The Colonial Wars, 1689–1763

By the time Benjamin Church left King Philip’s butchered body hanging from four trees, North America had become a divided continent, as three imperial powers struggled for dominance. The English had established a thin band of civilization along the eastern seaboard and also claimed the shores of Hudson Bay. An even sparser line of French settlement thrust along the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes region. The Spanish claimed much of the Gulf coast, with its eastern anchor in Florida, where they founded St. Augustine in 1565. However, Spanish power was waning, leaving England and France as the primary competitors for an enormously rich prize, the interior of North America drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Geography favored the French, since the St. Lawrence gave them relatively easy access into the heart of the continent. By contrast, with the Appalachian Mountains blocking their westward advance, English colonists seemed doomed to occupy a coastal ribbon. Only two major gaps breached the northern half of the Appalachians: In central New York the Mohawk River pierced the mountains; farther north a corridor, consisting of the Hudson River, Lakes George and Champlain, and the Richelieu River, linked New France and the British colonies. Along with the St. Lawrence itself, these gaps were practically the only avenues over which the enemies could strike at each other.

Although nature had blessed New France, the British had two compensating advantages, manpower and sea power. Throughout the colonial wars, British colonists outnumbered French colonists by about fifteen to one. Several factors somewhat reduced this disproportion in manpower. Only New York and New England, containing about half the English North American population, consistently fought in the wars, while France drew on all of Canada for support. The French colony also contained a higher proportion of males. One government capable of imposing unity of command ruled Canada, while the English, fighting under their individual colonial governments, lacked overall coordination. But would a single unified command be enough to overcome the British numerical advantage on both land and sea?

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the British navy increasingly controlled the Atlantic Ocean. Reinforcing the Royal Navy were privateers, which were merchant ships that their owners converted into warships for the express purpose of raiding the enemy’s seaborne commerce. Because a privateer’s owners and crew shared the proceeds from any captured ships (called prizes), the prospect of substantial prize money attracted thousands of colonial businessmen and mariners to the enterprise, especially from the port cities of Newport, New York, and Philadelphia. Since New France remained dependent on imports from the mother country, it could be likened to a sapling striving to reach maturity in a harsh environment. The sea lanes to France represented the roots, the St. Lawrence was analogous to the trunk, and the Great Lakes were the branches. Anything impeding the flow of supplies along the root system stunted the growth of the trunk and foliage. In wartime the Royal Navy, supplemented by numerous privateers, periodically severed these roots, allowing British land forces to attack a foe suffering from malnutrition.

Euro-Indian Alliances and Early Conflicts

The colonial wars cannot be understood without recognizing the complex relationship among Europeans, Indians, and the fur trade. Colonial competition for mastery of the continent inevitably affected the native tribes. Realizing that Indian alliances might ultimately determine which nation prevailed, perceptive white men sought Indian allies as warriors and as agents in the economically important fur trade. In the quest for Indian allies the French had two advantages, the British one. Less race-conscious than Englishmen, Frenchmen embraced Indian culture in ways alien to the British, and the natives recognized the difference. Nor were the French as greedy for Indian land as the British. Many French colonists were single males (fur traders, priests, and soldiers) and required only a few acres for their trading posts, missions, forts, and garden plots. But the rapidly multiplying English came primarily in family units to farm. Their thirst for land seemed unquenchable, and they frequently resorted to unscrupulous methods to obtain it.


The British advantage was in the fur trade, which bound whites and Indians in an interdependent relationship and brought the European rivals into more direct competition. Colonists profited from the trade, while the Indians, who exchanged pelts for manufactured goods, gradually abandoned their self-sufficient existence as they became dependent on these wares. Since English manufactured goods were better and cheaper than French goods, Indians preferred to trade with the British. Under intense pressure to procure pelts, Indians killed off the nearby supply of fur-bearing animals and had to trap in more remote areas. White traders followed them, pushing the frontiers of New France and the English colonies closer together.

The crucial European-Indian alliances in the northeast emerged early in the colonial era. Two major Indian cultures existed in the region, the Iroquoian and the Algonquin. Not only were these groups hostile to each other, but internal conflict among tribes belonging to the same group also occurred. Various Algonquin tribes—such as the Abnakis, Montagnais, and Ottawas—living in areas the French explored, welcomed the newcomers as allies against their traditional enemies, the Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy (the Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Mohawk tribes). The Five Nations occupied the territory from the Hudson River and Lake Champlain westward to the Genesee River.2 Living in the Great Lakes region were the Hurons, Neutrals, and Eries, all akin to the Iroquois but, like the Algonquin tribes, periodically at war with the confederacy. South of the Five Nations were the Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian tribe also in conflict with the confederacy.

When the French allied themselves with the Algonquins and Hurons to ensure the safety of their settlements and to gain access to rich fur sources, they automatically gained the enmity of the confederacy. Although the Five Nations could never count on more than three thousand warriors, they were aggressive fighters. The confederacy’s geographic position also allowed it to control the economic and military balance of power between Canada and the English colonies. Inhabiting the Mohawk and Hudson River gaps, it sat astride the northern frontier’s most vital crossroads of communications and trade. The Five Nations served like a belt of armor that the French had to penetrate before striking the English. The Iroquois were also in an ideal position to divert the flow of pelts from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson River.

