|George II of Britain & Louis XV of France|
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.
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|
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|
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.
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|
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|