December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Lord Jeffery’s name is “known to fame,” but it was the five years he spent in America that rescued him from obscurity
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.”
When the matter of the Amherst appointment as leader of the projected Louisbourg expedition was first brought to George II’s attention, the King was affronted by the idea of elevating an obscure colonel to such a command. Politics being the trite art of the possible, it took the tactful intervention of the King’s mistress, the Countess of Yarmouth (at the urging of Pitt), to change that stubborn monarch’s mind. The art of the possible operated, too, in forcing Pitt in turn to accept the bumbling James Abercromby as commander of the Ticonderoga expedition. But Pitt’s own art saw to it that Abercromby’s second-in-command was the gay and winning brigadier, Lord George Howe, whom Wolfe had called “the noblest Englishman that has appeared in my time and the best soldier in the army.” Pitt’s thought and intention was for Abercromby to have the renown while Howe did most of the commanding. So began the year of decision.
For five hundred years the Amhersts, a respected minor county family of lawyers and clergymen, had sunk their roots in Kentish earth. The boy Jeffery grew up in the small ancestral brick country house, Brooks Place, at Sevenoaks, under the vast manygabled shadow of the Sackvilles’ Knole. Jeffery himself at the age of twelve went to Knole to become a page to Lionel Sackville, the seventh earl and then first duke of Dorset. Six years he remained there as an informal attendant and secretary to the Duke. Then, through the latter’s friendly interest and with the help of Marlborough’s old general, the Huguenot John Ligonier, young Jeffery at the age of eighteen received an ensign’s commission in the First Regiment of Foot Guards.
The next seven years, spent in the trivial pageantry of peacetime military life, were finally ended by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (in its American phase, King George’s War).
Sixteen thousand English troops, among them the Foot Guards, were sent to Flanders to aid the Austrians against the French and their allies. Amherst first saw action in June, 1743, when the so-called Pragmatic Army, composed of the English, Hanoverians, and Hessians, and commanded by Ligonier, defeated the French at Dettingen. Dettingen—the last battle in which a British sovereign appeared in person on the field—was a shabby victory won only by Ligonier’s courageous improvisations and the anonymous discipline of the ranks.
Not for almost two years, however, did he again see action, and this time in sorrier circumstances, when the Pragmatic Army, now under the command of the purblind Duke of Cumberland, was defeated by Marshal Saxe’s French troops at Fontenoy. In this battle, the English suffered the added humiliation of having their lines broken by the Irish Brigade. That same year Amherst was made a lieutenant colonel, and just before the peace treaty was appointed aide to Cumberland.
After Aix-la-Chapclle he resumed peacetime soldiering in England, an eligible field officer well known and welcome in the London social world. Not until he was thirty-six years old did he finally marry, and then no London belle but a plain second cousin from Kent, Jane Dalyson, seven years his junior. For a while the couple lived in London, happy in their life together. But this domestic contentment was to be Meeting, almost illusory, for though no one had yet realized it, Jane’s mind was tragically flawed, and under the pressure of mere marginal stresses, she would soon become insane.
Forced to move about from camp to camp, Amherst left his wife in charge of the otherwise empty Brooks Place. There her loneliness hardened to sullen anger that in turn bred paranoid suspicion. Indeed, she may have had some justification, for whenever Cumberland was in town her husband, as an aide, led the life of the London season as if he were a bachelor.
Jane’s reaction to his absence was one of withdrawal and silence. In 1757, Amherst was again ordered to the Continent, and from there continued to write her endearingly and at much length, but she could scarcely be persuaded to reply. Once his military career was over, he had always planned for the pleasant after-years to be spent with Jane in the rural bloom of Brooks Place. The gradual disintegration of this dream threw him back on his profession.
In the summer of 1757 Lord Loudoun, commanding the British forces in North America, had organized a desultory expedition against Louisbourg that somehow never managed to sail out of Halifax Harbor. One of Pill’s first acts was to recall him. For this new year Pitt wanted surprise and action. Not even the War Office stand-bys knew of Amherst’s appointment until he had sailed to take up his command. Admiral Edward Boscawen—his name still endures in a New Hampshire town—who was in charge of the fleet operations, had sailed several weeks before, as had James Wolfe and two other brigadiers with the bulk of the forces.
