An American Way of War (Prior to the US Civil War)

ContinentalArmy_LeffertsWatercolor

“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases. But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” [1]

On 18 Jan 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted to President George Washington a plan for the establishment of American militia to safeguard the nation. Echoing Alexander Hamilton’s warnings of standing armies made almost three years prior, Knox reasoned that “an energetic national militia” was more in harmony with American ideals.[2] Standing armies (as evidenced by his words that began this article) represented a looming threat to national liberty. Three days after receiving Knox’s recommendation, Washington forwarded it to Congress for consideration, and thus codified a distinctive American suspicion of the military that would largely endure until the 20th Century.[3]

This mistrust of large, standing armies was only one factor that has helped shape what can arguably be called an American way of war. Another distinction is the manner in which warfare was executed (more on that in a moment). But if there is a distinctive way of American war, what are its roots, and when did it emerge?

Certainly from the initial establishment of European colonies, the Anglo, French, Spanish, and other Europeans would have brought with them their styles of waging war. In the struggle over Nova Scotia in the autumn of 1710, for instance, John Grenier describes the clash between the British and French at Port Royal as falling within the “context of Europe’s emerging “age of limited warfare,” and so fought for glory and honor to a point, but both sides made certain to restrain themselves so as to not “radically [upset] the status quo…”[4] Jon Latimer, in 1812 War with America, notes that leading up to the conflict that “the Americans’ drill was largely modelled on continental patterns,” although in practice they used a “variety of extemporized manuals.”[5] And yet both the Americans and the British recognized the existence of certain styles of combat that was common to the frontier, before and after 1776, that was particular to the New World. The “skulking” way war, the guerrilla-style combat associated with native Indians and tough frontiersmen, was something both scoffed at and admired by Europeans, who strove to emulate it as much as possible when engaged in combat in America. It was a way of warfare that gave the European populations of North America extreme resiliency, but also possessed notable weaknesses.

This American way of war was shaped by the specific threats faced by European settlers, as well as by the limited resources

James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers
James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers

and manpower available to meet those threats. This warfare, from a traditional European perspective, was brutal. In 1745, the French settlers living under British dominion in Nova Scotia, the Acadians, became alarmed when the British Governor for the region brought in American Rangers to build blockhouses throughout the region. The Acadians evidently drew a distinction between the European military forces and the Yankees, as Grenier cites correspondence sent to the Earl of Newcastle indicating that they thought the Americans “far more terrible than European soldiers.”[6] Surrounded by often hostile native Indians as well as by competing Old World rivals, the Americans took up a manner of warfare that was, in Grenier’s words, “of unrestrained violence, shocking brutality, and devastating effectiveness.”[7] The particular character of American-style combat was recognized by the British even at this point in time. James Wolfe, who overall looked upon North American provincials with little regard, nonetheless argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers.[8]

By the time of the War of Independence, both the Americans and the British were quite cognizant of fighting in an “American” style of war. In the earliest days of the conflict, the performance of the British soldiers trained as light infantry, organized into “flank battalions,” was somewhat lackluster.[9] Relatively quickly, however, they seemed to grow in confidence. Letters from royal soldiers record “fighting in the thick wood, in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior to regular troops.”[10] However, the rebel militia fighters of the deep frontier continued to hold a reputation of ferocity and ability that even the British commanders respected. After one engagement where the British were particularly battered, one solider observed that “European discipline” was of little use in the heavily wooded areas, and that the rebels were “by much our superiors at wood fighting, being habituated to the woods from their infancy.”[11] The important point here is that both those British soldiers who boasted of their own skirmishing skills, and those who thought the Americans superior in that way of combat, seemed to consider “bushfighting” as something particularly American. Matthew Spring, in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, cites a number of such letters which contrast how the Americans fought, and compared British capability to adapt to it (both favorably and unfavorably).[12]

