Celebrating 17 years

Uneasy Allies

British and Colonial Interaction During The French and Indian War

When open war broke out in 1756 pitting the English, their colonists, and Indian allies against the French, their colonists, and Indian allies no one could have foreseen the far-reaching ramifications that would ensue. This imperial clash, referred to as the French and Indian War in America and the Seven Years' War in Europe, was to determine not only which of the two great powers would claim dominance in the North American continent, but also brought the frontiersmen and their imperial masters face to face for the first time on such a large scale on American soil. Prejudices, rumors, and misunderstanding colored those encounters. The impressions made during this period would not soon be forgotten as the colonists then prepared to take the continent for themselves through revolution a mere twenty years later.

The American colonists in North America had enjoyed, for the most part, a large amount of autonomy in at least their daily lives prior to the French and Indian War. The system of mercantilism that dominated British economic policy affected with whom the colonists could trade and what they were allowed to manufacture, but as long as they were prosperous and profitable, the motherland kept her hands off of most other affairs. Governors were appointed to head each province, but these titles were mainly honorary in nature. The governors could have run their provinces if they chose, but most never even set foot on American soil and therefore it was left to the Lieutenant Governor, a provincial, to carry out the duties. The colonial assemblies also had large amounts of power and influence and were, largely, the ruling bodies. This structure was to the contentment to the colonists, and, while they respected England as the head of the empire, they did not look to her for guidance or direction.

The problem with the colonists' self-sufficiency was that when England did step in, during the French and Indian War, clashes erupted over ruling rights and culture differences were underlined. The colonists were accustomed to self-rule and found it difficult to assume positions of inferiority to the British. The Britons were highly prejudiced against the provincials and thought them backwards, ineffective, and entirely inferior. While Britain and her colonies may have won the war against France, another point of major significance of the French and Indian War was the cultivation of resentment and dislike between the two groups.

The war began merely as a regional affair. The British and French colonists had frequent skirmishes along the frontier line. The British territory spread from the Atlantic to the Appalachian Mountains while the French controlled the interior. The British had reached a point where further expansion was difficult or impossible because of the French settlements. The French controlled the two major routes to the inner North American continent, the Mississippi River in the south and the St. Lawrence Seaway in the north. A third gateway to the west, also under French control, was Fort Duquesne at the intersection of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers (the location of present-day Pittsburgh).

The Ohio Valley was the sight of many of the early clashes, which often ended in French victory. In the late 1740s, a group of French colonists and Ottawa Indians came down from the north and completely destroyed Pickawillany, a settlement built by Miami Indians to trade for British goods from a handful of Pennsylvanians who lived there. This slaughter signaled the first time that either the French or the British used Indian tribes against each other.

The French had sent out expeditions to claim many of the rivers in the Ohio Valley, but England was still intent on expansion. George Washington, a colonel of the Virginia Militia, set out to lay claim to the forks of the Ohio River in 1754 and set up a camp named Fort Necessity. The French had already claimed the territory that Washington and his men were after and laid siege to the fort and defeated the Virginians handily.

The British government didn't put too much stock in the ability of their colonists' militias when it came to fighting the French. They believed that their regular army could make short work of the French colonists that had been giving their colonists so much trouble. The defeats of the provincials were not seen as evidence of France's might, but rather as signs of the British colonists' lack of competency.

The loss of Fort Necessity sent the war on its way to a global scale. General Lord Albemarle, the British Ambassador to France, wrote the Duke of Newcastle in September of 1754 stating his opinion on the lack of knowledge and experience that Washington and other colonial officers possessed, and pressing for the dispatch of good regular officers to be sent to North America to discipline and lead the colonial militias. Newcastle sent not only officers to the American continent, but also two regiments of British regulars under the command of General Edward Braddock, which arrived in February of 1755.1

With the arrival of the British regular army in force also came many new problems. Militarily speaking, one of the main problems was a clash of command. Regular officers fancied themselves as higher than their colonial counterparts, which the provincial officers took as an affront and insult to their ranks. To solve this problem, the British command came up with a plan that possibly even worsened the situation.

