The son of a lawyer, Amherst was born in Sevenoaks, England, on 29 January 1717. Aged 12, he was appointed a page to the Duke of Dorset at nearby Knole. Subsequently, in 1731, the Duke secured Amherst a commission, through Sir John Ligonier, as an ensign in the 1st foot guards, though it seems he spent his formative years in Ireland in Major-General Ligonier’s horse regiment in Ireland. Amherst saw his first active service as aide-de-camp to Ligonier in Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession, being promoted to lieutenant colonel in late 1745. He then joined the staff of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, for whom he organised intelligence matters. In 1753, he married Jane Dalison; following her death, he married Elizabeth Cary in 1767 - neither union produced any children.
Amherst’s first involvement in the Seven Years War took him to Germany, but when Ligonier became commander-in chief of the British forces, he was appointed to command an expedition against the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (off the North American Atlantic coast, then one of the most important commercial and military centres of New France). Supported by a naval squadron, Amherst safely landed 14,000 men ashore in 1758, putting Louisbourg under siege. The town fell in seven weeks, and, soon after, Amherst was named as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Amherst proved more successful than his predecessors in persuading the North American colonies to support the war effort with men and finance. In mid-1760, he launched a three-pronged invasion of Canada, all converging on Montreal. The capitulation of Montreal in September marked the end of French rule in what would become Canada.
Amherst’s conquest of Canada for the British is considered his finest achievement. Having been appointed Governor-General of British North America, based in New York, he oversaw the dispatch of troops to the West Indies leading to the capture of Dominica, Martinique and Cuba in 1761-1762. In 1759, he had been named governor of Virginia (on a non-resident basis) and in 1761 he was knighted. However, his tenure as Governor-General was marred by a failure to deal well with the Native Americans. Growing unrest among many of the tribes in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region grew into, what became known as, Pontiac’s War in early 1763. One notorious episode, in particular, scarred his record: an attempt to infect Indians with smallpox by providing them with contaminated blankets. A long-standing request to be relieved of his command was soon granted, and he returned to England, where there was more criticism of his handling of the Pontiac War than he had expected. Around this time, he commissioned a new family house - which he called Montreal House - on the family estate near Sevenoaks.
Amherst was promoted to lieutenant-general in 1765, though that same year he was displaced - much to his annoyance - from the governance of Virginia. He was made Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance in 1772 with a Privy Council seat. Although not holding the rank of commander-in-chief he was still considered the foremost military authority in the country. However, Amherst declined twice to return to North America to take charge of the British forces trying to quell American nationalism. In 1776, he was raised to the peerage, and two years later was promoted to full general and commander-in-chief with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1780, he was in charge of the British army when it suppressed the Gordon Riots in London; but, with a change of government in 1782, he was dismissed from his post.
After war broke out again with France, Amherst was recalled as commander-in-chief in 1793, but by 1795 he had been replaced by the king’s son, Frederick, Duke of York. Subsequently, Amherst declined an earldom but was given the highest army rank of field marshal in 1796. He died 1797. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).
Amherst’s diaries were discovered, in 1925, among a large collection of letters and documents being made ready for removal after the family had sold Montreal House. They were edited by John Clarence Webster for publication in 1931 by the Ryerson Press (Toronto) and the University of Chicago Press as The Journal of Jeffery Amherst Recording the Military Career of General Amherst in America from 1758 to 1763. Much more recently, in 2015, the diaries were edited by Robert J. Andrews and published in two volumes by Michigan State University Press as The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763. According to Michigan State University Press, the latter book is the most comprehensive study of Amherst’s role in the Seven Years’ War to date.
According to Lorne Pierce, the publisher, who wrote a foreword for Webster’s book, Amherst’s journal consists of eighteen small volumes, measuring about six and one-half by four inches, inscribed in his own hand-writing. The published journal only starts
Pierce also adds the following critique: ‘An interesting feature of Amherst’s Journal is the great variety of details which it records. He takes time to intersperse among the more important enterprises of his campaign such incidents as, the hanging of a deserter, the scalping of a sentry, notes on topography, unusual natural phenomena, records of visits to towns and hamlets, friendly calls on both humble and distinguished citizens, exchange of flags of truce, sending of despatches, the health of the regiments, homesickness among his troops and the making of spruce beer. Following a detailed order to one of the military Governors there will appear an expression of his personal grief over the loss of a valiant junior officer; jostling a despatch to London, or plans for the siege of an enemy fortification, one will encounter spicy comments on the lack of judgment, enterprise or some other practical virtue among his officers or men, and emphatic private judgments on a great variety of subjects. Altogether it is a unique document, and amid the crowding details there emerges Amherst himself, perhaps over cautious and deliberate, certainly nothing of the dashing commander, but at any rate a competent general, who knew what he was about and how to go about it, who was everywhere and always himself, certain of his plans and confident in his opinions.’
Here are several extracts from the Webster edition (which is freely available at Internet Archive).
