French and Indian War (1754-1763)

The brutality of warfare in the North American wilderness during the French and Indian War comes through vividly in a British army officer’s manuscript journal acquired by the American Revolution Institute in February 2020. Its author, Rudolph Bentinck (1738-1820), was a Dutch-born lieutenant in the Royal American Regiment, a special infantry unit raised to meet the challenges of frontier combat.

In September 1758, as part of Gen. John Forbes’ expedition to drive the French out of the Ohio River Valley, he volunteered to serve on a reconnaissance mission led by Maj. James Grant to assess enemy strength at and around Fort Duquesne, the French-held stronghold at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

As approximately four hundred troops under Grant advanced, Bentinck wrote, “1500 French and Indians sallied out upon us, with a Horrid Howling, like a wild Beast.” Lining up in traditional military formation “to receive the enemy, whom we could not yet see through the thickness of the underwood,” the British force opened fire at first sighting, seeming to repel them back into the woods, he wrote, “but instead of that, they crept on all fours, till they had almost surrounded us, when all at once, we received a very hot fire, without seeing the enemy, and within a few minutes, all the officers, and above half the men were killed or wounded, upon which the remainder retreated in the greatest confusion.” It was a hard-learned lesson for the British troops, who, Bentinck noted, were “not much acquainted with the Indian way of fighting, and too brave to sculk behind trees.”

The British and American forces suffered 342 casualties in the battle, including Major Grant, who was taken, prisoner. Lieutenant Bentinck was only one of two officers of the Royal American Regiment on the mission who survived. The French continued to hold Fort Duquesne, though with reduced numbers and cut off from supplies.

Closely following the events was twenty-six-year-old Col. George Washington, commander of the Virginia provincial troops, who lost six officers in Grant’s failed mission and knew well the perils of the Ohio Country from his earlier experience with the Braddock expedition. In November, with winter approaching, General Forbes initiated one more attack on the fort. Lieutenant Bentinck noted in his journal that “2,400 men are to be picked, to march in 3 divisions under the command of Colonels Bouquet, Montgomery [Archibald Montgommerie] and Washington, to act as Brigadiers.” (Washington was the only provincial officer to be honored with that position during the war.) Washington brought the totality of his frontier experience to the planning of this third attempt to capture Fort Duquesne, but as the three divisions moved into position, they discovered that the remnants of the French garrison had set fire to the fort and abandoned the site on November 26. Two weeks later, Bentinck recorded, “General Forbes gave an order that for the future Fort du Quesne should be called Fort Pitt,” in honor of British prime minister William Pitt, who had ordered its capture.

The descriptions of the momentous events around Fort Duquesne in the fall of 1758 comprise seven pages of Lt. Rudolph Bentinck’s thirty-page journal, which had been previously unknown to scholars of the French and Indian War. Bentinck’s narrative begins in Holland in 1756, when he received his commission in the Royal American Regiment. He traveled from the Hague to London, and then set sail for America on May 17. Landing in New York, he was appointed to serve under Col. Henry Bouquet, who would become his military mentor.

Bentinck documented with remarkable detail how men were assigned to the four battalions of the Royal American Regiment (noting the exceptions made to the rules), providing the rates of pay for officers and soldiers of various ranks. He spent his first winter in Philadelphia, writing candidly about the manners and social customs of the Americans he encountered.

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson, is yet another book that looks at the matter from a broader perspective. 

If you find this period interesting, there is also Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), also called the War of the Spanish Succession, which served as a precursor of the larger conflict fifty years later.

It’s tempting to view the American Revolution under a magnifying glass, but it was the culmination of a struggle for control of North America that continued in 1812.

The film, The Last of the Mohicans (1992) while a Hollywood production, and is based on a somewhat romanticized book of the same name, is set in that time period and I think is worth watching.

The massacre following the surrender of British troops to the French at Ft. William-Henry inflamed the situation along the frontier and led to a “license” for colonists to destroy Iriquois villages wherever they found them.

The belligerents in the French and Indian War were the British & Colonists, the French, and the Iriquois. Each played a significant role. By the time the American Revolution came along roughly ten years later, the Indians played a far lesser role because a lot of them had been wiped out by European diseases, and the colonists. Many of the tribes that survived moved west or further south.

18 COMMENTS

    • And how many today will survive, realizing they are not prepared for any fight?

      I’ve been hearing that “nine meal” admonition a lot lately…it’s not a new sentiment. Most would burn the tires off their perfectly good vehicle in order to send smoke signals with the hope they’ll be rescued by a government that despises their very existence. No help is coming from the ruling class, and so many haven’t a clue.

  1. Nice history class this morning. Growing up ten minutes from Washington’s Crossing, Bucks County is steeped in Colonial history, affording an appreciation for farmers turned militia. Maybe that’s why LOTM’s is a staple on our movie list, the Irish Reel background music, and of course, the infamous line, “Stay alive, I will find you!”…which MrsPaulM recites when I head to town.

  2. The Last of the Mohicans , gave me the phrase I say to my wife every time we separate .
    Just before they jumped into the falls to escape the Mohawk . “Stay alive , and I will find you”

  3. Yep, war is ugly. When it is at bad breath distance, it is even uglier! And I’m still surprised the Brits didn’t learn anything from their ‘excursions’ into the country then about guerrilla warfare.

  4. Born and raised in the north west Adirondacks. I truly believe there are a lot of restless souls wondering around the deep woods and mountains. The whole region is steeped in history.

  5. The British were good against other armies using similar tactics. Not so well against others. The Boers come to mind.

    Their influence was far reaching and influenced many. Our own Army post Civil War fighting Indians had to relearn earlier lessons. Little Bighorn, Ft Fetterman debacles, and Milk Creek come to mind.

    • The War of Northern Aggression/Civil War was more of a series of set-piece battles, not guerilla warfare (Indian Wars). So you’re spot on. The Civil War burned out a lot of veterans and the American Field Army in the West contained a fair number of barely English-speaking soldiers. The officers were mostly veterans who took a reduction in rank (ie Custer) to remain in service.

  6. It was the war that made us who we were. Stirred up a lot of resentment against the Crown and the English overlords.

    A harsh war, with only harsh survivors.

    The ambush scene out of Mel Gibson’s “Patriot” was a perfect example of the type of men who physically survived (but mentally, not so much) the rough nature.

    And people today think the Indians were such nice and peaceful people…

    Lot of darkness, lot of death, blood everywhere, settlements just vanished overnight. A time of death and fell deeds indeed.

    Washington got the starch knocked off of him, and opened his eyes to a lot of the evil of men. And set his course for the coming conflict. Thank God.

  7. Allan Eckert “Wilderness Empire”
    Francis Parkman “Wolfe and Montcalm”
    Two READABLE and seminal history’s of the period.
    In my humble opinion there are no better books than these to understand the wilderness wars.
    Col (later general Boquet-a rarity in the English army made general despite being Swiss- he was that talented) was one of the unsung hero’s of the era and to my mind almost as valuable to the foundation of this country as Washington albeit many years before the revolution. His biography is difficult to find but worth the effort.

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