The Dutch settled the Hudson Valley, building Fort Orange (Albany) nine miles below the mouth of the Mohawk River. The Iroquois, anxious to acquire firearms to counter the French-Indian threat to their north, and the Dutch, eager to profit from the fur trade, established cordial relations. Seeking new access to furs, the Five Nations waged a series of expansionist wars during the midseventeenth century. They defeated the Hurons, Neutrals, and Eries and then turned against the Susquehannocks. The Iroquois intrusion into the Great Lakes region disrupted New France’s fur trade, threatening the colony with economic disaster. In 1664 the English conquered New Netherland, renaming it New York. Realizing that friendship with the Five Nations was important for their economic and military security, the conquerors preserved the Dutch relationship with the Iroquois. Thus when the colonial wars began, the battle lines were well formed. New France, the Algonquins, and remnants of the Iroquoian tribes that had recently been defeated by the Five Nations opposed the English colonists and the Iroquois. Although the northern frontier ultimately would be decisive during the colonial wars, the clashing interests of Spain, France, and England along the southern frontier helped mold the final outcome. After the founding of Charleston in 1670 and the subsequent growth of the Carolinas, a parallel search for Indian trade and alliances developed in the south, where the Appalachians tapered off in central Georgia. Settling in territory claimed by Spain, the Carolinians struggled with the Spanish and their Indian supporters. Forming alliances with various Indian tribes, the English drove the Spanish frontier southward to the Florida peninsula. With the Spanish barrier eliminated, Carolina traders penetrated into the interior, where they established trading relations with the most important tribes of the old southwest. In eastern Tennessee and western Carolina they encountered the Cherokees. Further westward, in the Yazoo River valley and along the upper reaches of the Tombigbee River, were the Chickasaws. The Creeks inhabited western Georgia and eastern Alabama, and the Choctaws lived west of the Tombigbee. Like the northern tribes, these four powerful tribes frequently warred with each other.

The Anglo-French frontiers collided in Louisiana, as they had already in the Great Lakes region. Both sides sought the allegiance of the four primary tribes living between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The French had the advantage of easy water routes, while the Carolinians had to rely on difficult overland trails. The French were also much less abusive toward the Indians and did not traffic in Indian slaves, a practice the English avidly pursued. However, the Carolina traders, like their northern counterparts, sold better-quality goods more cheaply. The Indian alliance system remained fluid during the early 1700s. The Choctaws were generally in the French camp, while the Cherokees, Creeks, and Chickasaws favored the Carolinians. However, diplomatic maneuvering, trading opportunities, and strategic considerations made alliances undependable. The only certainty was that Indian assistance in the south, as in the north, would be vital in the wars for continental domination.

The colonial wars take their formal dates from simultaneous wars in Europe, but the fighting between English and French colonists, and their Indian proxies, often preceded the declarations of war and continued after the signing of Old World peace treaties. Colonists had their own reasons for fighting, reasons divorced from European diplomacy. Conflicts over fishing rights, religious differences, and the desire for revenge reinforced the struggle to dominate the fur trade and the western areas. The colonial wars merely gave intermittent official sanction to the nearly constant warfare that plagued North America between 1689 and 1763.

Although neither side was prepared for conflict in 1689, when King William’s War began, the French reacted more quickly. Count Frontenac, who became Canada’s governor in October of that year, understood the importance of the Iroquois–New York alliance and brought from France a plan for the conquest of New York, which would isolate the Five Nations militarily, weaken the English colonies by cleaving them in two, and safeguard the fur trade. However, the plan was too ambitious for Canada to implement, and Frontenac settled for a loosely coordinated three-pronged attack against the New England-New York frontier. In the first half of 1690, combined forces of French and Indians inflicted massacres on Schenectady, Salmon Falls, and Falmouth.

Even as Frontenac’s grisly offensive unfolded, Massachusetts was preparing the first British colonial attack of the war, aimed at thinly populated French Acadia. Leading the venture was Sir William Phips. In May 1690, his 700-man force captured Port Royal, the principal outpost in Acadia, subdued the remainder of the area, and returned to Boston in triumph. Phips’s exploits were strategically insignificant, since the French soon reoccupied Port Royal, but they bolstered morale throughout New England.

Meanwhile, the northern colonies girded for a major effort. In late April an intercolonial conference met in New York City, attended by representatives from New York, Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts. This conference demonstrated that some colonists realized the problem posed by Canada was beyond the resources of any single colony and required intercolonial cooperation. The delegates adopted a sound plan that became a virtual blueprint for almost all subsequent efforts against New France. The plan envisioned a dual thrust to sever the vital artery of the St. Lawrence River. Moving overland from Albany, an army would strike Montreal while a seaborne force ascended the St. Lawrence and attacked Quebec. If the forces could converge on their targets simultaneously, Canada’s sparse manpower would be divided trying to defend both cities. Either Montreal or Quebec would capitulate, making the other city easy prey once the attackers united their forces. With the trunk severed, the colony’s roots and branches would wither and die.


The proposal was good in theory but poorly executed. The colonies raised fewer militiamen for the Montreal army than had been promised at New York, and instead of the expected hundreds of Iroquois warriors, only a few dozen met the militia at Wood Creek near Lake Champlain. A smallpox epidemic swept the ranks, provisions were scarce, and too few boats existed to transport the army down Lake Champlain. In late summer the commander canceled the expedition. Meanwhile the Quebec force, some 2,000 strong and commanded by Phips, departed late and made slow progress, not arriving at its objective until early October, when the nip of winter was already in the air. The city occupied a strong defensive position atop steep cliffs, and with the threat to Montreal evaporated, Frontenac had reinforced the garrison so that it now out-numbered the attackers. Phips put a substantial force ashore, but it made little headway against the French and suffered from inadequate supplies and the bitter cold. Discouraged, Phips and his army headed home.

Exhausted in spirit and heavily in debt, the colonies made no effort similar to the 1690 campaign during the remainder of the war. The conflict became “a Tedious war” of frontier raids for the next seven years. Canadian raiding parties, composed of a few coureurs de bois (woodsmen) and militiamen and numerous Indians and perhaps commanded by a French regular officer, struck outlying homesteads and settlements. These war parties of “Half Indianized French and Half Frenchified Indians” appeared suddenly, destroyed livestock and property, killed or captured settlers, and then disappeared into the wilderness. The high success rate of these assaults demonstrated—as had the previous Indian wars—the militia’s inability to provide frontier protection. Relief columns usually arrived only in time to bury the mutilated corpses. Unable to prevent these calamities, the English retaliated with similar expeditions against the Canadians. Both sides also urged their Indian allies on to the warpath; acting independently, they added to the mayhem.

