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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > History Essays and Research Papers > Revolutionary War & War of 1812  > Essay on The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

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Essay on The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

Often portrayed as the culmination of the great wars for empire between the British and French for control of North America, the French and Indian War, called the Seven Years' War in Europe, was a worldwide conflict that transformed the map of North America but did not end the struggles between Great Britain and France. In many ways the Revolutionary War (1775-83) after France became an ally of the United States, and the Anglo-French Wars of the French Revolution (1789-99) were a continuation of the imperial rivalry between the two nations that had been going on for over a century.

The French and Indian War began unofficially in 1754 with a British-Virginian expedition to seek control of the forks of the Ohio River (modern Pittsburgh). This effort not only failed but ended in a military disaster for a young and inexperienced George Washington, who achieved a minor victory in what amounted to a massacre at the Battle of Jumonville Glen (May 28, 1754) but later had to surrender at Fort Necessity (July 4, 1754). Although the British government sought to avoid an all-out war, they sent General Edward Braddock with two regiments of professional soldiers to march to the forks of the Ohio and assert British control of the region. Unrealistically, Braddock was ordered to seize French forts that the British viewed were in contested territory: Fort Duquesne (at the Ohio forks), Fort Niagara, St. Frederic (Crown Point), and two forts on the Nova Scotia peninsula. Not only were these outposts hundred of miles apart, they were also separated by vast expanses of forest and land occupied by Native Americans. Even the first objective was beyond Braddock, who was surprised in western Pennsylvania by a combined force of French and Indians in a battle that has come to be known as Braddock's Defeat (July 9, 1755).

In the meantime, the French ordered their own regular reinforcements to Canada under a new governor, the marquis de Vaudreuil. The British sent Admiral Edward Boscawen to intercept the French fleet if he could; he missed most of the French ships but captured two vessels packed with 330 soldiers on June 8, 1755. When the French heard of this action, their ambassador left England, and open warfare began.

Before Braddock's defeat, he had transferred responsibility for his other objectives to British North Americans. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts agreed to take an army of provincial troops to seize Fort Niagara, while William Johnson (ca. 1715-1774), noted for his ties to the Iroquois, would lead another provincial army against Fort St. Frederic, and a third contingent of New England provincials were to move against the Nova Scotia outposts. These plans appeared grand on paper but were impossible to fulfill in reality. Only the New England expedition against the Nova Scotia forts was successful as Johnson and Shirley competed for provincial soldiers and Native American auxillaries. Shirley's advance was delayed, and all he managed to do was set up an advance base at Oswego on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario. Johnson's army crawled toward Lake George on its way to Lake Champlain, established Fort Edward on the Hudson River, and constructed a base at the foot of Lake George. On September 8, 1755, a 1,500-man French raiding party under the baron Dieskau struck at Johnson's supply lines along the road between Fort Edward and Lake George. In the Battle of Lake George (September 8, 1755), both sides incurred over 300 casualties, and despite the French's initial success, they were driven back to Fort St. Frederic, and Dieskau was captured. Both sides avoided another battle in the area as the British worked feverishly on building Fort William Henry on Lake George, and the French erected a new bastion called Fort Carillon (later Fort Ticonderoga) on Lake Champlain.

The next year brought even more problems for the British Americans. In February the French and Indians struck at Fort Bull, an outpost on the portage between the Mohawk River Valley and Lake Ontario, making supply of Oswego more difficult. With the French secure at Fort Duquesne, Native Americans raided almost at will along the frontier from Virginia through New England, sending waves of panic among the British-American colonists. On August 13, 1756, the French attacked Oswego itself, and in less than a day the entire garrison of more than 1,000 men and hundreds of civilians surrendered. Fear that the French might follow this victory by an attack down the Mohawk River convinced General Daniel Webb to destroy the newly rebuilt Bull's Fort and place obstructions in the water passage to the Mohawk. It also convinced the Earl of Loudoun, the newly arrived commander of British forces in North America, to order provincial troops at Lake George to cancel any advance on Lake Champlain.

Both the French and the British struggled with conflicting lines of authority and with pursuing a consistent strategy. On the French side there was a conflict between Vaudreuil and the marquis de Montcalm, commander of the regular army in Canada. Vaudreuil believed that the best defense was a good offense and wanted to use Native Americans and Canadian troops to raid frontier settlements and destroy advanced outposts like Oswego. He believed that if the British colonials were preoccupied with defending their homes, they would be unwilling and unable to launch an invasion to the north. Moreover, if the British forward bases were taken out of action, any invasion would be almost impossible. Montcalm, on the other hand, detested the Indians and had no respect for the Canadians. He wanted to withdraw to a defensive perimeter based on the St. Lawrence River and rely on the regular army in a European-style war.

