his superiors of the Indian uprising, the British press had reported it as early as July 16, and the news had thrown the ministry into an uproar. To Egremont, Halifax, and Grenville it seemed little short of incredible that with eight thousand men under his command, Amherst had failed to keep a collection of naked savages from driving the British out of virtually every stronghold in the American interior. Indeed, by the end of the summer, with more than four hundred redcoats killed and an indeterminate number in captivity, with perhaps two thousand civilians dead and chaos engulfing every frontier from New York to North Carolina, it remained unclear that Amherst had even diminished the Indians’ momentum. And that was not all that had gone wrong in America. Everywhere from Newfoundland to Fort Pitt, troops—and not the contemptible provincials of the late war, but His Majesty’s troops, regulars—were mutinying or threatening to mutiny over reductions in pay and delays in the granting of discharges. Nowhere in America—not even in Pennsylvania and Virginia, the frontiers of which were actually under Indian attack—were colonial legislatures rallying to help the empire by raising troops. Nowhere was any legislature appropriating the money that Amherst desperately needed to suppress the insurrection.7

Meanwhile, the supreme commander scarcely had a friend, let alone a patron, left in the British government. Pitt was in opposition, Ligonier had been deprived of his most lucrative offices and all effective control over the army in March, and the duke of Cumberland had been incapacitated by a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and half-blind. When in August the earl of Egremont gave Amherst his long-sought permission to return home, however, he spared him the embarrassment of a formal dismissal by indicating only that His Majesty required advice on military affairs in America. Overjoyed, Amherst summoned Major General Thomas Gage down from Montréal, where he had marooned him as military governor in October 1760. Gage, equally happy to be spared a fourth Canadian winter, arrived at New York on the evening of Wednesday, November 16. Without ceremony Amherst handed over his papers, sketched the plans he had set in motion for the coming year’s campaigns, and formally invested Gage with the supreme command of His Majesty’s forces in North America. The next day, aboard the packet Weasel bound for Plymouth, we may suppose that Amherst heaved a sigh of relief as the coastline sank below the horizon. A man not prone to reflection, he probably wasted little time musing on his successor’s prospects. Leaving a set of colonies he despised in the care of an officer he distrusted, in the midst of an rebellion he had not foreseen, Amherst was undoubtedly preoccupied with his own immediate future. He would have to minister to a mad wife and salvage a languishing estate; but at last he would receive his hero’s reward. Only after he arrived in London would Sir Jeffery Amherst realize that he had been summoned, not to be feted as the conqueror of Canada, but to be blamed for a rebellion that—in his own mind, at least—had come out of thin air.8

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