“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?”
AMERICAN experience in the colonial age shaped a particular view of peace and war which would long affect our attitude toward the objectives of war, the uses of diplomacy, and the place of the military in political life. War and peace are more than the presence or absence of sound, smell, destruction, pain, and bloodshed; they are institutions. What a nation means by war or peace is as characteristic of its experience and as intimately involved with all its other ways as are its laws or its religion. In the following chapters we will see how American ways of warfare and diplomacy began.
“They were soldiers when they chose to be so, and when they chose laid down their arms.”
THE PERIOD during which the American colonies were founded is generally described as the Age of Limited Warfare in Europe. From about the time in the early 17th century when the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay until the French Revolutionary Wars near the end of the 18th century, Europe showed notable restraint. After the bloodbath of the religious wars, the “Enlightened Age” offered Europe a relief, less from the fighting itself than from its worst horrors. War was moderated less through efforts to abolish it than through the growth of formal rules of warfare and by the specialization of the military function. Since the restraints which made wars less destructive also made them less decisive, European history during the colonial period was a story of continual indecisive warfare. “Now it is frequent,” Daniel Defoe remarked in 1697, as the War of the Dutch Alliance dribbled out, “to have armies of fifty thousand men of a side stand at bay within view of one another, and spend a whole campaign in dodging, or, as it is genteelly called, observing one another, and then march off into winter quarters. The difference is in the maxims of war, which now differ as much from what they were formerly as long perukes do from piqued beards, or as the habits of the people do now from what they then were. The present maxims of war are—
Never fight without a manifest advantage,
And always encamp so as not to be forced to it.
And if two opposite generals nicely observe both these rules, it is impossible they should ever come to fight.”
Battles tended to take place on large open fields, where the customary rules and formations could be obeyed. At the opening of a battle, the opposing forces were set up like men on a chessboard; each side usually knew what forces the other possessed, and each part of an army was expected to perform only specific maneuvers. Sneak attacks, irregular warfare, and unexpected and unheralded tactics were generally frowned on as violations of the rules. “This way of making war,” Defoe succinctly put it, “spends generally more money and less blood than former wars did.” Though armies increased, casualties declined. In the year 1704, which witnessed decisive battles of the War of the Spanish Succession, only 2000 British soldiers and sailors died in action and no more than 3000 died of wounds, disease, or other causes connected with the war.
Such moderation would have been impossible if the waging of wars had not become a specialized occupation from which the mass of the people felt removed. War had become the task of warriors, whose functions were as separated from those of the common man as were the tasks of the learned barrister, the doctor of physick, or the cleric. Officers of opposing sides enjoyed the fraternity of all professionals and of the international European aristocracy: between engagements they wined and entertained one another with balls, concerts, and dinner parties. Usually aristocratic professionals, they were drawn from the nobility and the upper classes, for whom the duty of military service to their prince remained a relic of feudal days. Private soldiers, who had not yet acquired the kudos of “fighting for their country,” were few by modern standards and tended more and more to be the dregs of society. Driven to recruit from the jails and taverns, the sovereign preferred, if he could afford it, to fill his ranks with such mercenary professionals as the Swiss or the Hessians.
War, then, was not an encounter fought by two fully mobilized communities and hallowed by patriotism. Military engagements occurred not in the rubble of factories and cities, but usually on a military playing field, a plain at some distance from the populace. There the “rules of warfare” were neatly and scrupulously followed, with the least possible interference to the peaceful round of household, farm, and fair. Commanders would no more have undertaken a battle in thick underbrush or woods, at night, or in bad weather, than a modern professional baseball team would consent to play in dense woods on a wet day. There were exceptions, but surprisingly few.
