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Battle of Bushy Run Tour Gives a New Light to the Past

July 27, 2008

By Richard Robbins, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 27–On a recent guided tour of the battlefield, David Miller, chief of education at Bushy Run, pointed out Edge Hill, where Bouquet’s command spent the night of Aug. 5, and where, the morning of Aug. 6, they heard the battle cry of the enemy.

This open, grassy field no longer resembles the colonial forest of 1763, but the topography is the same. Miller took note of the embankment that hid the retreating Redcoats from the warriors just as the Indians were about to attack what they thought was a weakened British defensive position.

Miller offers guided tours of the battlefield. Visitors can walk or ride in a multi-seat golf cart operated by Miller.

The year 1763 was a bleak one for Pittsburgh and the Ohio Country, and but for a ferocious encounter between British Redcoats and American Indians some 25 miles from the Point, the situation might have proved far worst.

For the Crown, the Battle of Bushy Run saved the day.

In the spring and summer of 1763, the British garrison at Fort Pitt came under heavy assault by Delaware, Mingo, Huron, Ottawa and Shawnee warriors. By early August, some 400 Indians surrounded the fort. Failing to burn the place down, the warriors appeared determined to starve the soldiers, and the townspeople who sought their protection, into submission.

The news elsewhere was hardly better. The series of forts originally built by the French starting at Lake Erie and extending down the Allegheny River to Venango were in the hands of the Indians, principally Seneca and Mingo. As a result of tribal raiding parts, the Pennsylvania countryside was in turmoil.

In the Great Lakes region, a charismatic Ottawa chief, Pontiac, emerged in the wake of the French surrender in the French and Indian War. A former French ally, Pontiac was stirred to action by revivalist religious leaders championing Indian autonomy. The holy men taught that reliance on the white man had led to social and political degradation. Nothing less than the survival of Indian culture was at stake.

Added to this religious mix were concerns stemming from the British victory over the French. The Indians, following a parley with the British in Easton, thought their bargain with representatives of the Crown included an English agreement to abandon their fortifications west of the Alleghenies. The Ohio Country, free of white settlements, was to become a vast Indian homeland.

Neither the continued presence of Fort Pitt, the Crown’s largest fort and its strategic gateway to the Ohio Country, nor the settlers streaming across the mountains reassured the Indians.

On the contrary, these were matters of the gravest concern to native tribes, as was the decision by the British commander-in-chief, Jeffrey Amherst, to discontinue the practice of paying tribute in the form of gifts to the Indians, and to suspend the trade in rum and gunpowder.

In the end, these grievances anchored the widespread discontent that erupted into Pontiac’s War — a war unique in the annals of colonial history in that it represented a revolt by Indians against a European power.

Before running its course, Pontiac’s War claimed several thousand lives and sent shockwaves through the British military and the government in London.

In the midst of the war, the Battle of Bushy Run was fought in the rolling countryside of present-day Penn Township, seven miles northwest of Greensburg.

The British, under the brilliant leadership of a 44-year-old Swiss emigre Col. Henry Bouquet, won a singular victory, literally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

A British failure to lance the boil of Indian rebellion at Bushy Run would have had untold consequences. According to Bushy Run historian and educator David Miller, Fort Pitt faced dire times otherwise. As it was, the siege of Fort Pitt was lifted, and Pittsburgh and the surrounding countryside limped into 1764, battered but standing.

Even so, the Battle of Bushy Run from the British perspective hardly was a smashing success. The two-day struggle left 50 men dead, 60 wounded and five missing.

For the Indians, the defeat was significant. Until then the absolute masters of hit-hide-and-run combat, the native tribes tasted defeat for the first time in woodlands fighting. As many as 30 warriors died in the encounter.

The first inkling of Indian discontent emerged along the shores of Lake St. Clair in the spring of 1763, on the heels of the bargain struck in Paris between the British and French ending the French and Indian War.

David Dixon, a professor at Slipper Rock University who has written a definitive account of Pontiac’s War, notes that native tribes were “shocked” to learn of the peace treaty, which ceded French control of Canada and of lands south of the Great Lakes.

“Pontiac reasoned,” according to Dixon, “that if the Indians did not immediately strike back against the Redcoats, they would soon become too powerful to overwhelm. He also concluded that a war against the British might persuade the French to reconsider and join their Indian allies once again.”

Even without French participation, Pontiac was determined to push ahead. He called on warriors to “take up the hatchet” and “drive off those dogs clothed in red.”

His message, aimed initially at Fort Detroit, resounded through a large swath of territory. In the weeks that followed Pontiac’s move against the fort, Indian “messengers raced from village to village … carrying the news that war had begun at Detroit.”

“As if by prearrangement, other Indian groups took up the hatchet against remote, thinly manned British outposts,” writes Fred Anderson in “Crucible of War,” his chronicle of colonial-era warfare.

Forts Venango, LeBoeuf and Presque Isle in present-day northwest Pennsylvania fell in a matter of days in June 1763. In one terrible week, the lines of communication and supply between Fort Pitt and the Great Lakes were severed, leaving the British at the Forks of the Ohio exceedingly vulnerable. Subsequent raids on the eastern forts of Ligonier and Bedford exacerbated Fort Pitt’s isolation.

