Struggling for Control of North America



Plan of the Fortress in 1751

he Treaty of Utrecht ushered in twenty-five years of uneasy peace between England and the Bourbon powers (France and Spain). In North America, however, relations among the colonists continued in turmoil. One cause was the continuing quest for Indian allegiance. Indian diplomacy heightened colonial anxieties. The apparently fickle natives, squeezed by technologically and numerically superior white cultures and striving to maintain their independence, played the Europeans off against each other with consummate skill. A second, related, cause was the colonists’ construction of outposts in strategic locations to improve security and to exert influence on nearby natives. Located in the unoccupied zones between expanding colonial frontiers, these forts created new tensions.

Along the northern frontier, New France tried to bring the Iroquois into its orbit. To upset French designs, the English established Fort Oswego on the Great Lakes, but the French countered with a fort at Crown Point, which was in territory claimed by New York and gave the French access to the Mohawks. The French also worried about their eastern flank, now vulnerable with Newfoundland and Acadia in British hands. Fortunately for Canada, Cape Breton Island had not been ceded to England, and here the French built Louisbourg, a formidable fortress that guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

In the south, the Carolinians suffered hard times after Utrecht. Their desire to eliminate the Bourbon powers had been forestalled, and in 1711–1712 the French scored a diplomatic triumph akin to the Iroquois treaty of 1701 when they made peace with Carolina’s foremost Indian allies, the Creeks. Then in 1715 the Yamassee War stunned the English. The origins of the war, which was a widespread revolt led by the Creeks and other erstwhile friends, the Yamassees, involved callous actions by Carolina traders, white land greed, and Spanish and French intrigue. To the English the war was a classic example of the omnipresent danger they faced as long as the Bourbons maintained a foothold in the region, and of the Indians’ untrustworthy behavior. Carolina escaped a potentially disastrous situation when the Cherokees refused to join the uprising and instead aided the whites. Although Carolina won the war, its situation was grim. As one man wrote, “We are just now the poorest Colony in all America and have . . . very distracting appearances of ruine.”

Recognizing that the recent Indian war had weakened its North American southern flank and worried that the prospect of French encirclement was no idle nightmare, especially after the French strengthened their hold on the lower Mississippi by founding New Orleans, the British government responded vigorously. The English established several new forts and in 1732 founded the colony of Georgia, which was in part intended as a military buffer zone. Under James Oglethorpe’s assertive leadership, Georgians constructed a series of fortified outposts stretching southward into territory claimed by Spain and coveted by France.

When Oglethorpe built Fort St. George on the St. Johns River, the gateway to Florida’s interior and the backdoor to St. Augustine, passions flared and thick war clouds gathered.

Storms had also been brewing in Europe, and in 1739 the clouds burst into a British-Spanish conflict known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. What began as a drizzle became a deluge when this war merged into the War of the Austrian Succession, embroiling one European power after another until 1744, when Britain and France declared war on each other. The war in America—lasting from 1744 to 1748 and pitting English colonists against those of France and Spain—was known as King George’s War, but the entire conflict, first against Spain and then against the combined Bourbon powers, can be labeled the War of the 1740s. From 1739 to 1744 the North American struggle centered around Spanish possessions; after 1744 the focus shifted to the north.

When Oglethorpe learned of the war with Spain, he tried to fulfill Moore’s dream of capturing St. Augustine. Descending on Florida with a force of Georgia and Carolina militiamen, Creek and Cherokee warriors, a newly raised regular regiment, and a small British squadron, he hoped to surprise St. Augustine and take it by storm. But the Spanish were alert, and although Oglethorpe had proclaimed he would succeed or die trying, he did neither, retreating ignominiously with his bedraggled army.

