Military history

CHAPTER 6

Escalation

1754

IN WILLIAMSBURG, the news of Washington’s defeat fell on Robert Dinwiddie like a thunderclap. Within a few days he had reported to the Southern secretary, the secretary at war, the president of the Board of Trade, and practically everyone else in authority at home; had written urgently to the governors of the neighboring provinces for aid; had ordered more troops to be raised and marched to Wills Creek; had begun urging Washington to reassume the offensive before the end of the summer; and had started laying plans for a campaign of his own to extract a twenty-thousand-pound military grant from the Burgesses in their August session. With a single exception, all these endeavors failed to produce results. The Burgesses dug in their heels and refused to appropriate funds without first receiving what was tantamount to an admission of defeat from Dinwiddie in the pistole fee dispute. Washington, of course, could do no more at Wills Creek than struggle to keep the remnants of his command from falling apart entirely. Without further money from the Burgesses no further troops could be raised. Substantive help was forthcoming from none of the neighboring provinces except North Carolina, which stipulated that the monies it appropriated could only be expended within the province (a proviso that suggests the legislature was less concerned with supporting Virginia than with enlarging North Carolina’s meager supply of paper money). By early September, Dinwiddie was so depressed by his failure to elicit any response to the French threat that he was contemplating resignation. He did not yet know that the reports he had sent to his masters in London were creating the galvanizing effect that all his other efforts failed to generate. 1

The duke of Newcastle first heard the alarming news of Washington’s defeat two weeks before Dinwiddie’s official account arrived on September 16. As early as September 5 he had written that the British government did not dare suspend, or delay, taking the proper measures, to defend ourselves, or recover our lost Possessions. . . . All North America will be lost if These Practices are tolerated; And no War can be worse to This Country than the Suffering of Such Insults as these. The Truth is, the French claim almost all North America, and from whence they may drive us whenever They Please, or as soon as There shall be a Declar’d War. But that is What We must not, We will not suffer: And I hope We shall forthwith take such Measures . . . as will, for the future, put the labouring Oar, and the Complaint, upon Them.2

Newcastle still hoped that decisive action in America could restore balance there without renewing a general war between France and Britain. Such initiatives would need to be more carefully managed than ever to avoid provoking the French to further hostilities, but he believed that his continental “System” (aid to the Low Countries, subsidy agreements with strategic western German states, friendly overtures to Denmark and Spain, a defensive alliance with Austria) had made it difficult for France to respond militarily in Europe. The key to success short of war thus lay in moving swiftly, secretly, to strike a blow in America before the French could ward it off. Caught unprepared for an American war and on the defensive diplomatically in Europe, the French would be so weakened (or, as Newcastle put it, would find themselves pulling so hard on “the labouring Oar”) that they would negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the American dispute. By the time Dinwiddie’s detailed reports arrived, Newcastle had already begun thinking of sending a commander in chief and one or more regiments of infantry to the colonies, where they could be used to assert control over the Ohio lands. Indeed he had even gone so far as to approach the captain-general of the army, His Royal Highness William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, for support.

Nothing revealed the depth of Newcastle’s concern better than his willingness to enlist Cumberland’s aid, for in the ordinary course of events he regarded the duke as a dangerous man. In addition to his high station in the army, Cumberland was the favorite son of George II and notable for favoring military action over diplomacy. He had earned his reputation as a general who preferred sledgehammer tactics to restraint when he had commanded the English army in the suppression of the Highland uprising of 1745: it was not finesse that had earned him his nickname, the “Butcher of Culloden.” Allowing him too great an influence in formulating a response to the French victory on the Ohio, Newcastle knew, might be the greatest threat of all to peace. Yet because in the absence of his cooperation there was no prospect of removing the French from the Ohio Country at all, Newcastle made the necessary approaches.

