Reflections on Studying the Past – Meddyliau ar Astudio’r Gorffennol

The French and Indian War (1754-1760) was the last of the intermittent colonial conflicts that had erupted between Britain, France, their respective North American colonies and Native American allies during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike the conflicts that had preceded it, the French and Indian War proved decisive, resulting in the conquest of New France and many contested regions that stretched from North America’s Great Lakes to the pivotal Ohio Valley. The French and Indian War also spawned what Winston Churchill would describe as the true First World War—the Seven Years War (1756-63). This encompassed not only rival colonies in North America, but territories across the globe. These included posts in India and Africa, where British arms and diplomacy also enjoyed significant victories (notably at Wandiwash, Pondicherry, Gorée and Senegal). From hindsight historians believe that the Seven Years War set the stage for a new British Empire to rise in India; one which offset the considerably traumatic loss of the 13 mainland North American colonies following the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Not to be forgotten in what Prime Minister William Pitt contemporaneously described as a ‘Great War for Empire’ was the European theatre of the conflagration. Sometimes dismissed as a sector of the conflict which resulted in little but immense blood-letting and wastages of national treasuries, in reality the Seven Years War in Europe laid the foundations for the rise to prominence of Prussia and Russia—two nations that would have a tremendous influence on the military and political landscape of Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The focus of this article is, of course, the North American theatre of what became the Seven Years War; the so-called French and Indian War. For many students of History, the name of the conflict can be somewhat misleading, but it is one which, in essence, reflects the fact that the French and their colonists in Canada (New France) were far more adept, at least initially, at acquiring and utilising the services of North America’s North Eastern Native American tribes than were the British. From an Anglo-American perspective then, the conflict became known as the French and Indian War because it was fought by the British and their American colonists (with some indigenous allies, such as the Iroquois Confederacy) against the French and their many Native America allies.

The war began in the forests of North America’s North East and can most immediately be traced to the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle which closed the War of the Austrian Succession in 1758. The North American subsidiary of the European conflict was King Geroge’s War, which had seen the British and French colonies fight over territories in Acadia (Nova Scotia) and the Ohio Valley. For both sides, this conflict had settled little in America and the perpetually abrasive question of sovereignty over disputed regions remained unanswered. Aix la Chapelle, therefore, merely postponed conflict for several years as both sides gradually renewed their determined efforts to seize the initiative in North America’s contested areas.

Thus it was that by the early 1750s the French began pushing south from their Saint Lawrence River and Pays d’en Haut towns, posts and forts into the pivotal Ohio Valley—seeking to join their northern territory of New France to the more southerly Louisiana colony. Doing so would have hemmed in the simultaneously westwards expanding (and land hungry) British colonies; cited on the east coast of North America. The latter, demographically vastly superior to the habitants of New France, saw in the Ohio and Acadian territories trade, land speculation, agricultural and cash crop production opportunities. They also felt that if they meekly surrendered the American west to France, then their own future viability would be jeopardised by stagnation and the ever-present military threat posed by a vast French-Indian ‘enveloping empire’. It was this geo-political rivalry that kick-started the French and Indian War—a conflict that resulted in overwhelming British victory in North America and beyond.

It is often said by scholars that British victory in North America, capped by the conquest of Montreal by three convergent armies in 1760, and formalised by the Treaty of Paris (1763) following other significant local and global victories, marks the zenith of British imperial power. Unquestionably, it is difficult to argue against this. And yet, within the narrative of apparently unbridled victory and the future prosperity it seemingly afforded, laid the seeds of future conflict and revolt. Indeed, a little over twenty years after the Treaty of Paris (which assigned swathes of North America to a triumphant Great Britain) was signed, a large and important segment of that nation’s empire broke away to create new nation and eventual superpower—the United States of America. The question often asked is, therefore, why?

