The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major Grant disobeyed orders, which stated he was not to get decisively engaged in a battle. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh.
Summer 1758 in present-day western Pennsylvania. The French and Indian War is in its fourth year and so far, it’s been all French and Indians. There is no British military presence on the western frontier except a regiment of part-time volunteer Virginia militia commanded by George Washington. For three years, they have been fighting a lost cause, trying to hold back French and Indian raids across the depth and breadth of the colonial western frontier. These raids have plundered as far north as Lake Erie and south to the Potomac River while moving east as far as the Susquehanna River in the center of Pennsylvania.
The base for these raids is Fort Duquesne (dew-cane’), located at the junction of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh. This location was simply referred to as “The Forks”. From the northeast flows the Allegheny River. Up from the southeast flows the Monongahela River. They join at “The Forks” to form the Ohio River, which flows southwest to the Mississippi River. With all the navigable rivers and tributaries that connect to this water network, one can go from the Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Whoever controls The Forks controls this inland water super highway, making it the most strategic and valuable piece of real estate in the interior.
There were several reasons why Great Britain was in this fix. The French and Indian War was part of the much larger Seven Years War. It was the first true world war and Britain was fighting world-wide on both land and sea.**Historical Footnote: They were fighting the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and Swedes (yes, Swedes). Their only ally was Germany.** The British government considered the French and Indian War to be a sideshow and a problem the colonials would have to deal with themselves. British officers and government officials already in North America tended to be dismissive of the colonials and especially the Indians, who they had no use for at all. The French, however, welcomed Native American support, who became a lethal mercernary wilderness army for the French.
Second, the British, who were the masters of the European battlefields, had no idea how to fight in the wilderness. Time and again, they were outfoxed and outfought by the French and their Native American allies. In fact, throughout the entire war, it was taken as gospel by the British that attempts to operate independently in Indian country were tantamount to suicide. It simply wasn’t done.
This overhead view of “The Point” in Pittsburgh shows the outline of Fort Duquesne. It was tiny. The interior courtyard was about the size of a tennis court. Fort Pitt, which replaced it, was built in the same area and covered 13 acres. The settlement the sprung up outside the walls became Pittsburgh. **Historical Footnote: Both the fort and the town were named after William Pitt, the Leader of the House of Commons, future Prime Minister and driving force behind the British strategy to expel France from North America. Without his focus on that strategy and the means to carry it out, we might all be speaking French today.**
In 1758, Britain entered the war in force and with a newfound vigor. **Historical Footnote: Great Britain paid Germany to continue the fight in Europe. That freed them to throw the might of their empire into the North American War.** The most important strategic objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock had tried it three years earlier. On July 9, 1755, his force was cut to pieces on the banks of the Monongahela River by a smaller force of French and Indians. Braddock was killed. The ghost of Braddock’s Defeat haunted the British for the rest of the war. The unspoken rule for commanders was – “No more Braddocks”.
Now it was the mission of General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Forbes’ second-in-command was Lt.Col Henri Bouquet, a Swiss soldier-of-fortune who had been fighting for a living for 20 years. He may have been the best field officer in the British Army. Tough and savvy, he understood wilderness fighting and didn’t buy into this gospel that Brits alone couldn’t operate in Indian country. When they got close to Fort Duquesne, he decided to give the French and the Indians a taste of their own medicine.
The officer selected to lead it was Major James Grant, an officer with Montgomerie’s Highlanders. Grant was a bad tempered and impatient Scotsman who was tired of building wilderness roads and waiting. In his view, it was time to fight. Although he had been in the army since 1744, he had no wilderness fighting experience. Nevertheless, he convinced Bouquet that they should go big with a large force of several hundred men conducting what the military calls a “reconnaissance-in-force“. Grant left the forward base at Fort Ligonier on September 9 with 800 men – about 400 highlanders and 400 militia troops. Their orders were to create as much mayhem as possible around Fort Duquesne without getting trapped in an all out battle, take prisoners and bring back detailed information on the fort.
Grant planned and executed his movement well. They traveled light and carried everything in their haversacks. Noise and light discipline were strictly enforced. No fires at night. Barking dogs encountered along the way were killed. On September 13, they reached a hill several hundred yards away from the fort. They had gotten there undetected. Grant estimated there were 200 defenders and no sign of any Indians. Against all orders, he decided to attack the fort. His plan was to decoy the defenders out and ambush them in the open with a bigger force. Another section would be held in reserve further up the hill. Fifty Virginia militia troops were left further back to guard the packs. Some militia officers advised against the plan. Grant, who was openly contemptuous of colonial units, brushed them off.
Built in 1884, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh sits on the site of the Battle of Grant’s Hill. The hill itself was leveled in the early 1900’s to make room for development, but the area is still called Grant’s Hill. The first floor of the courthouse in the photo used to be the basement.Other than a few commemorative plaques, there’s no battlefield to visit.
At dawn on September 14, 1758, the French defenders of Fort Duquesne were greeted by an unbelievable sight. One hundred Scottish Highlanders, kilts and all, were marching towards the front gate to the music of bagpipes. The gates opened and defenders came rushing out while Indians came running up from the river banks where they were encamped unseen. Grant’s estimated 200 defenders inside the fort quickly became over 500 swarming all over them with more on the way from across the Allegheny River.
