Friday, November 14, 2014

Clash of Monarchies: The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War was one of the most pivotal events in the history of North America. Yet, it was only part of the larger conflict known as the Seven Years War which raged in Europe from 1756 until 1763. What started as a frontier skirmish spread to be a land grab in Germany, embroiled two continents and ultimately decided the fate of all of North America. It started with one of the great figures in European history; the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria. She had inherited the vast Hapsburg lands from her father who had spent all but his last penny buying the support of the crowned heads of Europe for the Pragmatic Sanction which would allow his beautiful but unprepared daughter to succeed him. He hoped that the Pragmatic Sanction would ensure a peaceful succession for his strong-willed, pious (and awesome) daughter but he would be disappointed in this hope. The ambitious and militaristic (as well as awesome) King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, immediately went on the attack and marched 30,000 troops into the Austrian territory of Silesia. Although her own ministers urged her to give in to Frederick, Maria Theresa proved to be a strong and determined young woman. She refused to give in to Prussian aggression nor to cede one inch of Austrian territory. Austria allied with Russia and France while the Prussians allied with Great Britain and the war was on!

George II of Britain & Louis XV of France
This formalized and enlarged the hostilities which had actually already broken out between France and Great Britain in North America in 1754. Tensions had always existed, but the growth of British and French settlements soon made conflict unavoidable. Both sides claimed disputed territories, which were; Acadia (Nova Scotia), the Great Lakes region, the area around lakes Champlain and George and the land between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. In 1749 France sent an explorer named Céloron de Bienville into the Ohio River valley to reinforce the French claim. The Ohio Company did the same in 1750, sending Christopher Gist into the region for Great Britain. It was a slow-paced race to see who could take control of the disputed territories first by establishing military installations and forging advantageous alliances with the Native Americans who populated the region. The British, with a larger settler population at hand, had an advantage in building forts and holding ground but this also meant that the French had the upper hand with the Native Americans who tended to side with the French who traded with them rather than flooding their lands with European colonists.

In 1753 France established a line of forts in Pennsylvania along the Allegheny River. The British Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, dispatched Lieutenant Colonel George Washington with his militia to demand that the French commanders evacuate the fortifications. Naturally, the French refused to abandon their foothold and launched an attack to prevent the British from establishing a base of their own. So, Washington was sent back in 1754 to force the French out with his militia. The Virginia militia met a detachment of French troops under Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville and soundly defeated them, with the Indian allies of Washington mutilating the young French officer. Washington and his men then fell back and hastily built Fort Necessity. Any military engineer observing the position would have guessed it to be the work of an utter idiot. Built on low, marshy ground with poor fields of fire it was in every way a textbook example of where and how NOT to build a fortification. The French returned and quickly forced Washington to surrender. Given French outrage at what they considered an ambush and murder of one of their officers it is amazing Washington and his men were released at all, especially after Washington signed a formal confession to the murder of Jumonville before his brother who commanded the French counter attack. Washington later claimed he had not understood what he had signed and recanted his confession. In any event, the man later known as the ‘father of his country’ had just gone off and picked a fight with a world power and presided over the war’s first atrocity. Still, on July 4, 1754 no less, he was allowed to take his men back home.

pro-union campaign
The French and Indian War had commenced and in the first campaign Washington and his men were attacked and soundly defeated near Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburg). Who could have known then that this was just the beginning of a long career that would see George Washington elevated to the status of “military genius” for an almost unbroken record of defeats. The representatives and leaders of the British colonies in America met in New York at the Albany Congress to discuss the situation and adopt a plan for united military action against the French. One delegate, Benjamin Franklin, proposed a political as well as military union for the colonies but found no support for his idea. All the English-speaking colonies coming together, in some sort of “union” when they were so different and had so many conflicting interests…what an absurd notion! Throughout the conflict, the American colonists (not unreasonably) would remain primarily focused on defending their own settlements from Indian attack while the British wanted to go on the attack to conquer French territory. Relations between the British and Americans were often far from cordial as the Americans had become accustomed to the benign neglect of the government in London and resented British officers showing up to give orders. Everything with the Americans was conditional and every act of support for the war effort had to be bargained for -to the utter frustration of the British.

