Forbes Trail

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JOHN FORBES' WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN AND THE BIRTH OF PITTSBURGH

Setting astride his horse amid the ruins of Fort Duquesne, Colonel George Washington braced himself against the cold November air. The mercury had dipped to a bone-chilling sixteen degrees and many of the soldiers in John Forbes’ army were without stockings, shoes, coats, or adequate provisions. Nonetheless, for Washington it was a satisfying experience to finally see the Union Jack planted at the Forks of the Ohio. For more than four years the young Virginian had set his sights upon seizing the coveted confluence from the French. His first attempt in 1754 had ended in a humiliating defeat and surrender at Fort Necessity. The following year, Washington accompanied General Braddock and his proud British army as they tried to expel the enemy from the region. This attempt also resulted in disaster when the French and their Indian allies crushed Braddock’s force at the Battle of the Monongahela. During the fight, the haughty General Braddock was mortally wounded and nearly nine hundred of his men were either killed or wounded. Washington himself barely escaped death as musket balls ripped through his hat and coat.

Following Braddock’s defeat, the British army retired from the frontier leaving the various provinces to fend for themselves. For three years Washington and other provincial officers tried in vain to protect the exposed settlers living in the backcountry from the ravages of Indian war parties. Hundreds of people living on the Pennsylvania frontier fled in terror as roving bands of Indians burned homes, destroyed crops, and seized countless numbers of captives. One group of stalwart pioneers petitioned Governor Robert Morris, writing "The terror of which has drove away almost all these back inhabitants except us... with a few more who are willing to stay and endeavor to defend our land; but as we are not able of ourselves to defend it for want of Guns and Ammunition, and but few in number, so that, without assistance we must fly and leave the Country at the mercy of the Enemy."

Despite such heart-wrenching appeals, the provincial assembly offered no relief as it squabbled with the governor over who should bear the costs of military appropriations. Angry settlers arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1755 carrying with them the disfigured bodies of their neighbors who had been killed during the raids. A large mob surrounded the government building, depositing the mangled corpses in the doorway and demanding that the assembly take action.

Finally, in November the government passed a military appropriations act which called for the recruitment of provincial troops and the construction of a chain of forts to protect the frontier. These measures proved ineffective, however, as the Indian war parties avoided contact with Pennsylvania soldiers and bypassed the forts during their raiding activities.

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It was not until the spring of 1758 that any relief for the beleaguered settlers arrived. A new initiative, designed to defeat the French and their Indian allies once and for all, had been developed by British officials under the leadership of the new Secretary of State, William Pitt. This plan called for a new campaign, led by Brigadier General John Forbes, to be launched against the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. General Forbes, a career soldier from Scotland, arrived in Philadelphia in April and set about organizing his expedition. The general’s plan involved cutting a road over the mountains that would lead to Fort Duquesne. Unlike Braddock, Forbes intended to pause at intervals along the march and construct forts that could be used for defensive purposes should his army be overwhelmed. These forts could also be used as supply depots and serve to protect the line of communication from the frontier to Philadelphia.

To execute his plans, General Forbes assembled a mixed force of provincial troops and regular British soldiers. This army, much larger than Braddock’s, included colonial forces from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina. Initially, General Forbes had little regard for the colonial troops under his command, referring to them as "an extream bad Collection of broken Innkeepers, Horse Jockeys, & Indian traders." By the end of this long campaign, the general’s attitude toward these provincial soldiers changed dramatically.

The regular forces in Forbes’s army were made up of Scottish troops from the 77th Regiment of Foot, better known as Montgomery’s Highlanders, and four companies of the 60th Regiment, also known as the Royal Americans. This regiment included many men who were recruited among the Germans living in Pennsylvania. Also, the army consisted of hundreds of teamsters to drive the supply wagons and herdsmen to prod the sheep, cattle, and other livestock. Finally, a number of women accompanied the expedition serving as cooks and laundresses. Taken altogether, this composite army reflected the international nature of the British colonies in the 18th century. The Scottish Highlanders marched alongside the Germans of the Royal American Regiment. Throughout the ranks of the provincial troops one could find Swedes, Dutch, Finns, Poles, and Irish. One regimental chaplain was required to deliver two sermons on Sunday – one in English and the other in the Gaelic language of the Scots known as Erse.

While General Forbes occupied himself with contracting supplies and dealing with provincial authorities, the day-to-day operations of the army were handled by his second-in-command, Colonel Henry Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary commissioned in the Royal American Regiment. From the beginning of the campaign, Bouquet proved himself to be a competent and resourceful officer. He was a keen observer of wilderness warfare who wished to avoid the pitfalls that hampered Braddock’s command. As such, he advocated the use of tactics better suited for irregular combat against Indians. Joseph Shippen, an officer in the Pennsylvania Regiment, observed Bouquet drilling the troops during the campaign and wrote, "Every afternoon he exercises his men in the woods and bushes in a particular manner of his own invention which will be of great service in an engagement with the Indians."

