French and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy

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The French and Indian War (1754–1763) climaxed the 150-year Anglo-French contest for dominance of North America in trade, culture, and religion. The war was also part of two other persisting contests: the seven-century-old Anglo-French dynastic rivalry that had become global and the two centuries of American Indian resistance to European invasion.

origins of the conflict

The improbable flashpoint for this war was the Upper Ohio valley, an underpopulated borderland between Iroquois and Algonquian peoples that had been resettled from the 1720s onward by Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois hunter-farmers who traded furs and deerskins with both French-speaking Canadians and English-speaking Pennsylvanians. Although the main Canadian trade routes to Illinois country and to Louisiana passed north and west of this region, Canadians feared disruption and had evidence of Indian defection to the Pennsylvanians, who were expanding trade with the French-allied Hurons and Miamis in the 1740s. The Canadians responded with an armed diplomatic tour in 1749 that threatened English traders and planted plaques proclaiming French sovereignty. Canadians then began imprisoning what they regarded as illegal Pennsylvania traders and supported the Ottawa-Ojibwa destruction of the westernmost English trading base at Pickawillany in 1752. The following year the French governor of Canada sent an army of fifteen hundred to build and man forts between Lake Erie and the Allegheny River, forts that asserted French occupation, channeled trade, and effectively excluded their English rivals.

Initial resistance to this French escalation was lame. Three protests by Mingo chief Tanaghrisson, the Iroquoian "Half King" in the region, were dismissed by the Canadian commanders; most Indians of the region cautiously waited to see whether increased competition between the European rivals

might provide trade and diplomatic advantages. The Pennsylvania government increased gifts to its new Ohio Indian allies and urged unity among them, but the pacifist Quakers who dominated that colony's assembly had no intention of sending armed support. Like the French government, the British authorities were neither ready nor anxious for war but responded to Iroquois alarm by sanctioning a British intercolonial conference that finally met in Albany, New York, in June and July 1754. The Albany Conference placated the Iroquois with gifts and pioneered famous discussions about colonial unity, but it failed to achieve the intended diplomatic or military cooperation between colonies.

The Virginia elite, whose desire for western lands had been incorporated in the Ohio Company of Virginia (chartered in 1749), was willing to fight, but soon discovered its limitations. Virginia's initial protest, conveyed by a young Virginia militia officer and Ohio Company stockholder named George Washington, was dismissed by the Canadian commander of the new Fort Le Boeuf just as firmly, if more politely, as Tanaghrisson had been. The Ohio Company hurriedly built, and attempted to fortify, a storehouse at the forks of the Ohio River. In April 1754 more than five hundred Canadians, equipped with cannon, needed to fire not a single shot to prompt the surrender of forty-one Virginia workmen and soldiers. The victors promptly built Fort Duquesne on the site. Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia, having secured British permission to use force against the Canadians, raised a motley 159-man Virginia regiment led by Washington. Guided by a dozen of Tanaghrisson's comrades, they ambushed a Canadian reconnaissance party, capturing twenty-one and killing ten, including ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. This peacetime assassination of Jumonville, as it was called by the French, eventually became a diplomatic weapon of France in Europe; more immediately, it prompted retaliation by some seven hundred French, Canadians, and Indians led by Jumonville's brother. Reinforced to number four hundred, Washington's force attempted to defend another hastily fortified Virginian storehouse, aptly named Fort Necessity, but Washington surrendered on 3 July 1754. This formal surrender, complete with hostages given to ensure adherence to the terms, escalated tensions but did not necessarily mean war between Britain and France.

british defeats

The British government responded in 1755 with its own show of force to remove what it considered to be French encroachment on British-claimed frontiers. General Edward Braddock led two undermanned regiments of British regulars to Virginia, where they recruited colonials and attempted to accomplish part of an elaborate strategy in which four nearly simultaneous British and colonial expeditions were to capture French forts Duquesne, Niagara, St. Frédéric, and Beauséjour. Braddock's expedition against Fort Duquesne initially progressed well, building a road and hauling cannon through mountainous terrain, but the campaign ended disastrously just nine miles from its destination. On 9 July Braddock's advance column of 1,450 was halted by more than half as many Indians and Canadians. Under cover of the surrounding woods, Ottawa, Ojibwa, Wyandot, and Potawatomi warriors flanked the redcoats and fired on the exposed and confused column for more than three hours. Fully two-thirds of the English were killed or wounded in this humiliating defeat, a higher casualty rate than suffered by the defeated side in any major European battle of the era.

