Born January 29, 1717 Kent County, England
Died August 3, 1797 Kent County, England
British general who led the siege of Louisbourg and the capture of Montreal
Jeffery Amherst was one of Great Britain's military heroes during the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War). In 1758, the young officer received a surprise promotion and was sent to North America to command a major military expedition. Amherst led the successful British attack on the fortified French city of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1758, which resulted in another promotion—this time, to commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America. The following year, he captured two important French forts on Lake Champlain and cleared the way for British forces to attack Montreal. In 1760, French forces surrendered Montreal to Amherst to end the French and Indian War and give the British control over North America.
Moves up the ranks of the British Army
Jeffery Amherst was born on January 29, 1717, on his family's country estate at Sevenoaks in Kent County, England. (Some sources spell his first name "Jeffrey.") He was the second son born to Jeffery and Elizabeth (Kerril) Amherst. He joined the British Army in 1731, at the age of fourteen, and first served as a page (a personal assistant or servant) for a family friend, Lionel Sackville, the duke of Dorset (1688- 1765). Ten years later, Amherst was appointed aide-de-camp (a top military assistant) to General John Ligonier. Amherst fought in Europe during King George's War (known as the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe) from 1744 to 1748. When the French and Indian War began a few years later, he was initially posted in Germany, where he helped collect supplies for British troops led by William Augustus, the duke of Cumberland (1721-1765).
The French and Indian War began in 1754 in North America, where both Great Britain and France had established colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country). The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin. Both the British and French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies and offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations whose members had lived on the land for generations. As Iroquois influence started to decline in the mid-1700s, however, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. Once Great Britain and France officially declared war in 1756, the conflict spread to Europe and around the world.
In the early years of the French and Indian War, the French formed alliances with many Indian nations. The French and their Indian allies worked together to hand the British and their American colonists a series of defeats. In 1757, however, William Pitt (1708-1788; see entry) became secretary of state in the British government and took charge of the British war effort. Pitt felt that the key to defeating France was to attack French colonies around the world. He decided to send thousands of British troops to North America to launch an invasion of Canada. Like other British leaders, Pitt was frustrated by the British Army's lack of success in North America. He felt that part of the problem was a lack of strong leadership. When Pitt asked his top military leaders for the names of talented young officers to direct the war in North America, General Ligonier recommended Amherst.
In January 1758, Amherst was called back to England to meet with high-ranking government officials. A few days later, he received a surprise promotion and new orders. "Mr. Secretary Pitt presents his compliments to Major-General Amherst," the orders read, "and sends him here with His Majesty's commission to be Commander-in-chief at the siege of Louisbourg." Many people were surprised that Amherst was selected for such an important mission. After all, he was only forty-one years old and had never led an army before. But Pitt recognized that the young officer had many good qualities. For example, he was well organized, calm under pressure, and believed in caution and methodical planning.
Leads the siege of Louisbourg and the capture of Montreal
Amherst soon set sail from England and arrived in Nova Scotia, along the Atlantic coast of Canada, in late May. His ships then proceeded north to Cape Breton Island, carrying twelve thousand British Army troops. Their mission was to attack Louisbourg, a heavily fortified French city that guarded the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. If the British forces could capture Louisbourg, then they could move up the St. Lawrence to attack the important French cities of Quebec and Montreal. Amherst planned to lay siege to Louis-bourg. A siege is a military strategy that involves surrounding a target, cutting it off from outside help and supplies, and using artillery to break down its defenses. The first British forces landed on June 8, and a month later they had surrounded the city and begun pounding it with artillery fire. The British finally broke through Louisbourg's defenses and forced the city to surrender on July 26.
Pitt and other British leaders were thrilled by Amherst's success at Louisbourg. By the end of 1758, they had promoted him to commander in chief of all the British armies in North America. In 1759, British leaders planned a threepart attack that they hoped would lead to the fall of Canada. While two separate armies attacked Quebec and Fort Niagara, located between Lakes Ontario and Erie, Amherst would lead a third army in an attack on Fort Carillon (also known as Ticonderoga), at the south end of Lake Champlain. Amherst and his ten thousand troops reached the French fort in late July and began digging trenches for a siege. The badly outnumbered French abandoned and destroyed the fort a few days later. After capturing Fort Carillon, Amherst moved his forces northward to Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point on Lake Champlain. By the time the British forces arrived, however, the French had abandoned and destroyed that fort as well. In the meantime, British forces also succeeded in capturing Fort Niagara and the city of Quebec.
In 1760, Amherst came up with another three-part plan to complete the invasion of Canada. He decided to send three separate armies toward Montreal from different directions—west up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec, north across Lake Champlain, and east across Lake Ontario. Amherst hoped all of these armies would converge on the city at the same time, trapping the French troops and forcing them to surrender. He led his forces—which consisted of twelve thousand men, including one thousand Iroquois warriors—to Montreal from Lake Ontario. As planned, the three armies reached Montreal by early September, and the city surrendered on September 8. This event marked the end of the French and Indian War in North America, six years after it had begun.
