Sir Jeffery Amherst, by Joshua Reynolds. In 1765, when the portrait was painted, Amherst was out of favor. Does that explain the storm clouds?
Amherst Magazine, Fall 2008
By Professor Kevin Sweeney
It is an unconventional portrait of a seemingly conventional subject: a victorious general. A standing Jeffery Amherst looks to his right and leans forward, putting his weight on a baton, held in his left hand, that rests on a rock. He wears a full suit of armor of a sort that hadn’t been seen on a European battlefield since at least a century earlier. Its like had probably never been seen in North America. The armor gives a deceptive bulk and presence to Amherst, who was, in fact, 6 feet tall and rail thin. A wide red sash draped across his breastplate and a star-shaped insignia proclaim his status as a Knight Companion of the Order of Bath, a faux-medieval order of chivalry founded in 1725 by King George I. A helmet sits on the rock, holding in place a map of Montreal that records the general’s meticulously planned investment there, which led to the city’s surrender on Sept. 9, 1760, completing the British conquest of New France.
In the painting’s middle ground, boats navigate a rock-strewn stream that curves through a pastoral landscape. Ominously dark clouds suggesting the sublime power of nature fill the upper third of the painting, surrounding and highlighting Amherst’s head. The general appears lost in thought. Is he planning a future campaign? Is he remembering past victories? Are the storm clouds dissipating in the face of his military triumph? Or are they gathering around the once-powerful general, who was out of favor in 1765, when Joshua Reynolds painted this unusual portrait?
At the time that Amherst posed for Reynolds, more conventional portrayals of victorious generals filled the London townhouses and country homes of the elite. Since the Renaissance, painters had pictured successful commanders on fields of battle, mounted on galloping or rearing horses. In fact, Reynolds himself created an oil sketch of Amherst astride a charging horse, leading troops on a battlefield. Full-length portraits of victors towering over vanquished armies or conquered cities remained in fashion as well. Sir William Pepperrell, who’d captured the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745, was painted by John Smibert the following year in just such a triumphant pose, with the besieged city in the background. In the Reynolds painting, on the other hand, Amherst stands without a vanquished enemy or captured city in sight. Why did the painter depart so completely from convention?
Video: Author Kevin Sweeney on Lord Jeff
The questions raised by this curious portrait of Amherst, which hangs today in the college’s Mead Art Museum, provide an opportunity to re-examine and assess his military career. Such a reconsideration is also timely, as 2008 marks the 250th anniversary of the arrival in North America of this man for whom the town of Amherst was named in 1759, which in turn provided a name for the college established in the town in 1821. Jeffery Amherst played a prominent role in deciding the imperial struggle to control North America, yet today, many residents of the town and most alumni of the college know little about what he actually did. What is popularly known arises from the debate over his role in the spread of smallpox among Native Americans during 1763 (a controversy that Amherst magazine examined in 1989). But that event came at the sorry end of a meteoric career.
Amherst’s contemporaries found him to be a minor mystery, and subsequent historians have also had a hard time knowing what to make of this general. Friends and critics alike agree that Amherst was taciturn and not forthcoming. In an age when gentlemen were expected to excel at the art of polite conversation, Amherst’s associates found him to be “so Damned Dry” that it was difficult to talk to him. Richard Huck, an army surgeon who served with Amherst, once described him as “silent, secret or mysterious in his Conversation.” His first biographer, Nathaniel Wraxall, who knew him personally, claimed that he had never known a man with more “stoical apathy.” Less generous was the sharp-tongued Horace Walpole, a gossipy commentator on mid-18th-century British society and politics, who suspected that Amherst, “being conscious of his own defects and of being incompetent to converse with men whom he knew enlightened ... seemed determined to bury his deficiency in obstinate silence; or else his pride and vanity, of which he had a tolerable share, made him disdain to communicate his paucity of ideas.” Even the more charitable Huck believed that Amherst’s “Taciturnity and Secrecy impose upon many for Wisdom and Project. I think him just and honest, and have a better Opinion of his Heart than his Head.”