The American way of war held a preference of militia over regular soldiers, and guerrilla-style combat over large-scale, head-on confrontations. It was a style of warfare born from the military requirements of the frontier. From the founding of the colonies, European settlers struggled against native Indians and each other, and the potential for warfare was ever-present. As such, all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty were expected to participate in the militia in some fashion, which included at a minimum an annual muster for training or militia-related tasks.[13] This is not to say that European-style warfare was totally abandoned. Population centers had to be defended, and fortifications had to be built and manned. General Washington, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, did attempt to lead American forces into decisive engagements against the British army. But after a number of defeats suffered throughout the period 1776 – 1780, the Americans increasingly relied on guerrilla-style tactics, to which they were much better suited. Spring notes that the militia were most effective when they fought in “broken terrain” and employed this “’skulking’ method of fighting…”[14] With self-governance being regionally fragmented in the New World, both before and after the American Revolution, the North Americans developed a way of warfare that usually leveraged the unique environment in which they lived to deal with local as well as foreign threats. The result was typically small standing armies. At the turn of the century in 1802, for example, the United States boasted an army of just 2,500 soldiers.[15]

Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781
Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences in how Americans waged war compared with their European cousins was rooted in how the individual soldier viewed his relationship to his government. While historians debate the extent to which such a distinction truly applied, in general the peoples of British North America developed the view that service to a government was formed by a contract, wherein each side was obliged to uphold the agreement. Abrogation of the contract meant the other side (in particular, the individual) was no longer under obligation to adhere to the arraignment. This contrasts with the royal army, whose soldiers were bound by the traditional European ruler-subject relationship. The resulting impact of relying on contract-savvy militia was that the government, whether colonial, Federal, or state, had to induce citizens to not only enlist, but to stay committed should a prolonged conflict ensue. To illustrate how this impacted the execution of warfare, John Grenier details an incident in 1755 when Anglo-American militia sought to join British regular troops as they prepared for operations against French forces in Nova Scotia. Rumor reached the American troops that the British army intended to extend their service contracts beyond the 12-months they had originally volunteered for. Apparently deciding that this was a breach of the contract to which they had signed, the American forces took it upon themselves to depart from the area regardless of the plans the British had for them. Grenier speculated that the British regulars watched this with “some sense of envy if not disgust…”[16]

George Washington used short contracts that, while continuously saddling the Revolutionary leaders with new, green troops, did help to ensure the militia did not become fatigued by long-term military commitments. As many as half of the eligible adult male population in the American colonies may have served as either militia or army regulars during the war. Most of the service periods for these men were measured mostly in months, and sometimes only weeks.[17] While this method certainly had some obvious weaknesses, it did offer Washington the ability to rapidly call up and field troops. This created a formidable manpower pool for the Americans, and was something the British – restricted by an inability to quickly replace combat losses – simply could not compete with.

This militia, while often denigrated by the British regulars, offered a resiliency not only with manning but also in the area of logistical support. While logistic concerns for rebel armies were of course greatly simplified by the nature of fighting on their home turf, the American militia had an ability to “live off the land” in a way that the more conventional forces of the British Army had trouble replicating.[18] Despite decades of experience in the New World, including multiple small conflicts – such as King George’s War (1744 – 1748) and the French-Indian War (1754 – 1763) – the British regular army struggled to meet their wartime logistical needs as late as the Revolutionary War. This failure has been identified as one of the primary factors which lead to the defeat of the British in this conflict.[19]

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull

As suggested by Washington’s struggle with raw recruits, this reliance on the militia made it difficult to adjust to threats or operations which were better handled by a more conventional force. For instance, at the outset of the War of 1812, the United States had over 700,000 on the states’ militia rolls, but a standing army of less than 7,000 officers and soldiers. Congress acted to authorize an expansion to a 35,000-man army, plus the acceptance of 30,000 militia into Federal service on 1-year contracts and then an additional 50,000 enlisted men with 18-month contracts for the regular army.[20] But it would take time to recruit and train these regulars, and as stated by Latimer, “the militia was everywhere in disarray – inefficient, unreliable, and expensive…”[21] This state of affairs apparently did not dissuade the more exuberant supporters of the invasion of Canada, however. Whether willfully ignorant or unable to see the limitations in the use of militia for projecting power, Governor Daniel Thompkins of New York exclaimed that the United States would become “masters of Canada by militia only.”[22] Despite the confidence, the attempt to wrest Canada from the British was a complete failure.