The next year Americans participated in the assault on Cartagena, the most important port on the Spanish Main. In 1739 Admiral Edward Vernon had captured Porto Bello, and the elated British government reinforced his command so that he could make further conquests. A large fleet and army left England to rendezvous with Vernon in Jamaica, while for the first and only time the government asked the colonies to provide troops for a campaign beyond the mainland. In early 1740 the call went out for volunteers. To expedite volunteering, colonial governments offered bounties and promised the troops a fair share of captured booty. Eleven colonies provided thirty-six companies of a hundred men each, organized into an “American Regiment” commanded by Virginia Governor William Gooch. The regiment sailed to Jamaica, meeting Vernon’s fleet and the British army under Brigadier General Thomas Wentworth. The expedition then moved against Cartagena and met with a disastrous repulse. Like Walker’s expedition thirty years earlier, Vernon’s failure had long-term significance, spreading discord between Englishmen living on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The soldiers in the American Regiment fared badly at the hands of the British military establishment. They ate “putrid beef, rusty pork, and bread swimming with maggots,” did an inordinate amount of fatigue duty, were forced to serve on British warships, and for their efforts received little but contempt. Thus Cartagena further reduced British military prestige in America and reinforced the emergent antagonism Americans felt toward regulars.

With the colonies weakened by their exertions at St. Augustine and Cartagena, Spain struck back, attacking Frederica, Georgia, in 1742. Although outnumbered more than four to one, Oglethorpe displayed military capabilities conducting a defense that he had not exhibited while on the offensive at St. Augustine and forced the Spanish to withdraw. The war along the southern frontier then became little more than a series of minor clashes.

As major campaigning petered out in the south, it commenced in the north. In mid-January 1745 the Massachusetts general court met in secret session to hear an extraordinary proposal from Governor William Shirley: Massachusetts should mount an expedition to capture Louisbourg! Since Louisbourg commanded navigation up the St. Lawrence, its capture would ultimately mean the downfall of all of New France. If the prospect was tempting, the dangers were great. From outward appearances the city was impregnable. The channel into the harbor was narrow and guarded by two supplemental fortifications, the Grand Battery and the Island Battery, both bristling with cannons. On the land side, stout walls and a wide trench protected the fortress. However, from exchanged prisoners who had been held captive in Louisbourg, Shirley had learned that the powder supply was low, the garrison was undermanned and mutinous, the fortifications (especially the Grand Battery) were in disrepair, and excellent landing sites existed along Gabarus Bay just west of the city.

The general court approved the expedition by only a single vote and on the condition that other colonies participated. No doubt many people feared this might be another Cartagena, but New England ministers roused the populace, portraying the venture as a crusade against the “stronghold of Satan.” William Pepperrell commanded the expedition, which by any rational calculation should have failed. The badly trained and poorly disciplined 4,000-man militia army was, as one professional soldier wrote, led by “People totally Ignorant” of the military skills “necessary in such an undertaking.” Yet after a siege of about seven weeks, the fortress capitulated. The French had conducted an inept defense, failing to contest the initial landing and then abandoning the Grand Battery without a fight. The volunteers fought surprisingly well, and a British naval squadron had blockaded the fortress, preventing outside succor from relieving the city.

Louisbourg’s capture was the most brilliant military achievement by the American colonies in the pre-Revolutionary era and had far-reaching implications. Most New Englanders saw “the Finger of God” in their success and believed more firmly than ever that they were His chosen people, destined for some great purpose on earth. The capture also gave colonists confidence in their martial abilities, particularly when they contrasted their performance with the Cartagena affair. Citizen-soldiers doing God’s will seemed infinitely superior to British regulars serving an earthly sovereign.

After Louisbourg the fighting took on a pattern similar to previous colonial wars. Hoping to capitalize on the victory by attacking Canada in 1746, Governor Shirley proposed the familiar two-pronged plan to the British government. When the government tentatively approved, the colonies raised an army and eagerly awaited the promised English force. However, various delays and European commitments caused Britain to abandon the campaign. Remembering the mother country’s failure in 1709, colonists pondered anew England’s solicitude for their well-being. The colonists also tried to derail the Iroquois from their neutrality but failed. Lacking support from both England and the Iroquois, colonists launched no more major offensives. Meanwhile, the French perpetrated a few massacres but mostly dispensed death in small doses.

By 1748 the war was a stalemate. France dominated the European continent, but Britain controlled the seas and, having conquered Louisbourg, held the advantage in North America. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle angered English colonists. The guiding principle was restoration of the status quo antebellum, which meant that Britain returned Louisbourg to France. In return, as a concession to England’s interests, France withdrew from Flanders, but this did little to diminish colonial anguish. Colonists believed the mother country had callously disregarded their sacrifices and had sacrificed their security on the altar of England’s own selfish interests.


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