The other three English armies fared somewhat better, though only one of them accomplished its objective. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts led an English army that stalled 150 miles from its target, Fort Niagara, and instead merely strengthened dilapidated Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. Colonel William Johnson led the third English army's fifteen hundred colonials and three hundred Iroquois, who failed to reach Fort St. Frédéric on Lake Champlain but won a hard-fought, defensive Battle of Lake George in August 1755. As this army cut a sixteen-mile woodland road and hauled siege guns north from Fort Edward, it was challenged by a fast-moving vanguard of 700 Indians, 600 Canadians, and 220 French grenadiers led by the newly arrived Major General Jean-Armand, baron de Dieskau, who had led irregular troops in Europe. Dieskau intended to cut Johnson's line of supply by capturing Fort Edward, only to find his Indians would not attack that fort. Dieskau then trapped part of Johnson's army, sent back to support Fort Edward, in a major ambush known as the Bloody Morning Scout, on 8 September 1755. Chasing the survivors back into Johnson's camp at Lake George, Dieskau was again stalled by Indian reluctance to face cannons, even though these were still being set up behind overturned boats and wagons. This artillery, ably managed by Captain William Eyre of the British army, was unsuccessfully attacked by Dieskau's grenadiers, although their discipline unto death so unnerved their opponents that they did not counterattack. Although Dieskau had displayed tactical brilliance and adaptability, he was defeated by differences between guerrilla war in Europe and in America. Wounded in the day's final battle, he became Johnson's prisoner-guest. Johnson became a baronet and a hero in a year when the English had few of them. His force had not reached its objective; it had built a road that exposed northern New York and was content to build a substantial fort to defend it, Fort William Henry.

The only English army to reach its objective in 1755 was a force of 2,000 New Englanders and 250 British regulars commanded by British colonel Robert Monckton. He quickly secured the surrender of Forts Beauséjour and Gaspereau on the Acadian isthmus; then his army was used to expel some six thousand Acadian neutrals who had been less-than-enthusiastic British subjects for more than forty years. New Englanders confiscated Acadia's farmlands and coal mines as well as consolidating what was already part of their trading empire. The British declared war on France the following year and, ignoring obvious lessons from 1755, sent nearly five thousand additional regulars to America, commanded by the able but impolitic John Campbell, earl of Loudoun, who could gain neither adequate colonial cooperation nor the military initiative.

Although outnumbered in population by twenty to one, Canada under native-born governor Pierre-François de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, was able to take the military offensive between 1755 and 1757. Braddock's defeat had reinforced a widespread Indian preference for Canadian traders over American frontier farmers, and even the strong Iroquois hostility to the French abated after losses in the Bloody Morning Scout caused the Iroquois League to reassert its formal neutrality in the Anglo-French war. The war afforded the Indian allies of New France opportunities to avenge innumerable injustices and to roll back white encroachment by as much as two hundred miles in borderlands from Maine to the Carolinas. In independent raids, and in those where they were accompanied by Canadians, the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo Indians conducted a parallel war in which they captured nearly two thousand whites who were adopted to strengthen Indian communities, to blunt retaliation, or to be redeemed profitably. However, these raiders also killed at least twice as many as they captured and drove refugees from a swath of destroyed farms. British colonial militias, regiments, and governments became wholly preoccupied with the unsuccessful defense of vast woodland frontiers against surprise attack.