20 March 1758
‘We saw three sail and one we took for a french Privateer which we chased. The weather was so calm we could not get up to her; we tryed an Eighteen Pounder to throw it as far as they could but it did not go above half way to her and in the evening I believe the Privateer got out her oars, for she got allmost out of sight and we gave over the chase. In the night it began to blow very hard and the 21st it blew hard and was very heavy. In the morning as we were going Eleven Nots an hour a ship was seen to Windward laying by within half a mile of us, & was taken at first for an English frigate. Capt. Rodney ordered the Mainsail to be hauled up immediately and ship to be cleared, and knew the ship to be a french one; directlv we began to fire he hoisted English colours, and on continuing to fire at him as he did not lower his sail his English ensign was blown away and he hoisted French. The Dublin fired five and twenty or thirty shots, and the frenchman three and some musketry and then struck. The first Lieut., Mr. Worth, went on board her and sent the captain who told us he came from L’Isle de Bourbon, had been four weeks on his Voyage and was laying by for fair weather to run into Brest which he said was twenty leagues from him, that he had seven hundred Thousand Pounds weight of Coffee, Part for the India Company and part for Monsr. LeBorde, Merchant at Bayonne, and some thousand Pounds of Logwood 40,000 P weight; his Vessel LeMonmartel of about 400 Tons and 73 men, officers included. All the men except the sick were brought on board just before night and 30 men sent with Lt. Worth into the Prize.’
13 June 1758
‘A fine morning but a most terrible day afterwards. We could not land anything. Getting our tools on shore last night we worked to clear a Road from the Right to the Left, I walked in the morning over the Front with M. McKullogh (McKellar) and ordered three Redoutes in front. At twelve about 200 came from the Town and got toward our Camp; we beat them back with 40 men and some of the Light Infantry before two Picquets got up to their assistance.’
15 June 1758
‘The Redoutes not finished, I ordered them to be palisaded. A good deal of firing in the night at sea. I sent away everything to Br. Wolfe that he asked, added to his Artillery two 18-inch and two 13-inch Mortars. I could not yet get any artillery on Shore. At night two deserters from Volontaires Etrangers, said the 13th they had 40 wounded in the Skirmish, 5 killed. Fine weather today. Sir C. Hardy came back and anchored off the Harbour, I was afraid last night as the Harbour was open the Enemy might have warped a Ship out and took our ordinance and Sloops at the Mackarel Cove and Lorembeck.’
30 June 1758
‘We continued working at the Road between the advanced Redoute and Green Hill — very heavy and tedious. A great deal of Cannonading all day and Skirmishing. The Enemy sunk four ships the 29th in the night in the Harbours Mouth, the Apollo, a two-decker was one, La Fidelle of 36 Guns another and La Pierre and La Biche of 16 Guns each the two others, and this last night they cut off most of their Masts. Remained in the Harbour 5 two deckers and one Frigate, Le Prudent, L’Entreprenant, Le Celebre, Le Bienfaisant, Le Capricieux, L’Arethuse Frigate, 36 Guns. At night we had a good deal of firing in the rear; some of the Marines at Kenning ton Cove thought they saw Indians. The Frigate 46 fired near 100 Shot at night at our Epaulement.’
6 July 1758
‘I went over all the works, asked the Admiral for four 32-Pounders to joyn Br. Wolfe which he readily granted. I changed the Guards, took 600 Men and 3 Companies of Grenadiers to the Right and 300 Men to Green Hill. I put a Subaltern and 24 in each Redoute, the works on the Right were continued and perfected; cannonading continued all day. At night Br. Wolfes Battery forced the Frigate to retire. We lost some few men by the cannonading and some wounded. The Admiral sent me a letter taken out of a French mans Pocket who was found drowned. A Sloop sailed out of the Harbour with a flag of truce to Sir C. Hardy, to carry some things to their wounded officers and Prisoners.’
6 Septembre 1759
‘I sent a Scouting Party on the west to try to track the three People that the man of Ruggles reported he had seen the Tracks going down the Lake. Wrote Col Montresor to forward some tools &c demanded for Oswego. Capt Gray returned at night; said he had spyed out three boats at the Narrows, just as he was coming back; that he lowered his sail to wait for them but they stoped or, rather, seemed to go over to the Eastern Shore. I suppose a scalping Party, as they appeared just at night. I ordered the Guards on the batteaus to be particularly watchful, our Deserters of which they have two from Gages & one from the Inniskilling (who probably robbed Capt Williams) may have told them they can burn our boats. I ordered two boats with three Pounders, a Canoo of Indians, a whale boat of Rangers, 24 men & a Sub. of light Infantry in two whale boats to go early under the comand of the Capt. of Gages with the daily Guard of 60 men of that Regt; to march a body down the Eastern side of the Lake & come back on the West. If the Enemy land any people & draw up a boat they must find it.’
25 September 1760
‘Our Battery continued firing with good Success. Col Williamson began to fear his ammunition would fall short, as he has such a quantity on board the Onondaga. I therefore consulted with Lt Sinclair & the Seamen the best method of getting it out by night which was fixed on. In the Afternoon Mons Pouchot put a stop to our Preparations by Beating a Parley and sending me a Letter which I immediately answered & sent him terms of Capitulation by Capt Prescott for him to sign & send back to me, which he did. I ordered Lt Col Massey with three Companys of Grenadiers to take Possession of the Fort [Fort Levis on Isle Royale], the Garrison being Prisoners of War. I did not permit an Indian to go in. The Garrison that remained consisted of 291 including Officers. 12 men were killed with a Lt of Artillery & 35 were wounded.
Their Artillery consisted of twelve 12-Prs, two 8-Prs, thirteen 4-Prs, four 1 Pr & four Brass 6 Prs, besides several Guns with Trunions broke off, small Arms, and a great quantity of Powder & ball & provisions.’