Assessments of Amherst’s military career have been cautious. One thing on which contemporaries and subsequent historians agree is that “caution” was the fundamental quality of Gen. Amherst, his great strength and his most obvious limitation. A former officer who knew him recounted that “Amherst’s advice to his officers at Table, and upon all occasions was never to lose an inch of ground gained ... He moved so slow and cautiously, that he never lost an Inch, or met with a check by which he acquired the name of snail.” Similarly, William Eccles, a modern Canadian historian, has described the speed of Amherst’s movements in 1759 as “glacial.” Amherst was meticulous and cautious. But as a general, was he really any good?
What does one make of a general who rose from obscurity in 1757 to command a conquering army, only to then mismanage the peace, twice refuse offers of field command in North America during the American Revolution and close out his career by presiding over the slow deterioration of the British army? The frequently snide Horace Walpole assessed Amherst’s career by concluding that “When men shine, but once, it is probable that fortune has the chief merit in their success.”
But Amherst did have his merits, and most historians, if sometimes only grudgingly, acknowledge them. An admirer, Sir John Fortescue, the father of British military history, pronounced Amherst to be “the greatest military administrator produced by England” between the 1722 death of the Duke of Marlborough, Britain’s greatest general, and the rise in the early 1800s of the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. No one would place Amherst on the same plane as these two generals: he lacked their tactical finesse, their inspirational leadership and their battlefield experience. In fact, Amherst never commanded troops in combat as a junior officer, and those who discount sieges, two of which Amherst did personally direct, claim that he never actually commanded troops in battle as a general.
The oil sketch Sir Jeffery Amherst, also by Reynolds, is a more conventional portrait of a victorious general.
Still, Amherst did direct the operations of thousands of men and triumphed over the greatest foe facing an army in the interior of North America in the mid-18th century. That foe wasn’t the French army or its Indian allies, but the roadless forests and wild waters. There is a saying among today’s career military officers: “Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.” It was Amherst’s mastery of logistics—the procurement, maintenance and transportation of military materièl and personnel—that made him a professional’s professional. This aspect of military history isn’t terribly sexy: you don’t read about logistics in gripping accounts of battles. But it is, at a fundamental level, what war is about—just as fundamental as the killing.
Amherst’s military career, like that of most 18th-century British officers, began with connections and the purchase of a commission in the army. Amherst came from a family of rural clergymen, lawyers and landowners who are invariably described by authors as “impecunious.” They were respectable, but not wealthy, minor gentry from the County of Kent. In 1735, Lionel Sackville, the Duke of Dorset, enabled Amherst, then 18, to obtain a commission as a coronet (a junior officer) in a cavalry regiment commanded by John Ligonier. The commission apparently cost £200; until 1870, British officers obtained their commissions by purchase and advanced in rank by trading up. In 1740, Amherst moved up, purchasing a commission as a lieutenant in Ligonier’s regiment. In winning Ligonier’s favor, Amherst had tied his career to that of one of Britain’s most capable generals during this era.
Amherst accompanied Ligonier to Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession and experienced his first battle at Dettingen in 1743. This was one of the very few times in his career that Amherst was under fire, riding about the field delivering orders for Ligonier. It was a dangerous assignment, but not one that involved the command of troops. Obtaining a commission in 1745 as a captain in a more prestigious regiment, the First Foot Guards, Amherst went to Europe in 1747 as an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland, the youngest son of King George II and the commander of the British army. Amherst began his service in the next war as a commissary, essentially a quartermaster general, for a contingent of 8,000 Hessian troops taken into the British army. Promoted to a colonel in 1756, he continued as quartermaster for the Hessians into 1757.
That year, a political and military shake-up in Britain dramatically altered Amherst’s prospects. After suffering a string of defeats in Europe and North America, the British government was reshuffled. William Pitt became the new government’s leading minister and committed Britain to achieving victory in North America. Ligonier replaced Cumberland as commander of the British army. Promoted to a “Major General in North America,” 40-year-old Jeffery Amherst stood out in an army in which most generals were in their 50s or 60s. Never having commanded troops in battle nor conducted a siege, Amherst departed for America, a land he had never seen, to undertake an amphibious landing under fire, something no one in the British army had ever succeeded in doing.