From the middle of the 17th until near the end of the 18th century, European war was merely an instrument of policy. It was not waged to exterminate another people or to change their ways of life or their political or economic institutions. Usually it was the effort of one ruling prince to extend his territory, to vindicate his honor, or to secure a commercial advantage from an opposing sovereign, who was likely to be his cousin. Objectives were much more limited than they had been during the religious wars of the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The pan-European character of the aristocratic literary culture provided the common ideas out of which grew a specialized literature defining the just occasions and proper limits of warfare. During most of this period, the leading handbook was Grotius’ De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), 1625-31, which set up authoritative “rules” for civilized nations; it was displaced in the later 18th century by Vattel’s Le droit des gens (The Law of Nations), 1758, which made some changes but still assumed that civilized nations were bound in peace or war by certain natural regulations.
The American Indian who lay in wait for the earliest colonists had, unfortunately, not read Grotius or Vattel. He had no international aristocracy, nor was he persuaded of the advantages of limited warfare that was waged only during clear weather in open fields. He had his own weapons and his own ways, the ways of the forest. He was not accustomed to pitched battles nor to the trumpet-heralded attack. The Indian bow, unlike the matchlock, was silent, accurate, and capable of rapid fire even in wet weather; the tomahawk was a more versatile weapon than the fifteen-foot pike. When the Indian captured an enemy he did not obey Grotius’ laws of war by taking prisoners and seeking to exchange them. On the contrary, massacre and torture were his rule; he thought nothing of flaying his enemy or bleeding him to death with jabs of pointed sticks. The Rev. Joseph Doddridge observed the savage attacks in Western Virginia in the later 18th century:
The Indian kills indiscriminately. His object is the total extermination of his enemies. Children are victims of his vengeance, because, if males, they may hereafter become warriors, or if females, they may become mothers. Even the fetal state is criminal in his view. It is not enough that the fetus should perish with the murdered mother, it is torn from her pregnant womb, and elevated on a stick or pole, as a trophy of victory and an object of horror to the survivors of the slain. If the Indian takes prisoners, mercy has but little concern in the transaction. He spares the lives of those who fall into his hands, for the purpose of feasting the feelings of ferocious vengeance of himself and his comrades, by the torture of his captive.
This American scene created a new type of adventure literature—stories of Indian captivities—which recounted the suffering and heroism of ordinary settlers, their wives, and children.
The Indian was omnipresent; he struck without warning and was a nightly terror in the remote silence of backwoods cabins. The New England settlers, Cotton Mather recalled, felt themselves “assaulted by unknown numbers of devils in flesh on every side”; to them the Indians were “so many ‘unkennell’d wolves.”’ Every section of the seacoast colonies suffered massacres. The bloody toll of the Virginia settlements in 1622, and again in 1644, was never forgotten in the colony. In Virginia in 1676, Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion expressed the demand of western settlers for more aid against the Indians. We have already seen how the Indian massacres of the mid-18th century sharpened the crisis of the Quaker government of Pennsylvania. Such nightmares shaped the military policy of settlers until nearly the end of the 18th century. The Indian menace, which haunted the fringes of settlement through the whole colonial era, remained a terror to the receding West well into the 19th century. Not until ten years after the massacre of Custer’s force in 1876, when the few remaining Indians had been removed to Indian Territory or to reservations, did the Indian threat disappear.
The Indian was not the only menace. Parts of the English colonies suffered intermittent threats of invasion by European powers—the French, the Dutch, or the Spanish. While England remained relatively safe from foreign invasion from the time of the Armada (1588) at least until the time of Napoleon, the earliest settlers of Virginia were often in terror that the Spanish massacre of the Huguenots at Fort Caroline in Florida might be repeated in their own province. More than once the pioneer settlers of Jamestown raised the alarm that Spanish ships were coming up their rivers; they anxiously watched every approaching sail in fear that it might bring invaders. Boston was alarmed by the approach of La Tour in a French ship of 140 tons in 1643, and on numerous later occasions had reason to fear attack from some European force. Even the pacifism of Pennsylvania Quakers was strained by the appearance of Spanish ships in the very harbor of the city.
