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Battle of Bushy Run turned the tide of Pontiac's Rebellion

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Editor's Note: This is the second story in a two-part series describing the history of the Battle of Bushy Run, which happened 250 years ago this month near present-day Route 993 in Penn Township. Today, the Star reports on the fighting in the two-day battle and how the British victory quelled the Native Americans' efforts to push the frontier eastward. This story is based on interviews with Jack Giblin, former site administrator for the battlefield; Frank Cassell, a colonial historian and retired president of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg; Alan Gutchess, director of the Fort Pitt Museum; and Jay Toth, anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. The first part of the series gave an overview of the events leading up to the battle.

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As Col. Henry Bouquet's British Army troops approached Bushy Run Station on Aug. 5, 1763, shots rang out.

Bouquet's forces — a blend of fewer than 500 Brits, Scottish Highlanders, colonists and other volunteers — were about a mile from the way station when a group of Native Americans ambushed them in the early afternoon. The attack forced Bouquet to scrap his plan to stop and rest at the station, which was the midway rest point between Fort Ligonier and Fort Pitt, and then march through the night to bolster the troops at the besieged Fort Pitt.

Fort Pitt now was priority No. 2. Priority No. 1 was to survive this battle.

Bouquet's forces were experienced but ragged. And some were dealing with the effects of yellow fever from previous fighting in Cuba.

In other words, it was not an ideal situation for a drawn-out confrontation.

“Somebody was going to win, and it was going to happen quickly,” Giblin said.

As the battle took form in dense woods, Bouquet estimated that the natives, led by Guyasuta of the Seneca, had a force roughly equal to the size of his. Though their numbers were about equal, the outcome of the first day of fighting was not — the Native Americans held the advantage when night fell.

That night, in a letter to Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, Bouquet wrote that the “savages” already had killed or wounded 60 of his men and that he feared “insurmountable difficulties in protecting and transporting our provisions,” let alone being able to carry on with their mission to relieve Fort Pitt.

Bouquet's tone was far from optimistic. Cassell reads the letter as falling just short of saying, “I don't think I'm getting out of this.”

Heading into the second day, the British camp — which was atop of a hill — was surrounded, and the soldiers were lacking water. Stacked bags of flour served as a makeshift fortification to shield the wounded.

After neither side landed a knockout blow in the early-morning fighting, Bouquet ordered a new tactic. He had two infantry companies of Highlanders fall back into a defensive position and feign the appearance of a weakly defended western side of the hill and a force readying for a retreat.

“It sounds like a stupid thing to do, but he's essentially creating the image of an army on the edge of a rout,” Cassell said.

In those few moments when the Native Americans rushed in, intending to slaughter the troops, they were as close as any have been ever since to re-establishing their North American homelands and halting westward expansion of European colonists, Cassell said.

Instead, they discovered they had fallen for a trap. The Highlanders rushed around the hill to burst out of the woods to inflict heavy casualties in a “brilliantly executed maneuver” that smashed the Native Americans' momentum and forced them to flee past Fort Pitt and into the Ohio Valley, Cassell said.

Many historians credit Bouquet's victory for preserving Fort Pitt, which had been in a precarious position.

Had the Native Americans won at Bushy Run, they could have returned to Fort Pitt to resume a siege that might have starved out the garrison, Gutchess said.

Though a victory there could have helped to stave off a short-term advancement of the frontier, the British weren't going to retreat, Gutchess said.

“I don't think they would have entertained the thought of abandoning the frontier,” he said.

As for the Native Americans, they were pushed back, but they weren't eliminated, said Toth, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

“The whole idea is to protect the sovereignty and the lands and the way of life, but if I were to give a speech, I'd say this battle may have been lost, but in the long run, we won because we're still here.”

In all, the battle cost the lives of 50 on the British side. There is no accurate number for dead Native Americans, although some estimates have put the figure around 60.

Bouquet's forces reached Fort Pitt on Aug. 10, and his leadership at Bushy Run was heralded as a major victory in the British newspapers after the Native Americans' assaults on forts earlier in Pontiac's Rebellion.

“For the British Army, it was massively important from the perspective of honor in the military,” Giblin said. “Up until this point, the British had not been successful against the Indians.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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