Jeffery Amherst arrived in North America in May 1758 and remained until November 1763. He did not enjoy his stay. He found the colonial American soldiers under his command to be lazy and unreliable, writing that the men “if left to themselves would eat fryed pork and lay in their tents all day long.” He held Native Americans in even lower regard, seeing his Native allies as “a most idle worthless sett. If I send them on a Scout they all come back in twelve Hours, and here they will do nothing but eat and drink, except forced to it.” One detects here the concern of the former quartermaster with the waste of food and other supplies. Most British officers shared Amherst’s prejudices and, if anything, were harsher. Still, Amherst’s attitude drove away Native allies, of whom there were not many to begin with.
Amherst’s service in North America occurred during a war known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. Much later, Winston Churchill would argue that this conflict, which began in the woods of western Pennsylvania in May 1754 and ended in Manila Bay in October 1762, was really the first world war. Americans remember it as the French and Indian War, the last in a series of conflicts that pitted Britain’s North American colonies against the French in Canada and their Native allies.
For today’s Americans, the best known events of the French and Indian War are British defeats. The July 9, 1755, Battle of the Monongahela—better known as Braddock’s Defeat—is remembered primarily because of the presence and heroism of a 23-year-old Virginian, George Washington. Two-thirds of Gen. Edward Braddock’s 1,300 men were killed or wounded by about 650 French and Indians who, for two and a half hours, fired upon the British from behind trees while suffering only 43 casualties of their own. The 1757 French capture of Fort William Henry on the shores of Lake George and the subsequent assault on the defeated British soldiers by Native allies of the French was immortalized by James Fennimore Cooper in his 19th-century novel The Last of the Mohicans. These two battles live on in the nation’s memory as evidence of the unsuitability—yea, the folly—of employing professional European soldiers in the forests of North America, where “stealthy” Native Americans and “wily” French-Canadians hiding behind trees shot down redcoated soldiers trained to fight in ranks.
We assume that Washington and other colonists learned from these defeats and, 20 years later, fought the American War of Independence by employing the Native Americans’ tactics of concealment and ambush. But what had most impressed the young Washington at the Battle of the Monongahela was the fact that Braddock’s British regulars had stood their ground for so long before breaking and retreating. Disciplined British regulars—not Native Americans—were the models that Washington and others looked to when they formed the Continental Army in 1775. In fact, Americans used 18th-century European linear battle tactics to fight the British in most of the major battles of the Revolutionary War. They did so because these battlefield tactics and those involved in siege warfare, in combination with the Royal Navy’s control of the seas, had aided the British in conquering the eastern half of North America.
Jeffery Amherst played a central role in fashioning British victories in North America by successfully transplanting and adapting European methods of warfare. In 1758, he led 14,000 British regulars to attack the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. While his subordinate, Brig. Gen. James Wolf, led a successful amphibious landing against entrenched French troops, it was Amherst’s logistical arrangements, meticulous planning and cautious approach to the siege that secured the surrender of the enemy fortress. In a break with tradition, Amherst did not allow the defeated garrison the “honors of war”—the right to march out with their flags and arms and to be transported to French territory. Instead, he made them prisoners of war. In England and in the colonies, this capture of Louisbourg was greeted with joyous celebration; it was Britain’s first unambiguous triumph of the war.
The next year, Amherst was promoted to overall command of British and colonial forces in North America. He increased the number of light infantry who were specially adapted to fight in the woods of North America and rearmed them with shorter, lighter muzzle-loading carbines. He also shifted the standard deployment of British infantry from ranks three men deep to two men deep, reasoning that “the enemy have very few regular troops to oppose us, and no yelling Indians or fire of Canadians, can possibly withstand two ranks, if the men are silent, attentive, and obedient to their officers.” Eventually adopted by the entire British army, the two-rank-deep infantry line would gain fame as Britain’s “thin red line.”
In addition to exercising overall command, Amherst personally took over the so far unsuccessful British effort to capture the French fort at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. Amherst’s immediate predecessor, Gen. James Abercromby, had lost somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 men from his army of almost 16,000 in a fruitless frontal assault on the advanced defenses of the fort, which was held by only 3,600 French troops. Amherst, with only 9,000 men, but with greater caution than Abercromby, maneuvered the French garrison out of position, forcing them to retreat and to blow up the fort. Next, Amherst moved on to seize the French fort at Crown Point. After that, he paused to build one of the largest forts in North America, securing his gains against any possibility of a French counterattack. Ever cautious, he did not want to lose an inch.