The decoy force was overwhelmed almost immediately. While that brief action was going on, other defenders went down to the rivers, ran along the banks and came up above and behind the rest of Grant’s force. The whole attack plan fell apart and desperation set in so the British used what they knew – European linear tactics. On the heavily timbered hillside, they tried to form up in ranks and volley fire.
It was right out of the Braddock playbook. Grant was on the verge of a completely successful mission when he got stupid. All up and down the hill, groups of British soldiers were surrounded and cut down by an enemy they couldn’t see or fight. Some of the British broke and ran for the “safety” of the river, where they became targets of the Indians. In a panic, some soldiers rushed headlong into the water and drowned. The only reason Grant’s force wasn’t completely annihilated is because the Virginians guarding the packs came forward and counterattacked. It bought enough time and space for survivors to bug out.
Of the 800 men who left Fort Ligonier, only 400 came back. The rest were dead or captured, with wounded men dying on the retreat. Grant himself was taken prisoner. It was a complete disaster and the very thing that Forbes and Bouquet had sworn would never happen on their watch. They still had no hard intelligence other than what survivors told them. They painted a picture of an impregnable fortress with thousands of defenders.
Despite that, Forbes pushed on, overwhelming the French with sheer numbers and a slow methodical approach. As they closed in on Fort Duquesne on November 25, the French blew it up and bugged out. The next day, the vanguard of Forbes’ army walked up to the gates of Fort Duquesne without a shot fired. There was nothing left but chimneys and iron frames, but that’s not all they found.
On their final approach march, they walked through Braddock’s kill zone from three years earlier. The bleached bones of Braddock’s men were still laying all around. When they got to the fort, they made another horrifying discovery. The heads of Grant’s captured highlanders were impaled on stakes a short distance away by the river bank. There was nothing to be done except bury them. Such was the nature of frontier warfare. But after five years, the British finally had Fort Duquesne. It was the beginning of the end for New France. Things went downhill fast for them as the British tightened the noose, driving the French out of the colonies and attacking Quebec and Montreal. The French surrendered after the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760.
**Historical Footnote: Major Grant was a POW in Quebec for a year. He was released in a prisoner exchange and went home to England, becoming a member of Parliament. He returned to serve during the American Revolution, then returned to Parliament until his death in 1802. He blamed the colonial militia for the debacle that bears his name and his family connections blunted any political fallout. He was never held accountable for anything nor did he ever express any remorse or regret. He’s buried on his Scottish Estate.
**Historical Footnote: General John Forbes was a late-comer to the army, having been a physician first. At the time of his assignment to the Fort Duquesne mission, he was a dying man, ravaged by a disease (never identified) that kept him bedridden much of the time. He was the brains of the operation and Lt. Col. Bouquet was the brawn. Together, they got it done. Forbes left Fort Duquesne in early December, arriving in Philadelphia after a grueling six week trip on a litter slung between two horses. He died in early March and is buried in Philadelphia.
**Historical Footnote: Lt. Col. Henri Bouquet stayed at The Forks and built Fort Pitt. Five years later, he was in Philadelphia when Pontiac’s War exploded on the western frontier. Fort Pitt was attacked and under siege by a large force of Indians. Bouquet gathered a force and marched to relieve it. He was ambushed by Indians near a tiny way station called Bushy Run, about 40 miles from Fort Pitt. After two days of fierce fighting, he decisively defeated the attackers and moved on to relieve the fort. The Battle of Bushy Run broke the back of Pontiac’s War and got Bouquet promoted to Brigadier General. He was re-assigned to command Britain’s new souther command based in Pensacola, FL. As soon as he got there, he went down with yellow fever and was dead a week later. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola but his gravesite is unknown.
Well, there’s not much to say. Major Grant “screwed the pooch” as we say in the military. Military history is full of guys like Grant – Braddock at Monongahela, Sickles at Gettysburg and Custer at the Little Bighorn come to mind. Combat actions favor the bold but there’s a fine line between that and recklessness. If you win, you’re bold. If you lose, you’re reckless. Sometimes you don’t know which until you go for it.
Taking Fort Duquesne was a big deal. It wasn’t pretty. The French defended aggressively as far forward as they could by attacking the attackers. When things got terminal, they destroyed the fort and bugged out to fight another day. They deprived the British of the satisfaction of capturing the fort intact. The Forbes Expedition never did prove its mettle in a fight. It was plodding, methodical operation that lasted for over six months. It was a marvel of logistics and engineering. They cut a new road through the wild, rocky and steeply wooded Allegheney Mountains that is still in use today – Route 30, also called the Forbes Road. Most importantly, it gave Britain a win when it sorely needed one. John Forbes was hailed as a hero destined for great things. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.
The city of Pittsburgh (my hometown) is one big museum. The steel mills and their rotten egg smell are long gone. Modern skyscrapers are mixed in with one-of-a-kind diners and everything in the Grant’s Hill neighborhood is within walking distance. Make sure you take the Duquesne Incline up to Mt. Washington for dinner. Also take a ride on the Gateway Clipper fleet, paddle wheelers that tour the rivers. Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt are gone, but they live on in the John Heinz Museum at Point State Park. There is still a blockhouse standing from the original Fort Pitt.
If you like to find or collect things, Pittsburgh is the Mother Lode. Geocaches, Munzees, benchmarks, letterboxes and NPS Passport Stamps are in abundance here. The city is safe to move around in, unlike Fort Duquesne days. The only time you’ll get scalped is if you try to score Steelers tickets in the parking lot on game day.
Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did……Boris and Natasha