By 1697 the combatants in North America and in Europe had battered each other into exhaustion without either side achieving an appreciable advantage, and in September the European powers signed the Treaty of Ryswick. Under its terms the situation on both continents essentially reverted to the prewar condition. It did not take prophetic genius to foresee that the conflict would soon be renewed. “For the present the Indians have Done Murdering,” wrote a Puritan minister, adding “they’ll Do so no more till next Time.”

In 1701 a new war erupted in Europe and spread to the colonies, where it became known as Queen Anne’s War. During the brief interval after the Treaty of Ryswick, New France had been able to view the future with optimism. Emerging unbeaten from a decade of warfare against a more numerous enemy, it built an outpost at Detroit and established settlements in Louisiana. Most important, in 1701 the French achieved a stunning diplomatic success. The Iroquois, who had suffered grievously in King William’s War, resented the inability of the English to unite among themselves and with the Iroquois confederacy in a concerted effort to destroy New France, and in 1701 they signed a neutrality treaty with Canada. British colonists feared encirclement by a French empire stretching from Acadia up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Gulf.

Fighting occurred in three regions in North America during Queen Anne’s War. Since France and Spain were now allied, military operations took place along the southern frontier. In the fall of 1702 South Carolina’s governor, James Moore, conducted a campaign against St. Augustine. He easily occupied the city, but when Spanish reinforcements arrived, his army retreated to Charleston. The next year Moore, although no longer governor, partially avenged his failure when his army devastated the Apalachee region between Pensacola and St. Augustine. Encouraged by Moore’s success, others undertook similar, though smaller, expeditions into Spanish territory. The English also sent their Indian allies, notably the Creeks, to attack the Choctaws and other French-aligned natives. The only significant enemy effort came in 1706 when a Spanish-French force unsuccessfully attacked Charleston. Indian allies of Spain and France, bearing the brunt of English offensives and seeing the feebleness of Spanish and French defenses, increasingly came under British influence. By 1712 the English had, as one Carolinian asserted, “firm possession . . . from Charles Town to Mobile Bay, excepting St. Augustine.”

While the southern frontier was a new arena of strife, New York, which had been in the maelstrom of the previous conflict, did not become involved in Queen Anne’s War until 1709. When the war began, Canada and the Five Nations adhered to their neutrality treaty. Concerned for the safety of its citizens and eager to profit from an uninterrupted fur trade, New York’s government took no action that endangered the peace along its border.

The entire war in the north fell upon the third region, New England. As in King William’s War, New Englanders primarily fought “a barbarous war with cruel and perfidious savages” rather than with Frenchmen. But colonists realized that “the root of all our woe” was Canada, which supplied the Indians with the necessities of war. New Englanders agreed they could never live in safety as long as New France survived, but, remembering Phips’s disaster, they believed the mother country must assist them. England had viewed the war in North America as a sideshow to the greater struggle in Europe, but in early 1709 the Queen approved a plan reminiscent of the 1690 campaign. She pledged ships and men to a dual thrust aimed at conquering Canada, one army moving through the Champlain trough toward Montreal and another sailing up the St. Lawrence to Quebec.

New Englanders believed these expeditions would be no repetition of 1690, since they would be well supplied and steeled by professionals. Furthermore, New York could not refuse to participate in a campaign sanctioned by the Queen. Forced to go to war, New Yorkers persuaded the Iroquois to discard their neutrality pact with Canada. The colonies responded to the opportunity to destroy Canada with unparalleled cooperation and enthusiasm. By July, after great exertion and expense, two forces stood poised to assault the archenemy. One army of more than 1,500 men, composed of militiamen from four colonies and several hundred Iroquois, assembled at Wood Creek under the command of Colonel Francis Nicholson. The other army, composed of more than 1,200 New England militiamen, gathered at Boston, ready to sail up the St. Lawrence with the promised British armada when it arrived. But in early summer England canceled its part of the bargain. Although the government immediately dispatched a message informing the colonies, it did not arrive until October. Militiamen had endured months of deprivation for nothing, and the vast expenditures had been for naught.

Her Majesty partially redeemed herself in 1710 when British warships and a regiment of marines aided a militia force in capturing Port Royal and made Acadia a British province. Encouraged that the home government had not forsaken them, colonists implored London to resurrect the 1709 plan. In 1711 England again agreed to attempt the pincer movement against New France. In late June a British fleet commanded by Sir Hovenden Walker arrived at Boston, accompanied by seven regular regiments and a marine battalion. Walker was in overall command of the Quebec pincer, and Brigadier General John Hill commanded the regulars, who were reinforced by thousands of militiamen. Colonel Nicholson again commanded the western pincer of more than 2,000 militiamen and Indians.

When the armada departed for the St. Lawrence, the northern colonies exuded confidence. But Walker lacked the courage and determination that allows great commanders to overcome adversity. He knew that fog, storms, and uncertain currents and tides made the St. Lawrence difficult to navigate, and he worried that his force might be trapped by ice and forced to winter in Quebec, where resupply would be impossible. He became obsessed with these problems. On the night of August 23, as his fleet inched upriver in dense fog, it strayed against the north shore of the river, several ships foundered, and almost a thousand men drowned. A hastily convened council of war agreed to abandon the attempt on Quebec. Walker believed the armada should attack a lesser target, perhaps Placentia, but Hill disagreed. A second war council concurred with Hill, and eventually the fleet returned to England without striking a single blow against New France. Nicholson’s army, toiling through the northern forests, was recalled far short of Montreal. Canada rejoiced, the disillusioned Iroquois hastily renewed their neutrality treaty with the French, and New England and New York brooded.

The fiascos of 1709 and 1711 had a significance beyond the simple fact of failure. Both years witnessed extensive efforts at intercolonial cooperation from Pennsylvania northward. The question of security had a nationalizing influence, forging mutual military efforts on the stern anvil of survival. As the colonies gained confidence in each other, the nonarrival of one British fleet and the precipitous withdrawal of the other sowed a sense of disgust with England and its professional military men. The Walker expedition’s appearance in Boston especially strained relations between professional soldiers and New Englanders. The colonists argued that despite the imperious behavior of Her Majesty’s officers, they themselves had done as much as possible to aid Walker, whom they blamed for the expedition’s failure. Walker and his fellow officers responded that citizens had provided insufficient provisions and inflated the price of what they supplied, they sheltered deserters, and pilots knowledgeable about the treacherous St. Lawrence refused to accompany the fleet. In their opinion, the colonists had begged the Queen for help, she had responded generously, and now the recipients of her kindness were ungrateful. The British found such behavior incomprehensible and reprehensible. Echoing his comrades, a colonel wrote that until England placed the colonists under more stringent control “they will grow every day more stiff and disobedient, more burthensome than advantageous to Great Britain.” Lexington and Concord were years in the future, but the events of 1709 and 1711 planted a seed of distrust in the imperial relationship.

