War Classics: Crucible of War

Fred Chiaventone recalls one of the great works of military history.

In the introduction to his superb book, the US historian Fred Anderson observes that ‘Coming to grips with the Seven Years’ War as an event that decisively shaped American history, as well as the histories of Europe and the Atlantic world in general, may… help us to begin to understand the colonial period as something more than a quaint mezzotint prelude to our national history.’

Strangely enough, that conflict, which is also known as the French and Indian War, is often pushed to the margins of history, and therefore accorded little significance. But, in Anderson’s marvellous study, we are encouraged to view the struggle in an entirely new light, as one that ushered in decades of upheaval.

After a brief prologue of notes on the first engagement of the war, Anderson takes us much further back in time to examine the lives of some of the pre-eminent players in the coming drama – the Native Americans.

Here, he is most concerned with the organisation, the personalities, and the motivations of members of the Iroquois Confederacy – initially five, and finally six, tribes, including the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and finally Tuscarora – who inhabited an area stretching from Quebec down to present-day Virginia and Kentucky and into the Ohio Valley.

Ideally positioned as middlemen, and eager to obtain trade goods from the rival French and English entities in North America, the tribes played a significant role between the European interlopers. For nearly two centuries, the Iroquois Confederacy, with its superb organisation, tribal coordination, and what Anderson refers to as ‘aggressive neutrality’, had managed to maintain a successful balance between the competing French and English powers. But the ability of that confederacy to survive and flourish was about to be tested.

By the mid-1700s, the French presence in North America, with a population of approximately 75,000, was located primarily along the St Lawrence River, in Nova Scotia and Acadia, and extended southwards along the inland waterways and tributaries of the Mississippi River as far south as New Orleans. The French had been sustained in large part by their ability to profit from the fur trade. This was facilitated by their excellent relations with the Native American tribes and the so-called pays d’en haut (Indians of the ‘Upper Country’, to the west of Montreal), who inhabited the country and with whom they intermarried.

The French presence in North America was relatively sparse, however, when compared to that of the English, whose immigrants and descendants, located primarily along the eastern seaboard, numbered more than 20 times the French population. Unlike their European counterparts, these colonists had come to the continent to establish farms and industries, establishing hundreds of villages, towns, and large cities from which they engaged in both agricultural and mercantile activities as the population continued to expand exponentially.

As each side endeavoured to consolidate and extend their holdings, collision appeared inevitable, with a panoply of Native American tribes caught uncomfortably between them.

Fred Anderson

Born: 1949
Nationality: American

Fred Anderson is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He served in the US Army Signal Corps from 1973 to 1975, remaining in the Army Reserve until 1981. ‘My own experience of military service, humdrum and ordinary in every respect, alerted me to what became the subject of my first book,’ he later said, ‘the effects of army life on the participants.’ The Crucible of War won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was praised for its scholarly rigour and accessibility. Anderson’s subsequent books include The Dominion of War: empire and liberty in North America, 1500-2000, a collaboration with fellow historian Andrew Cayton.

French rebuke

The conflict, when it came, began innocuously enough when Robert Dinwiddie, royal Governor of Virginia, dispatched 21-year-old Major George Washington to warn the French that they were obliged to leave what was at that time termed the Ohio Country, which British interests considered prime for settlement and exploitation.

His meeting on 11 December 1753 with the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf, one of four posts the French had established in the disputed territory, produced only a rebuke from Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. A frustrated Washington would report his failure to dissuade the French to Dinwiddie, only to be sent back with a small expeditionary force to compel the French to accede.

This would result in a nasty ambush of a small French force dispatched to deter the English, and the subsequent disgraceful defeat for Washington’s forces at the hands of an avenging French column. With these dramas, the stage was set for a full-scale conflict between the competing European powers.

The opening moves were made by Great Britain, with the Duke of Newcastle and the Duke of Cumberland – son of George II – dispatching Major General Edward Braddock and an expeditionary force of regulars to North America to dislodge the French. That foray would prove to be a disastrous affair, with a relatively small force of French irregulars and their Indian allies crushing Braddock’s column, killing the general and sending the survivors fleeing to Virginia.

But the die was cast, and more and more troops – British and French – began to pour into a brutal conflict on the North American continent.

Anderson is careful to note how seeds of discontent were sown between the British authorities and their American hosts as successive commanders of British forces were frustrated by the seeming reluctance of the colonists to prosecute the war. Likewise, the American colonists came to resent what they saw as the dismissive and autocratic attempts by British military officers to command and discipline American volunteer troops.

In the early phases of the war, the insistence of British officers that European fighting methods be applied in the wilderness of North America would result in stunning disasters, such as Braddock’s defeat by the Monongahela River in July 1755 (see MHM June/July 2021) and the costly, abortive assault on Ticonderoga a few months before. By the same token, the defence of Fort William Henry would culminate in a humiliating defeat by the French commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm two years later. In the latter event, Montcalm’s commitment to humanitarian surrender terms common in Europe was frustrated by the savage violation of those terms by his Indian auxiliaries, who attacked the vanquished English as they marched out of the fort.

Perversely, those same Indian warriors would unknowingly carry back to their villages not only plunder and captives, but also the smallpox virus, which would devastate their tribes and deprive the French of their future services.

George Washington, then a Lieutenant Colonel, pictured on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela River, 9 July 1755, in a detail from an 1834 painting. The battle was a disaster for the British, ending in the death of their commander, Edward Braddock. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Worldwide conflict

From the subtitle of Anderson’s volume, one would naturally think that he would proceed solely to detail the subsequent war in North America. But not so. The author takes great pains to explain the role of the French and Indian War as merely one facet of a worldwide conflict that would spread from North America to the Caribbean, and from the European continent to India, West Africa, and the Philippines.

Anderson examines British politics and mercantile ambitions, and places them in the context of other European powers seeking to expand their influence and power regionally and through the acquisition, management, and defence of colonial possessions. Replete with numerous maps and illustrations, including contemporary paintings, diagrams, and sketches, his book is a cornucopia of political and military information. In its pages, one will find fascinating portraits of many of the prime movers in the drama – including the political actors, from the Dukes of Cumberland and Newcastle to Henry Fox and William Pitt.

There are also representations of military figures such as Montcalm, Jeffery Amherst, and James Wolfe, not to mention North American actors including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Seneca chief Tanaghrisson. Interwoven throughout the work are numerous excerpts from official correspondence, as well as personal letters and journal entries describing events from the point of view of participants in the struggle.

Venturing beyond the ultimate British victory in North America, Anderson delves into parallel conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and India, as well as a subsequent uprising by Native Americans in Pontiac’s War of 1763, and the colonists’ resistance to the 1765 Stamp Act (by which the government of Great Britain hoped to recoup some of the expenses of the war in America). Thus, the French and Indian War had planted the seeds for future conflicts which would continue in various forms and locations over the succeeding decades.

It is curious to reflect that the previously mentioned small encounter between Washington’s force and the minute French detachment in the backwoods of Pennsylvania would shake the competing monarchies of Europe, morphing into what Winston Churchill would aptly describe as the ‘first world war’. As the author notes, ‘a conflict that had begun in an Allegheny glen with the massacre of 13 Frenchmen had spread over two oceans and three continents – half a world – and had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.’

In summary, Anderson’s book is the sine qua non for understanding the significance of this sanguinary period of history.