Forbes's Expedition to Fort Duquesne

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Forbes's Expedition to Fort Duquesne

FORBES'S EXPEDITION TO FORT DUQUESNE. 1758. A major operation of the French and Indian War, the American phase of the Seven Years' War. As part of the Pitt ministry's new approach to the global struggle for supremacy against Britain's traditional Franco-Spanish Bourbon enemies, the crown had committed major assets to North America. The strategic river junction later named Pittsburgh (in his honor) became a critical objective. The second expedition—Braddock's was the first—is of interest here primarily because of the many participants who went on to play key roles in the Revolutionary War. General John Forbes gathered a force of over sixty-five hundred British regulars and Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland colonials to eliminate Fort Duquesne and end French penetration of the Ohio Valley. Regulars of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bouquet's Sixtieth (Royal American) Foot and of the newly raised Seventy-seventh (Montgomery) Foot formed the heart of the strike force—the former consisting mostly of Germans and German-speaking Swiss, the latter of Scottish Highlanders. While British policy relegated many of the provincials to support and labor roles, others were given combat assignments. Future Continental army generals serving under Forbes included John Armstrong, Hugh Mercer, Adam Stephen, Andrew Lewis, and George Weedon. Colonel George Washington served as one of the four brigade commanders, the highest rank attained by any American in the war.

Both Pennsylvania and Virginia claimed the lands around the Forks of the Ohio (modern Pittsburgh) and colonial politicians expended considerable energy competing against each other to convince the imperial authorities to pursue policies that would further their ambitions. Much to the chagrin of the Virginians, Forbes chose not to follow the old Braddock Road but instead pushed west from Bedford, Pennsylvania, along a path thereafter known as the Forbes Road.

While this decision would have long-term impact on territorial jurisdiction, Forbes's greater impact came from his unique contributions to American military theory. A student of the classics (he had originally trained to be a doctor), the Scot carefully studied Roman success against the Gauls for lessons in how to operate in wilderness conditions. Forbes, like the French theoreticians Turpin de Crisse and the comte de Saxe, found inspiration in the writings of Julius Caesar. Forbes and his second in command, Bouquet, realized that regular troops' discipline would overwhelm the Indians if they could be brought into close combat, and that the regulars could accomplish that task by replicating the flexibility of the Roman legions. They especially saw careful logistical preparations and moving in 360-degree defensive formations as keys to success. Washington took this lesson to heart, and in 1779 John Sullivan replicated the tactics in his campaign against the Iroquois in the Mohawk Valley.

After spending the summer of 1758 laying that groundwork and finding Indian allies, the expedition started forward. Forbes refused to quit when the advance party under Major James Grant made a tactical error and was defeated on 21 September. The main body fought off a furious attack by French and Indians on 12 October at Loyal Hannon (Ligonier). Forbes paused here during a period of bad weather to improve the road and bring up supplies. On 12 November, however, Bouquet learned from three prisoners that the French garrison was in desperate straits—Bradstreet's capture of Fort Frontenac had isolated Duquesne, and the Indians were deserting—and resumed the advance. Faced with inevitable defeat, the French garrison destroyed Fort Duquesne and Bouquet took possession on 25 November 1758.

Forbes Road, constructed at tremendous effort between Bedford and Pittsburgh for this expedition, was used for the next thirty years not only as a military line of communications, but also for a stream of settlers. In later centuries, U.S. Route 30 has followed roughly the same trace.

SEE ALSO Colonial Wars; Grant, James; Sullivan, John.

                        revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.