When the European combatants signed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, New France, except for Acadia, remained unconquered. But at the negotiating table France surrendered much of what its colony had preserved by force of arms. The mother country, defeated in other areas of the globe and economically exhausted, ceded to England the shores of Hudson Bay, Acadia, and Newfoundland. The situation in the south returned to the status quo antebellum, disappointing the Carolinians, who had hoped to eliminate French control in Louisiana and Spanish sovereignty in Florida. England’s territorial gains shifted the North American balance of power in its favor, but New France, though wounded, was far from moribund.

Struggling for Control of North America

The Treaty of Utrecht ushered in twenty-five years of uneasy peace between England and the Bourbon powers (France and Spain). In North America, however, relations among the colonists continued in turmoil. One cause was the continuing quest for Indian allegiance. Indian diplomacy heightened colonial anxieties. The apparently fickle natives, squeezed by technologically and numerically superior white cultures and striving to maintain their independence, played the Europeans off against each other with consummate skill. A second, related, cause was the colonists’ construction of outposts in strategic locations to improve security and to exert influence on nearby natives. Located in the unoccupied zones between expanding colonial frontiers, these forts created new tensions.

Along the northern frontier, New France tried to bring the Iroquois into its orbit. To upset French designs, the English established Fort Oswego on the Great Lakes, but the French countered with a fort at Crown Point, which was in territory claimed by New York and gave the French access to the Mohawks. The French also worried about their eastern flank, now vulnerable with Newfoundland and Acadia in British hands. Fortunately for Canada, Cape Breton Island had not been ceded to England, and here the French built Louisbourg, a formidable fortress that guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

In the south, the Carolinians suffered hard times after Utrecht. Their desire to eliminate the Bourbon powers had been forestalled, and in 1711–1712 the French scored a diplomatic triumph akin to the Iroquois treaty of 1701 when they made peace with Carolina’s foremost Indian allies, the Creeks. Then in 1715 the Yamassee War stunned the English. The origins of the war, which was a widespread revolt led by the Creeks and other erstwhile friends, the Yamassees, involved callous actions by Carolina traders, white land greed, and Spanish and French intrigue. To the English the war was a classic example of the omnipresent danger they faced as long as the Bourbons maintained a foothold in the region, and of the Indians’ untrustworthy behavior. Carolina escaped a potentially disastrous situation when the Cherokees refused to join the uprising and instead aided the whites. Although Carolina won the war, its situation was grim. As one man wrote, “We are just now the poorest Colony in all America and have . . . very distracting appearances of ruine.”

Recognizing that the recent Indian war had weakened its North American southern flank and worried that the prospect of French encirclement was no idle nightmare, especially after the French strengthened their hold on the lower Mississippi by founding New Orleans, the British government responded vigorously. The English established several new forts and in 1732 founded the colony of Georgia, which was in part intended as a military buffer zone. Under James Oglethorpe’s assertive leadership, Georgians constructed a series of fortified outposts stretching southward into territory claimed by Spain and coveted by France. When Oglethorpe built Fort St. George on the St. Johns River, the gateway to Florida’s interior and the backdoor to St. Augustine, passions flared and thick war clouds gathered.

Storms had also been brewing in Europe, and in 1739 the clouds burst into a British-Spanish conflict known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. What began as a drizzle became a deluge when this war merged into the War of the Austrian Succession, embroiling one European power after another until 1744, when Britain and France declared war on each other. The war in America—lasting from 1744 to 1748 and pitting English colonists against those of France and Spain—was known as King George’s War, but the entire conflict, first against Spain and then against the combined Bourbon powers, can be labeled the War of the 1740s. From 1739 to 1744 the North American struggle centered around Spanish possessions; after 1744 the focus shifted to the north.

When Oglethorpe learned of the war with Spain, he tried to fulfill Moore’s dream of capturing St. Augustine. Descending on Florida with a force of Georgia and Carolina militiamen, Creek and Cherokee warriors, a newly raised regular regiment, and a small British squadron, he hoped to surprise St. Augustine and take it by storm. But the Spanish were alert, and although Oglethorpe had proclaimed he would succeed or die trying, he did neither, retreating ignominiously with his bedraggled army.

The next year Americans participated in the assault on Cartagena, the most important port on the Spanish Main. In 1739 Admiral Edward Vernon had captured Porto Bello, and the elated British government reinforced his command so that he could make further conquests. A large fleet and army left England to rendezvous with Vernon in Jamaica, while for the first and only time the government asked the colonies to provide troops for a campaign beyond the mainland. In early 1740 the call went out for volunteers. To expedite volunteering, colonial governments offered bounties and promised the troops a fair share of captured booty. Eleven colonies provided thirty-six companies of a hundred men each, organized into an “American Regiment” commanded by Virginia Governor William Gooch. The regiment sailed to Jamaica, meeting Vernon’s fleet and the British army under Brigadier General Thomas Wentworth. The expedition then moved against Cartagena and met with a disastrous repulse. Like Walker’s expedition thirty years earlier, Vernon’s failure had long-term significance, spreading discord between Englishmen living on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The soldiers in the American Regiment fared badly at the hands of the British military establishment. They ate “putrid beef, rusty pork, and bread swimming with maggots,” did an inordinate amount of fatigue duty, were forced to serve on British warships, and for their efforts received little but contempt. Thus Cartagena further reduced British military prestige in America and reinforced the emergent antagonism Americans felt toward regulars.

