The Culture of War, Part 3: The English during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763)

The War Period (1754 – 1763) – The English

Middle British colonies in USA 1771
Middle British colonies in USA 1771

Colonial soldiers of the 18th century, particularly those of the provincial forces, were arguably mischaracterized for much of recent history. Often described as social dregs and castoffs, historians such as Fred Anderson and John Ferling contend that quite the opposite was often true. For example, using census data and “descriptive lists” of the manpower of six Massachusetts regiments in 1756, Anderson demonstrated that a vast majority of the documented militia were young, skilled laborers or farmers who likely struggled to find employment as the population of the state exploded.[1] The same can be said for the Army regulars, whether English Red Coats or Americans in the professional army. Peter Way finds that, in similar fashion as the New England provincials, British recruits were usually skilled laborers who, due to a lack of opportunity in their trade, opted for employment as soldiers.[2] A small sample of data for recruits from Boston appears to line up with this assessment for American recruits.[3] In addition, in New England, provincial forces grew from a tradition of military service, having provided soldiers for King William’s War (1689 – 1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), and King George’s War (1740s).[4] Interestingly, this relative military readiness, combined with the fact that the powerful Iroquois Six Nations were seated in New England, effectively shielded the region from much of the war’s combat (with some notable exceptions in the first years of the war).[5] The French and Indian War largely hinged on the Ohio Valley region.

Virginia Colony Coat of Arms
Virginia Colony Coat of Arms

In Virginia, although the demographics were significantly different than in New England (almost half of the Virginia regiments in 1756 and 1757 were foreign born, as opposed to only 3% in Massachusetts), we see a similarity in that volunteers were for the most part not unskilled laborers (only 1 out of 10 were indicated as such).[6] And while the same history of military service did not exist in Virginia, these volunteers were far from the wretched castoffs expected, as “planters and skilled artisans” responded to the call for service in greater numbers than had been expected.[7] However, the war with the French was not popular in Virginia, as many thought the conflict was nothing more than a greedy expedition to benefit the Governor and the Ohio Company seeking land in the west. [8] So what could induce self-identified skilled laborers and planters to volunteer to fight in an unpopular war? The answer may be due to the specific culture in the South. Unlike in Massachusetts, where the economy was based heavily on family farming and which offered land and work opportunities for the young, in Virginia this work was completed by slaves. This being the case, young laborers and immigrants may have found it difficult to find an alternative to employment in the provincial military.[9]

In Pennsylvania, the cultural landscape significantly impacted the ability of the colonists to fight in the war. In fact, the political role played by pacifist Quakers in the region resulted in an inability to form a regiment until 1756, when a number of Quaker leaders withdrew from political office.[10] This pacifist resistance to supporting war, whether specifically against the French or generally in defense of the colony, emerged as early as 1755, when the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a tax to support the war effort. Although it seems the greater Quaker church resolved to support the civil government, even if that government engaged in war, strong pacifist tendencies contributed to a disorganized and sluggish response to threats against the province’s outer settlements.[11] General Edward Braddock, the first British commander-in-chief sent to the colonies, admired the military spirit of the New Englanders and commended Virginia for her response to the call to arms. But Pennsylvania’s lack of enthusiasm and preparedness left him with “no words to express his wrath.”[12] It was in this climate of martial malaise, as the Delaware and allied Indians raided into Pennsylvania, that Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong launched his raid against Kittanning in a desperate attempt to allay the mounting fear of the western settlers. Armstrong’s raid resulted in the death of the infamous Indian war leader known as Captain Jacobs, along with (according to Armstrong) no less than “thirty or forty” dead Delawares.[13]