A related weakness was that the general reliance on militia made it difficult to develop and execute a strategic plan. Jon Latimer, in his assessment of America’s inability to conquer Canada, argues that the government had a “lack of will to dominate the decisive moments.” This resulted in part from the rapid expansion of military officers, from 191 during Thomas Jefferson’s administration to over 3000 by 1814, only a few years later. Many of these officers had little or no prior military training, which hampered the ability of America’s military leadership to execute a coordinated plan.[23]

In conclusion, the unique environment of North America, coupled with the persistent threat posed by European armies – whether rivals of the mother nations or, as with the War of Independence and the War of 1812, against the home state itself – served to cultivate a distinct way of war. This method of fighting emphasized decentralized militia units that could be called upon in times of war – alone or in conjunction with the purposefully small standing army – to defend the nation, the state, or the region. They could also be called upon to project power, although as the War of 1812 revealed, the militia were not particularly strong in this regard. The true value of the American way of war was its versatility. It augmented the standing army as it prosecuted war against the Indians on the frontier, and it provided resilience against conventionally more powerful foes such as Britain.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Latimer, Jon. 1812 War with America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

[1] “To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0009 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 10–15.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist #8,” in te Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York, Mentor, 1961), 66-71.

[3] From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 21 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0020 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 32.

[4] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 15.

[5] Jon Latimer, 1812 War with America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 173

[8] Ibid, 202-203.

[9] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 253.

[10] Ensign Thomas Hughes, as cited by Matthew H. Spring, ibid, 253.

[11] Ibid, 256.

[12] Ibid, 252 – 262.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] Ibid, 15

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 185.

[17] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 28-29.

[18] Jon Latimer, 1812, 38.

[19] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only, 34.

[20] Jon Latimer, 1812, 56-57.

[21] Ibid, 57.

[22] Ibid, 58.

[23] Ibid, 53.

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The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

Book Review

Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) examines the American Revolution from the perspective of the British With Zeal and Bayonets OnlyArmy. In doing so, Spring determines that the popular representations of the British forces as a monolithic, unthinking war-machine confounded at every turn by American skirmishers is unfair and untrue. The King’s armies, he concludes, “tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions,” which is why they proved victorious in the majority of engagements.[1]

Spring examines the British Army’s performance at both the operational and tactical levels. The American theater was an exceedingly challenging one that made it nearly impossible for the British to impose a war of general actions, where two armies could bring to bear their full strength in linear combat. Tasked to subdue a wide, wild frontier nation that did not necessarily need her urban centers to continue to fight, the British Army nevertheless was able to achieve constant success that nearly extinguished the Continental Army in the early years of the American War. By delving into such fundamental factors such as “grand tactics,” logistics (ground, riverine, and maritime), the manner of maneuver, and the type and quality of firepower, Spring portrays a disciplined military force that actively sought to adapt to the unique challenges of America.

However, With Zeal only partially proves the author’s thesis that the British Army’s success was largely due to tailored operational and tactical methods. It often seems that much of his evidence drifts in the opposite direction. For instance, the logistical shortfalls common to European armies were even more complicated by the fact the British had to rely primarily on transatlantic resupply.[2] The British Army, despite ample opportunity to adapt and plan, was largely unable to break away from the European-minded reliance on magazines and strategic food reserves. On a more tactical level, Smith does give ample attention to the “flank battalions,” comprised of light infantry that were more prepared to engage with rebel forces on their terms.[3] After a relatively unimpressive start at the beginning of the war, this light infantry became increasingly confident about besting rebels in “bushfighting.” Smith presents a number of British sources which exude satisfaction at besting the rebels in fighting “in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior…”[4] Yet these troops were apparently used effectively primarily in the northern campaigns, and this not even in the far northernmost wooded areas.[5] In the end, Spring does present a more nuanced understanding of British Army capabilities and limitations, and the book is quite valuable in this respect. However, I don’t believe that the overall image of an army primarily designed to fight a European Continental-style war is completely rehabilitated.