Within a week after Dinwiddie’s official dispatches arrived, Newcastle and Cumberland had secured the king’s approval for a plan to send two regiments of Irish infantry to America under the command of Major General Edward Braddock. The plan of operations on which the dukes initially agreed was a comparatively moderate one, providing for the removal of French “encroachments” in three stages. First, in the spring of 1755, Braddock was supposed to dislodge the French from the Ohio Country; then he was to move northward to the New York frontier and destroy Fort St. Frédéric, which the French had maintained for the previous two decades at Crown Point on Lake Champlain; and finally he was to drive the French from the forts they had recently constructed on the isthmus connecting the Nova Scotia peninsula to the Canadian mainland. Provincial troops could be raised in the colonies to provide whatever support Braddock might need. His office as commander in chief would be expansively defined to give him authority over the colonial governors and allow him to organize the defense of the colonies as a whole. It was a plan that Newcastle approved because it progressed by stages, between which negotiations with France could be undertaken as needed. When the earl of Halifax learned of it, he was “extremely pleased,” and not only because it adopted the vigorous measures against New France that he had always believed were necessary. What Halifax liked about the plan was that it created a virtual viceroy in the person of the commander in chief: a royal official who could rationalize colonial defense and centralize colonial administration in the ways Halifax had long advocated.3

Unfortunately for Newcastle, Cumberland soon proved uncontrollable. He and his allies—especially Henry Fox, the secretary at war and one of Newcastle’s more important enemies—soon began tinkering with the original plan, making it more overtly aggressive. Fox’s public announcement in early October that “officers appointed to command regiments in America [were] to repair forthwith to their posts” destroyed the secrecy essential to Newcastle’s plans, alerted the French to English intentions, and gave Cumberland a virtual free hand in proposing further measures.

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William Augustus, duke of Cumberland (1721–65). Depicted here at age twenty-six not long after the Battle of Culloden and the suppression of Scottish resistance in the Rising of ’45, the second (and favorite) son of George II was already captain-general of the British army and the most powerful military figure in Britain. By 1754 he had grown to truly formidable dimensions in both girth and political influence. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

By the end of October the Newcastle-Cumberland plan for the staged removal of French forts from the backcountry had transmogrified into a distinctly Cumberland plan, calling for simultaneous assaults on four fronts. One expedition was to proceed against the Ohio forts, another to destroy Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, a third to demolish Fort St. Frédéric, and the fourth to eradicate the French fortifications on the Nova Scotia isthmus. When Braddock’s instructions were formally completed in late November, his orders encompassed much more than the use of the two regiments that would accompany him. Braddock would assume command over all existing regular forces in America (the three regiments of the Nova Scotia garrison and the seven independent companies stationed in New York and South Carolina); two regiments that had been deactivated in the colonies at the end of the last war were to be revived and recruited up to strength. A common defense fund was to be established from all the colonies to support the operations of these forces, and Braddock was to be its sole administrator. He had, in addition, authority to draw on the paymaster general for expenses too great or emergencies too pressing to be met from the common fund. The colonial governors were to provide all necessary quarters, supplies, and transport, and to make available up to three thousand men—to be drafted from the militia if too few volunteers enlisted to man the regiments that were to be raised or filled out under Braddock’s command.4

As the drift of policy became clear, Halifax cast his lot with Cumberland, Fox, and the rest of the militants in the cabinet. Halifax was no diplomatist, but a man whose views on foreign policy had been shaped entirely by his interest in the colonies. Once it seemed as if America was about to take center stage, he willingly ignored Newcastle’s insistence that the real issue at stake was how best to stop French adventuring without also sacrificing the peace in Europe. Measures Halifax had proposed as long ago as 1749, such as the creation by the colonial assemblies of a common defense fund, were already being implemented. How could he not have been delighted by the Southern secretary’s directive to the governors in late October, requiring them to collect monies from their assemblies and to place it at the disposal of the commander in chief?5

When Halifax threw his support entirely to Cumberland’s faction and began giving advice on military measures to be undertaken in America— good advice, because he knew more about American conditions and geography than anyone else in the government—his abandonment of Newcastle signaled the end of the duke’s ability to influence the formulation of American policy. Quite abruptly, between the middle of September and the end of October 1754, Newcastle found himself transformed from the architect of British foreign policy into an anxious onlooker. He could only wring his hands and hope that Braddock would move so quickly and succeed so brilliantly in America that the French would be unable to defend their positions there; and he could pray that the continental “System” he had worked so assiduously to maintain would forestall French action in Europe. Unfortunately for Newcastle, events in Europe were moving in a direction that made it almost certain that when Braddock sailed, all hopes for a peaceful resolution to the disputes in America would sail with him.6