Such threats forced whole communities to huddle together in time of danger. The garrison house, built as a common dwelling and refuge during Indian raids, became a symbol of the unlimited nature of warfare in America. At the first alarm of Indian attack, neighboring inhabitants would collect their most valuable belongings and gather in the garrison. In New England, such garrisons increased during the alarms of King Philip’s War in 1676, and a number continued to be maintained during the French and Indian Wars well into the 18th century. The same general scheme was followed up and down the colonies. Sometimes a particular private dwelling—suitably constructed with thick walls perforated by loopholes, with an overhanging second story, and possibly with flankers at the corners for lookout—was agreed upon as the customary refuge. Or, some towns—like Hadley, Northampton, and Hatfield in the Connecticut Valley—imitated the Indians by surrounding the town with a defensive stockade.
The crowded life of the garrison houses, as the Rev. Doddridge reminds us, was no picnic; it made settlers dread what they called the “Indian summer.”
A backwoodsman seldom hears this expression without feeling a chill of horror…. during the long continued Indian wars sustained by the first settlers of the west, they enjoyed no peace excepting in the winter season, when, owing to the severity of the weather, the Indians were unable to make their excursions into the settlements. The onset of winter was therefore hailed as a jubilee by the early inhabitants of the country, who, throughout the spring and the early part of the fall, had been cooped up in … uncomfortable forts, and subjected to all the distresses of the Indian war. At the approach of winter, therefore, all the farmers, excepting the owner of the fort, removed to their cabins on their farms, with the joyful feelings of a tenant of a prison recovering his release from confinement. All was bustle and hilarity in preparing for winter, by gathering in the corn, digging potatoes, fattening hogs, and repairing the cabins. To our forefathers the gloomy months of winter were more pleasant than the zephyrs and the flowers of May. It however sometimes happened, after the apparent onset of winter, the weather became warm; the smoky time commenced, and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare. The melting of the snow saddened every countenance, and the genial warmth of the sun chilled every heart with horror. The apprehension of another visit from the Indians, and of being driven back to the detested fort, was painful in the highest degree, and the distressing apprehension was frequently realized.
In such colonial warfare all were soldiers because all lived on the battlefield. The bravery of women became a byword. In 1766 in Shenandoah county in the Valley of Virginia, two men were taking their wives and children in a wagon toward the safety of a fort when they were attacked by five Indians and both men were killed. “The women,” Kercheval reported, “instead of swooning at the sight of their bleeding, expiring husbands, seized their axes, and with Amazonian firmness, and strength almost superhuman, defended themselves and children. One of the Indians had succeeded in getting hold of one of Mrs. Sheetz’s children, and attempted to drag it out of the wagon; but with the quickness of lightning she caught her child in one hand, and with the other made a blow at the head of the fellow, which caused him to quit his hold to save his life. Several of the Indians received pretty sore wounds in this desperate conflict, and all at last ran off, leaving the two women with their children to pursue their way to the fort.” Only a few years later, Mrs. Experience Bozarth, in whose house a number of neighbors had taken refuge, defended them all after their two men were severely injured, by skillfully handling an axe with which she brained two Indians and disembowelled a third. The backwoods was no place for the squeamish; anyone who waited for the arrival of “troops” did not last long.
The boys’ pastimes early prepared them for defense. Shooting small game with a bow or a gun and throwing a tomahawk became life-saving skills when Indians attacked. By the time a boy reached the age for service in the militia he was already at home in the forest and knew the ways of the Indian. “A well grown boy,” Doddridge noted of the Valley of Virginia in the 1760’s, “at the age of twelve or thirteen years, was furnished with a small rifle and shot-pouch. He then became a fort soldier, and had his port-hole assigned him. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoons, soon made him expert in the use of his gun.”
