Friday, September 12, 2008

How's The Seven Years War Going, 250 Years Ago?

In September 1758, John Forbes, a British officer who is not about to shirk his duty just because he is dying of dysentery, is doggedly pushing a road across southern Pennsylvania toward Fort Duquesne, the French stronghold at the forks of the Ohio River. Constant Le Marchand de Lignery, the Marine officer in command at Fort Duquesne, continues to probe and raid at the British advance.

But the French continue to dominate the Ohio Valley because the First Nations trust them much more than the expansion-minded colonial Americans. Forbes indeed, is irritated by his provincial aides, particularly Colonel George Washington, for the way they keep urging him to advance not via Pennsylvania, but from Virginian territory, on lands where Washington and his friends have land-development schemes in progress. Forbes sticks with the route through the rugged hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Forbes has been obliged to fortify his invasion road, stopping to build blockhouses and redoubts at regular intervals, in order to prevent a recurrence of the rout the British had suffered under General Braddock in 1755. The advance goes slowly, and general Indian hostility compounds his problems.

So Forbes has a conference with the Ohio Indians, trying to persuade them to come over, or at least cease supporting the French. His agent gets a memorable lesson in geopolitica:

“It is plain that you white people are the cause of this war. Why do not you and the French fight in the old country and on the sea? Why do you come to fight on our land? This makes everybody believe you want to take the land from us by force and settle it?”

(Who, us? Nah)

While Forbes strives and plans, his subordinates Henry Bouquet and James Grant make a lunge toward Fort Duquesne. Where Forbes has been methodically advancing a step at a time, carefully shoring up each new camp before moving forward, Bouquet and Grant hope to succeed in a rush, through sheer dash. But it is the French and Indians who know how to fight in these woods, and Grant and Bouquet make a fat target. On September 14, Grant's forces are nearly annihilated by a French-native riposte from Fort Duquesne.

Fort Duquesne and the French-Native position in the Ohio endures a while. Maybe Forbes won't get his road built before winter comes down. But his embassy to the First Nations is working. They can see the French position is eroding; they may have to switch sides.

(Thanks to Fred Anderson’sCrucible of War for details and quotations)
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