1758 - British expedition against Fort Duquesne

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1758 - British expedition against Fort Duquesne

The campaign lasted from April to November 1758


Preparations for the campaign

At the beginning of 1758, Washington still toiled at his hopeless task of defending with a single regiment of Virginia Provincials the frontier extending on some 500 km. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania the Assembly could not come to an agreement on effective defensive measures. During this time, Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), the source of all threats to the frontier, was left undisturbed.

However, in Pitt's plans the capture of Fort Duquesne held an important place. Brigadier John Forbes was charged with it.

Ohio River Basin - Copyright: Kronoskaf

In early April, Forbes arrived at Philadelphia to assume command of the expeditionary force against Fort Duquesne. Upon arrival, he found out that no army was ready for him. The Provincial troops that were supposed to be supplied by Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina had not even been enlisted yet. Furthermore, the 77th Montgomery's Highlanders was still cantoned in the south, and from the single battalion of Colonel Bouquet from the 60th Royal Americans, only half was within reach.

On May 2, a convoy of 25 bateaux left Montréal for Niagara and Fort Duquesne.

Slow advance on Fort Duquesne

At the end of June, a convoy sent by the Illinois People arrived at Fort Duquesne. It brought enough flour, Indian corn, beans, and peas to the Ohio Valley to supply the garrisons posted there for the entire year.

Finally, by the end of June, the various units composing Forbe's army were on march. His force, totalling about 7,000 men, consisted of:

The command of the expeditions was in very capable hands: Forbes was an experienced military who started his career as a cornet with the Scots Greys. He had risen to command the regiment, had served with the British staff in Flanders and Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) to finally become Cumberland's quartermaster-general. Bouquet, a Swiss by nationality, had peculiar views as to military equipment. Recognizing the value of marksmanship in the woods, he obtained a certain number of rifled carbines for his own battalion of the 60th Royal Americans. He also introduced a new system of drill for work in the forest, forming his men into small columns of two abreast which could deploy into line in two minutes. Under such commanders the mistakes of Braddock in 1755 were not likely to be repeated.

Forbes had to spent several weeks training the raw recruits composing the Provincials troops supplied by some of the Thirteen Colonies.

Forbes decided to advance by short stages, establishing fortified magazines at every 64 km, and at last, when within reach of his destination, to march upon it with his entire force and with as few encumbrances as possible. Even though Washington was recommending to take the old road followed by Braddock in 1755, Forbes chose to advance through Pennsylvania.

At the beginning of July, Bouquet marched to Raystown (present-day Bedford), on the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountains, with the advance-guard. Meanwhile, Forbes was still in Philadelphia, trying to bring the army into shape, and collecting provisions, horses, and wagons. Forbes finally managed to advance to the frontier village of Carlisle where he found everything in confusion. During this time, Bouquet's advanced party, built a fortified magazine at Raystown and named it Fort Bedford. This done, Bouquet planned a forward movement of some 65 km.

On August 10, Bouquet ordered Major James Grant to build a road from Bedford to Loyalhannon Creek.

On August 11, Forbes left Carlisle and marched towards Shippensburg. The main army was then immobilised in Shippensburg until September due to Forbe's illness, which had seriously increased.

August 20, Bouquet sent Colonel Burd with 1,500 men to Loyalhannon Creek to begin construction of a depot. Grant was in overall charge of the fort and men.

Bouquet also started the construction a road through the wilderness over the Allegheny Mountains. This very difficult endeavour required immense labour. Accordingly, Sir John Sinclair was then sent forward with Virginians and other troops from the camp of Bouquet to make the road over the main range of these mountains.

August 29, Colonel Burd and his troops arrived at Loyalhannon Creek and built trenches around the fort (this fort was later named Fort Ligonier). Meanwhile, Bouquet's men continued the heavy work of road-making up the main range of the Alleghenies, and, what proved far worse, the parallel mountain ridge of Laurel Hill. This fort became the base for the final advance on Fort Duquesne, which was scarcely 80 km distant.

