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William Pitt

The fortunes of England were now at the lowest ebb. For three years she had suffered one defeat upon another, and now, at the close of the year 1757, there was not an English fort or hamlet in the basin of the St. Lawrence or in the Ohio Valley. The chief cause of this condition was a want of ability in the conduct of the war. The Duke of Newcastle, who was at the head of the British cabinet, was little fitted to carry on the great business of the nation. Above all things England wanted a man of ability and decision of character at the head of affairs, and at length she found one in the person of the rising statesman, William Pitt, the greatest Englishman of his generation. Pitt came into power in the summer of 1757, and his comprehensive mind soon grasped the situation. His touch was the touch of the master; he soon changed the succession of defeats to a succession of victories, and to him above all men was due the fact that England and not France became the possessor of North America.

In the early spring of 1758 Pitt sent a powerful fleet commanded by Admiral Boscawen to capture Louisburg. The fleet consisted of twenty-two line-of-battle ships and fifteen frigates, and bore ten thousand troops under the command of General Amherst. With Amherst was associated the most brilliant young military commander of England -- James Wolfe. After a long and tempestuous voyage, the fleet lined up in the waters of Louisburg early in June, and on the 7th a landing was effected under the leadership of Wolfe. The outposts were soon captured, and the British cannon opened on the French fortress. For many weeks the incessant roar of the bombardment told of the coming doom of Louisburg. By the end of July the walls began to crumble, the French garrison of fifty-six hundred men surrendered to their conquerors, and for the second time the fort passed into English hands. This was the first important British victory in the French and Indian War; and, with all honor to Boscawen, to Amherst, and to Wolfe, the chief glory of the victory must be awarded to William Pitt. Thus began a series of English successes that was to continue to the end of the war; but the series was broken by one disastrous reverse.

It was during these same weeks when the British shells were bursting over the walls of Louisburg that Abercrombie and Lord Howe led an army through the wilderness of northern New York, only to be defeated by the great French commander, Montcalm. The army was the largest ever yet assembled in America, comprising fifteen thousand men -- six thousand British regulars and nine thousand provincials, or, as we must soon begin to call them, Americans. The nominal leader was General Abercrombie, the real one Lord Howe, a young man of great vigor who may be favorably compared with Wolfe. We find also in this army John Stark and Israel Putnam, who afterward became famous in a greater French war. The object of the army was to capture Fort Ticonderoga, on the shore of Lake Champlain, now held by Montcalm with a force of not less than four thousand men. Howe laid his plans with great skill and approached the fort, but at the first skirmish with the French pickets he was shot dead.1 His death was an irreparable blow to the English, who nevertheless attacked the fort again and again with heroic bravery. The stupid Abercrombie, himself remaining out of danger, imposed an impossible task upon his brave artillery. Six times in a single day they dashed against the fort with ever increasing slaughter. They were mowed down in hundreds by the hail of musketry, and on the evening of that fatal day 1944 of their number lay dead on the field2 -- a greater loss of life than was suffered by either side in any battle of the Revolution. The broken army retreated into the wilderness, and Ticonderoga remained in the hands of the French.

There was one ray of sunshine, however, to cheer the defeated army. Colonel John Bradstreet with three thousand provincials set out in August to capture Fort Frotenac. Crossing Lake Ontario in open boats, they landed on the Canadian shore, and in a few days the coveted prize was in their possession. This was a serious blow to the French, as the communication between Quebec and the Ohio Valley was now completely severed.

It remains to say a word of the third great expedition of the year -- that against Fort Duquesne. This was in command of General Forbes, ably assisted by George Washington with nineteen hundred Virginia troops, John Armstrong with twenty-seven hundred Pennsylvanians, and the brave Swiss officer, Colonel Bouquet.3 The route selected was not the road cut out by Braddock three years before, but a shorter and more difficult one, over the mountains from the head waters of the Juniata and down the western slope to the Allegheny. Forbes was afflicted with a mortal illness and had to be carried on a litter, but his heart was strong and brave, and the labored march was continued. Major Grant, with eight hundred men, was sent ahead to decoy a portion of the garrison from their shelter. But the French came out in unexpected numbers, and in a sharp conflict Grant lost almost three hundred men.

So slow was the progress of the main army that when winter approached many weary miles were yet to be covered. A council of war was about to decide to abandon the project for the season, when word was received that the French garrison had been greatly weakened and could not endure a siege. This news infused new life into the expedition, and it was decided to press forward. Washington was sent ahead with twenty-five hundred men, but when he reached the place he found nothing but smoking ruins. The French had fired the fort and abandoned it; and this much-coveted spot, which had cost Braddock and his brave army so dearly, passed into English hands without a blow. The place was now named Pittsburg in honor of William Pitt, who had inspired the expedition; and the great city that grew up on the spot retained the name, and is a perpetual monument to the memory of the great commoner, whose unswerving friendship for the colonies during the Revolution can never be forgotten.


1Howe was a brother of Admiral Howe and General Howe of the Revolution. [return]

2Sloane's "French War and the Revolution," p.69. [return]

3This army, about six thousand in number, was composed almost exclusively of Americans.

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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