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The Relief of Fort Pitt

On the tongue of land at the confluence of the Monongahela and Aheghany rivers stood Fort Pitt, on the site of the old French fort Duquesne. It was remote from any centre of population, but was favorably situated for defense, and so strongly garrisoned that those in charge of it had little to fear from any attempts of the Indians to capture it. Floods had recently destroyed part of the ramparts, but these had been repaired and a parapet of logs raised above them.

Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a Swiss soldier in the service of Great Britain and an officer of keen intelligence and tried courage, was in charge of Fort Pitt. He knew the Indians. He had quickly realized that danger threatened his wilderness post, and had left nothing undone to make it secure. On the fourth day of May, Ecuyer had written to Colonel Henry Bouquet, who was stationed at Philadelphia, saying that he had received word from Gladwyn that he 'was surrounded by rascals.' Ecuyer did not treat this alarm lightly. He not only repaired the ramparts and made them stronger, but also erected palisades within them to surround the dwellings. Everything near the fort that could give shelter to a lurking foe was leveled to the ground. There were in Fort Pitt at this time about a hundred women and their children--families of settlers who had come to the fertile Ohio Valley to take up homes. These were provided with shelter in houses made shot-proof. Small-pox had broken out in the garrison, and a hospital was prepared under the drawbridge, where the patients in time of siege would be in no danger from musket-balls or arrows. But the best defense of Fort Pitt was the capacity of Ecuyer--brave, humorous, foresighted; a host in himself--giving courage to his men and making even the women and children think lightly of the power of the Indians.

It was nearly three weeks after the siege of Detroit had begun that the savages appeared in force about Fort Pitt. On May 27, a large band of Indians came down the Alleghany bearing packs of furs, in payment for which they demanded guns, knives, tomahawks, powder, and shot, and would take nothing else. Soon after their departure, word was brought to Ecuyer of the murder of some traders and settlers not far from the fort. From that time until the beginning of August it was hazardous for anyone to venture outside the walls; but for nearly a month no attack was to be made on the fort itself. However, as news of the capture of the other forts reached the garrison, and as nearly all the messengers sent to the east were either slain or forced to return, it was evident that, in delaying the attack on Fort Pitt, the Indians were merely gathering strength for a supreme effort against the strongest position in the Indian territory.

On June 22, a large body of Indians assembled in the forest about the fort, and, creeping stealthily within range of its walls, opened fire from every side. It was the garrison's first experience of attack; some of the soldiers proved a trifle overbold, and two of them were killed. The firing, however, lasted but a short time. Ecuyer selected a spot where the smoke of the muskets was thickest, and threw shells from his howitzers into the midst of the warriors, scattering them in hurried flight. On the following day a party came within speaking distance, and their leader, Turtle's Heart, a Delaware chief, informed Ecuyer that all the western and northern forts had been cut off, and that a host of warriors were coming to destroy Fort Pitt and its garrison. He begged Ecuyer to withdraw the inmates of the fort while there was yet time. He would see to it that they were protected on their way to the eastern settlements. He added that when the Ottawa and their allies arrived, all hope for the lives of the inhabitants of Fort Pitt would be at an end. All this Turtle's Heart told Ecuyer out of 'love for the British.' The British officer, with fine humor, thanked him for his consideration for the garrison, but told him that he could hold out against all the Indians in the woods. He could be as generous as Turtle's Heart, and so warned him that the British were coming to relieve Fort Pitt with six thousand men; that an army of three thousand was ascending the Great Lakes to punish the Ottawa Confederacy; and that still another force of three thousand had gone to the frontiers of Virginia. 'Therefore,' he said, 'take pity on your women and children, and get out of the way as soon as possible. We have told you this in confidence, out of our great solicitude, lest any of you should be hurt; and,' he added, 'we hope that you will not tell the other Indians, lest they should escape from our vengeance.' The howitzers and the story of the approaching hosts had their effect, and the Indians vanished into the surrounding forest. For another month Fort Pitt had comparative peace, and the garrison patiently but watchfully awaited a relieving force which Amherst was sending. In the meantime news came of the destruction of Presqu'isle, Le Boeuf, and Venango; and the fate of the garrisons, particularly at the last post, warned the inhabitants of Fort Pitt what they might expect if they should fall into the hands of the Indians.