With the colonies weakened by their exertions at St. Augustine and Cartagena, Spain struck back, attacking Frederica, Georgia, in 1742. Although outnumbered more than four to one, Oglethorpe displayed military capabilities conducting a defense that he had not exhibited while on the offensive at St. Augustine and forced the Spanish to withdraw. The war along the southern frontier then became little more than a series of minor clashes.

As major campaigning petered out in the south, it commenced in the north. In mid-January 1745 the Massachusetts general court met in secret session to hear an extraordinary proposal from Governor William Shirley: Massachusetts should mount an expedition to capture Louisbourg! Since Louisbourg commanded navigation up the St. Lawrence, its capture would ultimately mean the downfall of all of New France. If the prospect was tempting, the dangers were great. From outward appearances the city was impregnable. The channel into the harbor was narrow and guarded by two supplemental fortifications, the Grand Battery and the Island Battery, both bristling with cannons. On the land side, stout walls and a wide trench protected the fortress. However, from exchanged prisoners who had been held captive in Louisbourg, Shirley had learned that the powder supply was low, the garrison was undermanned and mutinous, the fortifications (especially the Grand Battery) were in disrepair, and excellent landing sites existed along Gabarus Bay just west of the city.

The general court approved the expedition by only a single vote and on the condition that other colonies participated. No doubt many people feared this might be another Cartagena, but New England ministers roused the populace, portraying the venture as a crusade against the “stronghold of Satan.” William Pepperrell commanded the expedition, which by any rational calculation should have failed. The badly trained and poorly disciplined 4,000-man militia army was, as one professional soldier wrote, led by “People totally Ignorant” of the military skills “necessary in such an undertaking.” Yet after a siege of about seven weeks, the fortress capitulated. The French had conducted an inept defense, failing to contest the initial landing and then abandoning the Grand Battery without a fight. The volunteers fought surprisingly well, and a British naval squadron had blockaded the fortress, preventing outside succor from relieving the city.

Louisbourg’s capture was the most brilliant military achievement by the American colonies in the pre-Revolutionary era and had far-reaching implications. Most New Englanders saw “the Finger of God” in their success and believed more firmly than ever that they were His chosen people, destined for some great purpose on earth. The capture also gave colonists confidence in their martial abilities, particularly when they contrasted their performance with the Cartagena affair. Citizen-soldiers doing God’s will seemed infinitely superior to British regulars serving an earthly sovereign.

After Louisbourg the fighting took on a pattern similar to previous colonial wars. Hoping to capitalize on the victory by attacking Canada in 1746, Governor Shirley proposed the familiar two-pronged plan to the British government. When the government tentatively approved, the colonies raised an army and eagerly awaited the promised English force. However, various delays and European commitments caused Britain to abandon the campaign. Remembering the mother country’s failure in 1709, colonists pondered anew England’s solicitude for their well-being. The colonists also tried to derail the Iroquois from their neutrality but failed. Lacking support from both England and the Iroquois, colonists launched no more major offensives. Meanwhile, the French perpetrated a few massacres but mostly dispensed death in small doses.

By 1748 the war was a stalemate. France dominated the European continent, but Britain controlled the seas and, having conquered Louisbourg, held the advantage in North America. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle angered English colonists. The guiding principle was restoration of the status quo antebellum, which meant that Britain returned Louisbourg to France. In return, as a concession to England’s interests, France withdrew from Flanders, but this did little to diminish colonial anguish. Colonists believed the mother country had callously disregarded their sacrifices and had sacrificed their security on the altar of England’s own selfish interests.

The Great War for Empire

In June 1758 an army of more than 12,000 British regulars and colonial troops commanded by the British commander in chief in North America, James Abercromby, labored along Lake Champlain toward Fort Ticonderoga, a French stronghold near the northern tip of Lake George. He planned to smash Ticonderoga and Crown Point and move into the St. Lawrence Valley. The French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, had fewer than 4,000 troops at Ticonderoga, but they had constructed a log breastwork and covered the ground in front of it with sharpened branches pointing outward. On July 8 Abercromby hurled his force against this position in an ill-conceived frontal attack. Almost 400 Iroquois, who in their own form of warfare always tried to avoid excessive casualties, had joined the British that morning and watched incredulously as the white troops advanced into the bristling abatis and French guns. For four hours the intrepid soldiers repeatedly attacked, recoiled, reformed, and attacked again, reddening the battlefield with their scarlet coats and their blood. Finally, mercifully, having lost more than 1,600 regulars and 300 provincials, Abercromby halted the assault. Although he still possessed numerical superiority, the unnerved British commander ordered a retreat.

For the English, Abercromby’s disaster was another loss in a series of defeats in the renewed war between France and Britain. The war began in 1754 over control of the Ohio Valley. During the 1740s the English had gained de facto sovereignty in the Ohio country, but their hold was tenuous, and between 1749 and 1753 New France acquired superiority in the area, thereby strengthening the link between Canada and Louisiana. In 1754 a French expedition ousted a Virginia volunteer unit from the most strategic position in the west, the forks of the Ohio, and began building Fort Duquesne. Meanwhile, a second Virginia force, commanded by a young George Washington, marched toward the forks with orders to expel all Frenchmen from the area. But the French outnumbered Washington’s men and forced the Virginians to surrender. By exerting superior military power, New France possessed the Ohio Valley.

Although France and England remained officially at peace until 1756, the last colonial war had begun. The sparks struck in the Ohio wilderness ignited a conflagration that became the first true world war. Unlike the previous wars that began in Europe and embroiled the colonies, the Great War for Empire—also known as the French and Indian War—commenced in the colonies and engulfed reluctant parent countries. Both belligerents had been anxious to avoid another struggle while still recuperating from the previous wars’ debilitating effects.

Even before England was formally at war with France, the British ministry had ordered a series of preemptive strikes to drive back Canada’s ever-advancing military frontier. The ministry hoped to present France with such an overwhelming fait accompli that it would accept the situation rather than risk an international confrontation. The positions selected for elimination were Fort Duquesne, Niagara, Crown Point, and Fort Beausejour. Success on all fronts would oust New France from the Ohio country, sever communications between Quebec and the Great Lakes (and hence Louisiana), force the Canadians back to the St. Lawrence, and safeguard Nova Scotia.