While the British expedition was making slow progress towards its objective, the French had assembled a certain number of Native American warriors for the defence of Fort Duquesne. However, the delays in the British enterprise also played against the French, putting the patience of their Native American allies to test. Forbes seized this opportunity and sent emissaries to the most powerful tribes of the region to conciliate them. The aid of these Native Americans as scouts and skirmishers was of the last importance to an army so weak in the arts of woodcraft. Forbes's efforts brought some friendly Cherokees and Catawbas to the British camp. A considerable number joined the army; but they nearly all went off when the stock of presents provided for them was exhausted.

Several scouting-parties were therefore sent forward, of which the most successful was that of a young Virginian officer, accompanied by a sergeant and five Native American warriors. They mounted the high ground afterwards called Grant's Hill, where, covered by trees and bushes, they had a good view of the fort, and saw plainly that the reports of the French force were greatly exaggerated.

Informed of the advance of the British on Fort Duquesne, Vaudreuil, the governor of Canada, had sent reinforcements to M. de Ligneris, who commanded there. Indeed, he had ordered troops to go to his aid from Niagara, Detroit and Illinois, as well as the militia of Detroit, with the Native Americans there and elsewhere in the West: Hurons, Odawas, Potawatomis, Miamis, and other tribes. However, Vaudreuil feared that the Native Americans would grow tired of waiting if the British did not proceed rapidly against Fort Duquesne.

The British also hoped that the Lenapes and Shawnees, who lived within easy reach of Fort Duquesne, and who for the past three years had spread havoc throughout the British border, might now be won over from the French alliance. Indeed, the eastern Lenapes, living at Wyoming and elsewhere on the Upper Susquehanna, had made their peace with the British in the summer before. However, the Iroquois Confederacy was still divided in counsel.

Failed raid on Fort Duquesne

On September 9, Bouquet sent Major Grant of the 77th Montgomery's Highlanders to reconnoitre Fort Duquesne, to capture a few prisoners and to strike some blow to the French. Grant left Loyalhannon with a force consisting of 800 men picked among the 77th Montgomery's Highlanders, 60th Royal Americans and Provincial troops. By the end of the day, Grant's force had marched 15 km from Loyalhannon and encamped on the banks of the Nine Mile Run river.

On September 14, Grant's force marched some 20 km and came in sight of Fort Duquesne. Grant waited until 3:00 p.m. before moving closer at 3 km from the fort.

On September 15 at 2:00 a.m., Grant's party arrived at a hill (now called Grant's Hill) within a km of Fort Duquesne. He then ordered Major Lewis, of the Virginia Provincials, to take with him half the detachment, descend to the open plain before the fort, and attack the Native American warriors known to be encamped there; after which he was to make a feigned retreat to the hill, where the rest of the troops were to lie in ambush and receive the pursuers. Lewis set out on his errand, while Grant waited anxiously for the result. Dawn was near, and all was silent; till at length Lewis returned, and incensed his commander by declaring that his men had lost their way in the dark woods, and fallen into such confusion that the attempt was impracticable. The morning twilight now began, but the country was wrapped in thick fog. Grant abandoned his first plan, and sent a few Highlanders into the cleared ground to burn a warehouse that had been seen there. He was convinced that the French and their Native American allies were too few to attack him, though their numbers in fact were far greater than his own. Infatuated with this idea, and bent on taking prisoners, he had the incredible rashness to divide his force in such a way that the several parts could not support each other. Lewis, with 200 men, was sent to guard the baggage 3 km in the rear, where a company of 50 Virginia Provincials, under Captain Bullitt, was already stationed. About 100 Pennsylvania Provincials were posted far off on the right, towards the Alleghany, while Captain Mackenzie, with a detachment of Highlanders, was sent to the left, towards the Monongahela. Then, the fog having cleared a little, Captain Macdonald, with another company of Highlanders, was ordered into the open plain to reconnoitre the fort and make a plan of it, Grant himself remaining on the hill with 100 of his own regiment and a company of Maryland Provincials. Then with all his force scattered in all directions, Grant ordered to beat réveillé. Macdonald was at this time on the plain, midway between the woods and the fort, and in full sight of it. At the sound of the British drums, M. de Ligneris, the commander at Fort Duquesne, sent out 1,500 men (among which some 600 Native American warriors) to attack Grant. They sallied from Fort Duquesne and rushed upon Macdonald and his men, who met them with a volley that checked their advance; on which they surrounded him at a distance, and tried to cut off his retreat. The Highlanders broke through, and gained the woods, with the loss of their commander, who was shot dead. A crowd of French followed close, and soon put them to rout, driving them and Mackenzie's party back to the hill where Grant was posted. Here there was a hot fight in the forest, lasting about 45 minutes. At length the force of numbers, the novelty of the situation, and the appalling yells of the Canadiens and Native Americans, completely overcame the Highlanders, so intrepid in the ordinary situations of war. They broke away in a wild and disorderly retreat.