British command decreed that militia officers with a rank of captain and above would be recommissioned with the rank of captain. Each militia unit was to be split into smaller commands and each of the new captains would be given full control of a smaller group of soldiers instead of maintaining the regular chain of command of various ranks of officers over a larger militia unit. The effect of this decommissioning was to demote all of the high-ranking colonial officers and, since their new commissions were more recent, place them subordinate to even the British captains.2

The colonists were in an uproar over the revised power system. Many of the officers saw this insult as too grave and resigned from the military. One such officer was Colonel George Washington. Washington wrote to William Fitzhugh after learning of the new edict: "You make mention in your letter of my continuing in the Service, and retaining my Colo.'s Commission. This idea has filled me with surprise: for if you think me capable of holding a Commission that has neither rank nor emolument annexed to it; you must entertain a very contemptible opinion of my weakness, and believe me to be more empty than the Commission itself."3

Washington left the service and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. He would return to the military as the aide-de-camp for General Braddock solely as a volunteer. He received no pay, but took orders only directly from the General himself, which appealed greatly to the young Virginian. He could suffer enemy fire, but not the sense of shame that serving under British captains would have instilled in him.4

The Redcoats, on the other hand, were not having quite the easy time they expected in the New World either. General Braddock expected a grand reception when he landed on America's shores and was angered and amazed when it did not come. Colonists not only seemed disinterested in aiding him, but they actually went so far as to steal from and cheat his army. Braddock was unable to secure wagons and provisions for his land trip to the interior. Those he had given money to either rendered him no goods, or goods that were so badly damaged that they were as good as no supplies at all. Finally, already late for his journey west, Braddock was approached by a Pennsylvanian named Benjamin Franklin who promised to get him provisions. Franklin even paid some of the money out of his own pocket and returned promptly fully supplied. In sharp contrast to his opinion of the unhelpful inhabitants of Maryland, New York, and Virginia, Braddock excepted Pennsylvanians from his generally negative view of provincials.5

Braddock lumped colonists together as cheats and scoundrels because of the few bad encounters with a number of provincials upon his arrival. Washington wrote of Braddock: "The General, by frequent breaches of Contracts, has lost all degree of patience; and... instead of blaming the Individuals as he ought, he charges all his Disappointments to a publick Supineness...; we have frequent disputes on this head..." 6 Braddock was unable to see that many different groups of people inhabited this new continent with many different agendas. Before Franklin came along, the Pennsylvanians were also unwilling to help him, mostly because of their large population of Quaker pacifists. The Quakers weren't attempting to be ungrateful; they just did not believe in war. In response to their lack of aid Braddock even threatened to take supplies from them through the use of force.7

Washington and Braddock often disagreed about the worth of the colonial soldiers during their trip to engage the French. Braddock found that the provincials' "Slothfull and Languid Disposition renders them very unfit for Military Service" 8 and described militiamen under his charge as "very indifferent Men, this Country affording no better; it has cost infinite pains and labour to bring them to any sort of Regularity and Discipline: Their Officers very little better." 9 Opinions such as these troubled Washington, who found them unfair and untrue.

Braddock's campaign into the interior ended in complete disaster. They were ambushed by the French and Indians and ruthlessly defeated. Braddock himself showed great courage in the battle but ultimately was killed. Despite the heavy losses, Washington survived unscathed except for a few bullet holes in his hat and waistcoat. During the battle the regulars had first attempted to fight a normal European style battle, but began to panic as the enemy moved in while hiding behind trees. Washington told of Braddock cursing Virginian soldiers who attempted to take cover behind logs. Braddock's own men fell back on themselves and would not push forward to retake the guns they had abandoned.10

Washington described the scene: "Our poor Virginians behaved like men and died like soldiers, for I believe that out of three companies that were there that day, scarce thirty were left alive. In short, the dastardly behaviour of the English soldiers exposed all those who were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death. It is imagined (I believe with great justice too) that two-thirds of both killed and wounded received their shots from their own cowardly dogs of soldiers, who gathered themselves into a body contrary to orders ten and twelve deep, when they'd level, fire and shoot down the men before them."11

The differences in styles and senses of righteousness highlight some of the dissimilarities betwixt the colonists and their rulers. The British valued honor over all else and found it shameful to take cover from enemy fire. The provincials instead fought to win, crawling on their bellies and shooting from behind trees. These techniques were effective, but entirely devoid of the British sensibilities of nobleness and honor. In short, the colonists were culturally different from the British and punished for it by the misunderstanding regular officers.

