The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814


This book explores the evolution of Americans' first way of war, to show how war waged again Indian noncombatant population and agricultural resources became the method early Americans' employed and, ultimately, defined their military heritage. The sanguinary story of the American conquest of the Indian peoples east of the Mississippi River helps demonstrate how early Americans embraced warfare shaped by extravagant violence and focused on conquest. Grenier provides a major revision in understanding the place of ...

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This book explores the evolution of Americans' first way of war, to show how war waged again Indian noncombatant population and agricultural resources became the method early Americans' employed and, ultimately, defined their military heritage. The sanguinary story of the American conquest of the Indian peoples east of the Mississippi River helps demonstrate how early Americans embraced warfare shaped by extravagant violence and focused on conquest. Grenier provides a major revision in understanding the place of warfare directed on noncombatants in the American military tradition, and his conclusions are relevant to understand US "special operations" in the War on Terror.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Read it as a clear, informed survey of the lesser-known wars of early American history, or as a strongly argued reinterpretation of the pattern and relevance of early American military experience, John Grenier's excellent book earns a place on the short shelf of essential books in U.S. military history."
-John Shy, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

"John Grenier demonstrates convincingly that there was an American way of war in the colonial and revolutionary eras, which was before the time when previous historians have acknowledged the beginnings of an American pattern of conflict. This earlier form of warfare was in some respects far more brutal and devastating than what came later; but the tendency to blur the differences between civilians and combatants has remained a troubling part of our martial heritage. Grenier's impressive volume will require us to rethink the contours of American military history."
-Don Higginbotham, Dowd Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"The First Way of War offers an important reminder that early Americans fought their wars in a variety of ways. One way was largely designed for Indians, depended on unconventional methods, and could be terrifyingly violent. Based on wide and deep research, Grenier surveys a variety of wars between American colonists and Indians, covering both familiar and rarely-tread ground, and details the different techniques tried, adopted, and sometimes discarded as the colonists struggled to find a way to defeat a resilient and resourceful enemy. This is a significant contribution to the increasingly complex and subtle field of early American military history."
-Professor Wayne E. Lee, Department of History, The University of Louisville

"Grenier makes a strong case that a distinctive method of American warfare emerged during the colonial era. The author has the rare facility of combining an exciting narrative with thought-provoking analysis. A well-researched and well-written book that deserves serious consideration."
-Brian McAllister Linn, Texas A&M University

"The First Way of War is a well-crafted and exhaustively documented piece of scholarship, with each footnote an authoritative mini-bibliographical essay."
-Thomas W. Cutrer, Arizona State University, Military History

"...Grenier's study reveals North America's four-hundred-year continuum of irregular warfare and challenges Americans to confront the stark realities of their 'martial culture'."
-Kevin T. Barksdale, Marshall University, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"The book works well as an overview of warfare in eastern North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Grenier's long perspective usefully conflates a multitude of little wars into a long-term struggle between Europeans and native peoples for survival and dominance in North America, a struggle that climaxed in the British triumph in the French and Indian War."
-Andrew Cayton, Miami University, The International History Review

"well-written monograph...thanks in part to Grenier's lucid prose, we have an excellent analysis of how Americans waged unlimited war from the early colonial period to the beginning of the Republic."
-John Richard Mass, Ohio State University, The North Carolina Historical Review

"The book's strength lies in its recognition and treatment of the asymmetrical dimension of war as it relates to societies and cultures in general...Grenier's book is lucid and well-written"
-MAJ Joseph P. Alessi, USA, Military Review

"[Grenier] has addressed the arguments of would-be critics like myself with a sound analytical framework and a well-researched and well-presented narrative. Scholars of American history and of military history will find this book thoughtful and highly provocative."
-Guy Chet, University of North Texas, American Historical Review

"...a richly insightful contribution to the literature on American ways of war." -Adam Jones, Journal of Genocide Research

"The First Way of Ware is a well-researched and thought-provoking work overall. In addition, the historiographical magnitude of Grenier's arguments alone should make it required reading for serious students of early American military history."
The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Wesley T. Joyner, University of Southern Mississippi

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521845663
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/31/2005
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 1,270,339
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

John Grenier is an independent scholar. The First Way of War won the 2007 Society for Military History award as the Outstanding Book in American History. He is also the author of The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710–1760 (2008).

