The French And Indian War In Pittsburgh: A Memoir

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Along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes the French organized their armies shrewdly and swiftly; their power was centralized and military. The English had quite enough to do to govern diverse interests in thirteen scattered colonies. This war provided the colonies’ first occasion to act together, and they wasted four years before various kings, parliaments, and colonial assemblies could raise an army big enough to drive the outnumbered French from North America. It was during this time that Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia published a famous cartoon; it pictured a snake in eight fragments and read JOIN, OR DIE.

In the winter of 1754 the British, moving up from Virginia, began throwing together a fort in the virtual wilderness at the point where the rivers met. They named it Fort Prince George. Two months later superior French forces came down from Lake Erie and overwhelmed it. They built Fort Duquesne on its ashes. The war was on. For the next four years a British priority in North America was recapturing that spot.

For those four years the French controlled the Ohio country from Fort Duquesne. If they could keep it, they would confine the British on this continent to the Eastern seaboard. They supplied the fort at great pains from the Great Lakes via an overland portage to an Allegheny River tributary; up and down this rocky route they poled, paddled, and shouldered their pirogues. Their cargoes were beeves and salt, soldiers, arms, priests, and white women.

From Fort Duquesne the French set their Indian allies to raiding far-flung English-speaking settlements and homesteads. (The few nearby settlers had fled back over the mountains.) In 1756 the French commandant at Fort Duquesne bragged in a letter that his men had “succeeded in ruining the three adjacent provinces, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, driving off the inhabitants, and totally destroying the settlements.…The Indian villages are full of prisoners of every age and sex.”

From Fort Duquesne the French marched out and defeated George Washington at nearby Fort Necessity—really not a fort but only an earthworks hastily thrown up to defend the handful of Virginia troops trying to cut a military road. It was a battle fought south of Pittsburgh in a natural meadow at long range in the rain.

Most vividly, from Fort Duquesne the French marched out and defeated Gen. Edward Braddock. Braddock’s 1755 attempt on Fort Duquesne, the best the English could do, was not good enough. From Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac, the stiff old soldier drove his English and colonial troops over the wretched mountain track in June and July, ridge after ridge, building bridges over every creek for wagons and cannon. In one four-day period they covered only twelve miles. George Washington was aide-de-camp and complained bitterly about the frequent halts. Indian scouts were, of course, picking off Braddock’s scouts and any stragglers. Finally the English abandoned half their troops, artillery, and supply wagons, pushing on toward Fort Duquesne with light infantry.

The outnumbered French and Indians met them ten miles from the fort, along the Monongahela at the later site of the Thompson works of U.S. Steel. It was the first battle in a new kind of warfare, a kind of warfare that the English found monstrously unfair: opponents fired from cover. You couldn’t see them.

The English line of march was deployed under a long hill. The French seized that hill, crouched behind tree trunks, and fired down at leisure. The Indians spread out along their flank, ducked behind tree trunks, and fired at leisure. It was a rout. The panicked English couldn’t retreat because their own arriving soldiers blocked the road. Only 459 British survived, out of 1,386. It was one of the very few battles dominated by Indian warriors; later the French and English armies would meet each other minus Indians. As Braddock was dying of a hole in his lung, he said with old-style aplomb, “We shall better know how to deal with them another time.”

After the battle the Indians brought their prisoners back to their villages outside Fort Duquesne. An English boy inside the fort—a former Indian captive—saw them come in. The Indians were firing muskets into the air. Some were wearing red coats and officers’ hats. They began stretching “hundreds” of scalps on hoops. The prisoners were naked. The Indians had already painted the prisoners’ faces black, with ashes, to mark them for torture.

Just off the point where the rivers met, there was a low bar called Smoky Island. It was there that the Indians routinely tortured their prisoners. The French liked it ill but judged that if they failed to hand over prisoners for torture, the Indians would lose interest and go away. (British officers would also be known to turn prisoners over to their Indian allies for torture.)

At sunset all the Indian families accompanied the prisoners in canoes to Smoky Island. The men tied the prisoners to stakes and piled coals on their feet. Women heated ramrods over fires until they glowed, then drove them into the prisoners’ nostrils or ears. The children practiced shooting arrows into them.

Inside Fort Duquesne the English boy found the dying men’s screams upsetting. Trying to comfort him, a kind French soldier gave him a volume of sermons. The sermons were in English; the soldier had picked up the volume that morning after the battle, from among the bodies of his enemies.