New France, as Canada was called by the French, gained more from its Indian allies than the distraction of its colonial enemies. Indians integrated well into Canadian offensive operations of 1756 and 1757. Fort Oswego had been a thriving English trading post on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, with vulnerable supply lines that reached 150 miles to Albany. Throughout the winter of 1755–1756, Indian and Canadian scouting parties took prisoners and burned boats, effectively isolating Oswego. In March 1756, Indians from mission settlements in Canada joined Canadian and French regulars in a surprise attack on a major supply depot at Fort Bull, New York, where they destroyed gunpowder, ammunition, and provisions intended for Fort Oswego, as well as burning wagons, boats, and Fort Bull itself. Dieskau's replacement as commander of the French regulars in Canada was a more conventional, maneuver-conscious General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. He was apprehensive about Vaudreuil's planned siege of Fort Oswego, a diversion that left the Lake Champlain–Richelieu River corridor poorly protected in the summer of 1756, when British regulars were massing at Albany for a predictable push north. In August the siege of Fort Oswego was over as soon as Montcalm's first battery chanced to kill the garrison commander. The siege was so short that it failed to draw any British reinforcements from Albany, leading Montcalm to apologize to the French court for a victory that had violated prevailing military conventions. Montcalm was clearly unwise in taking the captured garrison of 1,640 soldiers back to Canada, where another crop failure made it almost impossible to feed civilians, soldiers, and prisoners of war and also made it difficult to gather supplies for the next campaign.

The centerpiece of the Canadian offensive of 1757 was the siege of Fort William Henry at the south end of Lake George. A garrison commanded by the fort's architect, Major Eyre, had successfully withstood an attack in March, though boats and outbuildings were destroyed. Some eighteen hundred Indians from as far away as Acadia and the Mississippi valley were recruited to join more than six thousand Canadian and French regulars in Montcalm's second annual summer siege. Hundreds of Indian scouts led preliminary raids; cut the fort's communications; and killed, captured, or forced back all English scouting parties seeking information on French strength or movements. Even an English reconnaissance down Lake George by 350 men in a fleet of twenty-two whaleboats was trapped and destroyed by an armada of Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Menominee canoemen who killed or captured 250. Indians and Canadians again formed the French army's van, isolating the fort and the adjoining entrenched camp and sustaining a small-arms battle while the first battery of French cannon was being prepared. The attackers had brought four mortars and thirty-six cannon, and siege preparations were shortened by ferrying each of these guns the length of Lake George on two lashed-together bateaux. The log-faced and sand-filled walls of the fort were as much as thirty feet thick, but the sleep-deprived defenders ran out of ammunition and usable cannon. Without reinforcement from Fort Edward, Lieutenant Colonel George Monro was compelled to surrender on 9 August.

the tide turns

The capture of Fort William Henry marked the apex of Canadian fortunes in the war. Immediately afterward, however, there was evidence of a turning tide. To honor the bravery of his opponents and to avoid further aggravation of Canadian food shortages, Montcalm granted the defeated a military parole, the freedom to return to nearby Fort Edward in exchange for a promise not to fight in the subsequent eighteen months. Montcalm's Indian allies, who had joined the expedition on promises of scalps, prisoners, and captured goods, disrupted the retreat of the defeated; but of the 2,308 parolees, all but 308 were saved by the French and Canadians. Their success in protecting or recovering so many of the parolees infuriated the victorious Indians. For this reason, and because they had carried a deadly smallpox epidemic back to their communities, these allies would not return in their previous numbers to support Canada again.

French strategy was shifting because of the French government's enthusiasm for Montcalm's successes, which increased his influence and led to the choice of conventional defensive preferences in place of Vaudreuil's more aggressive and more irregular strategy. This change may well have been inevitable, as British military efforts and fortunes improved. Loudoun's failed attempt in 1757 to besiege Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, had used much of the increased manpower Britain had sent to America. France, however, could not match these troop commitments because of the emergence of a major land war in Europe and the increasingly effective British naval blockade of French ports.