Problems also existed on the British side. The strategy of 1755, which had been dictated in Great Britain and embraced in the colonies, had been unrealistic and ended in the disaster of Braddock's defeat. For the time being, therefore, there was a vacuum in British planning. In 1756 provincial Americans attempted to provide some direction by gathering 7,000 colonial troops at the foot of Lake George hoping to advance north. But the provincial officers soon became embroiled in arguments concerning their relative rank in relation to the regular army. They also claimed that their men would probably not obey orders from British officers. These problems festered during the summer of 1756 and were not fully settled by the time the expedition to Lake Champlain was called off after the loss of Oswego. Loudoun's arrival in North America, with almost vice-regal power over the colonies, was supposed to clarify the situation, but although he was an able administrator, his tendency to dictate to the colonists--at one point he even ordered an embargo of all nonmilitary shipping--did not gain much support. It would take a dramatic shift in British policy to change the course of the war.

Given the problems confronted by both sides, the war followed much the same course in 1757 as it had in 1756. The British decided to concentrate on a massive expedition to capture the fortress of Louisbourg. But Loudoun's careful plans came to naught while his army waited the entire month of July in Halifax as the royal navy sought to measure the strength of Louisbourg's defense. In early August they found a powerful French fleet at anchor in Louisbourg, and with the campaign season getting shorter, Loudoun called off the attack.

In the meantime, the British-American effort on Lake George ended in disaster. Following Vaudreuil's strategy of striking at forward bases, Montcalm concentrated 8,000 men, including 1,800 Native Americans from scores of tribes, against Fort William Henry. Pursuing standard European siege tactics, Montcalm captured the fort in less than a week, and again following European rules, he granted the garrison the "honors of war," allowing it to march to Fort Edward under arms. Outraged by this leniency, his Indian allies attacked the defeated column, killing, maiming, looting, and seizing captives--all legitimate objects of war in Native American eyes. Perhaps as many as 180 were murdered, and maybe another 500 were captured out of more than 2,000. The Fort William Henry "Massacre" (August 10, 1757) represented a low point in the war for the British, but it also provided a rallying cry for the rest of the conflict. Although a great victory for the French, the battle had some negative impact on their war effort: Montcalm became even more convinced that Native Americans were a liability in war, and Vaudreuil was angry that Montcalm did not follow his orders to also capture Fort Edward; he was also irate that Montcalm wanted him to gain the release of the Indian captives from Fort William Henry. The Indians decided that they had been betrayed by Montcalm in the surrender and would never again rally in large numbers for Canada's defense.

By the next campaigning season, the British began to turn things around. William Pitt, who was the king's chief minister, determined that Great Britain and its colonies needed to put all of their resources together to win the war, which had spread to Europe and beyond. In particular, Pitt decided that he would strive to hold the line in Europe, where the French were stronger, and seek to conquer New France, where the French were weaker. To do so, he wanted the colonies to contribute more than they ever had to the manpower needed in the war. Thus, instead of dictating to the colonies, as Loudoun and even Braddock had done, Pitt now treated the colonists more as allies. To get colonial assemblies to open up their coffers, he offered subsidies to help pay for the war. He also changed the rules for officer rank: Instead of every regular officer outranking even the highest provincial officer, colonial majors, colonels, and generals would have the same status as their regular counterparts, with the exception of being junior to ranks of equivalent grade.

The French, on the other hand, continued to have problems with their divided leadership, which was exacerbated by poor harvests, corruption in the administration of supplies, and inflation. If there was going to be a war of attrition, New France--which had a population of only about 60,000--was outmatched by British North America, with over 2 million colonists in some of the richest and most prosperous country in the world. Moreover, Great Britain was committed to supporting the war in North America and had a superior navy to bring men and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean, while French Canada remained isolated from a France more focused on Europe and the West Indies.

