Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Amherst, Jeffrey
AMHERST, JEFFREY, Baron Amherst (1717–1797), field-marshal, was the second son of Jeffrey Amherst, of Riverhead, Kent, and was born on 29 Jan. 1717. The Duke of Dorset, who was his father's neighbour at Knole in Kent, took him, when a boy, into his service as a page, and procured him an ensigncy in the Guards in 1731. When he went on service his patron recommended him as a young man of uncommon ability to General Ligonier, then commanding in Germany, who made him his aide-de-camp. He gave great satisfaction, and served on Ligonier's staff at Roucoux, Dettingen, and Fontenoy , and was then passed on to the Duke of Cumberland's staff, with which he was present at Lauffeld and Hastenbeck. These generals did not neglect their protégé, and he was rapidly promoted till he became lieutenant-colonel of the 15th regiment in 1756. But a greater and more deserving patron now perceived his merits, and in 1758 Pitt, who was on the look-out for young men who would not mind responsibility, had him promoted major-general, and gave him command of the expedition fitting out at Portsmouth and destined for North America.
On this expedition was based Pitt's great hope for making North America wholly English. He had perceived with alarm Montcalm's plan for hemming in the progress of the English towards the west, and for uniting the French colonies of Canada and Louisiana. He chose his officers with great care; most of them were young men burning for distinction, of whom Wolfe was the type, but over them he set Amherst, who, though very young, was chiefly distinguished for his absolute self-control. Wolfe, Pitt knew, was half-mad with enthusiasm, and might in a fit of enthusiasm run his army into a very perilous position.
The expedition which sailed from Portsmouth in May 1758 under the command of General Amherst was 14,000 strong, and was embarked on 151 ships under the command of Admiral Boscawen. Its first destination was Louisburg on the island of Cape Breton, which was immensely strong, and important from its closing the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and giving the French a base from which to annoy English communications with America and the Newfoundland fisheries. On reaching the island, the English troops effected their disembarkation after a gallant lead had been shown them by Wolfe, who plunged into the sea at the head of his grenadiers, and the fortress surrendered on 26 July. Wolfe was sent home with dispatches, and in September Amherst was, as a reward, appointed commander-in-chief of the forces in the place of James Abercromby, and proceeded to Albany to assume his command. He in November took Fort Du Quesne, and waited for further instructions.
In those further instructions Pitt's great plan for the conquest of French North America was displayed. He recognised that Montreal was the real centre of the French power, which could not be directly attacked. To isolate it three distinct series of operations must be undertaken. The first was the capture of Fort Niagara, and the rupture at that point of Montcalm's line of communication with Louisiana; this task was assigned to General Prideaux. Sir William Johnson, the best manager of Indian auxiliaries, was attached to him as second in command. The most difficult task was, however, the occupation of Quebec; this desperate enterprise was given to Wolfe. The third operation was the reduction of Ticonderoga, and the forts on Lake Champlain which threatened most dangerously the States of America. This operation had not the intrinsic difficulty of the other two, but the disastrous failure of James Abercromby the year before had dispirited both the English soldiery and the New England militia. To Amherst Pitt assigned the third operation, having learned his power of disregarding the influence of former failure from his success at Louisburg. Each operation succeeded. Though Prideaux was killed on the march, Johnson took Niagara in July 1759, Amherst took Ticonderoga in July and Crown Point in August, and in September Wolfe took Quebec. Critics since have said Amherst ought to have at once advanced on Montreal, but such rapid movements were not in accordance with his nature, which always inclined him to wait for certain success, or with Pitt's instructions. In 1760, however, three armies from Quebec, Niagara, and Crown Point advanced on the capital, and joined forces before Montreal, which surrendered without striking a blow in September 1760. Amherst was at once appointed governor-general of British North America, and in 1761 received the thanks of parliament, and was made a knight of the Bath. His campaigns with a civilised enemy were now at an end, but he was soon involved in difficulties with the Indians. The history of this