Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Fight for Oversea Empire

The Seven Years War

Hostilities Before the War




[This text was written by William Wood and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

THE home government had sent out Braddock, a general of the bulldog type, and a couple of regular battalions, to lead the local. militia in reasserting the British territorial claims. In April Braddock arranged with the principal governors to make a fourfold attack on what the British called French encroachments. Braddock was to attack Fort Duquesne ; Shirley, Niagara ; Johnson, Crown Point ; and Monckton, Fort Beauséjour. Fort Duquesne and Fort Beauséjour were unquestionably on disputed ground, and attacks on them would, from the British point of view, be only the eviction of intruders. But as the French had held Crown Point for over a quarter of a century, and Niagara for quite three-quarters, they might certainly claim that attacks on these points constituted open war.


Braddock laid out an extensive plan for his own force. After taking Fort Duquesne he was to march north to join Shirley at Niagara, and then east to Crown Point, in case Johnson required his support. But he had reckoned without the obstacles from friend and foe. The colonial assemblies were nearly always at loggerheads with the imperial authorities on both sides of the water. They would not join together to defend themselves, though they could not defend themselves if they did not join together. Much less would they place their resources at the disposition of the home government. What they really wanted was thirteen separate little armed mobs, separately controlled by the thirteen little assemblies, and paid for entirely by the home government. But narrow, selfish, and contemptibly unstatesmanlike as they nearly always were, they were not the only ones to blame. The home government was often crassly inattentive to many personal points on which it might have pleased the more sensitive colonials instead of exasperating them-for instance, the vexed question of relative rank between regulars and militia. It frequently hesitated, blundered, and got lost when balancing the relative importance of world-trade, British interests, and colonial expansion. Trade, empire, colonization - these three have never been harmonized completely, not even in the twentieth century ; so who can blame a failure under the more difficult conditions of the eighteenth ? But 1755 was a bad year, even for the eighteenth century; and the worst colony in this worst year was Quakerish Pennsylvania, always ready for peace at any price to others and any advantage to itself. Its Moravian missionaries were men of peace ; but they upheld their principles with their lives, and set a noble example of kindness towards the Indians ; whereas the trading Quakers simply lived as parasites in a land which owed its existence to the sword. Besides, on occasion, they would shrink from their principles as much as they always shrank from their proper share of the burden of defence ; for in 1764 they actually took up arms against some of their own fellow-countrymen who threatened Philadelphia.


A great deal more energy was wasted in friction between the fourteen governments than was directed in armed strength against their common enemy. But at last Franklin, by a happy exercise of business ability, got enough transport together, and Braddock started. In the middle of May the British force of two thousand men was at Fort Cumberland , one hundred and thirty miles from Fort Duquesne, which Contrecoeur had just completed. Half Braddock's men were well-drilled regulars, a quarter were colonials recently enlisted to recruit their ranks, and the remainder were militia. Washington had gladly accepted Braddock's invitation to be his aide-de-camp ; and there were other local officers who knew the country and the kind of warfare to be expected. But Braddock paid little attention to their warnings, and thought the European methods would certainly prevail over any American conditions. Yet there is this excuse for Braddock - the government he served had shamefully neglected all preparation for war, even in Europe ; it had never studied American conditions, but sent out its troops utterly untrained and unequipped to meet them ; all he had hitherto seen of American ways was bad; and he was a mere mediocrity, not a genius. Progress was slow, and the road-making was unnecessarily elaborate, while the scouting was poor. It was July 7 before Braddock reached Turtle Creek, some eight miles from Fort Duquesne, with twelve hundred of his best men.




Meanwhile the French were getting anxious at the approach of a force whose strength had been much exaggerated by rumour. Contrecoeur decided at last to send out an ambuscading party of 36 officers and volunteer cadets, 72 regulars, 146 Canadians and 600 Indians of a dozen different tribes. Captain de Beaujeu was in command, Captain Dumas, well known in later campaigns, was second, and Captain Langlade, who had taken Pickawillany three years before, was again leading his irregulars. The Indians, of course, were perfectly versed in every shift and expedient of bush fighting. They took cover instinctively, could keep touch when very widely extended, and never lost their sense of direction. The French and Canadian partisans imitated them to good purpose, and sometimes surpassed them in effectiveness at their own war game. The British regulars, on the other hand, having been trained for quite a different kind of campaign, only made themselves a better target when they massed, and lost their cohesion when they extended. When given the chance they learnt their new lesson well enough. But those under Braddock would have been more at home if suddenly told off to man a ship in action than they were when marched straight from the barrack to the bush.