The British and colonial forces against Louisbourg numbered about 12,000, the naval crews somewhat more. Behind the demi-lunes and bastions of the fortress lay a French force of 3,000 regulars, a thousand militia, with a large band of Indians and 2,600 seamen, under the sternly vigorous command of the Chevalier de Drucour. The French counted on balancing their lack of numbers by their advantages of fortification and terrain. Their primary advantage was, of course, the jagged stone-capped shore line and the turbulence of the sea approaches.
It was this barrier that an amphibious force under Wolfe succeeded in penetrating alter an initial repulse. Once the beachhead was established and additional troops and supplies rushed through, the fate of invested Louisbourg was scaled. Methodically, relying as much on his engineers as on his infantry, Amherst proceeded to garrote the beleaguered citadel. After a siege of seven weeks, Drucour was forced to surrender without terms.
The first step in Pitt’s conquest of Canada had been achieved. Young Billy Amherst, serving as his brother’s aide-de-camp, was sent back to London with the dispatches. Long unaccustomed to victory, the gray capital city celebrated with fireworks, parades, and artillery salutes. The captured French standards were carried through the streets to St. Paul’s, and the Archbishop of Canterbury offered public thanksgiving. “This is the greatest news!” Pitt exclaimed.
On the day Amherst occupied Louisbourg he wrote to Pitt: “If I can go to Quebeck , I will.” But the ink was scarcely dry on his letter before he received the belated news of Abercromby’s disaster and knew the year would not see him there, fust nineteen days. before Drucour’s surrender, “Mrs. Nabbycromby”—the name given by the provincials with mimicking exactness to their English commander—had shattered his great army in a hopeless frontal attack against the Ticonderoga fortifications. Of Abercromby’s 15,000 men almost 2,000 were lost in six hours. His promising subordinate, Lord Howe, had been killed in the underbrush in a preliminary skirmish. Instead of victory, New York and New England now faced the renewed terror of Indian raids down the Mohawk Valley. Amherst realized he would have to divert his fortes to aid Abercromby before something worse happened.
In spite of the anticlimax of Ticonderoga, Bostonians still found an undimmed luster in the name Louisbourg. When Amherst, with the major part of his forces, arrived in the Massachusetts capital on September 13, he was given a conqueror’s reception. Clergymen held services of thanksgiving in all the churches, while the laity opened doors and bottles impartially. “The Troops remained encamped on the Common of Boston,” Amherst observed in his journal, “where Thousands of People came to see them and would give them Liquor and make the men Drunk in Spite of all that could be done. I sent patroles round the Town all day & night.”
He moved through the burnished autumn countryside, skirting (he Berkshires on his way to Albany where he met Abercromby’s demoralized army; on November 9 the latter was recalled and Amherst made commander in thief of all the British forces in North America. From his winter quarters in New York, Amherst laid his final plans for the postponed conquest of Canada. He saw it as a three-pronged drive: from the east up the St. Lawrence to Quebec; from the south to Montreal by way of Ticonderoga; from the west a blockade by way of Niagara and Oswego and La Galette (now Ogdensburg, New York) to seal off any French retreat.
The great year began on January 12, 1759, when Amherst appealed to Abercromby’s disgruntled veterans by issuing a general pardon for all deserters who rejoined the colors before March. To the impetuous Wolfe he gave full responsibility for the Quebec campaign, although he placed him under his orders for all other operations. Brigadier John Prideaux was to re-establish Oswego—demolished by the French nearly three years earlier—and then combine with Sir William Johnson for an attack on Fort Niagara.
Amherst left the most difficult task to himself, that of attacking Canada by way of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. His colonial detachments had been slow in arriving, and by June, when he pitched camp at the foot of Lake George, his total force was less than half that of Abercromby’s the year before. A sullen month followed of humid heat-struck days interspersed with deluging thunderstorms. Black flies swarmed, and morale sank. But for the French Indians lurking beyond the clearings, there might have been even more desertions than there were. The provincials swore that Ticonderoga was enchanted.