Washington would look back on his days serving under the British later in life with resentment and disgust. He resigned completely in 1758 with several years left before the war's completion. Since he had been young, Washington wanted to serve in the King's army, but his colonial birthplace kept him from ever wearing the red uniform of a regular. His older brother, Lawrence, served the crown in the early 1740s against Spain and had told George many stories. Some had recounted a British regular general who had kept his colonial soldiers commandeered onboard the ship out of spite while they perished from disease.12

While the story of George Washington and General Braddock is certainly a high-profile tale of cultural loggerheads, it is representative the interactions between the Britons and their colonial counterparts throughout this time period. Most of the Britons who served in country with the provincials had negative attitudes toward them and many colonists reported feelings of resentment and antagonism because of their treatment by the British. General James Wolfe decided of the colonial militias that "there never was a people collected together so unfit for the business they were set upon- dilatory, ignorant, irresolute, and some grains of a very unmanly quality and very unsoldier-like or unsailor-like." 13 He also noted, "The Americans are in general the dirtiest, most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive. There is no depending on them in action. They fall done dead in their own dirt and desert by battalions, officers and all. Such rascals as those are rather an encumbrance than any real strength to an army."14

Verbal slights and low opinions of the provincials turned to actual physical harm and discriminatory practices in the army. For instance, Colonel James Robertson, finding the militia unfit for gentlemanly military duty decided "The Provincials [are] sufficient to work our Boats, drive our Waggons, and fell our Trees, and do the Work that in inhabited Countrys are performed by Peasants." 15 Frequently throughout the war accounts confirm that the British officers used the provincials for the most unimportant, dishonorable, and least satisfying work details. Use of colonial soldiers to dig latrines and do other menial labor was not uncommon. Also, regulars were sometimes allowed to stay in camp on particularly nasty winter days while the provincial soldiers were sent out on their duties early to face the elements.16

Many cultural differences also made fraternization and acceptance by the two camps difficult. Three major categories of cultural differences separated the provincials and the Britons: curiosities arising from societal factors, opposing views of military service and justice, and, lastly, low moral standards by the British that were unforgivable to the provincials.

Probably one of the more visible cultural differences between the regulars and provincials was the holidays they chose to observe. The regulars celebrated the King's Birthday and St. George's Day while the colonists celebrated Election Day and Pope Day. British command attempted to bar colonists from celebrating their holidays, but such mere proclamations could not quell the provincials' fervor. As harmless as the holiday celebrations were on their own, they could not help but make the colonists feel like outsiders in their own land and foreigners from their British counterparts. The provincials felt belittled on their own turf and ergo attempted to prove their worth at every opportunity. Small tasks such as crossing rivers in whaleboats would turn into races and competitions betwixt the regulars and militia members. More structured competitions were also held to determine superiority in events such as wrestling or marksmanship. These events took on larger significance, though, and acted as an opportunity for the provincials to show their prowess on equal footing.17

A much more disturbing and important difference was the military structures of the two armies. Indeed, since they were supposed to work and fight together, the military lifestyle they lived was one of the most important aspects of their daily existences. The British were obviously the dominant power and oftentimes not sympathetic or understanding of the provincials' needs. At the same time the provincials resisted change and any loss of power with a tooth and nail struggle.

First, the purpose of the militia system differed greatly from that of the regular army. American colonists did not like the regular army and the power it gave to the executive section of the government, which was, in Britain's case, the king. A standing army frightened them because it was an economic burden that could be used against the people at any moment. Officially, though, the British regular army was commissioned to defend the empire and for quests of expansion, such as in the American interior.

The militia, on the other hand, was purely local in nature. The militias were created as nonpermanent armies of citizen-soldiers who were prepared to defend their hometown or territory. They did not sign up to travel to distant lands and expand the British Empire. Some of the militiamen who fought in the French and Indian War were from the east coast New England and Atlantic states and had no contact with either the French or the Indians on a regular basis. Certainly French forts hundreds of miles away did not threaten their homes and lives and families and they cared little for the harm that was being done to Britain's ability to expand or trade.

