Mission Without Strategy

Don’t surrender victory to over-preparation!

In the American Revolution, General Lachland McIntosh had the opportunity of a lifetime: Win the western front! He resisted wise strategy and squandered his resources on vanished forts in the wilderness of Pennsylvania and Ohio. That’s what I learned outside Bolivar, OH, today.

McIntosh overinvested in infrastructure rather than leveraging his available resources for rapid execution.

The Revolutionary general’s mission was sound: Weaken England—and prevent a flanking maneuver—by capturing Fort Detroit (present-day Detroit, Michigan). General McIntosh had been named Commander of the Western Department of the Continental Army in May 1778, and this was his great opportunity. A year earlier, he had won a duel in Georgia; he had been accused of murder and then acquitted. To rescue him from a revenge killing, Gen. George Washington had ordered McIntosh to report to Continental Army headquarters in October 1777, just in time for the horrific winter at Valley Forge.


Now in the spring of 1778, McIntosh’s prospects were bright. He was entrusted with the conquest of Fort Detroit. The campaign’s launch point was Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Some officers advocated a direct strike from Fort Pitt, 280 miles. Instead, Gen. McIntosh invested 1,200 soldiers in a failed campaign to build two advance forts. Gen. McIntosh sent his men 25 miles upriver from Fort Pitt to build Fort McIntosh in honor of himself (near Beaver, PA). Then he deployed 1,200 men to travel 80 miles west of Fort McIntosh and build Fort Laurens on the Tuscawara River (near Bolivar, OH). They built Fort Laurens and left 150 men behind in the autumn of 1778. After building two forts, Gen. McIntosh had reduced his strike distance on Detroit by only 80 miles, from 280 to 200.


In February British and Native American soldiers laid siege to the poorly stocked fort. Men survived by boiling their moccasins as stew. Desperate for food, 14 men ventured out for food and were killed. A month into the siege, the British gave up, and provisions arrived from Fort Pitt. That summer Gen. McIntosh abandoned Fort Laurens, and today a small museum and a few plaques commemorate the squandered bravery and sacrifice of those who suffered and died there.

Gen. McIntosh never even attacked Fort Detroit. The war ended. Gen. McIntosh was elected to the Continental Congress from Georgia but never attended. He tried and failed to restore his business interests. He died in relative poverty in 1806.

How would McIntosh’s life have concluded if he had sent his soldiers to Detroit rather than to build two ineffective forts?

About Ben Unseth

Migrant executive and professor.
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