Reflections on the Revolution in North America

Some further notes on the French and Indian War.

I wrote my Times column for today, as a kind of quirky supplement to a series of pieces I’ve been about the debates over teaching American history, on the pressing subject of my childhood self’s favorite military conflict, the French and Indian War. Whether it’s a self-indulgent column is for the reader to decide, but rest assured that it was not as self-indulgent as it could have been if I’d gone on for another thousand words. But that’s what Substack is for — so here are three French and Indian thoughts, small to larger, that didn’t make it into the column.

The first is about the landscape of the war, particularly in upstate New York where the French and British traded so many blows over Fort William Henry and Fort Ticonderoga, Lake George and Lake Champlain. In the column I noted the stark natural beauty of that landscape: My wife was a reporter in Glens Falls once upon a time, and visiting her there and later as a tourist (I strongly recommend Lake George in early autumn, and the musket demonstration at Fort William Henry comes highly recommended by my kids), I sometimes found myself wondering what the combatants thought about the landscape, whether they had a strong romantic reaction to its heights and depths and colors, or whether that’s mostly just a modern imposition backward, the stuff of N.C. Wyeth paintings and Michael Mann movies, and they were too busy fighting and freezing and trudging and dying to appreciate aesthetics.

So I was particularly struck by this passage in Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, his history of the conflict, in which the Marquis de Montcalm’s French army and its Indian compatriots set off down the lake to besiege the British at William Henry (the battle at the center of The Last of the Mohicans, book and films):

Montcalm’s main army, numbering more than four thousand men, needed only a day to traverse the same distance by boat. Unlike the overburdened advance party, they made the trip in a festive mood. Perhaps the beauty of the lake — a drowned valley between mountain ranges, its waters studded with ‘a very great quantity of islands’ — animated those who rowed and rode with the dark, stolid ranks of bateaux; or perhaps it was the sight of scores of birch-bark canoes in the vanguard, gliding like a cloud over the lake’s blue surface, that lifted their spirits — for, as Bougainville wondered, “who could imagine the spectacle of fifteen hundred naked Indians in their canoes?” Whatever the cause, not even Montcalm’s strict orders for silence could restrain the gaiety his soldiers felt, and they fired musket salutes, beat rolls on the drum, and sounded hunting horns as their flotilla made its way up the lake. Disapproving of the breach of discipline and yet stirred by the fanfares that echoed between the mountains, Bougainville believed that these must have been “the first horns that have yet resounded through the forests of America.”

Something to think about the next time our family takes one of the Lake George ferry rides (also recommended) up and down the lake: The pull of the romantic isn’t just retrospective; it’s felt by men in the midst of action too.

The second thought is about what followed the battle for the fort — the post-surrender massacre of British troops by Montcalm’s native allies, an event that Anderson persuasively casts as a turning point of the North American war, which was immortalized (with a great many historical inaccuracies) in this scene fromMann’s Mohicans adaptations:

Reading about the war as a kid, with a general Connecticut Yankee and pro-British bias, the massacre was just a massacre: A culminating outrage amid a larger series of Anglo-American defeats. But in Anderson’s telling, the massacre was the moment when the great French advantage in the conflict, their stronger relationship with the tribes of the pays d’en haut, the Great Lakes region, was squandered by mutual incomprehension and incommensurate beliefs. Montcalm, a brilliant general in many ways, fundamentally wanted to fight a European war, with all the rules and etiquette that this entailed; his native allies, whose presence in large numbers helped make the early French campaigns so successful, expected the traditional (for them) spoils of war — “plunder, trophies to prove their prowess in battle, and captives to adopt or sacrifice as replacements for dead warriors or perhaps hold for ransom.” By failing to figure out how to deliver some version of these goods in the context of a civilized surrender, Montcalm had no way to prevent the debacle that followed — and worse than the debacle itself, its various sequelae, in the form of Indian detachment from the French cause and furious British vengeance:

Never again would Indian allies flock to the French colors as they had in 1757. The western Indians would discover too late that the English and provincials at William Henry had been suffering from smallpox, and thus that the captives, scalps and clothing they brought back carried the seeds of a great epidemic, which would devastate their homelands. No warriors from the pays d’en haut would help Montcalm again, and even the converts from the St. Lawrence missions would become reluctant to take up the hatchet. In coming campaigns Montcalm would rely on regulars and Canadians to oppose the regulars and provincials of the British, fighting increasingly in the European mode that he preferred. But although the conflict would in this sense be Europeanized after 1757, British officers would never be inclined to offer the honors of war to any French force. At the same time, provincial outrage over “the massacre of Fort William Henry” would feed an already ferocious anti-Catholic tradition in New England and intensify an undiscriminating Anglo-American hatred of Indians.