As soon as the French ministry understood the aggressive bent of the British cabinet in the fall of 1754, its leaders began planning to shore up Canada’s defenses with a massive reinforcement of troops from France. Time was of the essence, for whereas the British could dispatch their troops to Virginia during the coming winter, the French had no hope of organizing an expedition in time to reach Canada before the St. Lawrence River would freeze over. It was therefore imperative to have troop transports ready to sail from Brest at the earliest moment in the spring, so as to arrive as soon as the St. Lawrence became navigable. Ultimately the French decided to send seventy-eight companies of regular infantry to Canada (nearly equivalent to the number of men in eight British regiments), and to give the command to an experienced general, Jean-Armand, baron de Dieskau. In the meantime, the French government intensified diplomatic activities on two fronts. On one hand, in an attempt to buy time and perhaps even to stave off open conflict in America, they opened direct negotiations with the British cabinet to create a neutral zone in America between the Alleghenies and the Wabash River. On the other, they continued to pursue secret negotiations with Austria that were aimed at destroying the British “System” of alliances on the Continent.7

The empress-queen of Austria, Maria Theresa, had grown increasingly unhappy with her alliance with Great Britain since the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had left the province of Silesia under Prussian control. By about 1751 she had begun to encourage her greatest diplomat, Count (later Prince) Wenzel von Kaunitz, to make efforts to reach a new understanding with France. Although no formal agreement would be signed until May 1756, when Austria and France concluded the Treaty of Versailles, Kaunitz and the French court had made considerable progress toward rapprochement by the end of 1754. What Kaunitz aimed at was nothing less than upending the existing balance of power by reversing Austria’s half-century-old alliance with Britain in opposition to France and Prussia, and replacing it with an alliance with France and Russia against Prussia. Thus Kaunitz hoped to give the empress-queen the means to regain her lost province of Silesia.8

As of late 1754, Kaunitz’s maneuvering and the French responses were still profoundly secret, but Newcastle was already beginning to suspect something was amiss. In mid-December he wrote that “the conduct of Vienna is astonishing. They act as if they had no occasion for Us.” He feared that “the great System is on the point of being dissolved.”9 In fact Newcastle’s anxieties were running ahead of his information, since it would not be until the middle of 1755 that diplomatic dispatches from the Austrian court would clearly indicate the shift in policy. Nonetheless, with his position deteriorating steadily and with the aggressive Cumberland riding high in the cabinet, Newcastle knew better than anyone else how much peace between England and France depended upon the actions of Maria Theresa and her diplomats. And if a war were to break out in Europe, no one knew better than Newcastle how weak Great Britain’s position would be.

The departure of two understrength Irish regiments from Cork to Virginia on January 16 thus carried an importance that could hardly be overstated. Everything would depend, as Newcastle knew only too well, on Braddock’s success in ejecting the French from their positions on the Ohio. All that Newcastle could do was wait, and hope.

IN FACT, events had reached a stage at the beginning of 1755 that made war between Britain and France all but inevitable. The origins of that war lay in a skein of developments so tangled that neither Newcastle nor any other diplomatist in Europe could fully have unraveled, let alone controlled, them. The decay of the Iroquois Confederacy’s neutrality policy and the rising independence of the Indians of the upper Ohio Valley; the surge of Anglo-American traders and land speculators into the region; the fears of the French for the loss of contact by way of the Ohio between New France and the Illinois Country; the anxiety of British ministers at the growth of French influence both in the interior of America and on the European Continent; the personalities of Dinwiddie, Duquesne, Newcastle, Cumberland, and even such obscure figures as Washington, Croghan, and Tanaghrisson: in the interaction of all these lay the beginnings of a conflagration that in fact already smoldered on the eastern fringe of the Ohio Valley. The realignment of the European alliance system, the posting of British and French troops to America, and the dominance of aggressive British politicians would take such comparatively minor episodes as Jumonville’s death and the Battle of Fort Necessity and make of them something much larger, much more dangerous, than even Newcastle at his most pessimistic could have foreseen. How the clash of tiny numbers of men in a frontier conflict would grow into a world war, how that war would redraw the map of Europe’s empires, and how it would transform the relationship between England and her American colonies—such a chain of events would have defied the most exuberant imagining. But in a very real sense, as Braddock’s force sailed for Virginia in the first days of 1755, everything had already come to depend upon what it would accomplish, or fail to accomplish, in the depths of the American wilderness.

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