episode of the rebellion of Pontiac has been ably described by an American historian, and is known as the conspiracy of Pontiac. Pontiac was an Indian chief of uncommon ability, who on the advice of French officers determined that the conquest of the French did not mean the conquest of their Indian allies, and that the English had no claims to the Indians' forests. He succeeded in cutting off detached English posts and taking small forts. Amherst proved unfit to deal with him; he would not have recourse to the American militia, and both despised and hated his enemy. His contempt prevented his taking adequate steps to conquer Pontiac, and his indignation at the torture inflicted on his officers made him devise most disgraceful means of revenge. He seriously advised the dissemination of small-pox among the Indians, and the use of bloodhounds to track them down. His failure no doubt was a chief cause of his return to England in 1763. There Pontiac's conspiracy was unknown, and Sir Jeffrey Amherst was received as the conqueror of Canada, and made governor of Virginia and colonel of the 60th or American regiment. His fame was now very great. In 1768 he had a serious quarrel with the king, and on the suggestion that he should resign his absentee government in favour of an impecunious nobleman, Lord Bottetourt, and take a pension instead, at once threw up all his offices and commands. Then his popularity became manifest, and Horace Walpole writes that ‘between the King of Denmark and Sir Jeffrey Amherst, poor Wilkes is completely forgotten.’ The king saw his mistake, and at once became reconciled to Amherst by giving him the colonelcy of the 3rd as well as of the 60th regiment. In 1770 he became governor of Guernsey, and in 1772 a privy councillor, lieutenant-general of the Ordnance, and, though only a lieutenant-general, officiating commander-in-chief of the forces. His steady support of the American war and the value of his popularity to the government endeared him to the king, who made him in 1776 Lord Amherst, in 1778 a general, and in 1780 colonel of the 2nd Horse Grenadiers, now the 2nd Life Guards. His chief services were as adviser to the government on the American war, and in suppressing the Gordon riots in 1780. In 1782 he had to leave office on the formation of the Rockingham cabinet, but in 1783 became again officiating commander-in-chief. In 1787 he was recreated Lord Amherst with remainder to his nephew, and in 1793, though too old to perform his duties efficiently, commander-in-chief. In 1795 he was induced to resign in favour of the Duke of York, and refused an earldom, but in 1796 the king insisted on making him for his long services a field-marshal. He did not long survive this last honour, and died at Montreal, his seat in Kent, on 3 Aug. 1797.
Lord Amherst's great military services were all performed in the years 1758, 1759, and 1760, when he proved himself worthy of high command by his quiet self-control and skilful combinations. His failure with the Indians was not strange, for he committed the great fault of despising his enemy. Of his later life in office little need be said. He was by no means a good commander-in-chief, and allowed innumerable abuses to grow up in the army. He kept his command till almost in his dotage with a tenacity which cannot be too much censured. Yet, though not a great man, he deserves a very honourable position amongst English soldiers and statesmen of the last century. His personal good qualities were undeniable, and he could not have been an ordinary man to have risen from page to the Duke of Dorset to be field-marshal commanding-in-chief. His greatest glory is to have conquered Canada; and if much of that glory belongs to Pitt and Wolfe, neither Pitt's combinations nor Wolfe's valour would have been effectual without Amherst's steady purpose and unflinching determination.[There is no published life of Lord Amherst, but fair notices in the biographical dictionaries and encyclopædias; see also the Gentleman's Magazine for Sept. 1797; for his Campaigns in Canada consult Mahon's History of England, vol. iv., and Bancroft's History of the United States of America, vol. iii.; for the capture of Louisburg see Prise de la Forteresse de Louisburg en Canada par les Anglais aux ordres du General-Major Amherst et de l'Amiral Boscawen le 26 Juillet 1758, published at Strasburg; for the capture of Ticonderoga see the very interesting Orderly Book of Commissary Wilson during the Expedition of the British and Provincial Army under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst against Ticonderoga and Crown Point, 1759, published at Albany, N. Y., 1857; for allusions to his later life see Horace Walpole's Letters, passim. There is a fine portrait of Lord Amherst, by Gainsborough, in the National Portrait Gallery.]