Grant's only hope was in the detachment he had sent to the rear under Lewis to guard the baggage. But Lewis and his men, when they heard the firing in front, had left their post and pushed forward to help their comrades, taking a straight course through the forest; while Grant was retreating along the path by which he had advanced the night before. Thus they missed each other; and when Grant reached the spot where he expected to find Lewis, he saw to his dismay that nobody was there but Captain Bullitt and his company of Virginia Provincials. He cried in despair that he was a ruined man; not without reason, for the whole body of French and Native Americans was upon him. Such of his men as held together were forced towards the Alleghany, and, writes Bouquet, "would probably have been cut to pieces but for Captain Bullitt and his Virginians, who kept up the fight against the whole French force till two thirds of them were killed." They were offered quarter, but refused it; and the survivors were driven at last into the Alleghany, where some were drowned, and others swam over and escaped. Grant was surrounded and captured, and Lewis, who presently came up, was also made prisoner, along with some of his men, after a stiff resistance. Two other British officers were captured. Thus ended this mismanaged affair, which cost the British 273 killed, wounded, and taken. The rest got back safe to Loyalhannon. In this affair, the French lost 20 killed or wounded.

The British prisoners informed Ligneris that a British force of 6,000 men was on the march under the command of General Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Ligneris was surprised to learn that the British were so close and that they had used another road than Braddock's.

Fort Duquesne loses its line of communication with Canada

Despite this French success, the fate of Fort Duquesne was already sealed. Indeed, on August 28, another British expedition led by Bradstreet had finally succeeded in the capture of Fort Frontenac (present-day Kingston). With the loss of this fort, the French had lost their line of communication between Canada and Fort Duquesne.

In fact, heavy rain had ruined Bouquet's new road and the magazines at Raystown and Loyalhannon were depleting at a much higher rate than expected.

In October, a great convention of British and Native Americans was held at Easton. The neighbouring provinces had been asked to send their delegates. The Iroquois Confederacy, with the smaller tribes lately admitted into their confederacy, the Lenapes of the Susquehanna, the Mahicans, and several kindred bands, all had their representatives at the meeting. The conferences lasted 19 days. All present agreed on a joint message of peace to the tribes of the Ohio.

Early in October, Ligneris had decided to send a detachment of 600 men under the command of M. Aubry, captain of the Troupes de la Marine in Louisiana, to harass the British and to capture some of their convoys.

On October 12, Aubry advanced up to 2 km from Loyalhannon, his detachment then met a party of 50 British sent against them, who retired to the entrenchments at Loyalhannon. For the rest of the day, Aubry's detachment burnt everything outside the entrenchments. It also captured a convoy with 300 oxen and horses. Aubry then withdrew deliberately, after burying his dead and killing great numbers of horses and cattle.

On October 14, Aubry was back to Fort Duquesne.

Frederic Post, with several white and Native American companions, was chosen to bear the message to the tribes of the Ohio. He first went to Lenape towns. There was a grand council, at which the French officer was present; and Post delivered the peace message from the council at Easton. The overtures of peace were accepted, and the Lenapes, Shawnees and Mingoes were no longer enemies of Great Britain.