July 9 was a perfect summer's day, and Braddock's men made a brave show of brilliant scarlet and bright steel as they marched towards Fort Duquesne in close formation, so as to impress the enemy with a due sense of their irresistible strength. Suddenly an engineer sighted Beaujeu, who wore a gaily-fringed hunting-dress, and who immediately waved his hat as a signal to his followers to take cover right and left. A British volley killed Beaujeu, and this so dismayed the Canadians that some of them ran away. Then the British guns opened fire, and the Indians also began to run. But the French regulars stood firm ; the Canadians and Indians were rallied, and the fight was resumed. No formal body of the enemy ever appeared ; but presently the surrounding forest was alive with unseen sharp-shooters, picking off the British with alarming rapidity and ease, while themselves apparently invulnerable against the steady volleys the regulars were giving in return.


There stood the dense red lines, in the full glare of the midsummer sun, like a living wall fronting a battering train continually breached, as the men fell fast in every part of it, yet continually repaired, as others took their place. Braddock was furious with the Virginian rangers for taking cover and ordered them into line, where they were shot down like the rest. He exposed himself fearlessly in a vain effort to keep the formation, and had no less than four horses shot under him. But the slaughter soon became more than flesh and blood could stand. The ranks quivered, wavered, caved in and melted into a shapeless red mass under a redoubled fire from all quarters. Just then Braddock was mortally wounded and, realizing the hopelessness of his position, gave the signal for a retreat from which hardly a man would have come out alive had the French pressed home the pursuit. As it was the loss was immense. Only a quarter of the force escaped unhurt. Out of eighty officers sixty-three were killed or wounded. The French loss was equally remarkable, but in the opposite way, as it barely amounted to one-tenth of that on the British side. The victory and defeat were both decisive, and made a profound impression everywhere. The British frontier shrank back into the Alleghanies, and the French remained the undisputed masters of the whole of the Ohio valley.


Shirley's expedition to Niagara met with no such disaster, but it was a dead failure nevertheless. It only reached Oswego towards the end of August, and after a month there decided not to advance against Niagara, since the French at Frontenac (now Kingston) were watching their chance to slip into Oswego, from which, as was well known to both sides, Shirley's half-mutinous provincials could never turn them out. A garrison of seven hundred was then left behind, and the rest marched home.




Meanwhile Johnson, like Shirley, had rendezvoused at Albany, where they both remained long enough to march off on their own expeditions under the shadow of Braddock's defeat. Johnson was a much-commissioned major-general, as every colony that sent him any men made him a major-general to command them. The raw militiamen came in slowly, everything lagged, and only Johnson's popularity kept the impatient Indians from deserting. Dieskau, the French general, had learnt the British plans from papers taken at Braddock's defeat, and changed his own, against Oswego, in order to meet Johnson near Lake George. Each side had about three thousand men all told, but the French alone had regulars. Had there been more of these the result might have been very different. But Boscawen had captured two French transports in the gulf, enough to turn the scale of victory ashore. Dieskau was naturally emulous of the French success at Fort Duquesne and, thinking the enemy's main body was falling back on Albany, took a picked force from Ticonderoga down to the southern end of Lake Champlain, where he landed for a surprise attack on Fort Lyman, twenty miles across very difficult country. Johnson, hearing of this, sent a message to the fort. But the French Indians shot the messenger, and Dieskau then found out that Johnson's main body was still at the southern end of Lake George, no further to the right than Fort Lyman was to the front. Dieskau wanted to push on to seize and hold the fort. But the Indians refused to face the big guns they thought were mounted there; and Dieskau had to turn back to attack Johnson's much superior numbers on even terms. The French had 1,500 men, of whom only 220 were regulars. The rest were Indians and Canadians in equal numbers. The British had about 1,000 more. On hearing of the French advance Johnson sent Colonel Ephraim Williams with 1,000 men to meet them. This force walked into an ambush much as Braddock had done two months before. Williams and Hendrick, the Mohawk chief, were killed. But as the provincials took cover and retreated much faster than the red-coats had done at Fort Duquesne they suffered correspondingly less. Still, this preliminary fight was long known in New England as 'the bloody morning scout.' When Johnson heard his men retiring he finished his preparations for defence, laagering his wagons and placing his guns to sweep the main approach. Dieskau lost a golden opportunity of rushing the enemy on the heels of Williams's men, because he had to wait to form his own, who had now got somewhat out of hand. This gave the enemy time to pull themselves together and receive him with a steady fusillade. The French regulars and Johnson's guns began the fight, which soon became furious on both sides. Johnson and Dieskau were wounded. Lyman succeeded Johnson, but Dieskau continued in command. Numbers and position began to tell. The French attack weakened, and the triumphant provincials, jumping over their own barricade, rushed to the counter attack. The Canadians and Indians gave way at once; but the little knot of French regulars held their ground, and most of them were clubbed to death as they stood at bay. Dieskau, four times wounded, was taken prisoner; and his shattered army fled through the woods back to South Bay. The reunited French then fortified themselves at Ticonderoga, while Johnson built Fort William Henry on the ground he had won. His reward was a baronetcy, £5,000 and the thanks of parliament. Lyman, who was at least equally deserving, got nothing. The news of this unexpected victory revived the spirits of the Americans, and naturally made them think still more of their own men and still less of the red-coats.