The answer, though considerably enmeshed in many years of constitutional, legal and historical ‘British Atlantic World’ precedent, boils down to one significant issue that was a direct consequence of the French and Indian War: Britain’s ballooning national debt. This, at the closure of the war, stood at (what for the time at least) was a staggering £137,000,000. It was a debt that had emerged in no small measure from the colonial war Britain had waged in America and yet its burdens, at least principally, were felt by British tax payers from all walks of the social spectrum; be they cider and beer drinkers in London and the West Country, or local landed gentry who, at the close of the war, were faced with a deeply unpopular 25% land tax.

It was the seeming (from a British perspective at least) unfairness of disproportionately apportioned national debt that drove that nation’s Parliament to try and assert its authority over what they considered to be insubordinate colonies and colonists. It was they, so Britons thought, who had benefited from British arms and outlay during the French and Indian War, but who during that very conflict had contributed little (and actually worked against British interests by opening and maintaining a lucrative smuggling trade with the French in Canada). This illicit economy, so many Britons rightly or wrongly believed, helped prolong depleted New France’s resistance to the economically and demographically superior British colonies and their Royal Navy and army allies. Parliament’s remedy to this seeming iniquity was to tax the colonies directly through such measures as the Sugar and Stamp Acts. Both were designed to raise revenue and set a precedent for imperial reform (the centralisation of power in London, essentially). Across the Atlantic, perhaps unsurprisingly, these moves sparked colonial hostility and resistance.

Here it can also be seen that, beyond the superficialities of imperial victory, Anglo-American victory in the French and Indian War also brought to the fore underlying and increasingly evident schisms within the British Empire. Indeed, if the victories of 1760 marked the high-water mark of British military prowess, this success followed what had been a rather dark period for British fortunes in North America. Certainly, from 1754-1758, the British Army and its colonial auxiliary units (and indeed those Native American tribes that did ally with Britain) were continually frustrated by martial set backs that proved humiliating for politicians, officials and patriotic Britons. They were positively disastrous for those armies and posts waylaid by backcountry-adept Canadiens, Indians and the relatively small number of Old World regiments the French Government deployed to New France from 1755. 

A feature of the so-called ‘nadir’ years of 1754-1758 were the continual schisms apparent between British military commanders such as the ill-fated General Edward Braddock and John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudon, and the colonial populations they were expected to lead. For Braddock and Loudon, their official orders, provided by the British government, made them something akin to supreme commanders-in-chief (or Generalissimo’s as the Duke of Cumberland, George II’s favourite son and soldier-statesman, had envisioned). Thus, when they arrived in America with their extensive regular reinforcements, they expected that colonial governors would act as subordinates by commanding local Houses of Assembly (think of these as ‘American Parliaments’) to appropriate funds for their use with little fuss or deliberation. It was a major underestimation of the value Americans placed on the concept of ‘liberty’; one in which taxes could only be levied by local assemblies elected by free holding white males who were thus accountable to provincial electorates.

In this environment, time and again British commanders saw plans forestalled and delayed by crippling inadequacies in logistical support which, arguably, the colonies themselves were ill-equipped to provide. Never had there been fought in North America a War so ‘European’ in its nature as the French and Indian War and in that sense the conflict marked a point at which a conventional ‘Old World’ conflict, with all of its traditions and conventions, was juxtaposed onto the New World stage that was British and French North America.

 Strategically and tactically, it would take the British Army and its commanding officers considerable time to adapt to this unfamiliar environment. If the presumption made by General Braddock and other regular officers was that ‘the King’s regular and disciplined troops’ could sweep any Franco-Indian force from their path with ease, then it was an illusion that was to be shattered time and again during the defeat years of 1754-1757. This was never truer than in the defeat suffered by Braddock himself on July 9, 1755 on the Banks of the Monongahela River in the so-called ‘Battle of the Wilderness’.