The essence of tragedy is that everyone’s conduct is somewhat rational and understandable — Montcalm’s desire to fight decently and humanely, the native attachment to their own warmaking customs, the Anglo-American outrage at the massacre of wounded men — and then Fate, here taking the form of those infected blankets, steps in to give the whole thing a push toward Doom (for the French and Indians, that is; the Anglo-Americans did fine).

From a Eurocentric perspective, Montcalm's mistake here is the most serious — his failure to recognize how much New France needed not just the natives but some version of the native way of war, which contrasted with his partner-cum-rival, the last governor-general of New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, who did recognize that necessity, but couldn’t get along with Montcalm and forge an effective strategy together.

But from a native perspective, if you assign the tribes the same agency we give to European decision-makers, the failure to accommodate the French general’s weird, effete war-making customs was ultimately the graver blunder, however understandable given tribal decentralization and dispersed decision-making. New France could evaporate and still France itself would survive, but the tribes of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes were playing for existential stakes without fully realizing it, and even after Fort William Henry they should have been doing everything, but everything, they could to ensure that the French connection endured. Whereas by the time of Pontiac’s rebellion it was simply too late, and everything belonged to might-have-been.

And speaking of might-have-been, a final thought: What would have happened had France somehow won the war?

In a way, the sheer importance of the conflict for subsequent events makes counterfactual speculation even more difficult than usual: The American and French Revolutions both immediately vanish from the timeline, taking much of modernity as we know it with them. Meanwhile the sheer unlikeliness of a French victory, given the odds against them, means that the easiest answer is that there would have been another war, eventually, and New France would have simply fallen in (let’s say) 1789 instead. (At the very least it’s awfully hard to imagine a timeline where the French permanently held the Ohio river valley, without some massive change in migration or population patterns.)

But since in the column I offered a positive depiction of what might have followed had Montcalm and Vaudreil defeated James Wolfe and Jeffrey Amherst — an enduring indigenous-French confederation, centered on the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence, that becomes a model for Catholic-mediated cultural exchange rather than simple conquest — in the spirit of historical complexity let’s ponder a darker hypothetical:

By surviving, New France doesn’t prevent deeper Anglo-American penetration of the continental interior; its existence just redirects settlement patterns southward, so that Yankeedom and Quakerdom are confined to the northeast but the southern frontier shifts more rapidly westward than in our timeline. The continued fear of French and Indian aggression, and the absence of the reckless attempts at imperial consolidation that helped provoke 1775-76, keep New Englanders loyal to the crown; there are no Sons of Liberty, no Boston Tea Party or Massacre, and Paul Revere makes his career skirmishing with French and Abenaki on the Maine frontier. But population and power move to the southern colonies, and over time the attempts by London to regulate westward migration — both to avoid yet another war with France and Spain and, eventually, under growing abolitionist influence, to prevent the spread of slavery — lead to an alternative-timeline American independence movement that looks like certain progressive caricatures of the real one: It’s led primarily by Carolinian planters and Jacksonian-type frontiersman, and explicitly inspired both by a fear of abolitionist sentiment in Britain and by a desire for a version of the slave empire that motivated certain proto-Confederates in the first half of the 19th century.

So an American revolution comes in the early 1800s, the colonies split, the northeast remains part of the British Empire, and a southern-dominated United States gradually spreads the way slaveholders envisioned — west and south, overwhelming the French in Louisiana and the Spanish in Texas and New Mexico, creating a different center of gravity for the New World, a more resilient foundation for chattel slavery. The benefit to Native Americans from New France’s survival comes at a severe, sustained cost to African-Americans specifically and freedom generally; Greater Yankeedom’s empire of liberty is stillborn, so a Southern empire of slavery gets formed instead.

And just like that, via counterfactual, I’ve talked myself out of might-have-been nostalgia, and back into straightforward Yankee patriotism. God bless America, mes amis.