The British opened the 1758 campaign with a new government leader, the eloquent and efficient William Pitt, who was committed to providing more troops, more money, and new military commanders for the North American theater of war. In a strategy roughly parallel to the failed operations of 1755, though now focused on the conquest of Canada, the British again attacked four targets simultaneously: Louisbourg, Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga), Fort Frontenac, and Fort Duquesne. In July some thirteen thousand British regulars under Major General Jeffrey Amherst, supported by a fleet of thirty-nine ships and fourteen thousand sailors successfully besieged Louisbourg. Meanwhile, Major General James Abercromby hurriedly ordered a conventional frontal assault on Fort Carillon, located on Lake Champlain, in July; fifteen thousand attackers were unable to overcome a massive abattis of freshly cut trees with sharpened branches, ably reinforced by thirty-five hundred defenders under Montcalm. In the wake of this failure, Abercromby approved a successful surprise attack in August on Fort Frontenac, on Lake Ontario, by a force of three thousand colonial volunteers under Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet. Farther west that summer, seven thousand men under Brigadier General John Forbes built a fortified road, similar to those created in subduing Scotland a decade earlier, through Pennsylvania to Fort Duquesne. Indian allies from various tribes joined the Canadians repeatedly in challenging the road builders, but local Shawnees, Delawares, and Mingos eventually abandoned their French allies in the face of Forbes's army, and the French evacuated and demolished Fort Duquesne

before the end of November. More than fifty-two thousand men had succeeded in three of four British offensives in 1758, whereas fewer than ten thousand had been defeated in three of four major engagements in 1755.

The British invasion of Canada in 1759 was cautious and methodical. Nearly one thousand Iroquois, lured from their uneasy neutrality, joined the British army that successfully besieged Fort Niagara in July 1759. During the same month, the French evacuated Forts Carillon and St. Frédéric ahead of British invaders, drawing their forces together for a final defense of Canada. While increasing numbers of Indians abandoned the French on sensing British victory, former Cherokee allies of the English were provoked into war with South Carolina in 1759. The Cherokees raided borderland settlements, harassed invading armies, and successfully besieged remote Fort Loudoun in August 1760. It would take three summers of punitive expeditions, which systematically burned evacuated Cherokee towns and vital crops, to provoke a negotiated peace.

quebec and montreal

The celebrated British conquest of Quebec, the capital of New France, in 1759 was a fortunate conclusion to a three-month siege that was failing. Montcalm had refused to be drawn out of the town's natural and man-made defenses, and Brigadier General James Wolfe had been unable to deploy his larger amphibious forces successfully. A well-executed final gamble brought four thousand British troops up a steep, narrow passage to the Plains of Abraham early on the morning of 13 September, challenging the town's weaker landward defenses and cutting communication with Trois-Rivières and Montreal. Like Abercromby at Fort Carillon the previous year, Montcalm moved too hastily against an enemy he thought was not yet effectively deployed. The British won the brief but deadly battle that would kill both commanders and gained control of the city four days later. Control of New France's capital was not decisive; British defenders lost a remarkably similar second battle for the town the following April and were besieged within the town when a British fleet arrived to reverse fortunes in mid-May. That same navy had sufficiently crippled its French counterpart the previous November, across the Atlantic at Quiberon Bay in Brittany, to ensure that a British rather than a French flag was flying from the first ships up the St. Lawrence River in the spring of 1760.

The British campaign of 1760 was a carefully planned accomplishment of the obvious. Early in September three British armies, totaling seventeen thousand men, approached Montreal from three directions, arriving within two days of each other. Governor Vaudreuil sensibly surrendered New France on 8 September, and that news was conveyed to the western trading posts without prompting any immediate resistance. The French and Indian War was over. At expense so great as to bring severe fiscal and political problems, British regulars had learned to fight in North America and Europeans had imposed enough of their martial culture so that the war ended in formal siege and surrender. The veteran British regulars were redeployed against the French and Spanish in the West Indies, taking Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique and Havana in 1762, all of which would be returned in the peace. Young George III had succeeded his grandfather as king of England in 1760 and strongly urged peace. In the Treaty of Paris, signed 10 February 1763, the diplomatically adept French court recovered the economic core of their Atlantic empire: sugar plantations, slaving stations, and access to the Newfoundland fishery. To regain these assets, the French accepted the British conquest of New France and ceded to the British all French rights to lands east of the Mississippi.

See alsoAcadians; American Indians: Old Northwest; Canada; Diplomatic and Military Relations, American Indian; Forts and Fortifications; Washington, George .


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Gipson, Lawrence H. The British Empire before the American Revolution. 15 vols. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1936–1970.

Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years' War in America. New York: Norton, 1988.

Middleton, Richard. The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years' War, 1757–1762. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

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Ian K. Steele

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