Braddock, initially in command of over 2,000 British and Provincial soldiers, was tasked principally with leading his forces in a campaign against Fort Duquesne in the strategically vital Ohio Valley. Frustrated by delays and disputes with colonial assemblies and contractors, the somewhat irascible British commander eventually led a flying column of 1,300 men against what was perhaps the most contentious of France’s Old World posts. Having forded the Monongahela River twice as he approached Duquesne, Braddock and his army were confident of victory until a blast of fire emanating from his advanced units and an approaching Franco-Indian (largely Indian) force, shattered the eased minds of the General and his men. Eventually surrounded in a classic Indian ambush, the British were cut to pieces and forced into a humiliating retreat. For many scholars it was the first of many occasions in which British soldiers, perhaps fine material for the chess-piece encounters of European battlefields, were to be worsted by the lightly armed and accoutred irregular forces (Native American and Canadien) that had always formed the backbone of New France’s defence.

The theme of defeat that epitomised the once grandiose objectives of Britain’s North American strategy for 1755 was repeated for the next two campaigning seasons. In 1756, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of French forces in North America, the Marquis de Montcalm, took advantage of the fractious disarray that was a hallmark of the Anglo-American war effort to strike at the woefully sited and ill-prepared British post of Fort Oswego, (Lake Ontario). Once intended as a future base of operations that would allow Britain to capture nearby Fort Niagara and hence cut supplies to France’s Ohio posts, the siege and aftermath of the ramshackle Fort Oswego was one more humiliation that defined the formative years of the French and Indian War (at least, for Great Britain).

More serious, or at least infamous, was the capture in the following year (1757) of Fort William-Henry. Another forward operations base, Fort William-Henry had initially been constructed in 1755 by the victorious soldiers of William Johnson’s distinctly colonial American army. They had won a somewhat pyric victory at the Battle of Lake George (1755) against a mixed French-Indian-Canadian force led by the battle-hardened Old World officer, the Baron Dieskau. Like Oswego intended to provide a launch pad of operations in what today is Upper New York State, the Fort, and indeed the region it also protected, were to be left terribly exposed by the blinkered offensive planning of Britain’s then commander-in-chief, the Earl of Loudon. While Loudon launched a futile attempt to capture the menacing fortress of Louisbourg (Cape Breton Island) the shrewd and experienced Montacalm saw an opportunity to roll back Britain’s colonial frontiers on the vital Lake George-Lake Champlain waterway. His army of around 8,000 men—comprising approximately 3,000 French regulars (Troupes de Terre), 3,000 militia and 2,00 Native American allies drawn from across New France–vastly outnumbered and outgunned the 2,300 man British garrison. The siege, conducted over six days, was thus merely a formality and resulted in the capture of the post. Less intended was the ‘Massacre’ and re-capture of around 200 British and American soldiers and civilians and if the fall of the fort marked a high-water point of French success during the French and Indian War, it was also a pivot on which the tide of war turned.

Indeed, for French regular officers such as the Marquis de Moncalm and his renowned aide-de-camp, Colonel Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the sieges of Forts Oswego and William-Henry epitomised what was wrong with the conduct of warfare in the New World. Indeed, by dispatching regular soldiers and commanders to New France, the French government sowed the seeds, arguably, of the colony’s downfall. Almost immediately, ‘Old World’ officers developed a mutual distaste for the province’s existing civil and martial authorities, while their opinions of Native American warfare (and indeed indigenous people’s per se) was hardly conducive to retaining the vital Indian alliances upon which Canada’s defence had traditionally wrested. This was amplified by the victory at Fort William-Henry which had seen the Anglo-American garrison be granted the ‘honours of war’; completely without consultation with Montcalm’s 2,000 Native allies. Sensing that they were being robbed of the only form of payment they received for risking their lives in French service, the ‘Massacre’ of Fort William-Henry was an instance of indigenous warriors taking what they saw as their legitimate plunder—items that also served as powerful emblems of personal honour and prowess in tribal communities. By raising their hatchets in contravention of European martial formalities, however, they put their ‘Father’, the Marquis de Montcalm, in a highly embarrassing position; for it was upon him that blame for the violation of a treaty would ultimately be placed. Already holding the natives in poor regard, it furthered Montcalm’s (and many French officer’s) belief that New France’s defence could do without Indian warriors–or at least should look to marginalise their contributions and the detestable ‘atrocities’ that they seemed to perpetually commit (in contemporary European eyes).

