Military history


The Causes of Victory and the Experience of Empire


OF COURSE AMHERST was right; the convergence of the three armies was a remarkable event, and it had had an undeniably stunning effect on the French. But there had been much more to the conquest of Canada than the superbly timed convergence of armies. The very composition of the armies now ceremonially united under Amherst’s command testified to the fact that professionalism alone could not explain what had happened. Of the approximately 18,000 men who witnessed the French surrender at Montréal, only about 60 percent (fewer than 11,000) were regulars; the remainder included more than 6,500 provincial soldiers, drawn from every colony north of Pennsylvania, and more than 700 Iroquois warriors. The soldiers’ physical appearance bore witness that this was no conventional army: most of the provincials wore ordinary civilian clothes, while the regulars wore uniforms that would have made them a laughingstock in Europe. Since 1758 they had routinely cut the tails of their coats back almost to the waist; had trimmed the brims of their hats to within a couple of inches of the crown, and had worn them slouched, not cocked; had had their hair cut to a length of just an inch or two. At least one Highland regiment had given up the kilt in favor of breeches. Officers now seldom wore the gorgets and sashes that invited the attention of enemy marksmen; some had taken to wearing ordinary privates’ coats; a few had even begun to carry tomahawks. Except for the color of their coats, regulars had come to look more like provincials than many of their officers liked to admit. When one of them tried to describe “the droll figure we cut” in a letter home, the best he could do was to tell his correspondent that “you would not distinguish us from common plough men.”1

Changes in the uniform reflected more profound alterations in the army. Its tactics had undergone a transformation in America and now included “bush fighting” as well as conventional drill; a new command, for example, had been invented to deal with ambushes—“Tree all!” For at least three years the redcoats had been firing at marks and were now accustomed to aiming, rather than merely leveling, their muskets at the enemy. Rifles had been issued to the best marksmen in at least a few regular battalions, in tacit abandonment of the unwritten rule that no gentleman would countenance the intentional killing of enemy officers. The army employed specialized units on a scale that would have been extraordinary in Europe. In proportion to the total number of men under arms, for example, the American forces included fewer grenadiers, but many more light infantry: and not just companies of them, but whole battalions of little wiry men able to move quickly through the woods and secure the flanks of heavy columns traveling by road. And there were more exotic units, too, some of which would have seemed bizarre to European soldiers: ranger companies to make the raids and reconnaissance patrols that, in the absence of Indian auxiliaries, the regulars could not otherwise perform; a corps of armed bateaumen, raised specifically to fight and ferry supplies between Albany and Oswego; a unit of armed wagoners, formed to transport provisions from Albany to Lake George; crews for the armed schooners, sloops, and radeaux that had sailed the inland lakes to protect troops who could only “march” against the enemy in whaleboats and bateaux. 2

The measures necessary to overcome the distances and difficulties of overland communication were both heroic and alien to the standards by which professional officers ordinarily judged themselves and their adversaries. By 1760 there were forts everywhere in America, in locations that would have seemed impossibly remote to anyone who had not yet become acquainted with American warfare. From Fort Loudoun on the South Carolina frontier to the soon-to-be-leveled fortress of Louisbourg on the windswept tip of Cape Breton Island, these posts defended strategic points that, if overlaid on a map of Europe, would have stretched from London to Constantinople. To build such forts required phenomenal expense and exertion; to sustain them demanded the building of hundreds of miles of roads where none had ever been, as well as the construction of fortified way stations to protect the huge supply trains on which the whole system depended. To create and maintain this network required millions of pounds sterling and millions of man-hours of labor, the mobilization of tens of thousands of provincial soldiers and scores of thousands of civilians. These civilians were not just the wagoners, artificers, sutlers, and contractors directly involved in meeting the needs of the armies, but farmers and farm wives, laundresses, seamstresses, cordwainers, tanners, tailors, sail-makers, gunsmiths, laborers, mariners, farriers, boat-wrights, shipwrights, wheelwrights, rope-makers, coopers, carpenters, chandlers, butchers, bakers, and other ordinary colonists without whose skills and products—and without whose loyalty, taxes, and enthusiasm for the cause—the armies could never have remained in the field.3

Warfare on the fantastic geographical scale of the Seven Years’ War in America had been conceivable because Parliament was willing to grant the sums necessary to fund far-flung campaigns; because the British people were able to shoulder the taxes required by a war vaster than any their nation had ever fought; because the colonists cooperated in the imperial enterprise with an enthusiasm and a vigor unprecedented in their history. Amherst, the beneficiary of these vast financial, military, and emotional resources, could complete the conquest of Canada not just because his three northern armies converged in such remarkable synchrony on Montréal, but because the Royal Navy had cut off the French shipping without which Canada could not survive, and because the northern Indian nations had at length decided to cast their lot with the British. Most of all the conquest of Canada had become a reality because Pitt, the northern governors and legislatures, and Amherst himself had been able to mobilize the resources of entire colonial societies in support of the campaigns of 1758, 1759, and 1760. As a result, to a degree virtually unknown in the eighteenth century, every colony north of Virginia had experienced the conflict as a people’s war.