On July 22, with what boats and canoes he could still gather, Amherst finally set off up Lake George. Some of the men improvised sails from army blankets. It was a much more utilitarian advance than the glittering show of the previous year. The troops followed the stream and falls leading from Lake George into Lake Champlain, made a portage, and landed on the opposite bank three miles from Ticonderoga. Two more miles of bushwhacking brought them to a sawmill near a waterfall about a mile from the fort. A bridge by the falls had been partially destroyed by the withdrawing French outposts. With his usual precision, Amherst spent all that day and evening bringing up cannon.
Next morning he led his army across the bridge that his sappers had managed to repair during the night. His intention was to outflank Ticonderoga by marching past it to the north and setting up his siege lines on the shore of the lake. From the near bank by the sawmill he could see eight hundred yards away to the French lines where Abercromby’s army had been slaughtered the summer before. But as he eyed the zigzag impalements he could scarcely believe his eyes. In the hard slanting light there was a stir and flutter of white uniforms. The French were withdrawing into the fort.
Amherst needed no second look. He ordered his troops ahead over the roughest ground they had yet encountered—gullies and outcroppings of granite, felled trees, bramble thickets, and the mire of unexpected bogs. It took the men two hours to cover the distance to the old entrenchments. There the treespiked barrier stood, deserted, a death’s-head memento of the year before, with the star-shaped fortress glowering on beyond. “In the center of the line,” Brother Billy noted, “the French had erected a high cross, with a large grave dug and left open before it.” On the cross was a copper plate with the Biblical taunt in Latin: “Bury their generals here, like Oreb and Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna.”
Though Billy recorded it in his Journal , the taunt meant little to his practical brother. Amherst had not been to bed for two nights, yet still with controlled energy he directed the unloading and setting up of his cannon, the cutting of new paths, and the erecting of fortifications. He did not sleep that third night either. By morning the first arc of his batteries was ready. A sunrise cannonade set the roof of the fort afire, and soon the English could see the Frenchmen swarming out like ants from a trodden anthill.
As the ring of cannon closed in, Robert Rogers’ Rangers scoured the woods. Whenever a French head appeared above the walls, a provincial sharpshooter was waiting to draw a bead on it. Amherst’s mind was flexible and he relied equally on European and colonial military experience. In his besieging army were unknowns whose names would be better known later—among them Israel Putnam, Ethan Allen, John Stark, and Benedict Arnold.
If Amherst was not Abercromby, the Chevalier de Bourlamaque, the French commander, was no Montcalm, even though he commanded as many men as had the latter in his victory the year before. Bourlamaque had had his orders from Vaudreuil to abandon both Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the approach of the English and retreat to the more defensible isle aux Noix (Nut Island) just beyond the entrance to the Richelieu River. Bourlamaque followed his instructions to the letter. The same evening that Amherst brought up his cannon, Bourlamaque embarked with his main body of 2,500 men and headed up the lake, leaving a Captain Hebecourt behind with a holding garrison of 400.
Two days later Amherst’s clock-work siege tactics had brought him almost to the granite walls of the fort. But by this time he had learned of Bourlamaque’s withdrawal, and late in the afternoon he observed more boats heading up the lake from the fort. Three deserters came to tell him that Hebccourt had gone with the last of his men, lighting a fuse to the powder magazine as he left. Amherst vainly offered them a hundred guineas to go back and cut the fuse. At eleven o’clock that evening Ticonderoga exploded, one bastion blowing up and setting the barracks afire. Several volunteers rushed in to capture the still-intact French standards. And so the enchanted fortress, the dread of the provincials, had fallen, with a loss of sixteen killed and fifty-one wounded.
Ticonderoga fell on the twenty-sixth of July. Two days earlier and three hundred miles away, Sir William Johnson, who assumed command alter Prideaux had been killed by a shell fragment, had received the surrender of Fort Niagara. Meanwhile, at the apex of the military triangle, Wolfe was planning his unfortunate Montmorency Falls attack of July 31.