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While General Forbes remained behind to complete the organization of his army, Colonel Bouquet led the advance across Pennsylvania. Taking the road from Philadelphia, through Lancaster and on to the Susquehanna River, travel was uneventful since the line of communication into the interior had been developed some years before. Bouquet crossed the river at Harris Ferry (present-day Harrisburg) and continued on to Carlisle, which served as the forwarding point for men and supplies. At Carlisle, the colonel suffered his first disappointment when wagons needed to haul supplies westward, failed to arrive. The Pennsylvania farmers were reluctant to lease their transports to the army fearing they would not be paid. An angry Bouquet fired off a letter to the magistrates in Berks County demanding that the wagons be immediately forwarded to the frontier.

Departing Carlisle on June 5, Colonel Bouquet headed for Shippensburg, the last settlement in the west. The road became more difficult to negotiate and the colonel declared that the "sharp stones will very soon wear out the 3 pairs of shoes that each soldier is to have." The Pennsylvania troops were sent forward to repair the highway and open the trail between Forts Loudon and Littleton, two provincial outposts to the west. This trail, which had first been cut by James Burd in 1755, ran up Path Valley and crossed over Tuscarora Mountain through a notch later known as Cowans Gap. At this point the going became increasingly difficult. Bouquet informed General Forbes, "Of all the roads where it is possible for a wagon to go, this is the worst... It is of rock, partly solid, partly loose and sharp stones. The rains have carried away all the earth... Our wagons are breaking down; our horses are losing their shoes. It is a wretched state of affairs." Little did the colonel know that greater challenges would face him as he drove forward toward Fort Duquesne.

By June 28, Bouquet’s advance force reached a small trading village known as Raystown, named for the Indian trader John Wray who had trekked the western hills as early as 1732. It was here that Bouquet set about building a large compound named Fort Bedford. He then sent orders directing the troops from Maryland and the Virginia forces under the command of Colonel George Washington to cut a trail northward from Fort Cumberland. It was also at Fort Bedford that the question arose regarding which route the army should take to reach Fort Duquesne. Washington and the Virginians proposed that Forbes’ men drop south from Raystown to Cumberland and then use Braddock’s old road. Colonel Bouquet, on the other hand, favored cutting a new road directly across the Allegheny and Laurel Ridges, thereby saving nearly fifty miles while avoiding several treacherous river crossings. The question remained, however, was it possible to even build a new road over the mountains? Bouquet sent out several scouting parties who returned to inform him that, while difficult, it was indeed possible to secure a passage over the mountains. In the end, General Forbes sided with Bouquet and construction began on the new route.

While Henry Bouquet labored to get his advance force over the mountains, Forbes struggled in the rear to move forward the main army. The general was increasingly plagued with an intestinal disorder that left him prostrate for weeks at a time. He remained at Carlisle for more than a month until his symptoms subsided enough for him to resume the march. He arrived at Shippensburg on August 12 only to be struck down once again by his ailment. Throughout his ordeal, Forbes fretted that winter would arrive before he could reach his objective of seizing the French fort at the Forks of the Ohio.

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Forbes was also worried about the disposition of the Indians that had allied themselves with the French. As early as June, the general had written to a fellow officer that he proposed "to send a solemn message among the Delawares and Shawanese to beg a meeting with them where they choose to appoint, when I hope to persuade many of them at least to remain neutrals for this Campaign." To deliver this "solemn message," Pennsylvania authorities appointed Christian Frederick Post, a forty-eight-year-old Moravian missionary who spoke the Delaware language. Facing great hazards, Post crossed over the mountains in July to council with the Indian leaders living in the Ohio River Valley. He assured the chiefs that the British wanted to resume the peace and that, if the Indians abandoned their support of the French, they would guarantee to them their treasured homeland. Led by an influential Delaware peace advocate named Tamaqua, Post delivered his message to the assembled Indian leaders directly across the river from Fort Duquesne. The Indians informed the missionary that they were deeply concerned over the powerful army that inched ominously closer to their villages. They told Post, "We have great reason to believe you intend to drive us away, and settle the country; or else why do you come to fight in the land that God has given us?" The Moravian assured the Indian leaders that Forbes’ only purpose was to drive off the French. Satisfied, the chiefs told Post to return to the east and bring back "the great belt of peace to them and then the day will begin to shine clear over us. When we hear once more from you, and we join together, then the day will be still, and no wind, or storm, will come over us, to disturb us." With that, Post returned over the mountains to retrieve the peace belt and a copy of the treaty assuring the Indians of British sincerity.

