In order to understand the American Revolutionary War it is essential to understand the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War established three important things in the 13 original colonies:
- It United the Colonies – While it can be argued that the colonies were first united by the Great Awakening, the French and Indian War was the first war to unite the colonies. Each colony mustered up its own militia to fight along the British.
- It Provided a Framework for the Continental Army – The Continental Army was formed shortly before the war of independence and would be the precursor to the United States Army. George Washington would be the commander-in-chief who organized the army and he would use the British model as a foundation. The Continental Army was made up of primarily colonial militia and many of these militia units had participated in the French and Indian War. Many of the superior officers: Israel Putnam, Daniel Morgan, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and others cut their teeth in the military during the French and Indian War.
- It caused England to go into Massive National Debt – Lastly, and most importantly, The French and Indian War put England into massive debt. This caused a dilemma for King George III. He was forced to raise taxes on the citizens of England and eventually on the British colonies. This led to the rallying cry, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Things began to snowball for Great Britain after that.
France and England had been enemies for centuries. The two had waged war on each other in a tit-for-tat type approach. England could never get a foothold on mainland Europe and France could never attack England’s homeland. The two coexisted in a tumultuous relationship and it would bubble-over in the Seven Years War and later in the Napoleonic Wars.
During the reign of Henry VIII England began to build a Navy, but stood idle while Spain, France, the Dutch Republic, and Portugal forged global empires. After the death of Henry VIII and his son Edward, Queen Mary became the monarch of England and threw England into one of its darkest times. There were mass murders, civil unrest, and economic depressions. Fortunately, Bloody Mary’s reign was only five years. She was replaced by Queen Elizabeth.
It was under Queen Elizabeth that England began to forge a global empire. The empire was not forged through colonization, but by military victories. Spain planned to invade England, but was thwarted when their great Armada was soundly defeated by Sir Francis Drake. At war’s end England was now the most powerful nation in the world. By the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign England was in a golden age and preparing to colonize the New World. By 1605 they would have their first permanent colony.
The French had already been exploring the New World and had laid claim to much of Canada with the explorations of Jacques Cartier. Montreal and Quebec were founded around the same time that Jamestown was founded. It would not take long and the French had settled much of Canada while the English had begun to colonize the eastern coast of North America. By the end of the 17th century the French and English had colonized parts of Canada, America, and the Caribbean and seemed to be in constant conflict.
At the beginning of the 18th century France and England were established as the most powerful nations in the world. Their economies were vibrant and expansion was imminent. The French continued to colonize Canada and the Caribbean while the English colonized the eastern coast of the United States and the Caribbean. Spain’s power began to diminish and with it their control of their colonies in the Caribbean. The Dutch, English, and French would capitalize on their loss.
Throughout this expansion the English and French continued to have tremendous conflict. This conflict would continue until the mid-point of the 18th century when war broke out between the two. This conflict would become known to those in Europe as the Seven Years War and in America it would become known as the French and Indian War.
1754: War Begins
The beginning of the French and Indian War in America occurred at the Battle of Jumonville Glen when Colonel George Washington, under orders from Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie, led an expedition into the Ohio Country. Here he allied with Tanaghrisson, an Indian who wanted to influence those in his tribe to side with the British and not the French, and set out for Fort Duquesne. On May 28, 1754 Washington and Tanaghrisson ambushed the French and their Indian allies. Tanaghrisson tomahawked the French commanding officer while Washington and his men successfully defeated the French army.
The victory was short-lived. Washington pulled back and built Fort Necessity. On July 3 the French attacked the fort and defeated Colonel Washington and his men. Washington negotiated a retreat under arms with the french.
England learned of the two battles in August and sent an expedition to their colonies under the command of General Edward Braddock. Braddock was a grizzled British veteran who was well-educated in European warfare. He would apply these European tactics in the North American theatre with disastrous results. France learned of Braddock’s departure and dispatched six regiments to New France. The French and Indian War had begun.
1755: British Disaster
General Braddock, along with future enemies George Washington and Thomas Gage, led the British expedition into French territory in 1755. Here his expedition met disaster.
Braddock had sent Thomas Gage and George Washington ahead to speak to the French who had requested an audience. The French asked that the British retreat but Braddock would not hear it. He marched forward.