Within a few days Amherst was ready for his advance on Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point, fifteen miles to the north. But before his army reached the fort he learned from scouts that it, too, had been blown up and abandoned. In his unhindered occupation of the area, Amherst saw Crown Point as a key military base for the northern colonies and set about reconstructing and enlarging it on a grand scale. Through the full August days he consolidated his position, sending out exploring parties, cutting his military highway across Vermont to the Connecticut River, and building a brigantine and two additional vessels to challenge French control of Lake Champlain.
For his deliberateness at Crown Point Amherstearned the adjective “cautious” and the subsequent censure of Parkman and others who felt that if he had shown more dash in pushing on he might have concluded the war that year. History is full of such tempting “perhapses.” A Wolfe might have taken the chance, but Amherst was not a man who took chances.
As long as the French controlled the lake with their four small warships, Amherst felt that he must wait for his own navy before he could advance on the Isle aux Noix. Then, too, he was maneuvering in the unknown, for dispatches from the other fronts were much delayed. It was mid-August before he learned of Johnson’s victory at Niagara, and not until October 18 was he notified of the fall of Quebec and Wolfe’s death in the battle a month earlier. The week before, his newly launched flotilla had swept the French from the water, but autumn storms were scouring the lake now, and Brigadier Thomas Gage, whom he had sent to succeed Prideaux, had stalled at Oswego. By the time first frosts had blackened the roadside greenery, Amherst knew that the year’s campaign must end with the Montreal heartland still intact.
So far, the conqueror of Louisbourg and Ticonderoga had gained military glory, but little else. In a day when successful—or even unsuccessful—generals felt entitled to enrich themselves with spoils, Amherst astonished everyone with his self-denying honesty. He did feel, however, that some recognition was due him from the Crown. After all, even an amateur soldier like Johnson was made a baronet for his relatively minor victory over Dieskau at Lake George. George II felt otherwise. He still looked coldly on Pitt’s protégé, and only the First Minister’s threat of resigning brought Amherst the modest reward of the governorship of Virginia. Even then Amherst hesitated. The catch was that he might be required to stay in America, and his permanent aim was still to return to Kent and his fretful wife. Only when he was promised that he would never have to go there did he accept the Virginia appointment.
Spring brought the familiar problem of raising money and men, and somehow Amherst managed it once more. Again he planned a three-way advance. Brigadier the Honorable James Murray, who had succeeded Wolfe, was to move up the river from Quebec. On Lake Champlain, Colonel William Haviland was to succeed to the command with the task of taking the fortified Isle aux Noix and breaking into the St. Lawrence Valley. In a surprise shift Amherst himself would replace the lethargic Gage and advance his main force of 11,000 men to La Galette, not this time for a holding operation but—and in this lay the brilliance of Amherst’s conception—to strike unexpectedly at Montreal by a quick thrust down the St. Lawrence.
For a moment Amherst’s plans hung in the balance when in April Murray’s inadequate and winterscourged garrison was besieged in the citadel of Quebec by the superior forces of the Chevalier de Lévis. Only the timely arrival of ships from England with supplies and reinforcements saved him from capitulation. It was not until late in July that Amherst was able to complete the organization of his expedition. Parked in bateaux, whaleboats, and canoes, and protected by gunboats, his water-borne army left Oswego for La Galette on August 10. The same day Haviland set out from Crown Point. Murray, following orders, had sailed from Quebec on July 15.
After two hundred years Amherst’s plan still seems an unexampled demonstration of co-ordinated staff work. As Parkman noted: “Three armies advancing from three different points hundreds of miles apart, by routes full of difficulty, and with no possibility of intercommunication, were to meet at the same place at the same time or, failing to do so, run the risk of being destroyed in detail.” And they met!
Murray’s slow passage up the river with 2,500 men was almost as uneventful as a cruise. Late in August his fleet dropped anchor just below Montreal.
Haviland with a force of 3,500 regulars and provincials that included Rogers’ Rangers found Nut Island easy to crack. The dispirited French defenders put up only token resistance, falling back to St. Johns and then to Chambly. Both military posts were soon overrun by the English. Haviland arrived at Lachine opposite the island of Montreal on the evening of September 6 and at once communicated with Murray.