The war got off to a very bad start for Great Britain, despite having an immense numerical advantage over the French because of their much larger population base in North America. In 1755 General Edward Braddock led an army of British regulars and American militia in another march against Ft Duquesne, hoping to make up for the previous defeat. Braddock was an old army veteran and his force included 1,400 men in two British regiments, 450 Virginia militia (under Washington again) and some Indian allies supplied by a train of 150 wagons. Forced to cut their way through the dense wilderness, they made very slow progress and the French and their Indian allies had plenty of time to prepare for them even though their available forces consisted of less than a thousand men, most of them Indians with only a handful of French regulars and Canadian militia. The French plan was for General Braddock to march his men right into an ambush by these French and Indians. To his credit (because he seldom gets much), Braddock thought of this and made generous use of scouts and flankers and it was actually the French who made the first move. The fact that they were so outmatched tended to make the French take bolder risks and fight with greater desperation in this war.

French & Indians take down Braddock
Captain Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu, dressed in buckskins at the head of this very native looking little column happened to run right into the British advance. Captain Beaujeu was killed by the first British volley and the Canadian militia broke and ran for their lives, however, the remaining French and Indian troops showed remarkable calm and courage, stayed and pressed the attack. Showing considerable tenacity and quick thinking they attacked from the flanks, behind cover, while Braddock, used to European warfare, tried to form his troops into lines of battle only to have them cut down around him from all directions. Braddock, betraying no lack of courage himself, was killed while Colonel Washington led the few survivors in a retreat back to safety (leading well-executed retreats was Washington’s particular area of expertise). Two thirds of the officers were killed, more than 60 in all, and of the 1,400 enlisted men only 459 survived. This battle could only be considered a miraculous victory for the French and a stunning defeat for the British. This victory also helped to rally the bulk of the Indian population to the French side other than the Five Nations of the Iroquois who tended to favor the British. The war had only just begun and so far the French had bested the Brits at every turn.

And so the trend continued, to the utter delight of the Gallic population. Another attack on Ft Duquesne had failed, quite bloodily this time, and the French also beat back British  attacks on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga in Upper New York. Despite being greatly outmatched, they were clearly winning the war so far. The sole British victory in the first part of the war was the capture of Ft Beauséjour in what is now the Province of New Brunswick, part of what was then known as Acadia. This little episode would have far-reaching consequences for North America. A great deal  of animosity lingered with the change in rule from Paris to London, animosity which ultimately led to the British deciding to clear out the local population and bring in one of their own, the food would be worse but they would be more orderly and well behaved. So it was that the French Acadians were exiled from Canada and these stalwart refugees sailed away, mostly to the south, landing in the Gulf coast around Louisiana where there was already a French population and establishing the Cajun community of the American south. However, that one loss aside, good news for French North America came in as well when the French forces in the New World received a new commander in the person of the Marquis de Montcalm in 1756. He didn’t get along with the civilian leadership and was often horrified by the practices of his Indian allies but he would bring a world of hurt down on the British.

Marquis de Montcalm
Now, instead of repelling British attacks, the French went on the offensive themselves, despite being heavily outnumbered. With large numbers of Indian allies and a hard core of French soldiers and marines, Montcalm continued the wave of French victories with his successful attacks on Forts Oswego and William Henry in Upper New York. Ft Oswego was captured, a great strategic victory, giving the French control of Lake Ontario and Montcalm with his French and Indian forces compelled the British at Ft William Henry under Lieutenant Colonel George Munro to surrender under generous terms. It was a good thing too as Montcalm was running low on ammunition when he gallantly delivered the intercepted message to Munro from his superior informing him that he could expect no reinforcements. However, afterwards, many of the British prisoners were killed by some of the Indians allied with the French in a massacre still controversial and much debated today. There is no doubt though that many of the French were horrified and Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville expressed how much he feared his own Indian allies. The idea that Montcalm subtly ordered the atrocity is a total fabrication.