Another British success, but of a pettier kind, was the surrender of Fort Beauséjour in Acadia. Vergor, its commandant, made only the feeblest resistance. He was one of the worst of the corrupt kind of colonial officials, and repeated his disgrace four years later when, through his carelessness, Wolfe's men were allowed to climb the heights at Quebec unopposed.




The remaining act of war was the expatriation of the Acadians. These people had passed under British rule after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. They had repeatedly refused to take any binding oath of allegiance. Their sympathies were naturally with the French. They were strongly influenced by the Abbé le Loutre, who left no means untried to keep them hostile to the British. And some of them had been found among the garrison of Fort Beauséjour. They were, in themselves, neither better nor worse than other men, and it was not their fault that they were living between two jealous rival powers at a very critical time, when each had to use all legitimate means of strengthening itself and weakening its opponent. Yet they undoubtedly were a potential factor on the French side, and so unfortunately situated as to be a very dangerous menace to the British. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had left the Acadian boundaries unsettled. Commissioners sat for years at Paris trying to make a delimitation. But before the commission began its labours the French occupied some of the disputed territory on the neck of the Acadian peninsula, where they built Fort Beauséjour. The fact was that the French and British were manoeuvring for position all along the line, and the Acadians could not be neutral, even if they had so wished. Acadia was an outpost of the French in Canada, a landing-place for the French from Europe, and a living link between the two. The Acadians had been mildly ruled for forty years - as is unintentionally proved by the pictures of their happy life, drawn by the compassionate school of writers. But since this did not turn them into friends, and since they could not safely be allowed the chance of turning into active enemies, they had, perforce, to be rendered neutral. A sparse population could not be interned as it stood. A concentration camp was impracticable. So deportation was the only alternative. In any case, this would have been a rough-and-ready expedient, as time pressed and means were scanty. But it certainly was carried out with needless brutality, families being broken up and scattered about indiscriminately all over the British Colonies, each of which tried to shift this unwelcome burden on to its unwilling neighbours. On the whole, the expulsion of the Acadians was a quite justifiable act of war, carried out in a quite unjustifiable way. (1)


Thus 1755 closed in America with the balance of military advantage decidedly in favour of the French. The naval scale, however, inclined in favour of the British. The irresolute cabinet had not given Boscawen full information and a free hand. Consequently, he failed to bring the French fleet for Canada to decisive action, as he should have done, on the sound principle of striking hard or not at all before a declaration of war. Yet he and Hawke, who captured three hundred French vessels on the high seas, did good service in clipping French wings on both sides of the Atlantic.


(1) Parkman has taken the same view; but it can be and it has been disputed. Deportation in war time has been resorted to by other powers. But is it justifiable? That is the question. For the opposite side on that controverted point, the reader may consult Abbé Casgrain's Un pèlerinage au pays d'Evangéline, and Richard's Acadia. (Note of the special editor.)

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Source: William WOOD, "The Fight for Oversea Empire: Hostilities before the War", in Adam Shortt and Arthur G. DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 238-246.




© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College