Chronicles of America 

The Campaigns of 1755

The destiny of North America might, indeed; well have been other than it is. A France strong on the sea, able to bring across to America great forces, might have held, at any rate, her place on the St. Lawrence and occupied the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi. We can hardly doubt that the English colonies, united by a common deadly peril, could have held against France most of the Atlantic coast. But she might well have divided with them North America; and today the lands north of the Ohio and westward beyond the Ohio to the Pacific Ocean might have been French. The two nations on the brink of war in 1754 were playing for mighty stakes; and victory was to the power which had control of the sea. France had a great army, Britain a great fleet. In this contrast lay wrapped the secret of the future of North America.

As the crisis drew near the vital thought about the future of America was found, not in America, but in Europe. The English colonies were so accustomed to distrust each other that, when Virginia grew excited about French designs on the Ohio, Pennsylvania or North Carolina was as likely as not to say that it was the French who were in the right and a stupid, or excitable, or conceited, colonial governor who was in the wrong. In Paris and London, on the other hand, there were no illusions about affairs in America. In both capitals it was realized that a grim fight was on. During the winter of 1754-55 extensive preparations were being made on both sides. France equipped an army under Baron Dieskau to go to Canada; Britain equipped one under General Braddock to go to Virginia. Each nation asked the other why it was sending troops to America and each gave the assurance of benevolent designs. But in the spring of 1755 a British fleet under Admiral Boscawen put to sea with instructions to capture any French vessels bound for North America. At the same time the two armies were on the way across the Atlantic. Dieskau went to Canada, Braddock to Virginia, each instructed to attack the other side, while in the meantime ambassadors at the two courts gave bland assurances that their only thought was to preserve peace.

The English colonists showed a political blindness that amounted to imbecility. Albany was the central point from which the dangers on all sides might best be surveyed. Here came together in the summer of 1754 delegates from seven of the colonies to consider the common peril. The French were busy in winning, as they did, the support of the many Indian tribes of the West; and the old allies of the English, the Iroquois, were nervous for their own safety. The delegates to Albany, tied and bound by instructions from their Assemblies, had to listen to plain words from the savages. The one Englishman who, in dealing with the Indians, had tact and skill equal to that of Frontenac of old, was an Irishman, Sir William Johnson. To him the Iroquois made indignant protests that the English were as ready as the French to rob them of their lands. If we find a bear in a tree, they said, some one will spring up to claim that the tree belongs to him and keep us from shooting the bear. The French, they added, are at least men who are prepared to fight; you weak and un-prepared English are like women and any day the French may turn you out. Benjamin Franklin told the delegates that they must unite to meet a common enemy. Unite, however, they would not. No one of them would surrender to a central body any authority through which the power of the King over them might be increased. The Congress--the word is full of omen for the future--failed to bring about the much-needed union.

In February, 1755, Braddock arrived in Virginia with his army, and early in May he was on his march across the mountains with regulars, militia, and Indians, to the number of nearly fifteen hundred men, to attack Fort Duquesne and to rid the Ohio Valley of the French. He knew little of forest warfare with its use of Indian scouts, its ambushes, its fighting from the cover of trees. On the 9th of July, on the Monongahela River, near Fort Duquesne, in a struggle in the forest against French and Indians he was defeated and killed. George Washington was in the fight and had to report to Dinwiddie the dismal record of what had happened. The frontier was aflame; and nearly all the Indians of the West, seeing the rising star, went over to the French. The power of France was, for the time, supreme in the heart of the continent. At that moment even far away in the lone land about the Saskatchewan, the English trader, Hendry, had to admit that the French knew better than the English how to attract the support of the savage tribes.

Meanwhile Dieskau had arrived at Quebec. In the colony of New York Sir William Johnson, the rough and cheery Irishman, much loved of the Iroquois, was gathering forces to attack Canada. Early in July, 1755, Johnson had more than three thousand provincial troops at Albany, a motley horde of embattled farmers, most of them with no uniforms, dressed in their own homespun, carrying their own muskets, electing their own officers, and altogether, from the strict soldier's point of view, a rabble rather than an army. To meet this force and destroy it if he could, Dieskau took to the French fort at Crown Point, on Lake Champlain, and southward from there to Ticonderoga at the head of this lake, some three thousand five hundred men, including his French regulars, some Canadians and Indians. Johnson's force lay at Fort George, later Fort William Henry, the most southerly point on Lake George. The names, given by Johnson himself, show how the dull Hanoverian kings and their offspring were held in honor by the Irish diplomat who was looking for favors at court. The two armies met on the shores of Lake George early in September and there was an all-day fight. Each side lost some two hundred men. Among those who perished on the French side was Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, who had escaped all the perils of the western wilderness to meet his fate in this border struggle. The honors of the day seem to have been with Johnson, for the French were driven off and Dieskau himself, badly wounded, was taken prisoner. That Johnson had great difficulty in keeping his savages from burning alive and then boiling and eating Dieskau and smoking his flesh in their pipes, in revenge for some of their chiefs killed in the fight, shows what an alliance with Indians meant.

There was small gain to the English from Johnson's success. He was too cautious to advance towards Canada; and, as winter came on, he broke up his camp and sent his men to their homes. The colonies had no permanent military equipment. Each autumn their forces were dissolved to be reorganized again in the following spring, a lame method of waging war.

For three years longer in the valley of the Ohio, as elsewhere, the star of France remained in the ascendant. It began to decline only when, farther east, on the Atlantic, superior forces sent out from England were able to check the French. During the summer of 1758, while Wolfe and Boscawen were pounding the walls of Louisbourg, seven thousand troops led by General Forbes, Colonel George Washington, and Colonel Henry Bouquet, pushed their way through the wilds beyond the Alleghanies and took possession of the Ohio. The French destroyed Fort Duquesne and fled. On the 25th of November the English occupied the place and named it "Pitts-Bourgh" in honor of their great war minister.

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