In the meantime, Colonel Bouquet continued to press forward, passing over the Laurel Ridge to arrive at Loyalhanna Creek on September 7. Here he met Colonel James Burd, commanding one of the Pennsylvania battalions, who had been sent forward to fortify the position. The outpost erected on the site was named Fort Ligonier in honor of General John Ligonier, a close advisor to William Pitt. General Forbes’ advance was now only a scant fifty miles from Fort Duquesne. From here, Bouquet felt confident enough to send out a reconnaissance force to harass the enemy at the confluence and bring back valuable intelligence. Unfortunately, this expedition, led by Major James Grant of the 77th Highland Regiment, was attacked and defeated by the French and Indians just beyond the walls of Fort Duquesne on September 14th. During the battle, Grant, who was himself captured, lost 300 men. A dejected Bouquet wrote to General Forbes, saying "I shall add no reflection regarding this affair. They are too disagreeable."

Despite the setback of Grant’s defeat, the spirit of the troops remained high. After a tortuous summer, struggling to reach the source of so much despair to the frontier settlers, the army was within striking distance of their objective. Throughout September and October, the camp at Loyalhanna swelled as Forbes’ main army began arriving. On October 12 a large party of French and Indians, numbering perhaps 600, made a surprise attack upon the fort but were repulsed after a sharp engagement lasting about three hours. Failing in their attack, the French returned to Fort Duquesne, likely resigned to the fact that the only thing that would stop the British juggernaut would be the advance of winter.

Finally, on November 2nd, General Forbes reached Fort Ligonier. He was pale and emaciated from the intestinal disease that wracked his body. During the journey from Fort Bedford, he had to be carried in a litter strung between two horses. With winter already making its presence known, the weakened general was now faced with the fateful decision to push forward to the Ohio, or to fall back and wait for the coming of spring. He convened a council of war with his officers who determined that "the risks being so obviously greater than the advantages, there is no doubt as to the sole course that prudence dictates," in other words – wait until the following year.

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The following evening a tragic event occurred that brought about a profound change in circumstances. Scouts came running into the fort to report that a French raiding party was lurking about. Lt. Col. George Mercer, at the head of a detachment of Virginians, sallied out to drive off the enemy. A sharp skirmish ensued and General Forbes ordered Colonel Washington to take another detachment of Virginia troops and support Mercer. As Washington and his men approached the scene in the darkness, Mercer’s forces mistook their fellow Virginians as a French reinforcement and opened fire. Believing they were under attack by the French, Washington’s men returned the fire. Suddenly realizing the tragic mistake, Colonel Washington ran between the two lines, knocking up the muzzles of the muskets with his sword and ordering the men to cease firing. By the time the gunfire stopped, fourteen Virginians had been killed.

One providential consequence of this friendly fire episode was that the Virginians had managed to capture three French soldiers. One of these prisoners turned out to be an English deserter who, upon interrogation, revealed that the enemy’s position at Fort Duquesne was desperate. According to this informant, the French were low on provisions and many of the soldiers had departed down the Ohio to winter quarters. In addition, the British were pleased to learn that Christian Frederick Post’s diplomatic efforts had succeeded in convincing the Indians to abandon their French allies. With this piece of intelligence, General Forbes determined to put his bedraggled army into motion and make the final push to seize Fort Duquesne.

By November 24, Forbes’ advance was only a day’s march from their objective. That night, Indian scouts arrived at the British camp to report seeing smoke coming from the direction of Fort Duquesne. The general sent forward a troop of cavalry to determine the truth of this intelligence. When they arrived at the confluence, the soldiers discovered that the French had destroyed everything they could not carry away and burned the fort to the ground. The following day, General Forbes was carried in his litter to the charred ruins where he penned a letter to William Pitt, saying, "I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Duquesne, as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that now makes us Masters of the Place." He ended his message on a prophetic note, writing that "these dreary deserts will soon be the richest and most fertile of any possessed by the British in North America."

Little did General Forbes realize that only part of his prophecy would become true. British victory over the French had been costly and the home government insisted that the provincials bear a greater burden in the maintenance of this newly won empire. In addition, officials in Great Britain determined to assume a more firm control over their distant colonial possessions. All of this would eventually lead to a spirit of revolutionary agitation among many of the veterans who had served in war. In the end, George Washington, who had fought so hard to win the Forks of the Ohio from the French, found that he had no other recourse but to resist what he considered Britain’s oppressive policies. Indeed, as General Forbes predicted, Pittsburgh grew to become a great metropolis – but not under British rule.