For France, it all must have seemed to good to be true. Despite the odds against them, the French forces under Montcalm were totally dominating the war in North America. Some British American colonists were reluctant to join the militia for fear that their farms would be attacked by Indians in their absence. There were raids and some of this fear was genuine but much of the hysteria was also intentional. British propagandists tried to stir up fear and hatred of the French and Indians in a number of ways such as tales of lurid Indian atrocities or claims that the French would force all the colonists to convert to Roman Catholicism if they were victorious. Of course, while these tactics were successful in making the colonists fear France and the Indians, it also meant that they were reluctant to march off to war and leave their farms and families behind -so the effectiveness of such propaganda was a mixed blessing for Britain. Such scare tactics are often a sign of a desperate situation and by 1757 the British situation certainly seemed desperate, but all that was about to change. Traditionally, Britain has been very good at looking at failures honestly, learning from them and improving going forward. One way in which the British fought back was beating the Indians at their own game and that was the result of one unit in particular; the famous Roger’s Rangers. These men were formed under the command of Captain Robert Rogers as a company of light riflemen who carried out similar duties to those of the Indians fighting with the French; they even scalped on occasion.

Lord Amherst
In 1758 there was also a major change in London when William Pitt became Prime Minister to King George II of Great Britain and his administration brought new vitality into the British war effort. King Louis XV and his ministers had always focused mostly on the European front and King George II was likewise always most concerned with his homeland of Hanover in Germany. There was a constant struggle in London between those who wanted to focus on America and those who wanted to focus on Europe. Under Pitt, the British gained a clear direction; North America was to be given priority as it held immense potential for the future and whichever country controlled it would be in an immensely stronger position going forward. That same year British troops  under their new commander in America, Lord Jeffery Amherst, went on the attack with new vigor. They stormed Louisburg after a six week siege (where the wife of the French governor, Madame Drucour, was on the battlements helping man the artillery) and besieged and captured Forts Frontenac and Duquesne. George Washington doubtless took great satisfaction in this last victory as he participated in it among the British forces of General John Forbes. Unfortunately for Washington the French evacuated and blew up the fort before Forbes arrived; robbing the British of a little piece of their glory. Nonetheless, the French were sent reeling and were unable to regain the initiative. After so many humiliating defeats, the British Empire was striking back in a big way.

They had the ball and ran with it, sending over large numbers of reinforcements from Britain to set up a knock-out blow against the French in America. In the summer of 1759 the British conquered Forts Niagara and Ticonderoga (known as Fort Carillon to the French) as well as Crown Point. Present at the Crown Point victory was William Johnson whose command included Roger’s Rangers who were used to great effect. These men gained such a reputation for expertise that before long all British commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the light infantry first served with the Rangers to learn their trade (even today, the special forces of the U.S. army trace their roots back to that green-clad elite group). Upper New York and most of the Great Lakes region was now in British hands and the string of French victories had been totally reversed. The heart of French North America, modern Quebec, also came under attack when British forces under General James Wolfe moved to attack the formidable walled city which was held by 15,000 French soldiers under the Marquis de Montcalm. For three months the British troops besieged Quebec City but could find no advantage. Finally, in September, in one of the most famous battles in British military history, General Wolfe launched a surprise attack across the Plains of Abraham which won the battle and gave Britain control of modern Canada. Unfortunately, neither General Wolfe nor the Marquis de Montcalm survived the battle. The French had gone as far as their limited resources could take them, and done astonishingly well, but when the British put their all into it, they had turned the war around and dealt France a crippling blow.

The death of General Wolfe
The fall of Quebec proved to be decisive and it convinced the French that the time had come to make peace on British terms. The fighting straggled on for a time though, at least until Lord Amherst captured Montréal, but the issue had already been decided at Quebec and in 1763 the French signed the Treaty of Paris which surrendered all French territory in Canada and east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain. Spain surrendered Florida to the British but gained control of all French territory west of the Mississippi as well as the vital city of New Orleans. By the time all was said and done the French kept only the small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon south of Newfoundland as the only remnants of their once vast North American empire. Britain had taken the majority of the territory and had only the weakened Kingdom of Spain to share the continent with. The French and Indian War was over and the fate of North America had been decided and the future of the continent would belong to the English rather than the French speaking people.

