Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The War of the Boundary Line

There is no room here to tell of all the struggles of Britain and France in America. But you have read enough to see how these two great powers had laid hold of the mighty continent, and how, in spite of all the thousands of miles of prairie and forest, of lake and stream, there was not room for both. One must go. But which? Was it to be the stolid, dogged race, who had painfully felled the trees and ploughed the land, reclaiming it bit by bit from the vast forest, building there, homes and churches and clustering towns? Or was it to be the gay adventurers and earnest black-robed priests, who reared crosses upon the borders of desolation, and claimed with the roar of cannon and singing of hymns, unexplored and unknown countries and peoples, for God and their king?

"Do you not know the difference between the King of France and the King of Britain?" a Frenchman once asked the Indians. "Go, look at the forts which our king has built. You will see that you can still hunt under their very walls. They have been built for your good, in places where you go. The British, on the other hand, are no sooner in possession of a place than they drive the game away. The trees fall before them, the earth is laid bare so that you can scarcely find a few branches with which to make a shelter for the night."

It was true. The British turned the wild forest into meadow-land and corn-fields. The French claimed the forest, and left it forest still, still the Red Man's hunting-ground.

The King of France was a despot at home. He was just as much a despot in his colonies. Everything the French settler did, was done by the French king's orders. In the French colonies there was no more freedom for the people than there was at home. In the British colonies it was very different. British settlers sailed to the New World because they were unhappy at home, because they could not worship God as they wished, or because they could not have the king they wanted. They sought freedom and they found it. At home the people rose against their king. They cut off his head and said they would have no more kings. But after a little they grew tired of having no king, and they asked Charles II. to come to rule over them. Later, the people rebelled again, and a new race of kings came to the throne. But all these changes did not make much difference to the colonies. The colonists remained British subjects whether King or Protector ruled the British Isles, this, too, although they received little help or attention from home.

So by degrees thirteen colonies were founded in America. Little by little they grew strong and prosperous, and at length the king and people at home began to see what a great state had grown up beyond the seas.

Yet although these thirteen colonies were all British, there was very little union amongst them. It was a long time before they learned that if they did not wish to be crushed out by the French, they must join together and help each other.

Years rolled on. There was no peace—there could be no peace between the two peoples. Even when France and Britain were not fighting at home, there was almost always fighting in America. And if the roar of cannon was quiet, and the white man's sword in sheath, the Red Man's tomahawk gleamed and his war-cry made the darkness terrible.

At last the great struggle in America began. It has been called the War of the Boundary Line.

Slowly, as the British colonies grew, they pressed westward. The country where Pittsburg now stands came to be called the Gate of the West. Both French and British wished to possess that gate, and both claimed the land. Here the French built a fort which they called Fort Le Bœuf.

When the Governor of Virginia heard of this, he sent a young man called George Washington to tell the French commander of the fort that he was upon British ground, and that he must leave at once.

After a long and difficult journey Washington reached the French camp one evening just as the officers were sitting down to dinner. They received him most courteously, but they told him that they meant to take and keep possession of the valley of the Ohio. "You Britishers are two to our one," they said, "but you are so slow, you cannot prevent us doing what we want."

The commander himself was grave and polite. "I will send the British governor's letter to Canada," he said, "but in the meantime my men and I will stay where we are. I have been commanded to take possession of the country, and I mean to do it as best I can."

With this answer Washington had to go back to his governor. But in the spring, he returned with about three hundred men. He was not able, however, to dislodge the French, and, after some fighting, he was forced to march away again.

All this time France and Britain were supposed to be at peace. War had not been proclaimed, but now a thousand men were sent out from home to help the colonists. When the French heard this, they too sent men. Yet the King of France and the King of Great Britain kept on being polite to each other, and pretending that nothing was meant.

But at sea the French and British vessels met. Up went a red flag to the masthead of the British flagship. "Is this peace or war?" asked the French captain.

"I don't know," replied the British, "but you had better prepare for war." And quick to point his words came the roar of cannon. The Frenchmen made good show of fight, but the British were the stronger, and soon the French struck their colours.

So, without being declared, war began.

But at first things went ill with the British in Canada. The home troops were sent out under the command of Major-General Edward Braddock. He was brave, but obstinate and old-fashioned. He had a contempt for the colonial soldiers, and a still greater contempt for their Indian friends. He was so rude to these that the haughty savages, instead of helping the British, stalked away offended, and took no part in the fight. "He looks upon us as dogs," they said.