All through October, rain continued until it eventually gave place to snow. The roads became a sea of mud over which no movement was possible.

This was fortunate for Forbes, who could hardly had made any significant progress in the Ohio Valley in front of an important and well supplied French force.

In November, the militia of Louisiana and the Illinois left the fort and went home; the Native Americans of Detroit and the Wabash (probably the Kickapoos) would stay no longer; and, worse yet, the supplies destined for Fort Duquesne had been destroyed by Bradstreet at Fort Frontenac. Hence Ligneris was compelled by prospective starvation to dismiss the greater part of his force, and await the approach of his enemy with those that remained. Aubry went to Illinois with 200 men while M. de Saint-Ours left for Montréal with a detachment and M. de Bellêtre went to Détroit with another one. Ligneris kept only 400 men at the fort.

British final advance on Fort Duquesne

At the beginning of November, Forbes, although sick unto death, was carried to Loyalhannon where the whole army was then gathered. There was a council of officers, and they resolved to attempt nothing more that season; but, a few days later, three prisoners were brought in who reported the defenceless condition of the French, on which Forbes gave orders to advance again.

On November 18, leaving the wagons and all the artillery except a few light pieces, a picked force of 2,500 men under Colonel Armstrong marched off for Fort Duquesne. Forbes accompanied the column, travelling in a litter. Washington and Colonel Armstrong, of the Pennsylvania Provincials, had opened a way for them by cutting a road to within a day's march of the French fort.

When he heard of the advance of the British corps, Ligneris sent back his artillery, his train and all the sick men to Illinois.

On November 23, Ligneris retired towards Fort Venango (present-day Franklin, PA) some 180 km from Fort Duquesne.

On the evening of November 24, the detachment encamped among the hills of Turkey Creek; and the men on guard heard at midnight a dull and heavy sound booming over the western woods. The French had in fact blown up the fortifications and retreated upstream on the Alleghany River to Fort Venango.

Map of Fort Duquesne in 1754
Copyright: Dinos Antoniadis

In the morning of November 25, the march was resumed, a strong advance-guard leading the way. Forbes came next, carried in his litter; and the troops followed in three parallel columns, the 77th Montgomery's Highlanders in the centre under Montgomery, their colonel, and the 60th Royal Americans and provincials on the right and left, under Bouquet and Washington. Thus, guided by the tap of the drum at the head of each column, they moved slowly through the forest.. It was dusk when they emerged upon the open plain and saw Fort Duquesne which was now but a ruin. Around the fort, the heads of Grant's Highlanders who had been killed in September were stuck up on poles with their kilts hung in derision round them. Only a few Native Americans lingered about the place, who reported that the garrison, to the number of about 450 men, had retreated, some down the Ohio, some overland towards Presquisle, and the rest, with their commander, up the Alleghany to Fort Venango. They had burned the barracks and storehouses, and blown up the fortifications.

Forbes planted a stockade around a cluster of huts and named the new establishment Pittsburgh in honour of the minister. The work of the new fort was pushed on apace.

Before leaving, Forbes sent a party of Pennsylvania Provincials under Major Halket to find the bones of those who had fallen with Braddock at the Monongahela. The remains were buried together in one deep trench.

At the end of November, Saint-Ours's detachment arrived at Montréal.

At the beginning of December, Forbes's troops, with steps quickened by hunger, began their march back to Pennsylvania. The task of holding Pittsburgh for the winter was assigned to Lieutenant-Colonel Mercer, of the Virginians, with 200 Provincials.

Forbes died at Philadelphia in the following March 1759.


This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 284-285
  • Bougainville, Louis Antoine de: Adventure in the Wilderness - The American Journal of Louis Antoide de Bougainville 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press translated by Edward P. Hamilton, pp. 202, 204, 224
  • Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 333-338
  • Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 161-162
  • Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 332, 381-399

Other sources:

Castex, Jean-Claude, Dictionnaire des batailles terrestres franco-anglaises de la Guerre de Sept Ans, Presse de l'université Laval, Québec: 2006, pp. 161-162, 389-394