Different Outcomes of the Great War for Empire


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

England went to war with Spain in 1739. Named ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’, the war developed into yet another large-scale French and English international brawl. How did the French and their Indian allies sweep down on the frontier? And, why did the British colonies mobilize again to strike back?

A painting showing the English and the French involved in an international brawl.
A painting done by Henry Alexander Ogden shows the French sweeping British traders back during the final imperial showdown. (Henry Alexander Ogden (1854-1936)/Public domain)

Bargaining Chips

In 1745, a New England expedition under William Pepperell set off with a benediction from George Whitefield, to capture the French fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island. But there was little prominence to show for those ‘brushfire wars’ once the shooting stopped. No great pitched battles were fought in America, and the towns and people captured were usually returned as bargaining chips at the peace table, as was Louisburg returned to the French in 1748.

Final Imperial Showdown

By the 1740s, the competition between Britain and France had reached to the level of the final imperial showdown, in America and Europe. In 1748, the first British fur traders and land developers started to spill over the Appalachians and stake out purchase claims in the Ohio River Valley. The French who dominated not just Canada but also the Mississippi River Valley considered this an intrusion when the English came on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains.

The French swept the British traders and land developers back, to build a line of barrier forts, intended to stretch from Lake Erie, south to the Alabama River. This not only protected the French but cut across the territory in Ohio. It also threatened the hopes of investors in various land development companies like the Ohio Company of Virginia, which aimed to develop and sell the land that the French were now building forts on.

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Virginia Militiamen

In 1754, Virginia’s Governor, Robert Dinwiddie (also an investor in the Ohio Company of Virginia) dispatched 150 Virginia militiamen for the site of the newest French outpost, Fort Duchesne, at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers, in Western Pennsylvania. The intention was to stop the construction of Fort Duchesne and putting an end to this French barrier, preventing expansion westward from Virginia.

Force of Virginian militiamen was placed under the command of a 22-year-old militia Colonel named George Washington whose two brothers Laurence and Augustine, were also investors in the Ohio Company of Virginia. Washington and his militiamen arrived late to stop the completion of Fort Duchesne and the French forced them to surrender. Washington and his men were disarmed and shipped back to Virginia.

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The Great War for the Empire

The incident at Fort Necessity occurred as negotiations between France and Great Britain over sea rights in the St. Laurence broke down, a good reason for both sides to ignite the war. In Europe, this was known as the Seven Years’ War, in America, as the French and Indian War.

The painting depicting, French with the help of Indians, fighting retaliatory war on the English.
English troops could not match up to the French along with their Indian allies at Fort Duchesne and had to return to Virginia. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/No restrictions)

Britain decided to make America a major theatre of conquest and dispatched regular British inventory to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley. For the first three years of the war, nothing went right for the British; the troops they sent to deal with the French, marched off in the summer of 1755 toward Fort Duchesne. They were 1,400 strong, with colonial militia and some Indian scouts added, all under the command of a Commander, Major General Edward Braddock.

On July 9, 1755, Braddock’s column marched into a French and Indian ambush, nine miles from Fort Duchesne. Over half of Braddock’s men were shot down, including Braddock himself. The expedition fled back to Virginia.

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Turning of Tides

The destruction of the Braddock column in that battle of the Wilderness was a disaster. Benjamin Franklin, who planned a joint colonial conference to meet in Albany in June 1754, to consider a plan of union to unite the colonies under one general government, with a colonial Parliament composed of representatives sent by each of the colonies, and overseen by a President appointed by the King. But even with the French as the imminent danger, none of the individual colonial legislatures surrendered its authority, so the conference broke down.

Short-sightedness became clearer when Braddock proceeded to march into his ambush, and when a colonial expedition commanded by Massachusetts Governor William Shirley mounted an assault on the French outpost at Fort Niagara that failed miserably because of Shirley’s inability to get the New Yorkers to cooperate with him. French went on the offensive, as the Military Governor of New France, the Marquis de Montcalm swept down from Canada in the summers of 1756 and 1757. They gobbled up British and colonial forts at Oswego and Fort William Henry, but in 1757, the tide turned, because of the appointment of William Pitt as Prime Minister by King George II.

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Appointment of William Pitt

William Pitt was the man with energy and competence to salvage the war. Pitt swept out the old doddering Generals and Admirals and appointed his own men, who promptly won spectacular victories. In India, Robert Clive defeated the French at Plassey in 1758; in Africa, British troops drove the French out of Senegal. In the Caribbean, British fleets seized the French West Indian Islands and Cuba.

The biggest changes Pitt made were in America, by dispatching a cadre of new Generals; Jeffrey Amherst, Lord George Howe, and James Wolfe. In the summer of 1758, Amherst captured Louisburg. A British column under General John Fords retraced Braddock’s path to Fort Duchesne and forced the French to abandon it.

The Year of Miracles

The year 1758 was the first good news for America in the war, but 1759 was the annus mirabilis, the year of miracles. Fort Niagara fell to Sir William Johnson; Amherst cleaned the French of Lake George and Lake Champagne; and on September 13, 1759, James Wolfe staged a spectacular backdoor assault on Quebec. Both Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm were killed in the battle, but the French were beaten badly, and Quebec fell to the British.

A sketch done by Hervey Smyth shows an assault by the British on Quebec on September 13, 1759.
The year 1759 was important for many victories by the English, including the victory over Quebec when James Hervey staged an attack on it. (Image: Smyth (1734-1811)/Public domain)

The following year Jeffrey Amherst captured Montreal, and with that New, France was gone. In February 1763, the ‘Treaty of Paris’, ended the war in all the places where it had flared, New France ceded to the British to become British Canada. France lost the title to everything east of the Mississippi.

Victory for Great Britain

Great Britain eliminated its chief rival, and emerged as the world’s greatest power; Americans rejoiced over the role they had played in Britain’s triumph. When a new King, George III, ascended the throne in 1760, Americans celebrated his coronation.

The Great War for Empire also left scars, as both America and Britain were staggering under burdens of debt, and soon realized that it was easier to establish, fight, and win a successful war than it was to make a successful peace.

Common Questions about the History of the United States

Q: What do militias do?

Militias are a force of armed men, who help fight against another country for the safety of its own people.

Q: What was happening in 1759?

1759 was the year of miracles. Fort Niagara fell to Sir William Johnson; Amherst cleaned the French of Lake George and Lake Champagne; and on September 13, 1759, James Wolfe staged an assault on Quebec. Both Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm were killed in the battle, but the French were beaten, and Quebec fell to the British.

Q: What town did the French lose in September of 1759?

On September 13, 1759, James Wolfe staged an assault on Quebec, where the French were beaten badly, and they lost Quebec to the British.

Q: What major event happened in 1763?

In February 1763, the ‘Treaty of Paris‘, ended the war in all the places where it had flared, New France ceded to the British to become British Canada. France lost the title to everything east of the Mississippi.

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