The Battle of Kittanning, the Armstrong Expedition, and the Kittanning Raid all refer to the same series of events that occurred on September 8, 1756. The number of names used to refer to this day is matched only by the interpretations of its impact on the rest of the French and Indian War. Historical sources paint the battle as a resounding success that was integral to securing the western Pennsylvania frontier for settlers. Modern sources, however, view the events of the Battle of Kittanning (located about forty miles northeast of modern Pittsburgh) as decidedly less laudable. While some historians believe the battle had little influence on the rest of the war, others are distinctly more critical, claiming that the expedition to Kittanning actually escalated the frontier violence during the Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War).
The Battle of Kittanning is inextricably tied to a series of British losses in the French and Indian War. In 1755, General Braddock's army, with a young George Washington serving as aide-de-camp, was attacked and nearly decimated a few miles south of Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh). This day, known since as Braddock's Defeat, steeped the Pennsylvania frontier in turmoil. Braddock's loss allowed the French and Indian forces to take over Fort Duquesne. From this key location, the Delawares could freely conduct raids on the surrounding settlements of western Pennsylvania. During these raids, women and children were taken as captives, livestock were killed or stolen, and houses were looted. The Delawares would often mutilate the dead bodies of soldiers and leave them to strike fear in the hearts of other settlers. This campaign of terror was effective; thousands of settlers fled eastward, leaving large sections of the frontier vacant.
The Pennsylvania government was horrified to see settlers deserting its western frontier in record numbers, but political divisions in the Assembly kept those in power from establishing any effective means of defense. Rather than raise a militia, the Pennsylvania Assembly trusted to purely defensive measures to protect its frontier forts. The destruction of Fort Granville (near modern Lewistown, Mifflin County) in July of 1756 made it painfully clear that these measures were not enough to protect frontier settlers from the terror and carnage of the Delawares' raids. The fort was left under the charge of Lieutenant Edward Armstrong when Captain Ward took the majority of the garrison to Sherman's Valley (present-day Juniata County), to protect settlers during the harvest. The fort, which was then protected by only twenty-four men, was attacked by a force of Delawares and French from Kittanning. Captain Jacobs, a Delaware who led the attack, proclaimed that "he cou’d take any Fort that wou’d Catch Fire." The attackers were able to set the fort's defenses on fire, burning a hole through the wall. As Lieutenant Edward Armstrong tried to repair the break and put out the flames, he was shot and killed. Women and children from the fort were taken captive by the Delawares. This latest defeat angered settlers who subsequently demanded either protection by or retaliation from their elected officials.
Spurred into action by the mounting ire of frontier settlers, Governor Robert Hunter Morris charged Lieutenant-Colonel John Armstrong, brother to the Lieutenant Edward Armstrong who died at Granville, with leading an attack on Kittanning. John Baker, a former English captive at Kittanning, advised Armstrong on the design of the village and of its defenses, and served as the expedition's guide. Armstrong assembled approximately three hundred men for his expedition, and set out from Fort Shirley (modern Shirleysburg, Huntingdon County) on August 30. For the next nine days, Armstrong and his men encountered no obstacles to impede their progress. On September 7, a campfire was spotted near Kittanning. The scouts indicated that only a few Delawares were at the campfire, but Armstrong refrained from confrontation because he wanted to keep the element of surprise for the next day's attack at Kittanning. Instead, he left a dozen men under the charge of Lieutenant James Hogg to watch the fire and attack after daybreak.
The next morning, attacking from the east and south, Armstrong's forces took the Delaware village by surprise. As Armstrong's men fired on the village, many Delawares fled. Captain Jacobs, the Delaware leader responsible for the attack on Granville, rallied some of his men and began firing back from the cover of their cabins. From the shelter of their homes, the Delawares killed or wounded many of Armstrong's company, including Armstrong himself. When Armstrong was shot in the shoulder, he realized the futility of firing back at enemies who were behind cover. Instead, he ordered the burning of the Delawares' houses. The French had delivered stores of gunpowder just days earlier, so the blaze ignited these supplies, causing explosions that could be heard thirty miles south at Fort Duquesne. Many Delawares were shot as they tried to flee the flames. Even Captain Jacobs, who refused to surrender, eventually jumped out of his second-story window with his wife and son to escape the blaze. Jacobs and his family were killed before they could escape to the cornfields.
As Armstrong sought medical attention, he learned that another group of Delawares was advancing from the west, supported by a large group of French troops from Fort Duquesne. Armstrong ordered a retreat. In their haste to leave Kittanning, Armstrong encountered the remains of Hogg's detachment. Hogg and the men ordered to attack the campsite outside Kittanning at dawn were surprised to find a larger party of Delawares than had been expected. Hogg and five of his men were killed, and the survivors became tangled with the Armstrong's forces during the retreat. Attacks from Delawares during the retreat scattered the Pennsylvania forces, causing men to show up at Fort Lyttleton (modern Fort Littleton, Fulton County) anywhere from four to ten days later. At the time he wrote his report, Armstrong reported seventeen of his mean dead, thirteen wounded, and nineteen missing. According to Armstrong's account of the expedition, "It is impossible to ascertain the exact number of the enemy killed in the action… but, upon a moderate computation, it is generally believed that there can be no less than thirty or forty killed and mortally wounded." Armstrong also managed to free eleven captives from Kittanning, though four were lost during the flight from the village.