On July 26, some Indian ambassadors, among them Turtle's Heart, came to the post with a flag of truce. They were loud in their protestations of friendship, and once more solicitous for the safety of the garrison. The Ottawa, they said, were coming in a vast horde, to 'seize and eat up everything' that came in their way. The garrison's only hope of escape would be to vacate the fort speedily and 'go home to their wives and children.' Ecuyer replied that he would never abandon his position 'as long as a white man lives in America.' He despised the Ottawa, he said, and was 'very much surprised at our brothers the Delaware for proposing to us to leave this place and go home. This is our home.' His humor was once more in evidence in the warning he gave the Indians against repeating their attack on the fort: 'I will throw bombshells, which will burst and blow you to atoms, and fire cannon among you, loaded with a whole bagful of bullets. Therefore take care, for I don't want to hurt you.'

The Indians now gave up all hope of capturing Fort Pitt by deception, and prepared to take it by assault. That very night they stole within range, dug shelter-pits in the banks of the Alleghany and Monongahela, and at daybreak began a vigorous attack on the garrison. Musket-balls came whistling over the ramparts and smote every point where a soldier showed himself. The shrieking balls and the wild war-whoops of the assailants greatly alarmed the women and children; but never for a moment was the fort in real danger or did Ecuyer or his men fear disaster. So carefully had the commandant seen to his defenses, that, although hundreds of missiles fell within the confines of the fort, only one man was killed and only seven were wounded. Ecuyer himself was among the wounded: one of two arrows that fell within the fort had, to use his own words, 'the insolence to make free' with his 'left leg.' From July 27 to August 1, this horde of Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Mingo kept up the attack. Then, without apparent cause, as suddenly as they had arrived, they all disappeared. To the garrison the relief from constant vigil, anxious days, and sleepless nights was most welcome.

The reason for this sudden relief was that the red men had learned of a rich prize for them, now approaching Fort Pitt. Bouquet, with a party of soldiers, was among the defiles of the Alleghanies. The fort could wait; the Indians would endeavor to annihilate Bouquet's force as they had annihilated Braddock's army in the same region eight years before; and if successful, they could then at their leisure return to Fort Pitt and starve it out or take it by assault.

In June, when Amherst had finally come to the conclusion that he had a real war on his hands--and had, as we have seen, dispatched Dalyell to Detroit--he had, at the same time, sent orders to Colonel Bouquet to get ready a force for the relief of Fort Pitt. Bouquet, like Ecuyer, was a Swiss soldier, and the best man in America for this particular task. After seven years' experience in border warfare, he was as skilled in woodcraft as the Indians themselves. He had now to lead a force over the road, two hundred odd miles long, which connected Fort Pitt with Carlisle, his point of departure in Pennsylvania; but every foot of the road was known to him. In 1758, when serving under General Forbes, he had directed the construction of this road, and knew the strength of every fort and block-house on the way; even the rivers and creeks and morasses and defiles were familiar to him. Best of all, he had a courage and a military knowledge that inspired confidence in his men and officers. Cool, calculating, foreseeing, dauntlessly brave--there was not in the New World at this time a better soldier than this heroic Swiss.

Amherst was in a bad way for troops. The only available forces for the relief of Fort Pitt were 242 men of the 42nd Highlanders--the famous Black Watch--with 133 of the 77th (Montgomery's) Highlanders, and some Royal Americans. These, with a few volunteers, made up a contingent 550 strong. It was a force all too small for the task before it, and the majority of the soldiers had but recently arrived from the West Indies and were in wretched health.

Bouquet had sent instructions to Carlisle to have supplies ready for him and sufficient wagons assembled there for the expedition, but when he reached the place at the end of June he found that nothing had been done. The frontier was in a state of paralysis from panic. Over the entire stretch of country from Fort Pitt the Indians were on the war-path. Every day brought tragic stories of the murder of settlers and the destruction of their homes. There was no safety outside the precincts of the feeble forts that dotted the Indian territory. Bouquet had hoped for help from the settlers and government of Pennsylvania; but the settlers thought only of immediate safety, and the government was criminally negligent in leaving the frontier of the state unprotected, and would vote neither men nor money for defense. But they must be saved in spite of themselves. By energetic efforts, in eighteen days after his arrival at Carlisle, Bouquet was ready for the march. He began his campaign with a wise precaution. The last important fort on the road to Pitt was Ligonier, about one hundred and fifty miles from Carlisle. It would be necessary to use this post as a base; but it was beset by Indians and in danger of being captured. Lieutenant Archibald Blane, in charge of it, was making a gallant defense against a horde of savages. Bouquet, while waiting at Carlisle, engaged guides and sent in advance thirty Highlanders, carefully selected men, to strengthen the garrison under Blane. These, by keeping off the main trail and using every precaution, succeeded in reaching the fort without mishap.