Thomas Gage commanded the advance guard and ran into a French regiment. After a couple of volleys the French retreated and had lost their commanding officer. Gage returned to the main line that had quickly marched forward after hearing shots fired. The French along with Canadian militia and their Indian allies began to surround the British and fire at them in covered positions. Braddock rallied his men, but was shot off of his horse. Washington had multiple horses shot out from under him, but managed to organize a rear guard and complete an organized retreat. Braddock was dead, the expedition was over, but the British survived to fight another day. Washington was considered a hero of the battle for his actions.
Despite what many have learned about Braddock’s expedition, it was not an ambush. The French were just as surprised as the British were when they came in contact with each other. The main cause for the failure of the expedition was Braddock’s inability to adapt his army to the terrain. The French used a form of guerrilla warfare and fired behind cover while the British continually tried to line up in traditional lines and return volleys. Their volleys were ineffective and they were easy targets. The French, Canadians, and Indians numbered around 300 to possible 900 while the British boasted 1,400 with artillery.
1756: French Success
The British replaced General Braddock with William Shirley. Shirley came into conflict with William Johnson and Sir Charles Hardy and was replaced with Lord Loudon and General James Abercrombie. As a result of the British bickering there was not a significant battle plan put in place.
The French had also sent a new general to New France. Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. Montcalm was an experienced and aggressive officer. He quickly organized a raid on British supply lines and pushed the British back. Abercrombie was reluctant to take action while Montcalm executed a strategic feint and fooled Abercrombie into thinking he was preparing an attack on Lake George. Montcalm slipped away from Ticonderoga and executed a very skilful attack on Oswego.
British turmoil had slowed them down and allowed Montcalm to bottle Abercrombie up at Albany. Loudon began preparations for an attack on Quebec to relieve the pressure. It was during this time that England formally declared war on France.
1757: Disaster at Fort William Henry
Loudon began to prepare for an attack on Quebec, but his preparations were slowed when William Pitt ordered him to attack Louisbourg. The expedition to Louisbourg was a failure due to surprise French numbers and navy present. Louisbourg sailed back to New York amid rumors that a massacre had happened at Fort William Henry.
Montcalm continued to have success against the British. He harassed Fort William Henry, ambushed a British column near Ticonderoga, and launched a daring expedition at Lake George which destroyed important British supplies. His final act of 1757 was to besiege Fort William Henry. He did and the fort surrendered under duress. Montcalm allowed its citizens to leave the fort an action that angered his Indian allies. The Indians attacked the British again and captured women, children, and slaves. Montcalm did his best to defuse the situation, but the Indians were bloodthirsty and massacred many of the wounded and scalped many women and children.
1758: The British Push Back
The British organized the Forbes Expedition to push the French back and take control of the Ohio Valley. Initially the expedition was repelled by the French at Fort Duquesne, but the victory was short-lived. The French were forced to retreat from Duquesne giving the British control of the Ohio River Valley. General James Forbes came ill and was taken to Philadelphia where he died shortly after.
Things got worse for France when their fortress, Louisbourg fell after a siege and the British Navy continued to have much success against the inferior fleets of France. The French had success at the Battle of Carillon when 3,600 Frenchmen defeated 18,000 British under General Abercrombie, but lost Fort Frontenac.
In the European theatre France contemplated an Invasion of England to loosen the noose around them in America, but these plans failed due to Britain’s ally Prussia posing a threat to France’s borders and their inability to defeat the British Navy.
After 4 long years the British began to slowly tighten its grip on France.
1759: The Fall of Quebec
Montcalm’s resolve was impressive. After a string of victories in 1757 he had taken significant losses in 1758, but continued to press forward. However the British continued to defeat France in all the war’s theatres.
In North America, the British captured Fort Ticonderoga, drove the French out of the Ohio Country, conquered Quebec as a result of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and captured Guadeloupe in the West Indies. In India, they repulsed the French Siege of Madras. In Europe, British troops took part in a major Allied victory at the Battle of Minden. The victory of the Royal Navy in the sea battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay ended any real prospect of a French invasion. Britain gained almost total supremacy of the seas and would it would retain for more than a century and a half.
By the end of 1759 Britain had emerged as the dominant global power in the world. They had finally eclipsed Spain, Portugal, and France in military strength.
1760 – 1763: The End
The hero of Louisbourg, General Jeffery Amherst, negotiated the terms of surrender with France in the American theatre. He promised to allow the French colonists the freedom to practice their Roman Catholic religion and he returned the French Army that was garrisoned in New France to Old France. The war in America was over with exception to a surprise action by the French on Newfoundland.
The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763. The war was over and had taken a toll on the British and French economies. Britain’s actions to pay off that debt would lead to the American Revolutionary War.