Some militiamen simply refused to serve beyond their territory's boundary because they felt no connectedness to other colonies or to the British crown. Feelings of local allegiance were already very strong by the mid-1750s. Members of the provincial army were also commissioned for much shorter periods of time than in the British regular army where commissions usually spanned from decades even an individual's full lifetime. Therefore, after a colonist's duty to serve had expired he naturally wanted to return to his farm, but the British officers did not understand how one could leave an army before the fight was through. This misunderstanding caused the Britons to view the provincials as cowards, whereas they were merely living up to their part of the bargain. Some were not even able to bargain and were conscripted into the army because colonies had such a difficult time finding soldiers willing to commit freely to the joint campaigns of the French and Indian War.

The commanding officers of the two armies were also very different in character and authority. British officers were seen as wealthy aristocrats and, while this stereotype was definitely true of many, it was not true across the board. Officers were appointed and commissions could be freely bought from the crown for a predetermined price. Since many commission were bought, and they were quite pricey, most officers were from the upper classes. Those who were not wealthy acted as if they were because the code of conduct of British officers went hand-in-hand with that of British gentlemen. They were to exude the air of confidence, nobility, and virtue at every turn.

Colonial leaders were representative of colonial culture and a foreshadowing of the greater democracy that Americans would enjoy in the years to come. Militia leaders were often chosen by the legislatures or even directly elected by the members of the group. Colonial soldiers swore their allegiance to their commanding officers and locality, not the crown of England, so they were resistant to serving British regular officers on a campaign.18

British General John Forbes advised a countryman when dealing with provincials "you must drop a little of the Gentlemen and treat them as they deserve, and pardon no remissness in duty, as few or any serve from any principles but the low sordid ones." 19 While British military policing did provide for some very selective mercy, it was much harsher overall than the punishments to which most colonists were accustomed and left them with a masochistic view of the British.

The provincials did not view military crimes as any less serious than their imperial counterparts, but they did view punishments in an entirely different light. Colonial officers were known to explain to their men why certain practices were wrong, how they were harming the unit, and why they should stop their actions. They thought that the men would understand that they were really only hurting themselves and their unit and change their ways. British officers believed in strict discipline and heavy floggings. While the provincials did utilize some physical punishments, they came nowhere close to the tortuous and sometimes lethal practices of the British regular army.

Journal entries and letters show that the provincials who looked on as the British doled out lashes sometimes by the thousands (the colonial army usually had a maximum of thirty nine) regarded these practices as not only cruel, but evidence of the cruelty of the British soldiers and people as a whole. In the colonial army the notions prevailed that either a man was a good soldier or he wasn't and either he was a criminal or he wasn't. They did not attempt to whip the badness out of the thief, but merely expelled him from the army. British officers saw the colonial system of punishment as a sign of weakness and one of the reasons for the supposed vast inferiority of the provincial army and of their appalling lack of discipline.20

One of the largest disputes around the camps though, the difference that was so fundamental and core that it could not be overlooked, was that of morals. For all the strict regulations that the British army imposed on themselves, the provincials viewed them as devoid of all morality. Many Americans had fled Europe to avoid religious persecution and to establish their own religions and practices. A lot of of these groups set up exacting codes of conduct that they saw as the sole pathway to avoid damnation.

A colonial minister lamented during the French and Indian War, "I imagine the American morals and religion were never in so much danger as from our commerce with the Europeans in the present war. The religion of the army is infidelity and gratification of appetites... I look upon it that our officers are in danger of being corrupted with vicious principles."21

Popular opinion amongst the colonial soldiers and citizens was that Britons were of questionable character at best and would attempt to lead to the decline of honest American colonists. The colonial army sometimes held multiple mandatory religious meetings on Sundays while the British soldiers often spent the day amusing themselves. Regulations against profanity, card playing, and other sins separated the two camps.

Not only did the provincials view the behavior of the British as unsound and abhorrent, but also as inviting the wrath of God. Some colonists looked on at the camp-following women that accompanied the British soldiers as loose harlots despite the important services they provided. The newspapers in the New World circulated stories demonizing the British with tales of robbery, killings, and drunkenness. Such stories were not well received by the Puritanical American society of the mid-eighteenth century. Colonial onlookers often cited the lack of moral uprightness in the British regulars for their lack of military success in early campaigns.22

