Crucible of War

I got interested in the French and Indian War from viewing one episode of a PBS documentary series called “The Making of America”. “Crucible of War” is available in a relatively shorter format under the same title as the documentary, “The Making of America”. The title of the PBS series and the abridged version of this amazing narrative tells a great deal about the importance of the years before, during and after the Seven Years War (officially spanning the years from 1754-1763).

The Seven Years War, fought between Britain and her allies and France and the forces aligned behind the French power, splayed out across continents and oceans. There were at least three other such wars that set the stage for conflict between Britain and France in the theater of North America- King William’s War (1689–1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713) and King George’s War in the 1740s.

The first way that warfare between two European super powers in the wilderness of America “made America” is in that warfare with the French and Indians trained future American leaders and operated as a crucible of character to men like George Washington. The Jumonville Glen skirmish in 1754 was George Washington’s first taste of action.

Washington led an ambush against a band of French; initially ten French soldiers were killed and then, to young George’s horror, he lost control of his Indian allies and the Indians suddenly massacred the French who had already surrendered and been disarmed. The French commander Jumonville claimed he had been sent to extend an offer of peace with the British.

The Battle of the Great Meadows (or Battle of Fort Necessity), was a disaster for Washington and his men. Due to Washington’s inexperience, the enemy was able to fire upon Washington’s men from concealment within the tree line. Washington’s men were pinned down in trenches and were taking fire from within a log palisade that provided poor cover. It started to rain. To make matters worse, the British were out of ammunition. Washington asked for terms and surrendered to the French.

The focus of this book review is on character and the author does a good job of drawing out the characters of all the major players, from King George to George Washington to Pontiac, who led a final bloody war to try to bring back his French allies who had been ousted from Montreal in 1760. By that time Britain controlled most of the interior of North America at least to the banks of the Mississippi and beyond.

Britain’s naval power was crucial to winning North America. Without the fighting abilities of the colonial backwoodsmen, however, the outcome might have been in doubt. The French had much better relationships with their Indian allies than the British and understood how to effectively fight guerrilla warfare.

The Brits, on the other hand, marched into battles in regimental ranks with only their quintessential pluck. They were often cut down mercilessly by fighters concealed in the woods.

Beyond the obvious difference in tactics and the benefit that men like Washington attained by emulating the British officers with whom they came into contact, there was a more subtle process going on. The colonial militias were mustered from small communities and each unit contained men that knew each other as brothers, relatives and neighbors.

The British regular army officers, drawn from the upper classes of Britain, treated the colonials in ways that began to breed resentment and often contempt. The militia volunteers saw British rule in a less favorable light after seeing their brothers and friends flogged and even hung for infractions against strict British discipline. The fact that elitist British officers disdained the frontier “rabble” and refused to understand that a new breed of man was emerging from the colonial wilderness, created a belief that American colonials were lazy and only interested in what they could take out of the British mercantile system and for themselves.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (aka “the Great Commoner”), took over the direction of the war and, as Secretary of State, managed the war personally.

Perhaps his greatest success in North America was recruiting cooperation from the colonial politicians and encouraging enlistment by recalcitrant colonial British subjects, aka the Americans. He did this in a way that is very familiar to Americans today, with huge injections of borrowed cash pumping up the colonial economy and pay incentives for the volunteers.

In 1763, the warring parties in Europe signed the Treaty of Paris, thus ending the conflict. The colonial economy went into a tail spin along with the rest of the British economy, a result of deficit spending and Britain’s attempts to restructure colonial trading policies in such a way as to justify the expense of maintaining a military presence within the colonies.

Consequently trade within the British Empire languished for several years. When the Stamp Act was introduced (a small fee on legal documents and other official papers), the colonials exploded. Some of the worst elements in the cities took to the streets and began looting the homes of British officials.

Along with other elite members of the British power structure, the British leadership was forced to hide from throngs of sailors, tradesman and other “Sons of Liberty” hell bent on burning the ruling class members in effigy, accosting them, stealing their household goods (which were sumptuous) and literally burning them out.

This conduct arose from a number of economic and political factors that seemed to be caused by different situations in each region. But the eruptions occurred all over the Eastern Seaboard and took Parliament totally by surprise.

So what is the character of the New Man that emerged from out of this maelstrom? To most British, the Americans were ungrateful and treacherous malcontents, fighting to free themselves from French and Indian terrorism only after benefitting from ungodly infusions of cash. Now that the war was over, the Americans did not want to pay any taxes levied by Parliament, unreasonably insisting that such taxes violated their rights under England’s common law and the natural law (inalienable God-given rights of English citizens). From an objective perspective, any legal basis for denying that England could impose relatively small taxes or even large taxes on her subjects is highly dubious.

