Well educated, he was accepted and commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Scots Dragoons. A capable and effective soldier like so many of his clansmen, John Forbes won praise from General Lord Ligonier and others. His first significant appointment was as Quartermaster General in the Third British Army of the Duke of Bedford.
Later, as an infantry General, he earned his unique claim to fame, first as the Commander in Chief of a British Army in which Colonel (later, General and President) George Washington served as his aide; and in his decisive military victory in America. Most historical texts do not show British military forces in America in a favorable light.
But General John Forbes was a genuine British and American hero and made a significant contribution to British and American military history less than two decades before the American Revolution. He secured a very large portion of the United States for the British Crown.
General John Forbes ensured the military and political future of America’s first President. This is why he now has this place on this Scottish website, for the first time. He made it possible for Colonel George Washington, as he was then, to meet his future wife, then the young widow Mrs. Martha Custis, daughter of John Dandridge, a gentleman of Virginia.
General Forbes was 48 years old when he was dispatched to America in command of British soldiers and American troops recruited mostly in Virginia. His mission was to defeat the combined forces of French military units and American Indians who had earlier inflicted a crushing defeat on the valiant but ill-fated British General Braddock (whose name was later given to a town in Western Pennsylvania).
General Forbes left his name stamped indelibly in the history of the USA and Pennsylvania. Without his leadership, the vast western lands of the entire USA beyond the Ohio River might never have been settled by English speaking colonists and settlers. It was a complex time in conflicting British and French military strategies of the period as they related to the huge territory of America well over two decades before it achieved its independence from Britain.
Although the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 had concluded the war between Britain and France, it had failed to establish the boundaries of their respective colonies in America. Both nations coveted and laid claim to the hugely strategic lands around the headwaters of the mighty Ohio River, for their agricultural value, settlers’ opportunities and access to the subcontinent’s mid-west, west, and south, using the rivers flowing into and out of western Pennsylvania that were so navigable, long and geo-politically important.
In 1749 French intentions were to perfect a line of strong military fortifications all the way from French strongholds in Upper Canada on the St. Lawrence River to the mouth of the Mississippi River; in other words from coast to coast. In that year, under French General Celoron, the French Canadians sent an armed party of nearly two hundred men via 23 canoes, from Montreal via the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, then overland, to Lake Erie, then overland again, finally to the Allegheny River.
There, they made a forceful demand to the British Governor of Pennsylvania, to withdraw all British settlers and military from what was considered the territory of the French King. Check out also this post: The History of Edmond, Oklahoma.
Because the demand was refused outright, fighting broke out. Once again, the French and British were enemies, both determined to win their conflicting claims militarily. In March 1752, the French King appointed Admiral the Marquis Duquesne as Governor of Canada, with a mandate to go to war and from Montreal to mount a campaign south to inflict such a decisive defeat on British and colonial forces that the French intentions would be achieved. Initially, that French campaign was entirely successful.
General Braddock was the British General initially appointed to defend the territory. To supplement his own British troops, including Scottish regiments of foot that had provided garrison duties, he recruited American militia principally from New York and Pennsylvania. Near what was then called Aliquippa (now Pittsburgh), his British troops, not acclimatized to conditions in America, with the equally ill-prepared American colonial militia, met up with a huge force of seasoned French veterans, French Canadian militia and their own allies, American Indians – who had been promised all the spoils of war including looting, captured women and more, if they would join in.
That battle, on July 9, 1755, was a disaster for General Braddock and his British Americans. Most were captured and butchered by the Indians. They cut off the heads of the Scottish soldiers and their comrades and impaled them on poles for others to see. Only relatively few Americans and British survived.
General Braddock lost his life and his aide, George Washington, then 23 years old, and at the time a British Army Captain was lucky to escape capture in the defeat. He was prudent enough to observe the battle from a safe distance.
The lost battle and its savagery caused an outcry of revulsion – and a demand for revenge, even as the victorious French and Indians dug themselves in. General Forbes made a point of exacting that revenge later, even though he was not a well man at the time. Also interesting: Osceola, The Man And The Myths.