The British Americans put together three huge expeditions as a result of these changes. Fourteen thousand men and a huge flotilla under General Jeffrey Amherst, who would replace Loudoun, besieged Louisbourg, capturing what many called the "Gibraltar of the North" on July 26, 1758. The army at Lake George under General James Abercromby had 16,000 men, 10,000 of whom were provincials. Unfortunately for the British Americans, on July 8, 1757, Abercromby launched an ill-advised direct assault on Fort Carillon without bringing up his artillery. Montcalm had only 3,500 men, but, fighting from entrenched positions, they inflicted about 2,000 casualties on Abercromby before the British Americans retreated, ending their thrust at Lake Champlain. As a result of this victory, Montcalm was promoted to lieutenant general and came to outrank Vaudreuil. Also as a result of this battle, Abercromby, desperate for some sort of success, agreed to Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet's proposal to raid Fort Frontenac, a crucial supply depot near the entrance to the St. Lawrence on Lake Ontario. Bradstreet's success in late August dramatically interrupted the supply of the French forts in the Great Lakes interior and cut off much of the French trade with Native Americans, which was crucial for Franco-Indian relations. Meanwhile, a third British-American army of 7,000 men under General John Forbes made its way through the woods of Pennsylvania, methodically building a road and constructing forts as supply depots. Despite having an advance party of 800 men soundly beaten by French and Indians striking from Fort Duquesne on September 11, 1757, Forbes kept pressing on. Bradstreet's raid at Fort Frontenac encouraged him, and Forbes also entered into negotiations with many of the Ohio River Indians who had previously been allied with the French and convinced them to withdraw from the war. The French continued to raid his work parties, but on November 23, 1757, a reduced French garrison abandoned and blew up Fort Duquesne. Forbes occupied the site the next day and began to build Fort Pitt.

By the beginning of 1759, despite the defeat at Fort Carillon, Pitt's policy was working, and the British Americans were using their superior numbers and materiel to overwhelm the French in Canada. The British Americans planned a three-pronged attack. First, under the command of General John Prideux, a British-American and Iroquois army of 3,200 marched to Oswego and then sailed on to Fort Niagara in July 1759. Arriving on July 6, Prideux began the usual siege preparations, eventually bringing his guns to within 80 yards of Fort Niagara's defenses. Prideux was killed by one of his own cannon and Sir William Johnson took over command. Before the French surrendered, Johnson had to beat off a relief column under Francois-Marie Le Marchand de Ligneris, inflicting heavy casualties on the French.

Meanwhile, General James Wolfe moved up the St. Lawrence with 8,500 men escorted by the Royal Navy. For most of the summer Montcalm, who had concentrated between 15,000 and 16,000 men to oppose the British, frustrated him. In a desperate move, Wolfe landed 4,500 men under a cliff on a cove called L'Anse au Foulon and climbed to the Plains of Abraham, where Montcalm foolishly attacked him with an equal number of French troops. Both Wolfe and Moncalm died as a result of the fighting, but the British won the Battle of Quebec (September 13, 1759), opening the way to Montreal.

A third army of 10,000 provincial and British soldiers moved deliberately toward Lake Champlain under Amherst only to find token resistance at Fort Carillon and Fort St. Frederic, both of which the French blew up before retreating by August 1. Rather than advancing further, and unsure of the progress and fate of Wolfe's army, Amherst repaired and rebuilt the forts, now named Ticonderoga (Carillon) and Crown Point (St. Frederic), and waited for the next campaign season.

In 1760 some hope still existed for the French in Canada if they could recapture Quebec; victory would then be possible if their navy could bring some help from France. But the French fleet had been beaten at the Battle of Quiberon Bay (November 20, 1759), ensuring that there would be no French invasion of Great Britain and giving the British navy command of the Atlantic. Without naval support, the marquis de Levis almost succeeded, defeating General John Murray in the Second Battle of Quebec (April 28, 1760) and then laying siege to the city. However, the British navy arrived on May 12, forcing a French withdrawal. For the rest of that spring, all Levis could do was try to delay the advance that now closed in on him from three directions.

By early September the British had 17,000 men at Montreal, and on September 7, 1760, Vaudreuil asked for terms. Amherst was willing to be lenient with the people of Canada, but, following a policy he began after the Fort William Henry "Massacre," he refused to grant the army the honors of war. Levis wanted to reject those terms, or at least lead the army to one last battle to defend national honor, but Vaudreuil decided that that approach would end in reprisals against the Canadians and needless deaths. He surrendered New France to the British without further negotiation.

The French and Indian War was over in North America, but the larger contest continued elsewhere as Spain entered the conflict. The British went on to conquer most of the French West Indies, Havana, and Manila, and they made gains in Africa and India. The war on the continent in Europe remained something of a stalemate. The Treaty of Paris (1763) brought favorable terms to Great Britain, which included Canada and Florida as new possessions. However, victory also convinced the British government that it needed a take a more rational approach to its empire. That approach brought on the resistance movement (1763-75) of the North American colonists and helped to precipitate the American Revolution.


1) Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Knopf, 2000)

2) W. J. Eccles, The French in North America, 1500-1783, rev. ed. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998)

3) Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America (New York: Norton, 1988)

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