[1] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), xii.

[2] Ibid, 33-34.

[3] Ibid, 57-62.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid, 62-63, 255.

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_by_Joseph_Siffrein_Duplessis
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.

Conclusion

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.

Culture of War: French and Indian War (Part 1)

"French attack St. John's Newfoundland 1762". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“French attack St. John’s Newfoundland 1762”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the British Empire and France once again went to war in 1754, scarcely five years after the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession (or King George’s War, as it was known in America), Britain and her colonies were exceedingly well positioned for victory in North America. Numerically, the English presence on the Continent far outnumbered the French. And while the most powerful Indian presence in the east, the Iroquois Confederacy, had declared neutrality half a century before, the seat of the Native American union rested in New England, which facilitated a valuable strategic relationship and lucrative trade.[1] So why, then, did this war last nine years? Certainly, the so-called French and Indian War was only one theater in a larger, global struggle. Both empires had to make bold decisions on when, where, and how to execute warfare, and these decisions naturally affected operations in North America. However, this latest conflict was not simply a “continuation of the preceding war.”[2] This clash of empires playing out in the backwaters of the Ohio River Valley and the adjacent English colonies was shaped by an intriguing mix of cultures far more nuanced that simply “European” versus “Indian.” [3] These cultural differences between allies and enemies alike would complicate the already grueling business of warfare. In fact, we will see that cultural forces not only shaped the way each side fought, but a lack of understanding of these cultures arguably extended the war. This article will look more specifically at the effects of culture on the English and Native American forces before and during the conflict.

In the years prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Ohio Valley became increasingly volatile as English colonists began asserting themselves in territory long claimed by the French. To make matters even more combustible, the power of the Iroquois Confederacy, which had acted in many ways as a mediator between the two colonial powers, began to fragment. By 1652, controversial land sales by the Iroquois Confederacy (dominated by the Six Nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscarora peoples) pushed disgruntled Delaware and Shawnee tribes west, and many settled in Ohio among the Mingo and Miami Indians, traditional allies of the French.[4] This growth of displaced people resentful of both the Anglo-Americans and Iroquois leaders responsible for their relocation contributed to an increasingly hostile environment that eroded what authority the Iroquois Great League held over them and the valley region.[5]

As English colonists sought land deals (legitimate and illegitimate) to secure additional territory further to the west, they were constantly frustrated by the fact that Indian society rarely formed central authorities that resembled European-style governments. This made it difficult to negotiate with a single leader or group to authorize land purchases. Although the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in many ways stands out as an exception, this union of six nations only emerged in response to the arrival of European colonists in the 17th century.[6] At a town or tribal level, leadership of a people was often divided between a “war chief” and a “peace chief,” with the latter generally able to exercise power for longer periods than the former (war chiefs could lose their position if his people lost a battle or two).[7] This de-centralized governance was a reflection of a larger culture shared by most native peoples. The Cherokee, for instance, scattered throughout the southern Appalachian region, were linked by a base-Iroquoian language, and not much else.[8] Archeological evidence indicates that linguistically and materially, Cherokee towns shared little in the way of a shared identity and way of life.[9] This lack of a shared identity often meant that neighboring Cherokee towns did not join to fight with other Cherokee towns if they were engaged in war.[10] This diffusive tribal identity would only start to coalesce into something more cohesive when English settlers recklessly lashed out at friendly and neutral Cherokee, triggering the Anglo-Cherokee War (1759-1761).[11] We will see this in more detail when we discuss the war period.

Although historians guard against broad-brush generalizations of Native American culture, there are some similarities when it comes to warfare that are applicable to most eastern Indian tribes. As stated by historian Wayne Lee, “societies at war with each other tend to converge…in their techniques and values of war…”[12] The original peoples of the Americas fought each other for centuries before Europeans ever stepped foot in the New World. Over time, practices and certain expectations of conduct in war were widely adopted. In some instances European and Native American cultures created similar practices considered acceptable in warfare. Differences were more common, however.