“I am persuaded this alarm will end in nothing.” Gen. Jeffrey Amherst uttered upon learning of the fate of the Allegheny Valley forts. Eventually convinced that real trouble was brewing, Amherst ordered Bouquet to Pittsburgh to lift the siege and relieve the pressure on Fort Pitt.

Both Bouquet in Philadelphia and Amherst in New York raged against the Indians. Bouquet, who considered Indians “a bloody race,” compared the rebellious tribes to “vermin” that had “forfeited … all claims to the rights of humanity.”

To carry out his mission in Western Pennsylvania, Bouquet was outfitted with 450 soldiers drawn from three units.

These units left their assembly point at Carlisle July 15, arrived at Fort Bedford July 25 and reached Fort Ligonier Aug. 2.

Meanwhile, on July 26, chiefs Tissacoma, Grey Eyes and Big Wolf, at a parley with the commander of Fort Pitt, Capt. Simeon Ecuyer, demanded that he surrender his outpost. Ecuyer refused and boldly declared, “We shall not abandon (the fort) as long as white men live in America.”

The captain might have spoken with his fingers crossed. As Dixon writes, “Ecuyer also recognized that with his food supply nearly depleted, the fate of the garrison rested on Bouquet’s tiny army.”

It was no mean trick crossing 250 miles of Pennsylvania wilderness in the summer of 1763. It was hot, for one thing, and the roads were almost impassable. In addition, most of Bouquet’s men were not accustomed to the wilderness, and many of them, particularly the flankers, became lost. Besides, more than a few soldiers were ill, having fought in malaria-infested Havana, Cuba, the year before.

Bouquet’s command crossed the countryside west of Fort Ligonier for a distance of 12 miles Aug. 4. His plan for the next day was to march to Bushy Run Station, an English installation halfway between Fort Ligonier and Fort Pitt, rest during the afternoon and proceed through the narrow passage of Turtle Creek after dark.

Bouquet considered Turtle Creek the point of greatest danger to his troops, the most inviting spot for an Indian ambush.

It wasn’t. The Indians, numbering as many as 300, attacked a mile from Bushy Run Station.

At 1 p.m. Aug. 5, the British advance guard was fired on by tribal members concealed behind oak and hemlock trees from a hill to the right of the road leading to Fort Pitt. With the advance of the main body of troops, the Indians gave way. The Redcoats’ success was short-lived, Bouquet telling Amherst in a communication written that evening that it was impossible to gain “any decisive advantage, for as soon as (the enemy) were driven from one post, they appeared on another.”

With reinforcements, the Indians eventually worked their way to Bouquet’s rear, where they threatened to disperse the command’s pack horses with their precious cargo of flour. Bouquet, who had fought in the French and Indian War under Gen. John Forbes, had few choices. He ordered his men to form a defensive perimeter on Edge Hill, “a commodious piece of ground and spacious enough for our purposes” about a quarter-mile east of where the Indians first attacked.

The day’s battle went on till nightfall.

Bouquet, noting to Amherst that “the savages exerted themselves with uncommon resolution,” took stock that evening of his losses and his prospects.

“We suffered considerably,” he wrote.

Bouquet was disquieted by what might transpire beginning the next morning.

“In case of another engagement,” he wrote, “I fear insurmountable difficulties in protecting and transporting our provisions.”

His third-to-last paragraph to his chief began, “Whatever our fate may be …”

An unknown British officer at the battle might have summed up the feelings of a great many in Bouquet’s command, as they rested on their arms and huddled behind bags of flour for protection.

“In an America campaign,” he began, “everything is terrible; the face of the country, the climate, the enemy.” In such a place, “no victory is decisive” and “simple defeat is the least misfortune” that may befall one.

As the sun came up, war whoops rose from the forest about 500 yards from the British camp. The warriors, out of the sight of Bouquet’s beleaguered men, almost encircled the Redcoats, and their “shouting and yelping,” meant to terrify the soldiers, must have at least braced them for the trial to come.

The Indians opened fire early, Bouquet later noted, made “several bold efforts to penetrate our camp,” and when themselves were cornered or outmanned “always gave way.”

As the day wore on, the heat, lack of water and fatigue of battle took its toll on the Redcoats, so that Bouquet felt his men were “distressed to the last degree.”

A student of tactics, Bouquet, according to Dixon, “recognized that his only hope was to entice the Indians to concentrate their forces at one location, and then draw them out into the open, where his troops could fight them.”

Ordering two companies of light infantry to withdraw from the skirmish line, Bouquet feinted a retreat. The Indians took the bait. They attacked, but when they did so, they were surprised to see the same retreating soldiers return to the battlefield, pouncing on the Indians’ right flank.

“They … could not stand the irresistible shock of our men, who, rushing in among them, killed many of them and put the rest to flight,” Bouquet noted.

The Battle of Bushy Run ended with the warriors fleeing through the woods. Several days later, Bouquet’s command entered Fort Pitt with many of its supplies intact.

In September 1763, when word of the British victory at Bushy Run reached Philadelphia, church bells tolled, and Bouquet was hailed as a hero. The next year, the Indians agreed to peace in the Ohio Country.

Promoted to brigadier general in the British army and given command of the Southern District, Bouquet fell ill shortly after arriving in Pensacola, Fla. He died there Sept. 2, 1765.

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