But something had happened at a deeper level. The study of warfare inexorably demonstrates that protracted conflict shapes men’s consciousness in ways that are impossible to predict. The very concept of being an American was developing as young British colonists interacted with members of the most powerful military in the world, closely observing strengths and weaknesses, the foibles, follies and valor of the mightiest army and economic machine in Europe. The young backwoodsman would have grown up with romantic notions about British culture, coming to military service enthusiastically embracing the mores and military culture of the cherished homeland.

But many mustered out with the sense that Americans were different than their English cousins. We fought differently, thought differently and our very consciousness was, well… American!

Think about struggling up a clear-cut hillside with only a few stumps for cover toward an abattoir (literally slaughterhouse) of trees felled to halt your progress in an open kill zone. The British officers are goading you on at the point of a sword to proceed into a hail of grapeshot, musket balls and canister explosions (pieces of metal exploding out of projectiles fired from cannons). Cannonballs are bouncing off the ground and ripping the limbs off your brothers, neighbors and fellow militia troops- mostly colonial British-American volunteers (i.e., Americans) fresh off the farm. The officers have made it clear that they consider you and your neighbors to be lazy, ignorant and backwards. At best a disorganized mob of rabble.

It may help to think about our professional volunteers in Iraq trying to train the Iraqis to fight. The difference, however, is the American could probably shoot better than the British and had experience fighting Indians that totally eluded the professionals, trained as they were to stand and deliver musket shot in close drill formation.

British Army (First Model) Long Land Pattern Brown Bess Flintlock Musket

The main criticism I have for the author, Fred Anderson, is that he spent too much time on the details of colonial and Parliamentary politics. I never was able to learn when and how the colonials were using their smooth bore or rifled firearms (probably all smooth bore at that time?). The book discusses little or nothing related to weaponry or comparisons between the respective technologies of firepower on each side.

I am assuming that the colonial militiamen were expected to provide their own weapons but the long rifle may have just started getting a foothold in America at this time. I suspect the British may have had the Brown Bess and some rifled weapons- although available, muskets, not rifles were the mainstay for the British. The doctrine in most European armies of the time was that aimed fire was a distraction from the regimented cadences of firing on command, loading and waiting for the next command to fire, all the while standing squarely before cascades of musket ball ripping through the ranks of your fellow soldiers standing at attention. Hopefully some of our weapons experts will weigh in on such questions.

The author states that he was trying to:

1. “…give a sense of movement through time”; …and “concentrate on critical transitions from the past toward the present.”…to integrate “latent events”–demographic trends, migration patterns, and other fundamental conditions that contemporary witnesses did not fully grasp, but which have become evident in retrospect–with “manifest events” such as wars and commercial depressions, on which contemporaries commented;

2. …because these new narrators had to connect the latent and the manifest in history, they would need to address the “critical transitions” they described not narrowly or in isolation, but as part of world-historical processes. Finally, the writers of these narratives would have to integrate the history of culture and consciousness into the history of external events;

3. …include static, “motionless” portrayals of situations, circumstances, and points of view of the past, but they will be essentially dynamic; they will concentrate on change, transition, and the passage of time; and they will show how major aspects of the present world were shaped–acquired their character–in the process of their emergence.

The author argues that “the Seven Years’ War was a theater of cultural interaction. Insofar as each group had leaders, their actions, decisions, and understandings had to play a central role in creating the tapestry of stories that would make up the narrative as a whole. Because the war was also a world-girdling conflict, I tried to frame these largely North American interactions with the strategic, political, and diplomatic narrative of the war as a whole. Finally, because I intended to examine both the war and its effects, I extended the coverage of the narrative beyond the typical endpoints of 1760 (the conquest of Canada) or 1763 (the Peace of Paris) into the postwar era, in order to explain such events as the Stamp Act crisis not as harbingers of Revolution, but as results of changes in imperial relationships.”

Whenever I read such a book, I try to relate the historical facts to how we live and make individual decisions today, decisions that have foreseeable and unforeseeable effects on our personal character, the characters of future generations of our individual offspring and the cultural characteristics of life in the United States. But most of all what I am asking myself is about that abstract sense of what it means to be an American. Or how does it feel to be an American?

For some people it evidently causes feelings of shame to be identified with a war in Iraq that is “colonial” and immoral. See book review about the Philippine-American War:

The War in the Philippines (officially lasting from 1898-1902), like most wars, actually continued for many years afterwards. The war with the Moros in the southern regions of the Philippine archipelago is being waged to this day with the U.S. presently engaging Islamicists in a rarely reported theater of warfare.