The British government might have relied on colonists and their Indian allies to carry the military burden of this far-flung campaign, but this prospect inspired little optimism. The disunited colonies seemed incapable of concerted action, either for defense or in Indian affairs. In the summer of 1754, seven colonies sent representatives to Albany to discuss defense problems and to entice the Six Nations out of their neutrality. Although the Albany Conference proposed a Plan of Union calling for united action in defense matters and Indian relations, no colonial assembly approved the plan; and the Iroquois, far from being receptive, inclined dangerously toward France. Thus the British ministry was forced to commit regular troops to the enterprise and centralize Indian affairs under imperial control.

Early in 1755 Major General Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia with two understrength regular regiments that were to be recruited to full strength in the colonies. The commander in chief also had authority to raise two new regiments in America and to appoint qualified men to superintend Indian affairs. The British government expected Braddock’s four regiments, along with Nova Scotia’s permanent garrison, to conduct the campaign with only minimal assistance from provincial troops. However, since the colonies had begun raising men for attacks on Crown Point and Fort Beausejour, Braddock integrated these forces into his planning. A British regular officer commanded colonial troops in the Fort Beausejour area, but the commander at Crown Point was New Yorker William Johnson, whom Braddock also appointed as superintendent for northern Indians. Leading the Niagara expedition was Governor Shirley, Braddock’s second in command. The commander in chief personally headed the Fort Duquesne prong of England’s fourfold advance against Canada’s outer bastions.

The 1755 campaign resulted in one success, one semi-success, and two failures. A combined force of regulars and militiamen easily captured Fort Beausejour. Johnson’s army crawled northward and in early September defeated a French army at the Battle of Lake George. Colonists naturally lauded the victory, but Johnson failed to exploit his success and abandoned the projected Crown Point attack. Ominously, with the pressure relaxed, the French began building Fort Ticonderoga twelve miles south of Crown Point. Meanwhile Shirley’s expedition got as far as Oswego but did not advance farther before the campaigning season ended.3 Braddock suffered a greater calamity. Hacking his way through a hundred miles of uninhabited wilderness, Braddock achieved a logistical masterpiece in getting his army to within a day’s march of Fort Duquesne. But on July 9 near the Monongahela River, the British advance party unexpectedly collided with an enemy army that was hurrying from the fort to lay an ambush farther down the trail. The initial encounter surprised both sides, but the French force recovered quickly, fanned out along the flanks of Braddock’s column, and gained possession of a hill dominating the British position. The English regulars in the vanguard fell back on the main force advancing to the scene. Chaos and panic ensued as the British fought an invisible enemy hidden in the dense foliage on either side of the road. Before being fatally wounded, Braddock valiantly tried to rally his men, but the remnants of his shattered army fled from the battlefield.

The failure to take Crown Point, the abortive Niagara venture, and Braddock’s defeat established the pattern for Britain’s war effort during the next two years. Ambitious plans produced meager results, while New France seemed to succeed in every endeavor. The operations proposed by Shirley for 1756 were almost a replica of 1755, but these grandiose plans did not produce a single victory. Instead, the colonies endured a crippling setback when Montcalm demolished Oswego, severing British access to the Great Lakes. The next year was equally bad for the British. Montcalm captured Fort William Henry, and, as he had at Oswego the previous year, the French commander razed the fort and withdrew. Almost simultaneously Lord Loudoun, the new British North American commander in chief, canceled his major offensive, an assault on Louisbourg, when he learned that a French naval squadron had reinforced the harbor. British General John Forbes gloomily summarized the situation at the end of 1757, writing that “the French have these severall years by past, outwitted us with our Indian Neighbors, have Baffled all our projects of Compelling them to do us justice, nay have almost every where had the advantage over us, both in political and military Genius, to our great loss, and I may say reproach.”

Despite the succession of losses, Britain had established the preconditions for victory in North America. Beginning in midsummer 1758, its prospects brightened. Fundamental to this transformation was William Pitt’s ascent to power within the British ministry. In June 1757 he assumed control over the war effort, and by the next summer his strategic concepts prevailed. Since the late 1730s a debate had raged over which should dominate, a continental or a maritime and colonial strategy. Continental advocates argued for a large-scale military commitment in Europe. Devotees of a maritime and colonial strategy, including Pitt, asserted that the Royal Navy should sweep enemy commerce from the seas; then, using its seaborne freedom of movement to hurl superior forces into the imperial domain, England should make its primary effort against enemy colonies. In particular, Pitt believed that America was the main prize. Under his leadership the war’s foremost objective was to obtain security for the thirteen colonies. Realizing that this meant the conquest of Canada, Pitt was prepared to commit vast resources to the task.

Under Pitt’s guidance the British navy asserted its superiority in numbers and spirit, blockading French ports to prevent the departure of squadrons, reinforcements, and supplies. Since Canada depended on constant transfusions from the mother country, the French position in America became increasingly anemic. Starvation stalked the land, the economy collapsed, and when Montcalm pleaded for more troops, he received only token forces. France could not risk losing large numbers of transports to British ships patrolling the North Atlantic. By 1758 Canada’s resources were so limited that it adopted a defensive strategy, and the initiative passed to the Anglo-Americans.

In late December 1757, Pitt wrote to the colonial governors assuring them that England had “nothing more at Heart, than to repair the Losses and Disappointments of the last inactive, and unhappy Campaign.” To ensure future success Pitt dispatched massive reinforcements of regulars, and to inspire the colonists to greater efforts he promised to repay most of their expenses. His objectives for 1758 included Ticonderoga and Crown Point, Louisbourg, Fort Duquesne, and, if conditions permitted, Quebec.