It took Amherst five days of wandering through the intricate channels of the Thousand Islands before he reached La Galette, where his gunboats captured a French armed brig. Just below La Galette was the midstream island, Fort Lévis, which he reduced in three days. From there he came to the most perilous part of his voyage, the rapids of the St. Lawrence. At first the men were lucky in shooting the Galops, Point Iroquois, Point Cardinal, and Rapid Plat without accident, even though the water was unusually high that summer; but twenty soldiers were lost at the Long Sault, and three days later sixty-four more drowned in the swirl of the Cascades and Cedars rapids. From there on, though, it was a smooth journey to Lachine, where Amherst arrived the morning of September 6, almost simultaneously with Haviland. He brought his army across the river at once, and marched them the nine miles to the walls of Montreal, where they camped on the plain above the town.
The situation of Vaudreuil, encompassed within the town by three armies, was hopeless. His militia had deserted him; of his regulars there were only 2,400 left, and Montreal was paralyzed with refugees. Sending his aide, Bougainville, to discuss terms, he proposed a cease-fire until it could be determined if peace had been made in Europe. To the defeated French, Amherst would give no terms, not even the customary honors of war, because of the atrocities of their Indian allies. “I have come to take Canada, and I will take nothing less,” was the message that Amherst sent back to the French governor. Vaudreuil had no choice. On September 8, 1760, he ceded Canada unconditionally to the British Crown.
With Canada’s surrender, the control of its government devolved on Amherst, and here he showed himself as capable a statesman as he had been a general. Although his terms to the military had been harsh, he treated the French civilians with generous-minded consideration. As little as possible was done to change French-derived laws, customs, and property rights.
The fall of Canada united the mother country and the American colonies in a common enthusiasm in which the soon-to-be-clouded future was scarcely suspected. In England the victory was proclaimed by a Gazette Extraordinary and by impromptu celebrations all over London. Horace Walpole wrote that “Bonfires and squibs are drinking General Amherst’s health.” As Amherst withdrew from Canada to his old winter quarters at New York, his southward march became a triumphal procession. New York, echoing with salutes, was illuminated in his honor the evening of his arrival. He was met by the mayor, aldermen, and a committee of citizens and presented with a gold snuffbox made by Nicholas Roosevelt, on which was engraved in Latin, Conqueror of the Canadian Gauls . The commander in chief was grateful, but what he really wanted was to get back to England—and Pitt had promised he could return at the war’s end.
Unfortunately for Amherst’s private intentions, George II’s death in October altered the political balance, leaving Pitt isolated—and soon to be discarded—among the emerging favorites of the dull, well-intentioned, authoritarian young man who became George III. In his equivocal position, Pitt felt that his most successful general must stay in America until the conclusion of the treaty with France.
Amherst at the war’s end had every right to expect a peerage for his services, but with petty spitefulness the King’s party in the new reign offered him no more than a knighthood. This in a letter to Pitt he declined, but by the time his letter arrived, he had been inducted in absentia and now found he was Sir Jeffery in spite of himself. The rewards of the conqueror of the Canadian Gauls were thin: the governorship of Virginia and the Order of the Knights of the Bath.
Though Pitt had been forced out, the war declared on Spain the following year kept Amherst in America. Finally the peace was signed in December at Paris, but the commander in chief was still awaiting orders to return home when the revolt of the western Indians that began with the Ottawa chief Pontiac’s attack on Detroit broke out in May, 1763. For once an emergency found Amherst both surprised and unprepared. Sir William Johnson, who best knew the Indians and their ways, had warned him of coming trouble if they were not treated more generously, and had tried to explain that it was cheaper to keep them friendly by gifts than to arouse their unpredictable animosity. Amherst did not see it that way. To him the Indians were contemptible auxiliaries “more nearly allied to the Brute than to the Human Creation.” In wartime he had accepted their assistance with reluctance. Now that they could no longer play the English off against the French he saw no further need of conciliating them. “An execrable race,” he wrote. “I am fully resolved whenever they give me an occasion to extirpate them root and branch.”
Under the French regime the Indians had been liberally supplied with guns, ammunition, and clothing. So dependent had they become on white supplies that their old forest self-sufficiency had long been lost. When Amherst cut down on these necessities, the Indians—in many cases lacking powder even for hunting—came close to starvation. The English commander could view this with equanimity. “I cannot think it necessary to give them any presents by way of Bribes ,” he wrote to Colonel Bouquet in Pennsylvania, “for if they do not behave properly they are to be punished.”