The Philippine conflict was a protracted war that, without a doubt, caused more loss of life on both sides and collateral damage to civilians by intentional brutality and disease than the war in Iraq. The Iraq expedition has been the most precisely waged and politically correct exploit in the history of warfare. The war in the Philippines had no geopolitical strategy, was almost purely accidental and only came about as a result of McKinley’s total inability to decisively rein in Theodore Roosevelt and others like him that made today’s Neo-Conservatives seem like Sunday School teachers. Yes, Virginia, the attempts to put down the Philippine “insurrection” had far less legitimacy than the incursion in Iraq (no one even voted for it right before they voted against it).

Roosevelt, without any authority whatsoever (he wasn’t the president or even the appropriate cabinet official), took it upon himself to send the Navy to Manila. There wasn’t an important commodity like oil at stake, or allegations of WMDs stockpiled in secret warehouses and laboratories for nerve gas, biological weapons, etc. There was not even a Hans Blix to oversee inspections and provide an imprimatur of propriety and moral outrage and, oh, the anti-imperialists howled. Today, most Filipinos love America, economic imperialism notwithstanding, and even though the foreign aid has been diminishing for years. We are quietly spending a great deal of money to fight Islamic terrorists in Southern Mindanao, however, but I digress.

Every day we have more men and women returning from Iraq. What have they seen there, how do they feel as they listen to the cacophony of dissension at home? What are they learning about the Middle East and that cultural tapestry in which they are required to interact, obtain intelligence and win hearts? What are they seeing in the American people?

I don’t know, but I do know that one tenet of Neo-Conservative philosophy is that war builds character. War changes character but I dare to suggest that war in and of itself cannot improve character. The wars in China over hundreds of years culminated in the reign of Chairman Mao, the ultimate warlord. The wars in Europe revealed Hitler and Stalin and a century (the Twentieth Century) of worldwide genocide and brutality that has no parallel in the past.

All this, and more, while unparalleled human and industrial progress exploded in exponential leaps of quantum and technological energy.

And what is happening to the younger generation that stayed at home? According to the media, morale has been destroyed and faith in the social contract has never been lower. Supposedly the torch is about to pass, either from a regressive baby-boomer President to a “progressive” baby boomer like Hillary or to someone like Barak Obama that claims to represent a break with the stagnating controversies of the Sixties that still bedevil the body politic. But there are other indications that the people of Iraq are experiencing a surge of freedom, relative peace and burgeoning prosperity. In whom do we place our trust?

To me such questions and issues of character constitute the fascination of history and the salient theme of the book on the “war that made America“. We don’t know what we are becoming as a people. It may be that we are headed for a dark fascist future as women like Naomi Wolf tell us, along with a choir of assorted Chomskyites and diverse Chicken-Littles chanting in the wings.

The soothsayers sing-songs that are starting to sound like a dirge for the fall of Constantinople. But, on the other hand, we could be at a divide within the history of the Republic where our decisions actually lead to doom for our way of life.

If doom is our future it will likely be due to something more subtle than terrorist teams invading our public spaces with riacin, dirty bombs and horrible death. On the other hand, such attacks have the potential to further divide and confuse a public that is struggling with what it means to be an American.

Everyone agrees that there is something wrong with the way the news is reported and many of us feel manipulated by a corporate media complex that is driven by elitism. The elitist combinations are much harder to identify than King George’s moneyed interests that funded his war in Europe and the New World. Some people think the UN is the source of the subversive undertow beneath the U.S. governing powers. Or George Soros and currency speculation combined with covert political operations?

Others on the left and right point to the New World Order’s tax exempt foundations as engines driving social change and the influence of invisible government operating covertly in the financial, academic, media and intelligence worlds. A man like Ron Paul calls for abolishing the Federal Reserve, CIA and FBI (according to the news reports I have heard) and there was and (still seekms to be) an apparent groundswell of popular support. If there is reason for hope, what is the greatest evidence that hope exists?

As for me, all I can give is my one opinion that we seem to have a majority of strict-Constitutionalists on the U.S. Supreme Court at a time in history when the Second Amendment is finally coming before the Court. If it is as bad as the left and the right say, then our hope is first of all in God (that is always the case) and, second of all, in the Second Amendment and that thin red line of original intent. You will not get very far with your First Amendment or any other rights without your guns- if the Fascists are really at the door.

Here’s a footnote with some great links from Martin Morehouse:

The French Royal forces would have used some variation on the 1717 or 1728 French infantry muskets. The French supplied a cheaper version, known as a ‘trade gun‘, to their Indian allies. The British troops would have used the Long Land Pattern (1st model) Brown Bess from 1742, or in the later stages of the war, may have used the 1756 Brown Bess. Militia would have used what they could get.

In 1755, the Governor of North Carolina imported 1000 Dutch muskets and associated equipment for the use of the militia, since, “There is not half the Militia armed“.

Thank you to Martin Morehouse

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