Celebrating 17 years

Books in Review

Conquering The American Wilderness

Conquering The American Wilderness, The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast / by Guy Chet (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003)

In this slender volume, historian Guy Chet challenges the broadly-held conventional wisdom that the uprising of colonials in British America succeeded because of the use of unorthodox military (i.e., guerrilla) tactics. He examines the engagements between colonial militia and Britain’s professional soldiers against the indigenous tribes and their frequent French allies. His finding is that from King’s Philip’s War on, “colonial wars were won not through a succession of tactical victories but through a campaign of attrition.”[p.2] Moreover, whenever sufficient men and materials could be brought together and efficiently employed, European strategies on the battlefield prevailed.

Early on, the colonists relied on a combination of defensive fortifications and protection provided by military officers with European experience. As the decades passed, however, militia officers were selected from the colonial leadership. They had no formal training and “were ill-prepared for combat and, consequently, were often tricked into abandoning the tactical defense, with disastrous results.”[pp.39-40] Despite these failures, the long-term outcome in favor of the colonials against the tribes was inevitable on the basis of population size alone. Any losses on the battlefield or at the frontier were soon replaced by new immigrants. This was not the case for the tribes who resisted colonial encroachment. Moreover, as the number of Europeans increased so did the incidence of disease against which the indigenous peoples had no natural resistance.

On the battlefield, the tactics of the tribal warriors remained static. They consistently relied upon “their mobility by drawing the enemy in pursuit and then encircling it.”[p.30] When the colonial troops abandoned standard European tactics and safeguards, chaos was often the result and losses were high. European battles involved tens of thousands of armed soldiers, and victory came only when troops were well-trained and highly disciplined, employing massed firepower and protecting itself from flanking assaults. The colonial forces were often smaller in number than their tribal opponents, so they “relied heavily on their ability to surprise the enemy.”[p.31] One example was the 1675 surprise attack on the Narragansetts primary settlement – and fortification – near Kingston, Rhode Island. Nearly 1,000 members of the tribe were killed in the assault, and the rest of the tribe “were driven out to the forests, without shelter and provisions.”[p.52]

Isolated homesteads and small villages were obviously most vulnerable to attack by marauding warriors. Even in larger and reasonably well-fortified towns, their attacks could be very successful. “In many instances,” writes Chet, town watches were lax, defenses were left unmanned, and garrison houses were not properly utilized. This lack of vigilance was exacerbated by imprudence. Repeatedly settlers were fooled into leaving their fortified defensive positions and giving chase. Feigning retreat, Indian forces were able consistently to surprise and ambush these pursuing English forces.”[p.44] At the same time, “[e]ven without the benefit of strong artificial fortifications, English troops were able to defend themselves successfully against larger Indian forces whenever they maintained a defensive stance…”[pp.45-46] This proved to be true even after the tribes began to acquire large numbers of (mostly smoothbore musket) firearms:

“Since the Indians were armed with smoothbore muskets as well, they had to advance to within musket range of English formations in order to be effective. Thus, whenever English troops maintained formation under attack, their assailants were vulnerable to devastating massed fire. Educated by experience, Indian troops rarely chose to take part in such battles.”[pp.60-61]

For many reasons discussed by the author (and familiar to readers knowledgeable of the period) the tribal societies resisting European encroachment were not prepared for prolonged warfare. Recognizing these weaknesses, English commanders carried out a “scorched-earth policy” against Indian villages and food supplies. In the end, this strategy forced the tribes to continuously move beyond the reach of colonial armies or risk annihilation.

The conflicts between English and French monarchs greatly increased the intensity of warfare in the New World. From Canada, spreading out along the St. Lawrence, the French erected a string of forts designed to protect the trading relationships established with the many tribes stretched out for a thousand miles and more along the region’s lakes and rivers. First came English traders, then immigrant farmers moving inland from the coastal towns in search of free land. On both sides, the home governments began to commit more and more men and resources to defend their claims. The beginning of the end to French power in North America occurred with Queen Anne’s War (1703-7). “The first four years were characterized by raids and counterraids like those of King Philip’s War and King William’s War,” writes Chet. “During the second phase of the war, this violence persisted, but was complemented by large-scale offensive operations by colonial and British forces.”[p.87] He also observes that the “lack of restraint and discipline in both offensive and defensive assignments”[p.89] continued to plague English and colonial forces.

Another serious problem arose as the size of the armed forces on both sides increased; namely, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient supplies for long campaigns and then getting them to the troops over long distances. By the time of the Seven Years’ War, the British military was far better prepared to dislodge the French and their tribal allies:

“British military administrators were able – through effective logistical support and the construction of forts and secure roads – to bring Britain’s logistical superiority to bear against the French and Indians. Thus, they set the stage for a string of British victories by creating battle situations that favored the larger, richer, and better-supplied army.”[p.101]

A large English merchant fleet and more efficient mercantile economy also sealed the fate of French forces operating out of Canada. After King George’s War, the British built a strong naval base at Halifax in Nova Scotia. “Slowly and consistently, from 1756 on, the British Navy denied French forces in Canada vital provisions, munitions, and reinforcements, while transporting to North America a well-supplied army capable of overpowering its enemies on the battlefield and, more important, of outlasting them through a succession of harsh winters.”[p.113] It was not long before “the cession of Canada to Britain.”[p.117]

These lessons were not immediately learned by George Washington – the person who would command American forces against a British military force much larger than that employed against the French. Yet, as Chet reminds readers, “Washington’s conduct during the American War of Independence indicates that maturity and experience had altered his evaluation of European military conventions.”[p.141]

Conquering the American Wilderness is a well-written and valuable primer on the art of war. A reader with no training in military tactics (such as myself) reaches the end of the book better able to appreciate the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the societies who fought so desperately for sovereign control over North America.