Held on a short lead by Amherst, cheated, their hunting grounds cut back by invading settlers, driven from the forts where the French had once made them welcome, the restive tribes nursed their anger, muttering against their English overlords. In the Ohio Valley a mad mystic called the Delaware Prophet was breaking down old antagonisms and uniting the tribes in a vision of a land without white men. The defeated French, working behind the scenes, did their clandestine best to set the Indians on the English. And finally, the Indian gap in leadership was filled by the astute, resourceful, and magnetic Pontiac, who would throw down to the English the most formidable native challenge they had yet faced.
The war that received Pontiac’s name was not of his original making, and might better have been called Amherst’s War (probably the first war belts came from the disaffected Senecas). Pontiac did not, as Parkman glowingly supposed, plan a simultaneous co-ordinated attack on all the English lake forts. His daring was in striking the first blow, and his later successes were those of improvisation. Initially he plotted merely to make a surprise assault on the key bastion of Detroit; his plan was to infiltrate the fort on an ostensibly peaceful mission and then strike down the garrison.
Unfortunately for him, the English commander, Major Gladwyn, had received a secret warning—according to legend, from his Indian mistress. In any case, when Pontiac entered the fort on May 7, accompanied by sixty chiefs with weapons under their blankets, the garrison was on the alert and under arms with beating drums. Pontiac was received formally and allowed to leave, still wearing his mask of friendship. Not until several days later did he reveal himself, laying siege to Detroit until late autumn with a persistence almost unknown to the mercurial Indians. The river fort, however, was to prove too much for haphazard attacks with small-arms fife. Other English outposts were less fortunate.
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.
The King’s promises, however, were slow in fulfillment. Not until 1772 was Amherst finally made Lieutenant General of the Ordnance, as compensation for the loss of the Virginia governorship, and he was not made a baron until four years later. Meanwhile, as he fattened with domesticity and planted cherry and apple and walnut trees in the gardens of his expanding Montreal in Kent, the tide was rising across the sea. In 1773 came the Boston Tea Party and the next year, the First Continental Congress. Shortly after this latter event the King sent for his most successful general to beg him to return to America as commander in chief with, as a modern commentator has put it, “an olive branch in one hand, while the other should be prepared to obtain submission.” But Amherst once more refused to cross the ocean. He told the King he would rather resign from the Army.
After Burgoyne’s defeat and the surrender of his army at Saratoga, the King again appealed to Amherst to take up his old post. Twice George held pleading audiences, and twice Amherst refused.
There has always been a certain amount of mystery about Amherst’s declining the appointment as commander in chief of North America. Was it because he did not wish to fight against the Americans? Though it is probably true that Amherst would have found making war on old associates and friends disagreeable, his correspondence with Lord Howe shows how little sympathy he had with the colonials. It seems much more likely that he refused the transatlantic command because he could see no possibility of success. He is said to have told the King in his second audience that it would take a force of 40,000 to conquer America—an obviously impossible number in view of the renewed French threat to the homeland. Why, then, if Amherst did not believe victory possible, did he continue as senior general on the staff, advising the government on the conduct of the war? The enigma remains; the most reasonable explanation is that Amherst stayed on at the War Office because he was then chiefly concerned with the defense of England against her European enemies. Indeed, when France signed the alliance with America in 1778, he entered the Cabinet as actine commander in chief. Great Britain.
Although he had no control over the King’s American policy, he suggested on taking his post that troops be withdrawn from all of North America except Canada, and that hostilities be carried on merely through a naval blockade. At first his was a popular appointment, but his stiff-necked professionalism soon brought him dislike from all political sides.
Characteristically, at the very time, the King developed a belated affection for his hawk-nosed general. In 1778 Montreal was honored by a royal visit. Horace Walpole noted waspishly in his Journal : His [Amherst’s] success in the last war in America, and the partiality of Lord Chatham, had formerly raised his character very high; but his immoderate self-interest and obstinacy (the latter of which proceeded from his extreme slowness of conception, and fear of changing his opinions on what he at last understood for another which he was as conscious he should be as long in comprehending) had much sunk his reputation. He had gained the King’s favour by the most servile deference, and, between flattery and dulness, he pleased nobody else.