Bouquet led his force westward. Sixty of his soldiers were so ill that they were unable to march and had to be carried in wagons. It was intended that the sick should take the place of the men now in Forts Bedford and Ligonier, and thus help to guard the rear. The road was found to be in frightful condition. The spring freshets had cut it up; deep gullies crossed the path; and the bridges over the streams had been in most cases washed away. As the little army advanced, panic-stricken settlers by the way told stories of the destruction of homes and the slaughter of friends. Fort Bedford, where Captain Lewis Ourry was in command, was reached on the 25th. Here three days were spent, and thirty more guides were secured to serve as an advance-guard of scouts and give warning of the presence of enemies. Bouquet had tried his Highlanders at this work; but they were unfamiliar with the forest, and, as they invariably got lost, were of no value as scouts. Leaving his invalided officers and men at Bedford, Bouquet, with horses rested and men refreshed, pressed forward and arrived at Ligonier on August 2. Preparations had now to be made for the final dash to Fort Pitt, fifty odd miles away, over a path that was beset by savages, who also occupied all the important passes. It would be impossible to get through without a battle--a wilderness battle--and the thought of the Braddock disaster was in the minds of all. But Bouquet was not a Braddock, and he was experienced in Indian warfare. To attempt to pass ambuscades with a long train of cumbersome wagons would be to invite disaster; so he discarded his wagons and heavier stores, and having made ready three hundred and forty pack-horses loaded with flour, he decided to set out from Ligonier on the 4th of August. It was planned to reach Bushy Creek--'Bushy Run,' as Bouquet called it--on the following day, and there rest and refresh horses and men. In the night a dash would be made through the dangerous defile at Turtle Creek; and, if the high broken country at this point could be passed without mishap, the rest of the way could be easily won.

At daylight the troops were up and off. It was an oppressively hot August morning, and no breath of wind stirred the forest. Over the rough road trudged the long line of sweltering men. In advance were the scouts; then followed several light companies of the Black Watch; then the main body of the little army; and in the rear came the toiling pack-horses. Until noon the soldiers marched, panting and tortured by mosquitoes, but buoyed up by the hope that at Bushy Run they would be able to quench their burning thirst and rest until nightfall. By one o'clock in the afternoon they had covered seventeen miles and were within a mile and a half of their objective point. Suddenly in their front they heard the sharp reports of muskets; the firing grew in intensity: the advance-guard was evidently in contact with a considerable body of Indians. Two light companies were rushed forward to their support, and with fixed bayonets cleared the path. This, however, was but a temporary success. The Indians merely changed their position and appeared on the flanks in increased numbers. From the shelter of trees the foe were creating havoc among the exposed troops, and a general charge was necessary. Highlanders and Royal Americans, acting under the directing eye of Bouquet, again drove the Indians back with the bayonet. Scarcely had this been accomplished when a fusillade was heard in the rear. The convoy was attacked, and it was necessary to fall back to its support. Until nightfall, around a bit of elevated ground--called Edge Hill by Bouquet--on which the convoy was drawn up, the battle was waged. About the pack-horses and stores the soldiers valiantly fought for seven hours against their invisible foe. At length darkness fell, and the exhausted troops could take stock of their losses and snatch a brief, broken rest. In this day of battle two officers were killed and four wounded, and sixty of the rank and file were killed or wounded.

Flour-bags were piled in a circle, and within this the wounded were placed. Throughout the night a careful watch was kept; but the enemy made no attack during the darkness, merely firing an occasional shot and from time to time uttering defiant yells. They were confident that Bouquet's force would be an easy prey, and waited for daylight to renew the battle.

The soldiers had played a heroic part. Though unused to forest warfare, they had been cool as veterans in Indian fighting, and not a man had fired a shot without orders. But the bravest of them looked to the morning with dread. They had barely been able to hold their own on this day, and by morning the Indians would undoubtedly be greatly strengthened. The cries and moans of the wounded vividly reminded them of what had already happened. Besides, they were worn out with marching and fighting; worse than physical fatigue and more trying than the enemy's bullets was torturing thirst; and not a drop of water could be obtained at the place where they were hemmed in.

By the flickering light of a candle Bouquet penned one of the noblest letters ever written by a soldier in time of battle. He could hardly hope for success, and defeat meant the most horrible of deaths; but he had no craven spirit, and his report to Amherst was that of a true soldier--a man 'whose business it is to die.' After giving a detailed account of the occurrences leading up to this attack and a calm statement of the events of the day, and paying a tribute to his officers, whose conduct, he said, 'is much above my praise,' he added: 'Whatever our fate may be, I thought it necessary to give Your Excellency this information... I fear insurmountable difficulties in protecting and transporting our provisions, being already so much weakened by the loss in this day of men and horses.' Sending a messenger back with this dispatch, he set himself to plan for the morrow.

