- Historic Sites
“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…
Lord Jeffery’s name is “known to fame,” but it was the five years he spent in America that rescued him from obscurity
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Checked at Detroit, Pontiac turned his attention to the smaller forts. On May 16 Ottawas and Hurons from Detroit captured Sandusky by a this-time successful ruse, and butchered the fifteen-man garrison. The rest of the isolated wilderness forts fell under similar treacherous strokes: where there had been a chain of outposts with their minuscule garrisons, there now remained nothing but blackened rectangles in the pervading greenery, a few charred timbers of block houses, an empty flagpole, the hum of flies. Only Detroit, Niagara, and Fort Pitt survived. Otherwise the west was swept clean of redcoats.
From the remove of his New York headquarters, Amherst refused to believe that the early reports signified anything more than an ephemeral flare-up. He was convinced that any post “commanded by officers can certainly never be in danger from such a wretched enemy as the Indians are.” When he learned better, he found that his skeleton army, stripped of provincials and the best of the regulars, could muster scarcely a thousand effectives. He had thought his campaigning days in America over, but now he was faced with this surreptitious war, “barren of honors and fruitful of troubles.” What makeshift aid he could muster he sent to Detroit and Fort Pitt. Then he began angry preparations for a campaign in the spring of 1764. This time he would exterminate the savages. So bitter did he feel that he was even willing to spread smallpox through the tribes by distributing infected blankets among them.
While the commander in chief was setting out plans and quotas for a new army, Pontiac, disappointed by the French and facing Indian defections, had by the end of October begun peace overtures. Amherst, however, was spared further concern by the arrival of his much delayed and hoped-for recall. He sailed from New York aboard the Weasel on November 10, 1763, glad enough to turn his troubles and his command over to Major General Thomas Gage, admonishing his plodding successor to “punish” the Indians before allowing the more lenient Sir William Johnson to treat with them.
Just before Amherst embarked, he learned that his wife Jane was under an attendant’s care, hopelessly insane. Whatever England might be for him now, his five-year stay in America was a task finished. “I have no thought of returning,” he wrote to a friend.
His reappearance in England passed off lightly—a last season’s hero was as soon forgotten as last season’s fashions. He could take that philosophically, as well as his perfunctory reception by a king indifferent to military heroes—and probably annoyed by the Pontiac outbreak. But the unexpectedly cold welcome of his old patron Pitt, now retired as Lord Chatham, was a slight that he never forgot. Back he went to Kent, to the dilapidation of Brooks Place and the demented Jane. Through a long lifetime the prospect of his declining years—bright with domestic contentmenthad been a consolation to Amherst; now they turned out to be the darkest of his life. Within a few months Jane died. Brooks Place he razed as if he would obliterate its memory, and a short distance away he erected a stiff brick barracklike house which he called “Montreal.”
Three years later at the age of fifty he married Elizabeth Gary, the well-endowed forty-seven-year-old daughter of a general, a placid, pale, yellow-haired woman whom Horace Walpole nicknamed “the white pussy.” Though no honors were forthcoming to Amherst from the Crown, the long-delayed domesticity agreed with him. For the first time his angular frame put on flesh. He was modestly well off. Besides his non-resident governorship at £1,500 a year, his colonelcies of the Royal Americans and the 15th Regiment brought him an additional £800.
Then, in 1768, he was bluntly informed by Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the Colonies, that it was the King’s wish that he take up the governorship in Virginia. He had no intention of crossingthe Atlantic again, as the King (who had already secretly appointed a new governor) was well aware. The governorship was needed for an impoverished favorite, Lord Botetourt. It was George III’s intention to fob his general off with an annuity. Amherst had expected a peerage; the bare annuity, slightingly conferred, made him seem merely another political hack let out to graze. He declined the annuity and wrote to the Secretary of War resigning his commissions.
His action caused a tremendous public clamor in London. For the Opposition Amherst’s shabby treatment furnished a convenient stick with which to cudgel the government.
Amherst spent four months in the political wilderness. At length the ailing Pitt himself made one of his rare personal appearances at court to speak out against the shabby treatment of his old subordinate. It was clear to the ministry that the stubborn king must yield, that Amherst was still too important a figure to be pushed aside so casually. Finally the reluctant George announced that though he could not at once make Amherst a peer, his old general would nevertheless be the first new peer created. His colonelcy of the Royal Americans was restored, and to replace the 15th he was made a colonel of the grd Regiment. In addition, he was to be granted 20,000 acres in New York State.