While Amherst was attacking Ticonderoga in 1759, Wolf, no longer his immediate subordinate, laid siege to the fortress of Quebec, the capital of New France. After a risky nighttime landing, part of Wolf’s army climbed the cliffs above the banks of the St. Lawrence River. French troops under Gen. Montcalm sallied forth to meet the British army, where controlled volleys by two ranks of silent, attentive and obedient British infantry decimated and routed the French army in a matter of minutes. Both Wolf and Montcalm perished from mortal wounds, making Wolf a dead hero and opening the way for Amherst to become the living conqueror of New France.
The next year, three forces under Amherst’s overall command converged in a campaign to capture Montreal: Col. William Haviland took 3,500 troops down Lake Champlain to invest Montreal from the south; Brig. Gen. James Murry led 2,500 troops in a southwesterly direction up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City to invest Montreal from the east; and Amherst, personally commanding almost 11,000 men, crossed Lake Ontario and descended the St. Lawrence River to approach Montreal from the west. Murry was accompanied by ships of the Royal Navy; Amherst and Haviland traveled in hundreds of boats escorted by armed sailing vessels. Also accompanying Amherst’s force were 700 Iroquois.
Amherst had the longest route to cover and the roughest water to travel. His descent down the St. Lawrence was blocked by Fort Lévis, which sat in the middle of the river but was defended by only 300 men. After almost a week of preparations, British batteries opened fire from the shore, and the ships closed to point-blank range. It took another two days to batter the fort into submission. After that, Amherst, ever cautious, spent four days repairing it.
On the way to Montreal, two series of rapids threatened to destroy the boats carrying Amherst's army.
Beyond the captured French fort lay two series of rapids: the 18 miles of the Long Sault and, closer to Montreal, the more dangerous 14 miles at Soulanges. Together they threatened to destroy the boats carrying Amherst’s army. French and Indians firing from the shore could have created a repeat of Braddock’s Defeat. Deft diplomacy (carried out by Sir William Johnson, not by Amherst) won the neutrality of the region’s Native Americans, and the growing demoralization of French defenders removed the threat of snipers.
Still, the rapids had to be run. Amherst made it through Long Sault on Sept. 2, losing only four men. Two days later, the army ran the final series of rapids. Most likely, the Reynolds painting depicts the final plunge. In capturing this moment, Reynolds made use of an ink and wash drawing by Lt. Thomas Davies of the Royal Artillery, an accomplished artist who was on the expedition. Davies’ drawing and Reynolds’ painting both show a number of what appear to be whaleboats transporting British troops and at least one canoe carrying the Iroquois who guided Amherst’s army through the treacherous waters. Most of the boats made it through the final rapids, even though the army lost 84 men, almost four times the number killed during the siege of Fort Lévis.
Midday on Sept. 6, Amherst’s army arrived outside of Montreal. Murry and Haviland followed during the next 48 hours—a remarkable feat of coordination. Luck had played a role, but so had Amherst’s planning, and he took obvious pride in the achievement, believing that never had “three Armys, setting out from different & very distant Parts from each other joined in the Center, as was intended, better than we did.” The Reynolds portrait explicitly refers to this accomplishment in the map that rests on the rock. That map gives the locations and arrival times of the three armies.
Overwhelmed by the appearance of 17,000 British and colonial American soldiers, the French garrison, which contained only about 2,000 regular troops capable of fighting, gave up without a fight. Yet, when their commander asked for terms, Amherst once again denied his opponents “the honors of war” and announced that the French must become prisoners unconditionally. In disgust, the French troops burned their regimental flags rather than surrender them to the British. But in victory, Amherst did show magnanimity to civilians, securing their persons and property, allowing them to worship as Catholics and providing provisions for many who were starving.