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521845661 - The First Way of War - American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 - by John Grenier


This study began as an attempt to address one of early American military history's most perplexing ambiguities and contradictions: the place and relationship between what we today know as unlimited war and what eighteenth-century writers termed petite guerre (little war) in the American military tradition. Unlimited war, in both its modern and earliest American manifestations, centers on destroying the enemy's will or ability to resist by any means necessary, especially by focusing attacks on civilian populations and the infrastructure that supports them. Military theorists now use several different terms in place of petite guerre, including "irregular," "guerrilla," "partisan," "unconventional," or "special" operations.1 Today's United States military places those kinds of wars under the rubric of "low-intensity conflict." But no matter what we call it or how we define it today, early Americans understood war to involve disrupting enemy troop, supply, and support networks; gathering intelligence through scouting and the taking of prisoners; ambushing and destroying enemy detachments; serving as patrol and flanking parties for friendly forces; operating as advance and rear guards for regular forces; and, most important, destroying enemy villages and fields and killing and intimidating enemy noncombatant populations.2

Military historians long have sought to describe Americans' approach to war. Russell F. Weigley has been the most influential of the scholars to suggest that Americans have created a singular military heritage. Indeed, his seminal book The American Way of War established the paradigm that most scholars use to explain the American military tradition. This study offers an alternative understanding to Weigley's, one based on the proposition that war focused on noncombatant populations is itself a fundamental part of Americans' military past, indeed, is Americans' first way of war.

Weigley's argument, and with it the accepted synthesis of American military history, rested on two conceptual pillars, both the products of post-Napoleonic German scholarship. First, he contended that Carl von Clausewitz's On War defines in general terms the parameters within which we can understand America's military culture. Clausewitz distinguished between two kinds of war: those that seek the overthrow of the enemy and those that seek merely to achieve a limited victory. Weigley asserted that all of American military history falls in that framework. In America's earliest wars, he argued, English colonists, and later the United States, proved too weak to pursue anything other than limited wars; as time went on and Americans' military might grew, however, Americans increasingly fought unlimited wars to overthrow their enemies. The Civil War, especially William T. Sherman's March to the Sea, symbolized how Americans embraced the Clausewitzian conception of the complete destruction of the enemy as a goal of war.3

The second part of Weigley's thesis derived from his understanding of another German military philosopher and historian, Hans Delbrück. Delbrück suggested that there are two kinds of military strategy: the strategy of annihilation, which seeks to erase an enemy's military power in a thunderclap of violence, and the strategy of attrition, which attempts to erode it.4 Weigley argued that most modern American military strategists have preferred Delbrückian wars of annihilation and closing with the enemy for the "decisive" battle. He suggested that when American military resources were slight, Americans accepted the strategy of attrition out of necessity. But the abundance of economic resources characteristic of the United States from the mid-nineteenth century on, coupled with the adoption of Clausewitzian unlimited war aims, created an environment in which the strategy of annihilation became the American way of war. Weigley's synthesis of Clausewitz and Delbrück therefore led him to see American military history through a lens that focuses only on the complete destruction of the enemy through annihilation of the enemy's military power.

Two features of Weigley's account limit its explanatory power and range.5 First, it is disjunctive. Weigley established a demarcation between American wars before and after 1846, similar to the break that we sometimes assume separates colonial from later American history. He saw America's pre-Mexican War conflicts as limited-attritional wars; thereafter, Americans turned to an approach more in line with the unlimited-annihilationist model. Weigley suggested, for example, that a lack of military resources influenced George Washington's and Nathanael Greene's commitment to limited-attritional strategies in the War of Independence. Thus, while crediting Greene with creating an American conception of guerrilla war, he contended, "The later course of American military history, featuring a rapid rise from poverty of resources to plenty, cut short any further American evolution of Greene's type of strategy. He therefore remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war."6 The assumption that colonial military history differed significantly from what followed led Weigley, with his focus on post-mid-nineteenth-century American war, to minimize continuity and evolution in America's military past in favor of an abrupt and "revolutionary" departure from previous norms and institutions.