Popular disaffection found a turbulent outlet in the Gordon Riots of 1780, which turned out to be among the most savage in English history. Again and for the last time, Amherst took the field with his troops. But for the conqueror of Canada who boasted of the sixteen French battalions he had captured, the victory over a London mob that might in the beginning have been beaten back by a few hundred sturdy constables was a trumpery enough triumph.
Lord George Gordon, who gave his name to the riots, was the twenty-eight-year-old son of the Duke of Gordon; he came from a family in which madness flickered on both sides. Gordon himself was a fantastic figure, a Scottish lord who spoke Gaelic, played the bagpipes, and danced highland reels, who after ten years in the Navy was considered by the Admiralty Board “a damned nuisance wholly unsuitable for promotion,” and who would end his life in Newgate Prison as a bearded convert to Judaism under the name of Israel bar Abraham Gordon.
His chance for glory came with the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1778, a modest enough measure designed to encourage Catholic support for the increasingly unpopular American war. The bill passed unregarded, but as the months went by, it came increasingly to be the target of the emerging Protestant associations whose membership consisted for the most part of lower middle-class nonconformists. Lord George became their champion, the president of the London Protestant Association.
As president he planned to present an anti-Relief Bill petition to Parliament with over 100,000 names collected by the association. It was his madcap idea to assemble thousands of his supporters, deck them in blue cockades, and march on the House of Commons to present the petition in person. On June 2, the prescribed morning, almost 50,000 petitioners assembled in St. George’s Fields. Led by bagpipes, they started out in sober decency, wearing cockades and carrying “No Popery!” banners. By the time they reached Westminster, however, they had been joined by crowds of criminals and mischief-makers eager to exploit any disorder. That disorder came later in the afternoon when the crowd in front of the House of Lords pelted unpopular members with mud and forced them to assume the blue cockade and to shout, “No Popery!”
In the days that followed, civil authority collapsed and a wanton mob ruled the streets. What had begun as a narrow religious demonstration became an upsurging from the depths, destruction for the joy of destruction, without aim or plan. Newgate, Bridewell, the Fleet, and other prisons were burned out and the convicts liberated; Langdale’s great distillery looted; the Moorfields section where the Irish Catholic workers lived leveled; even Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s house destroyed and his library strewn in the streets.
At the outbreak Amherst, as commander in chief, brought up reinforcements to the capital. Directing the course of action in person, Amherst put down the mobs with his old impersonal efficiency. His soldiers shot several hundred rioters before order was restored, and in the course of a week’s street-fighting over eight hundred Londoners died. It was his farewell appearance as a commander.
He was sixty-three now and an old man, faced with the physiological and psychological changes of age. As the years went on he became haughty, selfish, closefisted. When the discredited North ministry finally fell in 1782 on the issue of the botched American war, Amherst—always politically naïve—was surprised to find himself dismissed, and even more surprised to be replaced as Lieutenant General of the Ordnance, a post he regarded as compensation for his lost governorship.
Out of office Amherst still remained a confidant of the King, who showed himself as stubborn in his friendship as in less worthy matters. George appointed him colonel of the Second Troop of Life Guards, which placed him close to the throne, and in 1792, as the war with revolutionary France loomed up, the younger Pitt recalled Amherst to his old post of commander in chief.
For three years Amherst remained at the War Office, conferring almost daily with the King but accomplishing little else. A crotchety age had dried up the energy and vision that had once brought him to old Ligonier’s notice. Even the dispatch with which he had scoured the streets in the Gordon riots had gone. He had become a court general. His era was over. There were other unknowns now, waiting in the wings, as he had waited half a century ago in Flanders. Two years after the French declaration of war in 1793, the King finally replaced his aged favorite. But in this last retirement his king had not forgotten him nor the ultimate military honor. On July 6, 1796, eleven months before his death, Amherst reached out a vein-snarled, nerveless hand for his marshal’s baton.