Abercromby failed at Ticonderoga, but other British endeavors met with success. The Louisbourg expedition, commanded by Jeffery Amherst, succeeded. In early June he sent his men toward shore against stout defensive positions at Gabarus Bay. Brigadier General James Wolfe, leading four companies of regulars, made a lodgment and audaciously ordered his outnumbered men to attack, surprising the French and establishing a small beachhead. The defenders scurried into Louisbourg and the siege began, ending with the stronghold’s capitulation in late July. Since it was late in the campaign season, Amherst decided against attacking Quebec. Meanwhile Abercromby, following his defeat by Montcalm in July, destroyed Fort Frontenac in late August. Several months later General Forbes approached Fort Duquesne, haunted by the memory of Braddock’s defeat, hindered by transportation problems, and handicapped by difficulties with Indian allies. But when he arrived at the fort, he found it abandoned.

Although the central approach to Canada remained blocked, England had penetrated its perimeter defenses in the east and west. British targets for the next year were obvious: Niagara, to remove the last French bastion in the west; Ticonderoga and Crown Point, to open the way to Montreal; and Quebec, to rip the heart out of Canada.

British arms won victories on all fronts in 1759. The Niagara expedition captured the French position in late July, and Amherst succeeded where Abercromby had failed. With an 11,000-man army he approached Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Since the French commander in the area had only 3,000 men, Montcalm ordered him to delay the British but to retreat northward rather than lose his army in a futile defense. By early August both strongholds were in British hands. Amherst entrusted the crucial Quebec operation to Wolfe, who had performed so nobly at Louisbourg. Learning of the expedition in advance, Montcalm concentrated most of Canada’s manpower there. With an army 8,500 strong, supported by about one-fourth of the British navy, Wolfe arrived at Quebec in late June. Once he was there his real problems began. The city’s natural strength and large garrison confronted him with “such a Choice of Difficultys, that I own myself at a Loss how to [proceed].” By early September, after several unsuccessful attempts to breach Montcalm’s defenses, Wolfe was pessimistic. Deciding on a last desperate gamble, in the early-morning hours of September 13 he landed an elite force at the base of steep cliffs barely two miles from the city. In the darkness the infantry struggled hand over hand up the precipitous slope and overwhelmed a French outpost. Within hours 4,500 redcoats had assembled on the Plains of Abraham just west of Quebec, while Montcalm hastened his regulars to the scene. In a brief midmorning battle, fought in accordance with accepted European standards, the British routed the French army. Four days later the citadel surrendered, although the French army’s escape to Montreal prevented the victory from being decisive.

The once expansive Canadian domain now consisted only of Montreal, and the stricken colony’s only chance for survival was the recapture of Quebec. In the spring of 1760 a French force made a gallant effort to reclaim the city but failed. The pitiful remnants of Canada’s army then huddled in Montreal as powerful British forces converged on it from Quebec, Lake Ontario, and Crown Point. When all three armies arrived simultaneously in early September, the Canadian governor had to surrender.

Montreal’s capitulation ended the war in North America, but it continued on the seas, in Europe, in the West Indies, and in Asia until February 1763, when the combatants signed the Peace of Paris. British arms were victorious everywhere. Even Spain’s entry into the war against England in January 1762 could not save France from a humiliating defeat. Territory around the globe changed hands, but the treaty’s most momentous provisions concerned America, where France lost all its territory except for two small islands off the Newfoundland coast. To England it ceded Canada, Cape Breton Island, and all its land claims east of the Mississippi except for New Orleans. France ceded this city and all its territorial claims west of the Mississippi to Spain, which in turn gave Florida to Britain. From St. Augustine to Hudson Bay, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, England reigned supreme.

British Regulars and Colonial Militias at War

Colonial troops and, to a lesser extent, Indians contributed to Canada’s defeat, but British regulars bore the brunt of the fighting. The relationships among redcoats, colonials, and Indians were strained, but the developing rift between British officers and colonial civilians was even more ominous. Regular officers believed colonial troops had no merits. They were, wrote one of Braddock’s subordinates, “totally ignorant of Military Affairs.” They were ill disciplined and lazy and, lacking even elementary knowledge of camp sanitation, suffered an appalling rate of sickness. Colonies never fielded as many men as the legislatures voted, officers failed to report accurately their unit’s strength, and men deserted in droves, so the number of colonial troops was always uncertain. The large enlistment bounties that were needed also made colonial recruits exorbitantly expensive.

This catalog of shortcomings was true in many respects, and understanding why is important. The Great War for Empire was a war of conquest, requiring extended offensives far from the homes of most militiamen. But the militia was a system for local defense. Large numbers of militiamen could not be absent long without leaving their colonies vulnerable to enemy raids and without dislocating the local economy. Militiamen were part-time citizen-soldiers who had to run businesses, tend crops, and conduct the fishing and fur trades. Consequently, authorities hesitated to impose militia drafts and instead relied on volunteers, who came primarily from the lowest social strata. In the few cases when a colony resorted to a draft, the sending of substitutes and paying of commutation fines ensured that few middle- or upper-class citizens served. But of all the high-ranking British officers serving in North America, Lord Loudoun alone seemed to realize that colonists marching with English regulars against some distant fort were different from the men enrolled on militia musters. “The Militia,” he wrote, “are the real Inhabitants; Stout able Men, and for a brush, much better than their Provincial Troops, whom they hire whenever they can get them, and at any price.” Almost all other British officers confused the expeditionary forces with the actual militia, thus misjudging the militia’s military potential in defense of its own terrain.

Holding such a low opinion of colonial soldiers, British officers relegated them to auxiliary functions. They built roads, served as wagoners and boatmen, and repaired and constructed forts. With their aristocratic ties and long years of experience, English officers were reluctant to treat American officers, who were usually young and newly commissioned, as equals. While provincial officers had traditionally relied on exhortation and admonishment to maintain discipline, English officers inflicted ferocious punishment upon enlisted men, including liberal use of the lash and, for serious offenses, execution by hanging or firing squad. To colonial soldiers, whippings and executions were horrific and unnecessary. And because the redcoats engaged in swearing, excessive drinking, and whoring, the colonists also condemned them as profane, irreligious, and immoral—pollutants in a pure land. And initial British defeats mingled with earlier memories, making a lasting impression. The Walker expedition, Cartagena, Braddock, Loudoun at Louisbourg—what right did professionals have to claim superiority? All in all, serving with British regulars graphically reminded colonists of a standing army’s threat to free people living in a free society, and persuaded them that their own military institutions were morally and militarily superior.