For his efforts, which were celebrated as a great success by a Pennsylvania government determined to promote its efforts in protecting the frontier, Armstrong was honored as a hero. He was warmly received in Philadelphia on October 5, 1756, when he went to collect the over six hundred pounds of bounty on the heads of Captain Jacobs and other Delawares. Armstrong and his men were given the city's thanks, and Armstrong himself was awarded a commemorative medal. It was the first medal issued for bravery in the colonies, and the first ever made in America. The Pennsylvania government lauded the death of Captain Jacob, who had been terrorizing frontier settlements, and made much of the English captives freed from Kittanning. The assembly viewed the Battle of Kittanning as a decisive strike against the enemy.
Although Armstrong's contemporaries generally viewed his expedition as a success, modern historians disagree over the exact impact the Battle of Kittanning had on both the frontier raids and the French and Indian War. James P. Meyers writes in "Pennsylvania's Awakening" that "the reduction of Kittanning achieved immediate, though minimal, military success: it eliminated a major staging point for raids across the Alleghenies…it put an end to the career of the able Delaware leader, Captain Jacobs; it freed several prisoners and returned them to their homes in the settlements." Although the Battle of Kittanning temporarily stopped the raids, Robert Crist is quick to point out that "the attacks on the Pennsylvania frontier resumed." Fred Andersen takes this argument one step further by contending that the expedition "probably aggravated the situation on the province's frontier."
Daniel P. Barr explores the issue in detail, asserting that "placed within the larger context of the Seven Years’ War in Pennsylvania, Armstrong’s raid on Kittanning cannot be considered a victory on any meaningful level." In support of his argument, Barr refers to Armstrong's failure to achieve two chief objectives, namely freeing almost a hundred captives from the village and completely destroying Kittanning's military supplies. Barr credits this failure to destroy supplies as a key component of the recurring Delaware raids. Even Armstrong's destruction of a portion of the Delawares' ammunition is nullified by the fact that the Pennsylvanians' equipment was captured by the Delawares as Armstrong's men made a hasty retreat. Barr also reveals that, of the eleven captives Armstrong was able to free, at least two were recaptured and later tortured to death by the Delawares when Armstrong's men fled. In addition, Barr takes exception to Armstrong's tallying of the Delaware casualties. A report from a Kittanning captive estimates that only fourteen Delawares were killed, while two French accounts list the number at only seven. According to these estimates, Armstrong lost more men than he killed, which is a devastating loss to a commander whose troops outnumbered those in Kittanning by nearly three to one. Far from the victory celebrated in 1756, the Battle of Kittanning was "at best a draw" according to Barr's assessment of its ability to meet its own objectives.
Although Barr has argued that the Battle of Kittanning made no meaningful impact on the French and Indian War, he goes on to examine its effect on the Pennsylvania frontier specifically. During the fifteen months before Armstrong's expedition, there were seventy-eight raids on the frontier, compared to eighty-eight raids in the fifteen months after. Although the casualty rate from the raids following Kittanning was lower than the rate before it, the data nevertheless invalidates the claim that the Battle of Kittanning was effective in deterring future raids. In fact, Barr argues that the main reason that the death toll was lower was because so many settlers had fled from the frontier that the Delawares were left with fewer people to attack. This continued desertion of the frontier indicates that the Battle of Kittanning did little to calm the settlers' nerves and leads Barr to conclude that "Kittanning, despite all its fanfare, was little more than a hollow victory, which either had been quickly forgotten or which had done very little to bolster the frontier residents' spirits in the first place."
Over 250 years later, what is the historical significance of the events at Kittanning? While it is not the outright military victory that Pennsylvania first claimed, Kittanning still provides some cause for remembrance. For example, Armstrong's ability to lead 300 men over 150 miles in the wilderness and still take Kittanning by surprise was a feat in itself. This accomplishment was acknowledged through Fort Armstrong and Armstrong County, both of which were named for the hero of Kittanning. Barr's take on Kittanning, "a valiant effort by a badly beleaguered Pennsylvania to gain a measure of retaliation in a war that was beyond the colony's ability to master," strangely echoes the opinion of the Reverend Thomas Barton expressed in 1757: "Though killing a few Indians and burning their huts at the Kittanning is an action not very considerable in itself, it is the best that has yet appeared for this province." In this respect, both historical and modern sources can agree: the Battle of Kittanning should be remembered not as a military victory that turned the tide of the war, but rather as the first occasion that Pennsylvania actively stood up for itself and its citizens, refusing to give in to the power of fear.