“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…


A fter two hundred years upland New England still bears his imprint: in a college town of western Massachusetts; at Lake Amherst, Vermont, not far from Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace; in New Hampshire’s Amherst on the old Boston Post Road. North from Charlestown, New Hampshire—the eighteenth-century military base that was once Fort Number Four—one can still trace the indentations of his 1759 Crown Point Military Road as it twists across into the Vermont hill country and on toward Lake Champlain.

Jeffery Amherst was born in 1717 and died in 1797; of his eighty years a mere five were spent in America. Yet those five years, in which he rose from obscurity to commander in chief of His Majesty’s forces in North America, weighed more in the balance of his reputation than the other seventy-five grouped together. And all the glitter of those five triumphant years was a reflection from the brilliance of the first two. Amherst’s major achievements—achievements that placed him just below Marlborough and Wellington in the great triumvirate of British generals—were bounded by that bright May day of 1758 when his fog-hampered ship brought him into Halifax Harbor and the lowering September morning before Montreal, in 1760, when he received the unconditional surrender of Canada from the governor of New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil.

On the third of March, 1758, Colonel Jeffery Amherst, competent aide-de-camp to the incompetent Duke of Cumberland, received a note from the new First Secretary, William Pitt, who, almost by default, found himself heading the government much in the manner that Winston Churchill succeeded the unfortunate Neville Chamberlain two centuries later. Pitt’s message was brief: “Mr. Secretary Pitt presents his compliments to Major-General Amherst and sends him herewith His Majesty’s commission to be Commander-in-chief at the siege of Louisbourg.” So in a few pen strokes the young colonel was promoted from anonymous staff work in piecemeal continental battles to the direction of the vast North American war theater.

Pitt’s advent was like a hard wind sweeping into the fusty corners of bureaucracy, blowing away the entrenched rubbish of the years. England in 1757—the year Pitt came to power—had declined from Marlborough’s victories early in the century to a state of chronic failure abroad, and at home to a mood of static disillusionment and fear that at times approached panic. “This almost degenerate England” was Pitt’s cleansing phrase. And the Great Commoner was able, like Churchill in 1940, to rally the country behind him. His vision was of an encompassing English empire of free men, a commonwealth united in self-sustaining parts. To him the future of his country lay across the Atlantic, not in dynastic quarrels on the Continent.

It was clear to Pitt that the first step in his grand design must be to drive the French from North America. Before Canada could be conquered, however, two steps were necessary: the recapture of Louisbourg, and the reduction of Fort Ticonderoga. The formidable fortress-bulk of Louisbourg—reckoned with the Quebec citadel and Gibraltar the strongest in the world—controlled the St. Lawrence lifeline. Fort Ticonderoga, on its surly Champlain promontory, dominated the approaches to Montreal from the south. Remove them and Canada could be outflanked and enveloped.

In 1745, during King George’s War, New England volunteers under the Kittery merchant William Pepperell had launched their own expedition against Louisbourg. Enthusiasm and ignorance, luck, bravery, and French negligence carried them through to success ( see “Yankee Gunners at Louisbourg,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1955). Hut three years later at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle the British government with characteristic ineptitude returned Louisbourg to the French in exchange for Madras—a city most New Englanders had never heard of.

Though Pitt, on becoming first minister, had scarcely heard of Colonel Amherst, he was shortly to hear a great deal about him from the new commander in chief, the French-born Sir John Ligonier. Ligonier, who had succeeded the Duke of Cumberland, knew Amherst well and had formed a flatteringly adequate estimate of his still-untested capacities. Most recently, he had seen the Colonel’s potentialities in the way he had organized the rear-guard action that saved Cumberland from capture by the French army at the Battle of Hastenbeck in July, 1757 Ligonier had tested Amherst as an aide-de-camp; he knew his grasp of strategy, his relentless capacity for staff work, his instinct for making the correct tactical decisions.

Amherst was not a dashing commander. One visualizes him at a desk rather than on a horse. The flamboyant quality of a Wolfe or, later, a Montgomery or a Patton was quite alien to him. Not for him the gesture that carried Wolfe to triumph at Quebec, but neither for him the panache that tripped Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown. His contemporary, Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, wrote of Amherst in his memoirs: …I have scarcely ever known a man who possessed more stoical apathy, or command over himself.”