This gradual alienation of the traditional guardians of New France (native warriors would never again rally in such numbers to New France’s defence after 1757) occurred at the very time Britain and her colonies would receive an immeasurable boost by the rise to Prime Minister of the aggressive Francophobe William Pitt. It was at this point that the fortunes of war, for Great Britain at least, began to turn. Dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and believing that the principal means Britain had of defeating France were in the colonial (and not on European) sphere, Pitt’s enormous subsidies and expansion of the war effort made a difference in America relatively swiftly. In 1758 a British fleet and army laid siege to the expansive monolith of Louisbourg, gateway of the St. Lawrence River and hence protector of crucial towns such as Quebec and Montreal. In an impressively coordinated amphibious assault, the British won footholds on Cape Breton Island which allowed them to surround (both on land and at sea) the French position, making its surrender a matter of if, and not when. A fierce bombardment following the crippling of the small naval squadron the French had assigned to Louisburg made storming the place unnecessary. With much of the town destroyed by cannon balls and terrifying ‘hot shot’, the French Major (Drucor) surrendered the post on 26 July 1758.

1758 was in fact to be a rather momentous year for Britain and her colonies. Despite suffering a major setback a Fort Ticonderoga, which sat on the northern tip of Lake George and had acted as a launch-pad for French incursions into New York and New England, the inexorable tide of superior British numbers and financial muscle took its toll on New France’s stalwart defenders. When Montcalm’s aide du camp, Colonel Bougainville, returned to France to plead for assistance in the guise of troop reinforcements and supplies he was unceremoniously informed that ‘when the house is on fire one cannot occupy one’s self with the stable’. France, tied down and exhausted by the European theatre of the Seven Years War, simply could not allocate any real resources to a colony later described by Voltaire as merely ‘a few acres of snow’. The writing was truly on the wall.

The year 1759 brought perhaps the major victory of the war in the capture of Quebec. A victory that superficially leant itself to contemporaneous notions of honour and sacrifice in service (both opposing commanders, General James Wolfe and his opponent the Marquis de Montcalm died following the Battle of the Plains of Abraham–which led to the capture of the city), the months preceding Quebec’s fall had witnessed a particularly nasty strain of irregular war which, in reality, consisted of atrocity and counter atrocity. Fort Niagara’s fall in 1759 precluded any hope the French had of recapturing Fort Duquesne and the Ohio country (Duquesne had fallen in 1758) and with British armies planning to converge on Montreal in 1760, there was little the French could do. Deserted by many of their now alienated (and deeply concerned) Native American allies, the siege of Montreal, though a remarkably bold and dangerous undertaking, was only going to end in a British victory. This was indeed the case when, on 8 September 1760, the city surrendered to the Anglo-American army led by General Jeffrey Amherst. This, and the surrender of Fort Detroit (also 1760) in essence ended the French and Indian War; even though, formally, the Peace of Paris would end the wider Seven Years War in 1763. It had been a conflict that, from hindsight at least, we can today say turned the tide of history.

By Dr Richard Hall. Richard is a historian of Early America at Swansea University. He is the author of Atlantic Politics, Military Strategy and the French and Indian War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

The above article was first published in Spanish in Desperta Ferro Ediciones. This journal is devoted to the study of Political and Military History from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It has four bimonthly headings – Desperta Ferro Antigua and Medieval, Desperta Ferro Historia Moderna, Desperta Ferro Contemporánea and Archeology and History.

One thought on “An Introduction to the French and Indian War (1754-60)

  1. Excellent article. I loved reading this. Gave another perspective from what I had learned in school, especially about the sense of people in Britain that they had encumbered debt in pursuing a war that largely benefited the colonies. A different take from the American focus on the arbitrariness of British taxation leading to the revolution. Also interesting reading about the changing relationship between the French and their Native American allies.

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