Before setting out to attack the French, Braddock spent many weeks in making preparations, in gathering men, stores, and wagons. At last all was ready, and the long train of men and horses started for Fort Duquesne.

Braddock was used to fighting in Europe. He knew nothing of fighting in the wilds of America. Never before had he had to face the difficulty of taking an army, with all its train of baggage and ammunition, through pathless forest. Three hundred men with axes led the way, cutting down the trees to clear a path. Slowly behind them, now jolting over stumps and stones, now sinking axle deep in dust or mud, followed the wagons and cannon. So great were the difficulties of the road that the army crawled along at the rate of scarcely three miles a day, and so narrow was the path that the line of march was over four miles in length. But with British doggedness they toiled on; the red coats of the soldiers and the white-covered wagons lighting up the dark forest; the sound of trumpet-calls and the clash of arms awakening the silence.

On this slow and painful march many of the men fell ill. So Braddock resolved to divide his army. Leaving the heaviest baggage, the sick men and some of his soldiers behind, under another officer called Dunbar, he pressed on with about twelve hundred men. But even thus lightened the march was not very fast, and the colonists were disgusted to find that their ideas of what a rough road meant, and those of the British, were quite different. The British, they said, "halted to level every molehill and build bridges over every brook."

News of the march soon reached the French at Fort Duquesne. And when they heard how great the numbers were, they were much afraid, and almost decided to leave the fort and march away before the British arrived. But a brave officer named Beaujeu, said, "No, let us rather gather some of the Indians and go out to meet them." Then council fires were lit, and Beaujeu, dressed like an Indian brave, flung the war-hatchet down and talked to the Red Men until they were athirst for blood and ready to join the fight. So the war-dance was danced. Then daubed with paint and decked with feathers, six hundred red warriors and two hundred and fifty Frenchmen marched out to meet the British. They were led by Beaujeu, who looked almost like an Indian, wearing a fringed shirt as they did, under his steel breast-plate.

The summer sun was shining, the sky was blue and clear, as the British force wound slowly across the river Monongahela. The men were in good spirits, for their journey was nearly at an end, Fort Duquesne being only nine miles off. Of victory they had no doubt, so to the sound of drum and trumpet they marched gaily along. Then suddenly, from the dark and silent forest, dashed a crowd of Indian warriors, uttering piercing, hideous war-cries. At the same moment a hail of bullets mowed down the British soldiers. Quickly they returned the fire, and shouting, "God save the King," they rushed at the foe.

But the Indians scattered through the forest. Hiding behind trees and bushes they shot in safety at the British, whose red coats made them an easy mark. Gallantly the British fought. But it was like fighting against puffs of smoke. They could not see the foe; they were guided only by the smoke; their bullets tore through the bushes and were buried in the tree trunks, doing little harm, while from every side death rained upon the redcoats.

The British were unused to this savage warfare. Had they scattered like the Indians, and fired from behind shelter as they did, there might have been some hope. The American colonists, who were with the army under George Washington, knowing the ways of the Indians, fought them in their own manner. But to Braddock, that seemed unsoldierly and cowardly. If his men tried to scatter, he drove them together again, so they stood a brilliant target in the sunshine to be mown down by the murderous fire of savages.

Braddock himself fought and shouted like a madman. Horse after horse was shot under him, and at last he fell, sorely wounded.

For two hours or more the slaughter lasted. Then the troops could stand no more. They fled, leaving more than half their number dead or dying upon the field. All night they fled, pursued by the savage foe. Day came, still on they fled until they reached Dunbar's camp. Even here their panic did not cease. Dunbar and his men were seized with terror too. But it was not possible to flee with such baggage as they had. So stores were destroyed, barrels of gunpowder were thrown into the river, wagons were burned, lest they should fall into the hands of the enemy. Then the whole army marched back the way it had come. The rout was complete.

But meanwhile, swept along with the fleeing host, Braddock was dying. His life was ending in the darkness of defeat and disaster. Gloomy and silent he lay in his litter. "Who would have thought it?" was all he said. Then, as if with some returning hope, he murmured: "We shall know better how to do it another time." Then he died. For him, there was to be no "other time."

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