Much more than military professionalism, then, enabled three armies to converge on Montréal: a combination of factors so complex that no one present at the surrender ceremony on September 9, 1760, could fully have understood them. Certainly not Amherst and his generals, who believed that British discipline and efficiency had won the victory, and who accordingly discounted the contributions of amateurish Americans and savage Indians. Nor indeed could the provincials, who were as quick to dismiss the Indians as the British were, but who keenly appreciated how much their own labors had contributed to the outcome, and who had come to believe that the redcoats wished only to deprive them of their share of the glory. When, immediately after the surrender, Amherst ordered all of his provincials back to work on the rear-line forts while sending his regulars into early winter quarters, his action spoke clearly of what he understood to be the value, if not the worth, of the provincial troops. It was an opinion that the provincials did not share, and which they—predictably—resented. 4

The alienating consequences of this disparity between the viewpoints of regular officers and their provincial counterparts can be glimpsed in the journal of Captain Samuel Jenks, a thoughtful blacksmith from Point Shirley (Chelsea), Massachusetts, who served in the Bay Colony regiment that had accompanied Haviland’s expedition down Lake Champlain. Jenks and his fellow officers had already been offended when, after the surrender of Île-aux-Noix, Haviland would not allow them onto the island to take a look at the fort. It was, Jenks had written on August 28, “lookd upon as a very high affair, when we have done most part of the fatigue dureing the siege, & our men have been more exposed than [the regulars, that we] must now be denyd the liberty to go & see what [we] have fought for.” Following the surrender of Montréal, he and his comrades were intensely curious about the capital of Canada, but they had to content themselves with what sights they could see from two miles off. “This city,” he wrote, “makes a very beautiful appearance & [has] very fine buildings & beautiful improvements.” Or so “they look,” he added ruefully, “at a distance.” That very afternoon his regiment received its orders to march for Crown Point, where, he wrote, “I fear we shall be kept until ye last of November, for ye command is left to Haverland, & I know he delights to fatigue ye provincials.” And there in fact they stayed until November 18, working on the fort and its barracks despite a terrifying outbreak of smallpox, severe weather, and the utter lack of an enemy threat. In the end there was no love left to be lost between the provincials and regulars who together had added Canada to the British empire. “To day,” Jenks had commented on October 31, “the commanding officer [Haviland] keeps all the [provincial] troops on fatigue, so eager are they to git all they possibly can out of us before they dismis us. I think this parallell with ye devils rage, when he knew his time was short to plague mankind in; so I know their time is short like their masters.” A couple of weeks later, hearing that Haviland had fallen in the snow and broken his leg, Jenks could only comment, “I am sorry it was his leg.”5

Thus for many of the homesick—and more seriously ill—provincials, even the triumphant final campaign of the American war ended bitterly. Others no doubt felt mainly weariness, and gratitude at having survived their service. But not one of them who kept a record of his service thought to comment on the great imperial victory as a vindication of British military professionalism. Instead, they thanked God that the war had ended with so little shedding of blood. Gibson Clough, returning from Louisbourg after an absence of nearly two years, merely wrote, on New Year’s Day, 1761, “I arrive at Salem my native place, to my great Joy and content, and thus I conclude my Journal, with my best wishes and good will to all brother soldiers.” 6

Ensign Rufus Putnam, back in New Braintree, found more to say. He had overcome his scruples against further service when offered a commission, but then had found himself assigned once more to the Ticonderoga sawmills he detested. In this way he had been “deprived of the honour, and of Shearing in the feteague of twelve days Seage at the Isle de nanx,—which opened the way for the junction of the three British armies before Montreal.” At home once more on December 1, Putnam congratulated himself that, for the first time since 1757, he had not been cheated by regular officers. Then, in a final entry, he tried to sum up his reactions to the four campaigns he had served in. “And now, soon after my return home, I [have] concluded not to go into the service any more, not from any dislike to the service of my King and Country, or any misfortunes in the service, for, through the goodness of Divine Providence, I was always prospered in some measure, and had my health entirely the whole 4 years that I have been out. And, although I underwent many hardships and difficulties; yet, by the good hand of my God upon me, I was enabled to bear up under them all.”7 Then, without ceremony, ex-Ensign Putnam got on with his life. In the spring he married and, using money saved from his pay, set himself up as a farmer and millwright. Ex-Private Clough went back to his bricklaying; ex-Captain Jenks returned to his smithy.

Although Samuel Jenks, Gibson Clough, and Rufus Putnam never met to discuss the significance of what they had seen and learned during their service with the British armies, their experiences as provincials had given them strong, and fundamentally similar, opinions about the regular officers under, and the redcoat soldiers alongside, whom they had served; about the contributions that they, and other provincials like them, had made to the victory; about the importance of honoring the enlistment contracts they had entered into, in order to serve their king; about the mercy of a God who had ordained both a successful conclusion to the war and the preservation of their own lives through the perils of disease, accident, fatigue, and battle. More than they—and like them, thousands upon thousands of other provincial veterans—knew, the war had transformed their world. Moreover, the war had changed them, too, by laying the groundwork for something unprecedented in the history of the colonies: a generation capable, on the basis of shared experience, of forming a common view of the world, of the empire, and of the men who had once been their masters.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!