Indian policies cause a rebellion
As soon as the fighting ended and the British took control of North America, settlers from the American colonies began streaming westward to claim land in the Ohio Country. These settlers soon came into conflict with the Indians who had lived there for many generations. In 1761, Amherst established a new set of policies designed to reduce the conflict between settlers and Indians and bring order to the frontier. He ended the practice of gift-giving, which had long been used by both British and French to gain the cooperation of Indians. He also placed restrictions on trade between settlers and Indians. For example, Amherst prohibited British traders from selling alcohol to the Indians, and he limited the amount of gunpowder and ammunition the Indians could buy.
Amherst disliked the Indians and saw no further need for them after the British had achieved victory over France. He thought the new rules would make the Indians behave better and make the frontier less dangerous. But the Indians had come to depend on British goods for their survival. Before long, a new wave of violence erupted as the Indians rebelled against Amherst's rules and struggled to maintain their rights and independence. The largest Indian rebellion took place in the summer of 1763, when an Ottawa chief named Pontiac (c. 1720-1769; see entry) arranged for a number of tribes to attack British forts throughout the Great Lakes. The Indians captured several forts and placed several others under siege, until they were finally forced to surrender in the fall. In the meantime, British leaders grew frustrated at Amherst's inability to control the newly conquered territory. They recalled him to London in late 1763.
Amherst held the title of governor of Virginia until 1768, when King George III (1738-1820; see box in William Pitt entry) decided that the governor should live in the colony and asked Amherst to return to North America. Amherst resigned from the position rather than move to Virginia. In 1770, he was named governor of Guernsey in England. In 1775, as the situation in the American colonies neared full-scale rebellion, the king asked Amherst to serve as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Once again, however, Amherst refused to return to America and instead became a military advisor to the British government. He received the title of baron in 1776. Two years later, when France entered the war on the side of the Americans, Amherst became commander-in-chief of British forces in Europe. He retired from the military in 1795, and the following year he received the honorary rank of field marshal, the highest honor in the British Army. Amherst died in 1797, at the age of eighty, on his estate in Kent County. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts, is named after him.
For More Information
Amherst, Jeffery John Archer, Earl Amherst. Wandering Abroad: The Autobiography of Jeffery Amherst. London: Secker & Warburg, 1976.
Dictionary of American Biography. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2d ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
"Jeffery Amherst and Smallpox Blankets." NativeWeb: Resources for Indigenous Cultures Around the World. http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff.html (accessed January 27, 2003).
Long, John Cuthbert. Lord Jeffery Amherst: A Soldier of the King. New York:Macmillan, 1933.
Mayo, Lawrence Shaw. Jeffery Amherst: A Biography. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1916.
Nester, William R. "Haughty Conquerors": Amherst and the Great Indian Uprising of 1763. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.
Amherst and the Smallpox Blankets
Although the French and British signed a treaty ending the French and Indian War in 1763, the American colonies continued to face violent Indian raids along their western frontiers. Some of the Indians were lashing out in anger against General Jeffery Amherst's new policies toward the tribes. Amherst decided to use regulations and punishment to control the behavior of the tribes. The general placed restrictions on trade between British settlers and Indians and prohibited the giving of gifts, which had long served as a means of securing Indian cooperation.
Many Indians resented the new rules and became determined to resist British control. An Ottawa chief named Pontiac led an Indian uprising that led to the capture of several British forts in 1763. The Indians surrounded several other forts, including Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt, and placed them under siege.
Amherst was outraged to hear about the rebellion and decided that the only way to maintain peace on the frontier was to get rid of the Indians. He knew the British forces that were defending Fort Pitt against the Indian siege had come down with smallpox, a highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus to which the Indians had no immunity. According to NativeWeb.com, Amherst sent a letter to one of his field commanders, Colonel Henry Bouquet (1719-1765), in which he suggested that the defenders of Fort Pitt send blankets infected with smallpox to the Indians: "Could it not be contrived [arranged] to send the Small Pox among those disaffected [rebellious] tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem[scheme or trick] in our power to reduce them." Although it is not known whether Bouquet followed through on Amherst's suggestion, a smallpox epidemic affected many Indian nations around this time.
Amherst expressed his desire to commit genocide (the deliberate destruction of an entire race or culture) against the Indians in several other letters. For example, as quoted from NativeWeb.com, in a letter written in 1763 to William Johnson (1715-1774; see entry), the British official in charge of Indian affairs, Amherst discussed "measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation [complete destruction] of those Indian Nations." He apparently did not have the same strong feelings about his other enemy. His correspondence shows that he considered the French a worthy opponent and wanted to treat them humanely under the rules of war.
Amherst's suggestion of sending smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians is one of the earliest examples of biological or germ warfare (intentionally using an infectious disease as a weapon). Unfortunately, there is some concern that the smallpox virus could be used as a weapon again in the future. By the 1970s, the disease had been virtually wiped out around the world. As a result, the United States and many other countries stopped immunizing their citizens against smallpox. However, samples of the virus have been preserved for the purpose of scientific research, so there is a possibility that terrorists might someday get hold of these samples and use them to spread smallpox among large groups of people.