Weigley's tendency to privilege the affairs of regular armies over the actions and attitudes of nonprofessional soldiers marks the second limiting characteristic of his argument. His subject was primarily the formal entity of the United States Army or, in the case of the colonial period, the British Army. Weigley's approach to military history centered on organizations, major campaigns, doctrinal thinking, and diplomacy. From it, he explained superbly the grand strategy and policy of the United States Army. Americans, however, had served and fought outside professional military organizations for nearly 175 years before the Army came into existence in 1775. And while many Americans found their way to both the British and United States Armies, many more fought as Indian fighters as members of ad hoc organizations formed for specific operations and disbanded at their conclusion. Thus, Weigley was unable to provide more than a few incidental insights into the non-Army aspects of the American military experience.

Yet if we look closely at early American military history, we see that it had less to do with grand strategy, the movements of armies, or the clash of nations than with what eighteenth-century writers called petite guerre. War in early America among Americans, Indians, Britons, Canadians, Frenchmen, and Spaniards consisted of a multitude of "little wars" and quasi-personal struggles. Although in the 1690s the colonists became embroiled in the century-long series of Anglo-French conflicts that historians sometimes call the Second Hundred Years' War, Americans fought those wars for different ends. While great European armies fought for dynastic and geopolitical goals in Europe, handfuls of colonists waged life-and-death struggles against Indians and Canadians on the American frontier. Without a Sébastien Vauban-style web of fortifications and magazines covering the land, or the massive armies like those engaged at Lützen, Blenheim, and Mollwitz, petite guerre reigned supreme.7 Americans' use of petite guerre did not end with the colonial era's wars. A series of small but brutal wars between frontiersmen and Indians ran concurrently with the War of Independence in the Transappalachian West and along the New York frontier. Similarly, the first military operations of the United States in the 1790s were not wars typical of the state-centered struggles occurring in Europe at that time. The American wars were primarily conflicts waged against Indians on the frontier that only occasionally, and usually reluctantly, saw the participation of the United States Army. Even in the 1810s, the period that most historians credit with signaling the birth of a professional American Army, petite guerre proved as important as, if not more important than, the operations of that Army in the American conquest of the Old Northwest and Old Southwest. For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war that contemporary professional soldiers supposedly abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.

Why, then, did Weigley not address that ubiquitous albeit darker side of American military history in his analysis? The answer would seem to be that, like the German theorists on whose work he drew, he tended to see professional military behavior and organization as normative.8 Clausewitz's service on the Russian general staff in 1812, in which he witnessed firsthand the horrifying behavior of the Tsar's Cossacks, led to his repudiation of their methods as an inferior, as well as ineffectual, way to fight.9 Clausewitz argued that war, rightly understood, was the rational instrument of national policy; he wrote that if "civilized nations do not put their prisoners to death, do not devastate towns and countries, this is because their intelligence exercises greater influence on their mode of carrying on War, and has taught them more effectual means of applying force than these rude acts of mere instinct."10 Delbrück, on the other hand, was a Prussian nationalist interested in chronicling the nineteenth-century Wars of German Unification. He emphatically shared Clausewitz's belief that war fell within the purview of a legitimate nation-state.11

Weigley embedded both Clausewitz's revulsion at indiscriminate violence and Delbrück's focus on national war in his analysis. These biases - for that is what they are - led Weigley to discount the kind of war that early Americans waged as abnormal or unworthy of serious consideration. In the process, Weigley created, like the military theorists who preceded him, an artificial dichotomy between "regular" and "irregular" war and organization.12 In Weigley's paradigm, the frontier wars against Indians are relatively unimportant. He saw American military history following a path of Clausewitzian-Delbrückian evolution from the mid-nineteenth century to its ultimate manifestation in World War Ⅱ. In reality, the American way of war also traveled an evolutionary route that began with the first days of European settlement in the early seventeenth century and stretched into the early nineteenth century.

Weigley's interpretation bestrides American military historiography like a colossus. Military historians have been unable to move far beyond it and advance a new synthesis on the place of early war making in the broader American military tradition. Most early American military historians, a small group to begin with, have focused their studies on military institutions and organizations. Moreover, the most recent review essays on colonial military history, as well as the definitive bibliography on United States military history, show that the topic of early American war making is bereft of any general study of petite guerre.13 Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace, for example, discusses America's small wars after the birth of the Federal government; the first small war he addresses is the Barbary War of 1801-1805. Indeed, Boot "focuses strictly on American small wars abroad," most of which "were fought by relatively small numbers of professional soldiers pursuing limited objectives with limited means."14 The First Way of War describes a small war tradition that saw nonprofessional soldiers pursue unlimited objectives, often through irregular means.

