Rediscovering Colonial America: Forbes’ Campaign For Fort Duquesne Part One

After the defeat of the British at the Battle of Monongahela on July 9, 1755, there was not much military activity by the British to reattempt to take the Forks of the Ohio at Fort Duquesne. To make matters worse for England, the war with France on the American front was not going well and proved to be disastrous to the British military. However, by mid-1757, plans of a major British campaign to take Fort Duquesne were in the midst of discussion in England. But, a question remained, who would lead the campaign that would define North America? This campaign would be the most important military campaign North America had seen.  

Brigadier General John Forbes
Brigadier General John Forbes

Prime Minister William Pitt using his new position wanted a new military strategy to overturn the string of British defeats in America. He wanted the British army to get back on the offensive. By December 1757, Colonel John Forbes of the 17th Regiment a-Foot was appointed brigadier general and assigned to take command of the expedition that would stabilize the mid-Atlantic frontier and take Fort Duquesne.

Upon his appointment, Brig. Gen. Forbes wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bouquet asking him to accept the appointment of second in command of the expedition. After their first meeting in person in May of 1758, the two men would form a friendship and special bond as the two would complement each other’s skillful military tactics. Brigadier General John Forbes commanded the entire army as well as being responsible for supplies and logistics, while Colonel Bouquet would lead from the front moving the army forward during the campaign.

John Forbes was the son of a Scottish family who originally studied medicine. He later changed his mind and became a professional soldier entering the army as a lieutenant in 1737. During 1757 and 1758, Brig. Gen. Forbes was ill with a disease that some historian think was stomach cancer. Although, he was carried by a litter for most of the campaign and was forced to take shelter to recuperate, Brig. Gen. Forbes sat the example for his men to follow. He was a brave man and never allowed his honor to be sacrificed. This disease would eventually claim his life on March 11, 1759, at the age of 51.

During the winter of 1757-58, Brigadier General Forbes began establishing his staff. His staff would consist of newly appointed Major Francis Halket and Quartermaster General, Lieutenant Colonel Sir John St. Clair who had recovered from his wounds from the Braddock’s disastrous 1755 defeat.  Also, Brig. Gen. Forbes and Lieutenant Colonel Bouquet needed to work on recruiting additional men for the campaign. Brigadier General Forbes would eventually have an army consisting of 6,000 to 8,000 men, including over 2,200 regulars. The colonies of Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland sent Provisionals; among them was Colonel George Washington.

Brigadier General Forbes while he was getting recruitments together for the campaign also studied the Braddock’s Expedition. He wanted to learn where mistakes were made, what worked well and what didn’t work in the American wilderness. He would see to it that his army was properly prepared and equipped for this style of warfare. Brigadier General Forbes studied the layout of the land. Brigadier General Forbes also studied Major General Edward Braddock’s line of communications and supplies along with establishment’s camps and his lack of fortifications for protection along his route.

Rather than use Braddock’s route through the colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Brig. Gen. Forbes decided to use existing roads and then cut new roads through Pennsylvania. Brigadier General Forbes decided that he could use Philadelphia for his main base of supplies and logistics. From Philadelphia, Brig. Gen. Forbes could use the network of roads leading to Carlisle for his first supply depot. From there, his army could march through Shippensburg, modern day Chambersburg and then to Fort Loudoun where he could establish another supply depot. Moving westward, from there he could use Burd’s trail to Ray’s Town, modern day Bedford and then cut a new road that would link up with the Braddock Road near Fort Duquesne.

A series of fortifications or stockades could be built along the way protecting the rear of his army if they came under attack and needed to fall back to a safe area. These forts could provide a steady line of supplies, flowing to his men. At the same time, this line could be used for communications. By the time Brig. Gen. Forbes made it to Fort Duquesne, his road would stretch for about 300 miles from Carlisle. Fort Loudoun, Fort Lyttleton, Fort Bedford and Fort Ligonier would be the main depots and the protection that Brig. Gen. Forbes needed for his line of communications as well as supplies.

Now that a route had been planned along with a direct line for supplies and communications, Brig. Gen. Forbes now had to set an outline of the campaign. He needed to take Fort Duquesne by late October or November before fall. The leaves on the trees in the American wilderness could help to conceal his army from enemy eyes. Another reason was that during this time in the fall, Brig. Gen. Forbes would lose several hundred Indians because this was their hunting season to prepare their families for the winter.

The late winter and early spring of 1758 was spent making preparations and planning for the campaign. The campaign itself got under way in force on April 29 as troops began to assemble. Brigadier General Forbes began sending out orders for the army to make its way to Lancaster from Philadelphia. The long range plan was to have troops move from several locations and mass them at Ray’s Town. Once the troops were at Ray’s Town, a road would be built linking Fort Cumberland and Fort Bedford at Ray’s Town and another road from Fort Cumberland to Fort Frederick. This would allow the provincials located in Maryland and Virginia to move to Ray’s Town via Fort Cumberland. These roads were part of Colonel Bouquet’s own initiative.

Now Brig. Gen. Forbes realized mobility issues when having large wagon trains moving in mass along roads. To relieve pressure, congestion and damaging the road, a controlled convey of wagon trains needed to be enacted. Ten to twenty wagons with four horses pulling each wagon, guarded by fifty to one hundred men would make up a much more smaller and manageable convey.  These wagons were the life support of the army in the field. They contain all the ordnance, supplies from food to materials complete with all sorts of tools and spare parts.

Rations for the soldiers were a huge undertaking as well as forage and feed for the animals. Brigadier General Forbes set the rations for each man for a one week as eight pounds of fresh beef or five pounds of pork. This was followed by seven pounds of flour or cooked biscuits, one pint of rice in lieu of one pound of flour. Pork would be transported in barrels that could weigh upwards to 233 pounds packed in salt brine. Often barrels would spoil and problem that was ongoing during the campaign.

Once the military began converging onto Ray’s Town, which would take several weeks, Colonel Bouquet would began making preparations to train and equip the troops. Ray’s Town would be a major supply depot and training grounds. A stockade would be built called Fort Bedford. Most of July and early August was spent training the soldiers.

Problems began to set in with quality horses, wagons and supplies. Brig. Gen. Forbes was an experienced quartermaster officer and commander and knew who to deal with situations as they arose. This was one of the strongest traits of Brig. Gen. Forbes. Remaining behind in Philadelphia while Bouquet moved westward, Brig Gen. Forbes could manage and tackle these problems as quickly as they came.

Resources:

Cubbison, Douglas. The British Defeat of the French in Pennsylvania, Jefferson, NC. 2010

Anna Kiefer The Logistics of Supply and the Forbes Campaign of 1758 http://web.hardynet.com/~gruber/supplies_forbes_road.html 2003

James P. Myers Preparations for the Forbes Expedition, 1758, in Adams County, with Particular Focus on the Reverend Thomas Barton 1995

Stewart, Irene. Letters of John Forbes, Allegheny Co. Committee, 1927.