Jeffrey Amherst was a prime contributor to the British victory over the French in Canada in the French and Indian War, but later his reputation suffered a blow.
Amherst was born at Riverhead, Kent, England, and was first commissioned as an ensign in the foot guards in 1731. He saw service in the War of the Austrian Succession and later in the European theater during the Seven Years’ War. During the latter conflict, Amherst was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the British assault on Louisbourg. He was chosen by William Pitt at the urging of John Ligonier, a leading military figure and confidant of the secretary of state.
Amherst, newly promoted to major-general, captured the key French bastion on Cape Breton Island on July 27, 1758. This victory opened the St. Lawrence River to future British incursions, and Amherst was named commander-in-chief in North America. A three-pronged attack against French Canada was planned for 1759: a westward push up the St. Lawrence to Quebec, a northward invasion from Albany by way of lakes George and Champlain, and the quelling of French strength in the West at Fort Niagara. All major objectives were met during the “Year of Victories” with Amherst playing a direct role in occupying former French positions at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. He completed his triumph with the capture of Montreal, in September 1760.
As a reward for his success, Amherst was appointed governor-general of British North America, a position he held until 1763. All was not well at this time, however. Amherst was unable to suppress Pontiac’s Rebellion to his superiors` satisfaction, and he was recalled to London.
In addition, allegations have persisted that Amherst was responsible for conducting an early form of germ warfare against warring Native Americans, a group he and others of his era held in extremely low regard. A letter still exists in which Amherst raises the possibility of conveying smallpox-infected blankets into Indian hands. Historians’ views differ on whether or not the plan was actually executed, but the tribes in western Pennsylvania were struck by a devastating outbreak of the disease at this time.
Because of his close ties with many Americans, Amherst refused to take a field command during the War of Independence. He did, however, serve in an advisory role for the British cause.
Despite the setbacks in his career, Amherst was widely celebrated for his achievements. He was knighted in 1761, made a baron in 1776, and promoted to field marshal shortly before his death. Both the Massachusetts town and college were named in his honor.
See Indian Wars Time Table .