At daybreak, from the surrounding wood, the terrifying war-cries of the Indians fell on the ears of the troops. Slowly the shrill yells came nearer; the Indians were endeavoring to strike terror into the hearts of their foes before renewing the fight, knowing that troops in dread of death are already half beaten. When within five hundred yards of the centre of the camp the Indians began firing. The troops replied with great steadiness. This continued until ten in the morning. The wounded within the barricade lay listening to the sounds of battle, ever increasing in volume, and the fate of Braddock's men rose before them. It seemed certain that their sufferings must end in death--and what a death! The pack-horses, tethered at a little distance from the barricade, offered an easy target, against which the Indians soon directed their fire, and the piteous cries of the wounded animals added to the tumult of the battle. Some of the horses, maddened by wounds, broke their fastenings and galloped into the forest. But the kilted Highlanders and the red-coated Royal Americans gallantly fought on. Their ranks were being thinned; the fatiguing work of the previous day was telling on them; their throats were parched and their tongues swollen for want of water. Bouquet surveyed the field. He saw his men weakening under the terrible strain, and realized that something must be done promptly. The Indians were each moment becoming bolder, pressing ever nearer and nearer.

Then he conceived one of the most brilliant movements known in Indian warfare. He ordered two companies, which were in the most exposed part of the field, to fall back as though retreating within the circle that defended the hill. At the same time the troops on the right and left opened their files, and, as if to cover the retreat, occupied the space vacated in a thinly extended line. The strategy worked even better than Bouquet had expected. The yelling Indians, eager for slaughter and believing that the entire command was at their mercy, rushed pell-mell from their shelter, firing sharp volleys into the protecting files. These were forced back, and the savages dashed forward for the barricade which sheltered the wounded. Meanwhile the two companies had taken position on the right, and from a sheltering hill that concealed them from the enemy they poured an effective fire into the savages. The astonished Indians replied, but with little effect, and before they could reload, the Highlanders were on them with the bayonet. The red men then saw that they had fallen into a trap, and turned to flee. But suddenly on their left two more companies rose from ambush and sent a storm of bullets into the retreating savages, while the Highlanders and Royal Americans dashed after them with fixed bayonets. The Indians at other parts of the circle, seeing their comrades in flight, scattered into the forest. The defiant war-cries ceased and the muskets were silent. The victory was complete: Bouquet had beaten the Indians in their own woods and at their own game. About sixty of the enemy lay dead and as many more wounded. In the two days of battle the British had fifty killed, sixty wounded, and five missing. It was a heavy price; but this victory broke the back of the Indian war.

Many horses had been killed or had strayed away, and it was impossible to transport all the stores to Fort Pitt. What could not be carried with the force was destroyed, and the victors moved on to Bushy Creek, at a slow pace on account of the wounded. No sooner had they pitched their tents at the creek than some of the enemy again appeared; the Highlanders, however, without waiting for the word of command, scattered them with the bayonet. On the following day the march began for Fort Pitt. Three days later, on August 10, the garrison of that fort heard the skirl of the bagpipes and the beat of the drum, and saw through the forest the plaids and plumes of the Highlanders and the red coats of the Royal Americans. The gate was thrown open, and the victors of Edge Hill marched in to the welcome of the men and women who for several months had had no news from their friends in the east.

Bouquet had been instructed to invade the Ohio country and teach the Shawnees and Delaware a lesson. But his men were worn out, half of them were unfit for service, and so deficient was he in horses and supplies that this task had to be abandoned for the present year.

Pennsylvania and Virginia rejoiced. This triumph meant much to them. Their borders would now be safe, but for occasional scalping parties. Amherst was delighted, and took to himself much of the credit of Bouquet's victory. He congratulated the noble Swiss officer on his victory over 'a band of savages that would have been very formidable against any troops but such as you had with you.' But it was not the troops that won the battle; it was Bouquet. In the hands of a Braddock, a Loudoun, an Abercromby, these war-worn veterans would have met a fate such as befell Braddock's troops. But Bouquet animated every man with his own spirit; he knew how to fight Indians; and at the critical moment--'the fatal five minutes between victory and defeat'--he proved himself the equal of any soldier who ever battled against the red men in North America.


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Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of The Ottawa, A Chronicle of the Pontiac War, 1915

 

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