British officers also considered Indians questionable allies. Amherst described them as “a pack of lazy, rum-drinking people, and little good,” and Forbes accused them of being “more infamous cowards than any other race of mankind” and having a “natural fickle disposition.” These impressions flowed in part from cultural ethnocentrism, but also from the natives’ difficult position in the white rivalry swirling around them. Between 1748 and 1760 England and France negotiated constantly with the Indians and tried to buy their allegiance through lavish gift giving. While the natives listened to, and took presents from, both French and English ambassadors, they were naturally anxious to be on the winning side. Inactivity, duplicity, and hesitancy to go on the warpath were stratagems to buy time until a clear-cut winner emerged. But these traits exasperated British professionals, who demanded unwavering commitment.

Initially, with English arms suffering reverses, Indians tended to support the French, and the British maintained the neutrality of important tribes, such as the Creeks and Iroquois, only through astute diplomacy coupled with large expenditures for gifts. The turning point in Indian relations, as in the war itself, came in 1758 when a reversal of battlefield fortunes occurred and the naval blockade prevented French goods from reaching Canada. Addicted to European products through the fur trade and white gift giving, French-aligned natives suffered. The tide of allegiance shifted to England.

Although the British found that friendly Indians were useful, in the final analysis they were not essential. To combat American conditions and the enemy’s guerrilla methods, the British recruited white frontiersmen and organized them into ranger companies to perform duties traditionally done by natives. Regulars also made certain tactical adaptations. They formed light infantry companies composed of agile, lightly armed men who received training in irregular warfare tactics. Some units learned to deliver aimed fire rather than volleys, to maneuver by companies instead of battalions, and to march single file to lessen the impact of an ambush. These modifications, however, were not widespread, and the British army’s success depended on standard European practices. The regulars’ discipline and organized persistence counterbalanced the virtues of Indian-style warfare.

Relations between British regulars and colonial civilians were a reenactment of the Walker expedition performed on a continent-wide stage. Conflicts over recruitment, quarters, transportation, and provisions fueled mutual resentment. To fill understrength regiments and raise new ones, the British hoped to tap the colonial manpower reservoir. In 1755 and 1756 they met considerable success, enlisting some 7,500 colonists, but thereafter the number of recruits dwindled. One reason was that men had a choice: long-term service in the regulars with low pay and harsh discipline, or short-term service in a provincial unit with an enlistment bounty, higher pay, and lax discipline. Another reason was the often violent opposition to the unscrupulous methods British recruiters used. For example, they recruited heavily among indentured servants, a practice that colonists considered “an unconstitutional and arbitrary Invasion of our Rights and Properties” that cast suspicion on all recruiting. By 1757 mobs regularly harassed recruiters and “rescued” men whom they assumed had been illegally recruited. The inability to find men outraged professionals and forced Pitt to rely on full-strength regiments from the home islands.

Redcoats needed quarters, especially during winter, but America had few public buildings that could serve as barracks. The only option was to quarter them in private houses, but citizens argued that soldiers could not be quartered in a private home without the owner’s consent. Civilians had the law on their side, but Loudoun insisted that “Whilst the War lasts, Necessity, will Justify exceeding” normal quartering procedures. He told the Albany city government “that if they did not give Quarters, I would take them” by force. Albany officials maintained that Loudoun “assumed a Power over us Very inconsistent with the Liberties of a free and Loyal People. . . .” Civilians and soldiers invariably reached an accommodation over quarters, but only at a high cost in mutual trust.

The British government also counted on colonial assemblies to provide adequate provisions and timely transportation, but the colonies proved stingy and dilatory—at least in the opinion of regular officers. Every British officer complained about the reluctance of assemblies to comply “with the just and equitable demands of their King and Country,” but legislators acted at their own deliberate pace. They were so slow in fulfilling requests that the British frequently impressed or seized what they needed, which was an unjustified exercise of arbitrary power from the colonial perspective.

British officers thought they perceived sinister motives in the colonials, who seemed “bent upon our ruin, and destruction,” working tirelessly “to disappoint every Plan of the Government.” Professional soldiers simply misunderstood colonial institutions and political philosophies. England’s appointment of a commander in chief for North America imposed centralized military control on a decentralized political system. Each colony considered itself sovereign and was anxious to maintain its freedom of action in military affairs. Allowing the Crown’s representative, who was also a high-ranking officer in a suspect standing army, to direct the war effort would reduce every colony’s independence. Furthermore, many colonists accepted radical Whig ideology, which preached a dichotomy between power and liberty. Every accretion of power reduced freedom’s sphere. When the British army recruited fraudulently, quartered men illegally, impressed property, and tried to bully assemblies, colonists feared that growing military power threatened their liberty. Colonial legislatures believed they were fighting two wars of equal importance, one against France and one for liberty.

Several important themes emerged from the colonial wars. First, most Americans gained a high opinion of their martial abilities and a low opinion of British professionals. Colonists typically emphasized British defeats and insufficiently praised the triumphs of Amherst, Forbes, and Wolfe. Such attitudes were a tribute to the colonists’ selective military memory and help explain colonial confidence in 1775. Second, the wars had a nationalizing impact. In 1763 each colony still jealously protected its sovereignty, yet during the wars against New France important experiments in cooperation had occurred. The Albany Plan, though rejected, was an evolutionary step leading to the First Continental Congress. During the colonial wars English colonists became Americans. Finally, a growing estrangement between England and the colonies emerged. Many Englishmen agreed with Loudoun that the colonies assumed “to themselves, what they call Rights and Privileges, Totally unknown in the Mother Country.” Many colonists concurred with the Albany city council, which stated that “Upon the Whole we conceive that his Majesties Paternal Cares to Release us [from the threat of France] have in a Great Measure been Made use of to oppress us.” The Peace of Paris, which should have pleased Englishmen everywhere, left a bitter heritage.

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