Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast / Edition 1by Guy Chet
Pub. Date: 04/30/2003
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
A study of military tactics and strategy before the War of Independence, this book reexamines the conquest of the North American wilderness and its native peoples by colonial settlers. Historians have long believed that the peculiar conditions of the New World, coupled with the success of Indians tactics, forced the colonists to abandon traditional European methods
A study of military tactics and strategy before the War of Independence, this book reexamines the conquest of the North American wilderness and its native peoples by colonial settlers. Historians have long believed that the peculiar conditions of the New World, coupled with the success of Indians tactics, forced the colonists to abandon traditional European methods of warfare and to develop a new "American" style of combat. By combining firearms with guerrilla-like native tactics, colonial commanders were able not only to subdue their Indian adversaries but eventually to prevail against more conventionally trained British forces during the American Revolution. Yet upon closer scrutiny, this common understanding of early American warfare turns out to be more myth than reality. As Guy Chet reveals, clashes between colonial and Indian forces during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not lead to a reevaluation and transformation of conventional military doctrine. On the contrary, the poor performance of the settlers during King Philip's War (1675--76) and King William's War (1689--1697) prompted colonial magistrates to address the shortcomings of their military forces through a greater reliance on British troops and imperial administrators. Thus, as the eighteenth century wore on, growing military success in the New England colonies reflected an increasing degree of British planning, administration, participation, and command. The colonies' military and political leadership, Chet argues, never rejected the time-tested principles of European warfare, and even during the American War of Independence, the republic's military leadership looked to Europe for guidance in the art of combat.
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An interesting book that manages in 200 short pages to effectively challenge the tradition (or orthodoxy) of American Exceptionalism and 'Americanization' through the lens of American military history. The narration of the sometimes-horrifying and sometimes-comical encounters between English, Indian, French and British military forces indicates not only that American settlers retained their Old-World way of war (rather than creating a unique American way of war), but also that the 'old ways' triumphed in the New World. This book serves to further demonstrate that the Atlantic Ocean was not a barrier that culturally and politically separated the colonies from England. Instead, it was a bridge that, as Chet states, allowed the 'transportation of English culture --- military culture --- to the frontier of European civilization.' 'When examined within the context of imperial history, the story of warfare, like the story of politics and culture in colonial America, reads as a process by which the colonies were drawn toward England's cultural and administrative sphere of influence, rather than attempted to liberate themselves from it.'
A small book that packs a punch. In his 'Preface', Chet explains that he began writing this book in an effort to illustrate how Englishmen were militarily transformed into Americans; how they gradually gave up their European defensive tactics and instead adopted Indian offensive tactics. As with most myths, the deeper you dig, the less you find. The book Chet wound up writing demonstrates the exact opposite of what he originally thought he'd find. It shows how and why European tactics WORKED in North America, despite the terrain and the Indians' guerilla tactics. Although the book deals with the colonial period only and does not analyze the American Revolutionary War, Chet's argument fits in with what we know about George Washington's management of his army during the war. The sections about Benjamin Church, Rogers' Rangers, and British light infantry tactics are particularly interesting. The endnotes contain interesting and funny incidents that really enhance the impact of the text.
We've become so accustomed to hearing about the 'American Way of War' that we rarely bother to reexamine it. In Conquering the American Wilderness, Chet challenges the assumption that English settlers learned from Native Americans how to fight as guerillas. He demonstrates that English fighting methods remained the same throughout the colonial period, and that the failure of colonial forces to do the job well led to greater and greater reliance on British Redcoats. The key to the poor performance of provincials and to the overwhelming success of British regulars (culminating with the capture of Canada during the French and Indian War) was professionalism of officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. What's interesting about this book is that it explains the wisdom and demonstrates the effectiveness of Europe's linear tactics (which are so often portrayed as senseless ritual). Chet then illustrates why large heavy formations, drawn in lines of battle, were so effective against French and Indian guerillas. Conquering the American Wilderness also explains the origin of the myth of Americanization/Indianization of European warfare in the colonies, but because the book ends with the first battle of the American Revolution, it doesn't deal with the way the retelling of American victory magnified and enshrined the myth of the American guerilla tradition ('the American Way of War').