Amherst, Jeffrey

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Amherst, Jeffrey

AMHERST, JEFFREY. (1717–1797). British general. Amherst was born on 29 January 1717 in Kent, England, one of four brothers. The Amherst family's neighbor at Knole, the duke of Dorset, gave young Jeffrey a place as a page and in 1731, through Sir John Ligonier, an ensigncy in the First Foot Guards. Thereafter, Ligonier continued to be Amherst's military patron. He was Ligonier's aide-de-camp during the war of the Austrian succession and saw action in Germany at Dettingen (1743), in Belgium at Fontenoy (1745) and in Holland at Rocoux (1746). He then became staff intelligence officer to the duke of Cumberland, with whom he served at Laffeld, in Germany, in 1747. He continued as Cumberland's protégé into the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). In 1756 he was promoted colonel of the Fifteenth Foot, was at Hastenbeck (Germany) with Cumberland the following year, and survived the disgrace of Cumberland's forced surrender in the Convention of Kloster Zeven. Afterward, Amherst stayed on in Europe as commissary to the German troops serving in the British army.

In 1758, this middle-ranking staff officer—who had never directed a battle—was chosen by William Pitt, then secretary of state for Britain, to be major general commanding an expedition against the French at Fort Louisburg, in Canada. He had the advantage over James Abercromby and John Forbes, fellow British officers leading troops in the region, because Amherst was delivered by sea to a place where he could direct a conventional military operation, rather than having to slog through endless forest to a distant and far less glamorous objective. He made the most of his advantages. Supported by Admiral Edward Boscawen's naval squadron, and ably seconded by James Wolfe, Amherst safely landed his 14,000 men and opened a formal siege. Louisburg fell in seven weeks, a triumph that contrasted dramatically with Abercromby's blundering at Fort Ticonderoga, in New York. Pitt promptly sacked Abercromby and made Amherst commander in chief in his place. At the end of the year, as he settled into his new job, Amherst heard of Forbes's success at Fort Duquesne (near present day Pittsburg).

A tall thin man with a cold manner and formidable organizational powers, Amherst soothed the feelings of colonial officials and officers and carefully assembled the men and materials for a new campaign. In 1759 he personally led the force that took Fort Ticonderoga, while Wolfe attacked Quebec and John Prideaux's expedition took Fort Niagara. Amherst, the soul of caution, decided not to press on to Montreal that season, but on 8 September 1760 his converging columns forced Governor Phillippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil to surrender New France. Amherst's Achilles heel was his dislike and ignorance of Native Americans, many of whom were former allies of France. His insistence upon slashing spending on trade goods and presents to them convinced many of these groups that the British meant to exterminate them. The result was the outbreak of Pontiac's War in 1763, during which Amherst proposed to use biological warfare, and his recall to Britain before the end of the year. Nonetheless, he was named (absentee) governor of Virginia at the end of the war.

Amherst became a lieutenant general in 1765. In 1768 he was angered by being asked to resign his absentee governorship of Virginia so that the sinecure could be given to Lord Botecourt. At first the British government's opposition championed Amherst's cause, using his complaint in order to attack Pitt's ministry. The affair was ended by George III, who offered Amherst a peerage and a pension equivalent to his income as governor. Amherst rejected the pension but was promised other posts with adequate remuneration: in 1770 he became governor of Guernsey; in 1772 he was made lieutenant general of the ordnance; and in 1776 he was granted the title of baron.

In the early 1770s the new prime minister, Frederick North called on Amherst for advice as the American situation worsened. Although he fully supported the government's policies, Amherst declined an offer of the American military command in 1774 and another after the battle of Saratoga in 1777. Early in 1778 he was appointed to the cabinet office of commander in chief, but was uncomfortable in the company of politicians. He had little to say, and could only with difficulty be induced to give reasons for his opinions. Consequently, although on the whole he opposed sending more troops across the Atlantic, he had little influence on the direction of the war. He was far more at home in the other dimension of his job, as commander of the home forces. He made careful plans to meet a Bourbon invasion, a real possibility by the summer of 1779, and acted firmly and properly in suppressing the anti-Catholic riots led by Lord George Gordon in 1780.

A political innocent, Amherst was surprised when the fall of the North ministry in 1782 was quickly followed by his own dismissal and replacement by Seymour Conway. In the House of Lords he voted against the peace proposals offered by William Petty, second earl of Shelburne, who was then Prime Minister of Britain. He also opposed the India Bill proposed by Charles James Fox, which was intended to give the Crown greater control over the administration of The East India company's administration of Bengal. Amherst eventually supported William Pitt the younger, after he became prime minister in December 1783.

Amherst was given a second peerage in 1788, and was recalled to be commander-inchief at the outbreak of war in 1793. His age and taciturn nature worked against him, however, and two years later Pitt reluctantly replaced him with Prince Frederick, duke of York. Amherst became a field marshal in 1796 and died on 3 August 1797.

SEE ALSO Abercromby, James (1706–1781); Forbes's Expedition to Fort Duquesne; Louisburg, Canada; Pontiac's War.


Amherst, Jeffery. The Journal of Jeffery Amherst, Recording the Career of General Amherst in America, from 1758 to 1763. Edited by J. C. Webster. Toronto: Ryerson, 1931.

Anderson, Fred. The Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2000.

Brumwell, Stephen. Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755–1763. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dowd, Gregory Evans. War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations and the British Empire. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Long, J. C. Lord Jeffery Amherst: A Soldier of the King. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

Nester, William R. "Haughty Conquerors": Amherst and the Great Indian Uprising of 1763. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.

Patterson, A. T. The Other Armada: the Franco-Spanish Attempt to Invade Britain in 1779. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1960.

Shy, John. Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.

                                   revised by John Oliphant