This afternoon, the first day of Fall Break at The College of Wooster, my family began a weekend excursion to southern Pennsylvania — our first vacation since the pandemic. We first visited one of my favorite reconstructed frontier outposts: Fort Ligonier. I was here eleven years ago and wrote a blog post about it. It was again so interesting that I’m updating that older post here.
Fort Ligonier was built by the British in 1758 during the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War) along the Loyalhanna River in what is now Westmoreland County of southwestern Pennsylvania. It is a spectacular site today with a fully reconstructed fortification and an excellent museum. It gives us a chance to see how a military engineer used the local geology to build a successful fort in a difficult terrain.
The purpose of Fort Ligonier was to serve as the forward base for the capture of the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River. This was the most strategic site on the western frontier. The French and their Indian allies desperately wanted to preempt this attack by destroying the advancing British columns in the woods before they could assemble. The British and American colonists needed a robust road through the wilderness approaching Fort Duquesne, along with defensible strongholds. Fort Ligonier was the most critical of these positions, then, for both sides.
You would expect a fort to be built on the highest ground, yet Fort Ligonier is in a valley surrounded by commanding heights. The British knew, though, that the French and Indians did not have significant artillery in this theater. They could give up the heights so that they could use the Loyalhanna River as a defensible barrier against the inevitable infantry attacks. The site of Fort Ligonier also has small ravines on its other sides, forming a kind of moat. Most importantly, sandstone cliffs on the river side provide an unbreachable wall and an overview of the most likely approaches to the fort by the enemy. The British placed their largest cannon at the top of this cliff, surrounding them with an elaborate wooden stockade and sharpened obstacles.
The exposed rock of the Fort Ligonier cliffs is the Casselman Formation, a Late Carboniferous (about 300 million years old) mixture of shale, siltstone, sandstone and occasional coal beds. The particular unit here is a fine micaceous sandstone with cross-bedding. It was formed in an ancient river system. The cross-bedding and abundance of mica is a clue to this environment: the cross-bedding shows high-energy seasonal flooding; the mica flakes (the white grains seen below) show ebbs in water energy to near zero.
The French and Indians attacked Fort Ligonier on October 12, 1758, and very nearly took it. The British artillery sited on the sandstone cliffs was the deciding factor, though, and the besiegers retreated. Fort Ligonier swelled in population as British troops assembled for the attack on Fort Duquesne. In fact, in November 1758 it was the second largest city in Pennsylvania! (Among the British forces was the young George Washington.) The French saw the score and retreated from Fort Duquesne. The British captured this most strategic location and renamed the site “Pittsburgh”. Building and defending Fort Ligonier was key to this victory. By March 1766 the fort had served its purpose and was decommissioned.
Fowler, W.M., Jr. 2005. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754–1763. Walker & Company, 360 pages.
Sipe, H.C. 1971. Fort Ligonier and Its Times. Ayer Company Publishers, 699 pages.
Stotz, C.M. 2005. Outposts of the War for Empire: The French and English in Western Pennsylvania: Their Armies, Their Forts, Their People, 1749-1764. University of Pittsburgh Press, 260 pages.