Many may not often remember the French and Indian war today, especially in the United States (it is more remembered in Canada where the French population still have yet to get over it), but so much of our modern world and how it has developed descends from that one conflict, mostly due to the impact of the United States rising to global super-power status. The fact that North America is dominated by the Anglo, Protestant culture would not be so were it not for that war. Had Britain lost there might today be a North America dominated by French, Catholic culture instead. There would not be a United States or a Canada, at least as we know them, and even Mexico and the southwest might be vastly different from what they are today had the French and Indians won the war that bears their name (at least on this side of the Atlantic). So much comes from the conflict; it was where George Washington first saw combat and first felt slighted by the British social and military hierarchy. It saw the birth of Roger’s Rangers, the forefathers of our modern day U.S. Army Rangers and thanks to Benjamin Franklin it saw the first proposition that the American colonies should join together in some kind of union. It gave the British Empire one of its most famous martyrs in General Wolfe and saw the battle which made the reputation of the highlanders of the “Black Watch” as one of the most courageous regiments in the British army.

Washington & the French at Yorktown, 1781
The conflict also produced a fair share of literary works for such a forgotten war, from Longfellow’s “Evangeline” poem about the exile of the Acadians to the famous novel “The Last of the Mohicans” which weaves the fall of Ft William Henry into its story of romance and cultural clash. Perhaps most importantly, the total expulsion of the Kingdom of France from North America left a deep hatred in the hearts and minds of the French people that would not go away. By removing the French as a threat many Americans saw no further need of allegiance to Britain and this helped to get the colonies on the road that ultimately led to the American War for Independence. The French, eager to take revenge on Britain for the terms they had been forced to accept, were eager to aid the Americans, even if they were republicans, for the chance to give Britain back some of what the French had tasted and possibly regain some of what had been lost. In this clash of monarchies, the French of King Louis XV stunned everyone with their skill by dominating the game to the first half but it was the British of King George II (succeeded at the end by King George III) whose great strength, material superiority and bold attacks saw it through to victory in the end. The conflict allowed Britain to dominate North America but also set the stage for the American War for Independence and the creation of what would become the most powerful republic in world history.


  1. Great post and it does make u wonder how the USA and Canada and all of North and south america would be today had the french won that war. Would there still be a Revolutionary War or would it this land just be a big colony for France today.

    1. Because of when it happened, we know it was hugely significant but for the same reason it is hard to speculate what would have changed if things had ended differently -there are so many possible alternatives. Would the War for Independence have happened sooner? Perhaps Britain would have done what France did in actual history; help the US gain independence or perhaps regain the colonies by helping evict French rule. What if America had still been under the Bourbon Crown when the French Revolution broke out? Would there have been a French Revolution? There is plenty of room for speculation.

  2. When studying a conflict between two (or more) monarchies going against each other, do you ever take the side or perspective of one of the monarchies over the other(s) or do you always take a neutral, nonpartisan point of view on such a conflict?

    1. In the first place, as a monarchist, I hate to see it happen but when it does I try to look at the facts dispassionately. And, as with any such thing, I try to put myself in the place of each side, to see their perspective (not just one). Sometimes that determines who I favor and then there is always the benefit of hindsight. In some cases, knowing what happens later means I favor one side from the standpoint of today, looking back, even though I may have been on the other if I had been around at the time.

      But then, sometimes it's just two sides being equally unreasonable and it would just depend which side of the border you were born on, certain peoples just seem to hate certain other peoples and will find any excuse to justify it. The ones I find the most tragic are the ones that there was no good reason for and that just should not have happened, no matter which side wins, everyone is worse off and (usually looking back) you can see it wasn't necessary anyway.

      The conflicts I have it in mind to cover here are ones which had some significant impact on monarchy in general. In this case, because it led to the establishment of the world's most successful and powerful republic, the next (if all goes to plan) will be on how a crucial monarchy was weakened that later caused much damage to monarchy worldwide -as one could argue this one did with the French Revolution (i.e. would it have happened if not for France losing this war, wanting revenge and so coming to the aid of the colonials in the next one, the mounting economic problems etc).


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