But his overall leadership and the special loyalty extended to him by his men was the morale-boosting tonic his troops took with them as they force marched through Pennsylvania, in one of the most rigorous campaigns ever mounted anywhere in adverse and hostile conditions.
The careful campaign planning yielded one unique, non-military benefit. General Forbes was considerate and humane enough to grant permission to his aide George Washington, by then an acting Colonel and in command of the Virginia-recruited militia, to interrupt briefly his military duties to begin his serious courting of the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, whom he married in 1759.
American history says much more about the marriage and life together of George Washington, the lady with whom he had been smitten and married – and his exploits that led to his victories in the American Revolution and election as first President of the United States. But it has never acknowledged the debt owed by Washington to General John Forbes. There is no mention at all of it on the Mount Vernon website.
Then came the much-heralded forced march in 1758, during much of which General Forbes was carried on a litter, struck down by fever, but not so incapacitated that he could not make decisions. Near Aliquippa, where the French and Indians had established formidable defenses, he roused himself to take personal command. What he, Colonel Washington and their subordinates saw there, on the French perimeters, was sickening – the skeletons and impaled skulls of the defeated British and American forces led by General Braddock.
For some men of less stature, it might have been regarded as an omen. For General Forbes it was an outrage that sparked his fiery Scottish soul to heights of fury, to seek and get revenge in the fullest possible measure. In intricately planned pincer movements devised by the General himself, the combined British American forces fell on the French and Indians and inflicted such a complete defeat on them that the French campaign was never again attempted.
General Forbes and Colonel Washington stood side by side as their troops marched into Aliquippa, to take formal possession of the land where two rivers – the Monongahela and Allegheny – meet to form a mighty third – the Ohio River. At this place, they renamed the small town, originally the name of a ruling Indian Queen. Check out also: Sources of Texas Cultural Pride.
An American military historian recorded the event thus: “As the banner of England floated over the waters, the place, at the suggestion of General Forbes, was with one voice called Pittsburgh. It is the most enduring monument to the famous English statesman William Pitt, the Peacemaker. Long as the Monongahela and Allegheny shall flow to form the Ohio River; long as the English tongue shall be the language of freedom in the boundless valley which their waters traverse, his name shall stand inscribed on the Gateway of the West.” So ends the story of one of the most renowned military heroes in the history of the Forbes Clan.
Visitors to the surprisingly beautiful city of Pittsburgh today can see the monument to General Forbes – at the same place where he and George Washington once stood. It is at Point State Park where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, separate up to that point, both feeding Pittsburgh, meet. They form the huge Ohio River, which connects ultimately with and becomes part of the mighty Mississippi River.
Pittsburgh also has a long boulevard named Forbes Street. It stretches for miles, in various stages of affluence, from near Point State Park, through downtown Pittsburgh, nearly as far as the suburban town of Wilkinsburg.
There are many streets or roads in America named after a Forbes. In Massachusetts alone, there are many. But the one in Pittsburgh is inspiring to any Forbes. It pays eloquent tribute to the man who spent only a year in Pennsylvania and died at a relatively young age in Philadelphia, where he was buried. A further testament to him and his military campaign can be found at Ligonier, in Pennsylvania.
General John Forbes died without issue and is barely mentioned today, except in certain good American historical resources. Volume XXXV No. 4 (October 1978) of the William and Mary Quarterly, published by the Institute of Early American History and Culture of Williamsburg, Virginia, says a great deal in the article “Redcoats in the Wilderness: British Officers and Irregular Warfare in Europe and America, 1740 to 1760” by Peter E. Russell.
It describes the thoroughness, efficiency, and success of John Forbes. His subordinate, Washington, went on to become enshrined in American history. At first, he was opposed to America’s independence from Britain but saw the injustice of British actions and taxes directed against colonists. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he commanded Virginian troops, until appointed in 1775 as a General and commander in chief of all American forces opposing the British. He served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797.
On his death in 1799, Washington was a land rich man indeed, with 70,000 acres in Virginia and a further 40,000 acres in West Virginia. See also: A Bit Of Texas History.