Lee postulates that Native American warfare served three primary cultural functions: to administer political lessons to opposing groups (in other words, to demonstrate dominance over another tribe); to exact blood revenge in response to the killing of a member (or members) of a tribe; and to achieve glory or personal stature.[13] This last function, personal glory, sometimes encouraged young men to volunteer to help the colonists in their wars. For example, during King George’s War (1744-1748), although the Iroquois were generally firm in their declared neutrality, some did break away to join the French simply to fight, gain reward, and take prisoners.[14]

Warriors preparing for combat were expected to ready themselves spiritually, and though the requirements of such spiritual cleansing varied from region to region, participation in these rituals was required. One particular manifestation of this spiritual cleansing, which typically included abstinence from any sexual intercourse, was the effective removal of rape as a weapon from Native American warfare. [15] This cultural phenomenon will actually be a source of conflict with European warfare, as we will see.

Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West
Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West

Central to Native American warfare was the “mourning war.” This ancient practice enabled Indian tribes to grieve for deceased family by replacing them with the captives of another tribe.[16] This loss could be the result of warfare, but also could be because of famine or even disease. This replacement did not have to be literal (although it often was). Women and children taken from enemy populations were often adopted, while captured men were tortured to death in vengeance.[17]

These three practices of Indian warfare – taking prisoners, torture, and avoidance of rape – contrasts starkly with the European model of warfare. Of course, European warfare recognized significant value in taking of prisoners, especially with the intent to ransom them. But this monetary or political value differed significantly from the “mourning war” need to absorb the prisoners into the conquering society. As previously stated, women and children were preferred prisoners in regards to adoption, while men were often tortured. Both of these points contravened what was acceptable to European warfare.[18] Conversely, the European tendency to tolerate rape during war was reprehensible to the Native Americans. The disparities between what European colonists and Native American peoples considered taboo were a source of considerable friction and numerous misunderstandings leading up to the period of the French and Indian War. We will see that during the war, these misunderstandings will be at least partially responsible for turning once-allied Native Americans against the English, and will stoke English fear and hatred of Indians that were once neighbors.


[1] The Covenant Chain, established in 1677, was a commercial alliance that had the potential to enable the English to break into the closed French trading network in the continental interior. Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 – 1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 14-16.

[2] Patrice Louis-René Higonnet, “The Origins of the Seven Years’ War.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Mar.1968), 57.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fred Anderson, ibid, 22-23.

[5] Ibid, 23.

[6] Ibid, 12.

[7] Wayne E. Lee, “Peace Chiefs and Blood Revenge: Patterns of Restraint in Native American Warfare, 1500-1800.” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), 706.

[8] Tyler Boulware,”The Effect of the Seven Years’ War on the Cherokee Nation,” Early American Studies, Vol 5, No. 2 (Fall 2007), 402.

[9] Ibid, 403.

[10] Ibid, 404.

[11] Ibid, 398-399.

[12] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 703.

[13] Ibid, 713.

[14] Jon Parmenter, “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns,

1676-1760,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 64, No. 1, Free to Enslave: Politicsand the Escalation of Britain’s Translantic (Jan., 2007), 58.

[15] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 720, 722.

[16] Fred Anderson, ibid, 12-13.

[17] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 730, 732.

[18] Ibid, 732.

The Royal Navy and the Fighting Instructions

The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)
The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)

European fleet commanders learned during the first Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54) that once close combat began between ships, effective control of large numbers of fighting vessels was nearly impossible. The Royal Fighting Instructions were intended to provide guidance to British admiralty and their fighting ships, effectively creating a command and control doctrine. With roots stretching back to the 16th Century, the overall objective of the instructions were to enable the “better ordering and managing the fleet in fighting.”[1] While the earliest forms of the Instructions (such as the Commonwealth Orders, 1648) scarcely provide anything more than broad guidance for a limited number of scenarios, we see some evolution as British Naval authorities attempted to standardize guidance for increasingly complex engagements over subsequent decades.