Hunting, Indian-fighting, and skirmishes in the backwoods encouraged numerous American improvements in the rifle. By the mid-18th century, the “Pennsylvania” rifle, later to achieve fame as the “Kentucky” rifle, was already noticeably different from its Alpine prototype. It was longer and more slender; had a smaller bore (a calibre of about .50), used a ball weighing only about half an ounce, and was more accurate. In contrast, even as late as the American Revolution, the German rifle was still clumsy, heavy, and short-barrelled; it used a ball about twice the weight, was slower to fire, was heavier in recoil, and offered much less range and accuracy. Slow loading—with short iron rod, mallet, and ramrod—had not disqualified the rifle for backwoods use, but the American developed a quicker and less strenuous means of loading: the “patch,” a small greased cloth encasing a lead ball (slightly smaller than the bore), which could be pushed smoothly down the barrel. By insuring a tight fit in the rifling, the patch also prevented waste of fire-power. The resulting weapon had unprecedented convenience, economy, and accuracy.
By the Revolution this weapon, still practically unknown in England and found only among hunters in the mountain fastnesses of Europe, had become common in the American backwoods. “Rifles, infinitely better than those imported, are daily made in many places in Pennsylvania,” an Anglican minister wrote from Maryland in 1775, “and all the gunsmiths everywhere constantly employed. In this country, my lord, the boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds, and the great privileges of killing making the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families by the same, particularly riflemen on the frontiers, whose objects are deer and turkeys. In marching through woods one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.” Such reports as these made the English regulars expect every American to be a sharpshooter.
The myth of the omnipresent American marksman, clothed not in a military uniform but in a hunting shirt, became potent in psychological warfare. Dixon & Hunter’s Virginia Gazette (Sept. 9, 1775) reported an exhibition by riflemen bound for Boston: while one man held between his knees a small board with a bull’s-eye the size of a dollar, a rifleman at sixty yards put eight successive bullets through the bull’s-eye. Washington arranged a similar exhibition on Cambridge Common in August 1775, hoping that spies would carry the frightening word back to the British troops. At this very time the British musket was so crude that the official army manual did not even contain the command “aim” for its musketeers. Early in the Revolution, General George Washington issued an order in which he “earnestly” encouraged “the use of Hunting Shirts, with long Breeches made of the same Cloth…. it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete Marksman.” But the rifle, unlike the European musket, was not equipped with a bayonet and was a slower, more fragile weapon of special skill. Ill-suited to the European formal battle-array, it remained a highly individualistic weapon, admirable for skirmishing or for picking off an individual enemy. Such tactics unnerved a rigidly trained professional army; they would help convince British officers that subduing the American populace was a hopeless task.
In America war had become an institution for the citizenry as well as the warriors. The colonials were in the habit of defending themselves on neighboring ground instead of employing professionals on a distant battlefield. Just as everybody in America was somewhat literate but none was greatly literary, everybody here was a bit of a soldier, none completely so. War was conducted without a professional army, without generals, and even without “soldiers” in the strict European sense. The Second Amendment to the Federal Constitution would provide: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The distinctive American experience would, of course, make difficulties whenever Americans would be arrayed in war or diplomacy against Europeans, for in Europe the professional army with its aristocratic officer class had made war a sophisticated, attenuated activity. To that sophistication there were two aspects. On the one hand, specialization of the soldier’s function had made possible the limitation of warfare. On the other hand, it made possible a sophisticated diplomacy by which sovereigns used professional armies to serve their trivial or devious purposes and under which an uninterested populace lightly allowed their “nation” (i.e., the professional soldiery) to be committed to battle. A professional army was casually sent wherever the sovereign wished for imperial, dynastic, or commercial strategy. European war by the 18th century was far removed from the naïve defense of the hearth: specialized fighters were trained to kill for reasons they did not understand and in distant lands for which they had no love. As the 18th century wore on, such wars of policy commanded more and more of the blood and treasure of Europe. But these wars were barely intelligible, much less defensible, among colonial Americans, to whom war was the urgent defense of the hearth by everybody against an omnipresent and merciless enemy. Americans would long find it hard to understand the military games played by kings, ministers, and generals who used uniformed pawns on distant battlefields, or the diplomatic games in which such wars were only interludes.