From colonial soldiers' point of view, the British and their army were not to be thanked and respected, but instead were purveyors of unfairness and harm. To the provincials, Britons were strangers with strange customs who arrived on the shore by thousands and quickly took firm control, demoting colonial officers and putting them to work in unglamorous positions in faraway destinations for questionable reasons. Militiamen who had signed on for only a short military stint defending their homes found themselves hundreds of miles away in uncharted territory engaging an unknown enemy. The British soldiers who came were viewed as immoral heathens who, in their cruelty, doled out inhuman punishment. They described the colonial officers, as General John Forbes did, as "an extream bad Collection of broken Innkeepers, Horse Jockeys, & Indian traders, and that the Men under them, are a direct copy of their Officers, nor can it be well otherwise, as they are the gathering from the scum of the worst of people, in every Country."23

The bitterness and contempt that provincials like George Washington felt for their new oppressors was enormous. In the time leading up to the American Revolution, treatment during the French and Indian War was often cited as an example of British cruelty. Also, the opinion that the British were unable to fight on the closed terrain of the American frontier was pervasive. British officers, across the Atlantic Ocean in the House of Commons, testified that the Americans had no discipline as an army, few military skills, and no hope of defeating mighty Britain in combat. 24 Both sides talked down the other's military proficiency.

Dejection and insult were the results of colonial treatment during the French and Indian War. To make matters worse, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763 that stated that no land would be inhabited west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. It was that very land for which the colonists fought and died in the French and Indian War. If they were unable to move onto it, they could see no purpose for the seven years of war they had endured. For the British the war was seen as a great victory over their old adversary France in which they won a continent. Little did they know that they had simultaneously lost it by turning the inhabitants of North America against them through their ill behavior.

 

References

1. Bernhard Knollenberg, George Washington: The Virginia pperiod, 1732-1775 (Durham: Duke University ppress, 1964), 29.
2. William Milligan Sloane, The French War and the Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1893), 42.
3. George Washington to William Fitzhugh, Nov. 15, 1754 in John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 49.
4. Seymour I. Schwartz, The French and Indian War 1754-1763: The Impperial Struggle for North America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 44.
5. ppaul E. Kopppperman, Braddock at the Monongahela (ppittsburgh: University of ppittsburgh ppress, 1977), 8.
6. George Washington to William Fairfax in Bernhard Knollenberg, George Washington: The Virginia pperiod, 1732-1775 (Durham: Duke University ppress, 1964), 31.
7. Brian Connell, The Savage Years (New York: Harpper & Brothers ppress, 1959), 52.
8. Edward Braddock in Alan Rogers, Emppire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California ppress, 1974), 63.
9. Edward Braddock to Robert Nappier, June 6, 1755 in Hugh Cleland, George Washington in the Ohio Valley (ppittsburgh: University of ppittsburgh ppress, 1955), 124.
10. Brian Connell, The Savage Years (New York: Harpper & Brothers ppress, 1959), 58.
11. George Washington in Brian Connell, The Savage Years (New York: Harpper & Brothers ppress, 1959), 61.
12. James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: The Forge of Expperience (1732-1775) (Boston: Little, Brown and Comppany, 1965), 16.
13. James Wolfe in Francis Jennings, Emppire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years' War in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Comppany, 1988), 220.
14. James Wolfe in Brian Connell, The Savage Years (New York: Harpper & Brothers ppress, 1959), 163.
15. James Robertson in Alan Rogers, Emppire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California ppress, 1974), 67.
16. Fred Anderson, A ppeopple's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (Chappel Hill: University of North Carolina ppress, 1984), 114.
17. Fred Anderson, A ppeopple's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (Chappel Hill: University of North Carolina ppress, 1984), 116.
18. Alan Rogers, Emppire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California ppress, 1974), 65.
19. John Forbes to Bouquet, Seppt. 4, 1748 in Alfred pproctor James, ed., Writings of General John Forbes, Relating to his Service in North America (Menasha, Wisconsin: The Collegiate ppress, 1938), 198.
20. Fred Anderson, A ppeopple's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (Chappel Hill: University of North Carolina ppress, 1984), 121-141.
21. Ezra Stiles in Alan Rogers, Emppire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California ppress, 1974), 62.
22. Fred Anderson, A ppeopple's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (Chappel Hill: University of North Carolina ppress, 1984), 117-119.
23. John Forbes to William ppitt Seppt. 6, 1758 in Alfred pproctor James, ed., Writings of General John Forbes, Relating to his Service in North America (Menasha, Wisconsin: The Collegiate ppress, 1938), 205.
24. Alan Rogers, Emppire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California ppress, 1974), 72.