All of the Fighting Instructions provide guidance on actions to take upon encountering an unknown fleet. Initial contact directives evolve somewhat into a more orderly process over the years. In 1653, general guidance is given that “they” are to approach the fleet and determine size and intent. Apparently these early instructions did not specify whether one, some, or all of the fleet would be involved in this action. Subsequent revisions specify “two frigates” will be responsible for this task, and ultimately that “one frigate appointed out of each squadron” were responsible.[2] Once the Admiral ordered an attack, the Instructions dictated how the King’s fleet should respond to various situations or specified commands. As with the initial contact orders example, we see some adjustments between the 1653 instructions and the more complete instructions from the mid to late 1700s. For example, the 1653 Commonwealth Orders state that any enemy vessel captured was to be burned immediately so that “our own ships be not disabled or any work interrupted by the departing of men or boats from the ships.”[3] By 1665, this order was replaced with instructions to leave the vessel if fighting was still ongoing, allowing for action against the disabled vessel afterwards.[4]

This demonstrated a maturation of the Fighting Instructions to provide better control over time, as the aforementioned lead-in sentence indicated. Perhaps the original guidance to immediately burn the enemy ship was breaking the commanding admirals’ lines, and so modifications were given to ensure that ships in the line did not unexpectedly depart to sink now nonthreatening vessels while firepower was needed elsewhere. We see a similar evolution in regards to caring for a disabled British frigate. Supplementary Instructions from 1650 ordered that when a friendly ship was “distressed or disabled” or in danger of sinking that the ships next to it should immediately make toward the vessel to assist.[5] However, again perhaps because this order to aid resulted in unexpected and/or unnecessary breaks in the order of battle, this command was made much more specific. The Fighting Instructions of the Duke of York in 1665 clarify that if a royal ship is “not being in probability of sinking nor encompassed by the enemy, the following ships shall not stay under pretence of securing them…”[6]

Following the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Fighting Instructions slowly evolve in order to achieve a balance between the admiral’s need to know where his vessels are and how he should expect them to respond, with an individual captain’s need for flexibility in the midst of combat. For example, the Commonwealth Instructions from 1653 state that, once fighting commenced, “ships of every squadron shall endeavour to keep in a line with the chief.”[7] Similarly, the Duke of York’s Additional Instructions of 1665 repeat this: “In all cases of fight with the enemy the commanders of his majesty’s ships are to endeavour to keep the fleet in one line.”[8]

The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)

But despite the value of maintaining the order of battle, by 1740, Admiral Vernon’s Additional Instructions allow for some decentralized flexibility: “And as it is morally impossible to fix any general rule to occurrences that must be regulated from the weather and the enemy’s disposition, this is left to the respective captain’s judgment that shall be ordered out of the line to govern himself by as becomes an officer of prudence, and as he will answer the contrary at his peril.”[9] So while the Instructions may have been somewhat cumbersome, we do witness a maturation in this attempt to codify an admiral’s ability to control his fleet in combat.

Within these documents, there appears to be an expectation that naval officers, particularly captains, are familiar with the Instructions. In several instances, severe punishment is promised for any abrogation of these rules. Even the earliest Supplementary Instructions from 1650 state that commanders and masters of “small frigates, ketches and smacks” were to know the disposition of enemy fireships, and to prevent them from engaging the fleet. If unsuccessful, they were to fight them directly, “the neglect thereof strictly and severely called to account.”[10] This warning is repeated throughout the years. Even a death sentence is threatened specifically for commanders who fire cannon over friendly vessels.[11] This expected knowledge in indicative of a growing naval professionalism quite separate from land forces.

Sources: Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816: Publications Of The Navy Records Society Vol. XXIX (Archive.org)

[1] This opening line is present on several iterations of the Instructions. Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, from Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816, ed. Julian S. Corbett (Naval Records Society, 1905) 1.

[2] Ibid, 2, 3-4, 9.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6] Ibid, 11.

[7] Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 18.