In general, the colonial provincial forces of the colonies reportedly performed quite poorly during the conflict. On 2 July, 1758 while British and American forces labored to construct a road to facilitate the assault on the French fort at Louisburg, General Jeffrey Amherst stated in amazement “The covering Party and 500 Pioneers marched and what is incredible to believe, lost their way where one would think ’twas impossible to do so and tho’ they had the Engineers with them.”[14] A year later, in June, when certain supplies did not arrive, the general noted sourly “The Provincial Troops deserted most shamefully.”[15] In a reference to other provincial soldiers shortly after Canada capitulated, Amherst wrote (apparently in reference to general performance or to a lack of needed equipment), “I sent away about 500 Provincials …They are so poorly they can do no work … It froze hard last night.”[16] If historians such as Anderson and Ferling dispute that such performance resulted from provincials being pulled from the social dregs of the colonies, then what would explain this? For one, a gap in military culture had evolved between the New England provincials and the professional Red Coats. The young colonist force, in what might be seen as embryonic Revolutionary War mentality, believed that relations between men (which would include between officers and soldiers) was a form of contract or agreement. The English Red Coats and their officers, by contrast, made it clear that such relations were regulated by “status and coercion.”[17] This “coercion” usually took the form of corporal punishments (such as lashes from a cat-o-nine tails) that many times resulted in death. John Knox, in his journal, described the penalties for desertion and appearing to support desertion:

One soldier was sentenced to receive a thousand lashes for absenting his duty and using expressions tending to excite mutiny and desertion. A second for being disguised with an intention to desert and being out of his quarters at an undue time of night to receive three hundred. A third for an intention to desert one thousand. And a fourth for desertion and endeavouring to inveigle others to desert to suffer death.[18]

Benjamin Franklin (Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (1725–1802))
General Edward Braddock
General Edward Braddock

Perhaps giving voice to colonial disgust of harsh army discipline, Benjamin Franklin said of General Braddock that he was “too mean a one of both Americans and Indians.”[19] It appears that in some instances, colonial provincial soldiers simply did not relate to the English way of war anymore.


North America was only one theater in a transatlantic war. However, it was not only where the Seven Years’ War began, it was arguably the greatest prize, establishing (as T.R. Clayton states) “the foundations of the nineteenth-century British empire.”[20] For nine years, the French and English powers in the New World warred over the heart of North America. Both empires and their colonies had ample experience fighting each other, and both had experience interacting with native peoples. The tie breaker could have been the numerical superiority of the British colonists. Why then did it take so long to attain victory? Certainly military and political forces across the globe were important. But two broad, culturally-based factors hampered English effectiveness: first, that uneven colonial martial cultures (as demonstrated between New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) meant that the southern colonies were not as prepared to fight as the New England colonies. Secondly cultural misunderstandings of Native American war fighting values turned entire nations once friendly to the English against them. The end result of these two factors was to complicate operations in the Ohio Valley as the southern colonies endured unexpected attacks from former allies, and arguably lengthening the length of the war.

[1] Fred Anderson, “A People’s Army: Provincial Military Service in Massachusetts during the Seven Years’ War,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct 1983), 505, 507.

[2] Peter Way, “Class and the Common Soldier in the Seven Years War.” Labor History 44, No. 4 (November 2003), 461.

[3] Ibid, 463.

[4] John Ferling, “Soldiers for Virginia: Who Served in the French and Indian War?” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 94, No. 3, Virginians at War,1607-1865 (Jul., 1986), 316.

[5] David L. Preston, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 150.

[6] John Ferling, ibid, 314.

[7] Ibid, 317.

[8] Ibid, 316-317.

[9] Ibid, 326.

[10] Daniel P. Barr, “Victory at Kittanning? Reevaluating the Impact of Armstrong’s Raid on the Seven Years’ War in Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), 15.

[11] For a detailed description of the Quaker schism in regards to the French and Indian War, see Jack D. Marietta, “Conscience, the Quaker Community, and the French and Indian War,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), 3-27.

[12] Francis Parkman, France and England in North America, Vol. 2 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983), 981.

[13] This number is disputed by many historians. Daniel P. Barr, ibid, 22.

[14] Amherst, Jeffery. The journal of Jeffery Amherst, recording the military career of General Amherst in America from 1758 to 1763 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931), 61.

[15] Ibid, 112.

[16] Ibid, 261.

[17] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War, 288.

[18] John Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760, ed. Arthur G. Doughty (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1914), 209.

[19] Francis Parkman, ibid, 973.

[20] T.R. Clayton, “The Duke of Newcastle, the Earl of Halifax, and the American Origins of the Seven Years War.’ The Historical Journal, vol. 24, no. 3 (Sep 1981), 571.


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