The 1760 campaign to capture Montreal was Amherst’s masterpiece. It demonstrated the ability of professional British soldiers to use planning, logistics and sheer numbers to win battles in North America. One really didn’t have to learn to fight like Indians to defeat the French and their Native allies. If overwhelming numbers of well-supplied troops, equipped with artillery, could be brought to bear on important targets, they could negate the effect of snipers hiding in forests. For this victory, Amherst was knighted and received the Order of Bath, which he actually considered insufficient recognition of his achievement. So there is a certain irony in the prominence that the Reynolds painting gives to the regalia of the Order.
Amherst’s stay in North America did not end triumphantly. The Seven Years’ War continued in Europe, in the Caribbean and elsewhere around the world. Amherst spent 1761 rounding up troops to dispatch to South Carolina, where they fought the Cherokees, and he devoted 1762 to forwarding troops and supplies to the Caribbean, where, under the command of others, they assaulted island colonies of the French and Spanish. His once irresistible “American Army,” as his force of British regulars and colonial troops was called, became a dispersed, disease-ridden shell of itself. Meanwhile, Native peoples west of the Alleghenies grew restive. Here, Amherst’s ignorance, scorn and frugality bred discontent. In particular, in an effort to cut costs, he severely reduced the distribution of presents to Native peoples, saying he would not engage in “purchasing the good behavior, either of Indians, or any others,” believing instead that “When Men of What race soever, behave ill they must be punished but not bribed.”
This attitude played a direct role in inciting a wave of attacks during the late spring of 1763 that Natives directed at British forts and colonial settlements along the colonies’ western frontiers. In a matter of weeks, British power west of the Alleghenies vanished, and Amherst found himself scrambling to find troops to stabilize the situation. In early July 1763, he advocated spreading blankets infected with smallpox among the Natives, a measure that his subordinate at Fort Pitt, Capt. Simeon Ecuyer, had already employed in late June on his own initiative. Historians debate the degree to which these actions promoted outbreaks of smallpox. The presence of a pre-existing infection at Fort Pitt strongly suggests that a smallpox epidemic had already broken out along the western frontiers of the British colonies. Still, by recommending such a course of action, Amherst and other British officers revealed their contempt for Native Americans and a willingness to promote genocide by spreading lethal diseases.
The rapid collapse of the British military position in the west and Amherst’s apparent inability to recover the situation shocked his superiors in London. They soon lost confidence in him. By this point, Amherst’s patrons, William Pitt and John Ligonier, were out of power. Late in 1763, their successors recalled Amherst to England for consultations on the situation, sparing him a public dismissal from his posts. The war that Amherst left behind in America, usually referred to as Pontiac’s Rebellion or Pontiac’s War, cost the lives of 400 British soldiers, 2,000 British colonists and untold numbers of Native Americans before negotiations brought an end to the conflict in 1765.
That year, when he came to have his portrait painted by Reynolds, Amherst was a man out of favor and without command, struggling to preserve his reputation as the conqueror of New France. To do this, Amherst chose to remember his bloodless victory at Montreal and the running of the rapids of the Saint Lawrence. By commemorating Montreal, Amherst emphasized the fact that he—and not the much-mourned Gen. Wolf—was the real conqueror of Canada.
The “weapons” that Amherst wields in his portrait are his baton (symbolizing his authority as overall British commander in North America), the map of Montreal and the boats that carried his men down the rapids. These were the weapons that Amherst, as a former staff officer and quartermaster, felt most assured using. And as it turned out, they were also the weapons most needed to conquer the woods and rivers of North America.
Reynolds captures Amherst’s genius triumphing over the sublime powers of nature. The artist paints Amherst as a proto-Romantic hero. But in reality, Amherst operated as a very model of a modern, managerial commander, employing meticulous planning, lavish resources, overwhelming manpower and superior firepower to force his foes to surrender unconditionally. It’s an approach to waging war that bears a certain resemblance to a much later American approach that produced victories in the Civil War and in World War II, and it was Jeffery Amherst, his subordinates and his “American Army” of British regulars who first unleashed this way of war in North America.
Kevin Sweeney is a professor of American studies and history at Amherst.
Top image: Mead Art Museum purchase.
Middle image: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Bottom image: Passage of Amherst's Army down the Rapids of the St. Lawrence toward Montreal, Thomas Davies / Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1948-13-1.