One group of historians, nonetheless, has noted that there was something distinctive about war in colonial America. That difference often manifested itself in patterns of extravagant violence and petite guerre. For example, Ian Steele argues that Americans built a tradition of war that was an amalgam of both traditional European and Indian methods of war. Adam Hirsch similarly contends that the very different military cultures of native and colonizing groups interacted dialectically in seventeenth- century New England. "In the New World, honor was tossed aside - and once the colonists set the precedent, the surrounding Indians followed antecedent of total war had somehow emerged."15 Ronald Dale Karr, building on Hirsch's argument and focusing on the Pequot War, argues that the "virulent hybridization of military cultures" of which Hirsch wrote resulted from the failure of the English and the Pequots to maintain a reciprocal relationship, a balance of power, in which they mutually defined and agreed upon the limits of permissible battlefield behavior. English failure to see the Pequots as sovereign, Karr suggests, ordained that they would treat the Indians like rebels, heretics, or infidels.16 Yet, in cases where a rough balance of power existed and the Indians even appeared dominant - as was the situation in virtually every frontier war until the first decade of the nineteenth century - Americans were quick to turn to extravagant violence.

Two other historians have delved into how early Americans viewed their environment and themselves to help illuminate the fundamental characteristics of American war making. John Ferling argues that the wilderness, coupled with racism, imparted a unique "brutality" to early American military history, an experience that led Americans to look toward extirpating Indians. He suggests that while "Europe's wars grew less ferocious, or at least had less drastic impact on the civilian population, American wars tended to become more feral."17 John Dederer contends that the distinctive characteristic of early American military history centered on Americans' combined experiences of Indian fighting with their reading of histories of antiquity's wars. As a result, Americans forged the ideal of the militarily self-sufficient citizen-soldier in the service of a virtuous republic.18 Together, Ferling and Dederer are right to suggest that brutality and self-sufficiency in distant locales profoundly shaped early Americans' experience of war.

Guy Chet argues there was little distinctly American in the ways that the colonists fought. He narrowly focuses his analysis on the tactical level of war and the overwhelming majority of his narrative on the seventeenth century. Chet finds that the first colonists remained committed to European tactics and maintained a preference for massed firepower and the tactical defense. His aim is to challenge the suggestion that New England militiamen fought "Indian style." But in finding continuity between European and American tactics in the early seventeenth century, he stopped his analysis there and engaged in a cursory narrative of Queen Anne's, King George's, and the Seven Years' Wars. He thereby missed how both American strategy and tactics evolved in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Thus, he is correct to observe that Americans conquered the Indians of North America through attrition, but he fails to explain how those attritive wars changed over time and space.19

Other historians have focused on how American operations influenced the development of the eighteenth-century British Army's doctrine and practice of war. Daniel Beattie has argued that the British Army in the Seven Years' War used petite guerre partially to overcome the problems involved in wilderness campaigning. Eric Robson, Rory Cory, and David Parker have suggested that its experiences in North America during the Seven Years' War and the War of Independence led the British Army to incorporate American-style tactics and organization during the Napoleonic Wars. Peter Russell believes that the tactics that the British Army used against Indians in America during the Seven Years' War originated in the British officer corps' mid-eighteenth-century experience fighting European partisans in Scotland, Flanders, and Central Europe. Taken together, Beattie's, Robson's, Cory's, Parker's, and Russell's interests lie with the British experience with petite guerre, an experience that they see had more importance for European than American military developments.20

The one area in which historians have come closest to addressing the impact of American conditions on the American military tradition has been in studies of the War of Independence. John Shy has argued that Charles Lee's argument for a "partisan" campaign against the British offered a "radical alternative" to the war conducted by George Washington and the Continental Army. Mark Kwasny shows that the state militias attached to Washington's army indeed fought a partisan war in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Similarly, John Pancake and others who have written on the Revolution in the South have described it as a partisan and brutal civil war. Wayne Lee's description of how North Carolinians accepted certain kinds of violence (brutality toward Indians who practiced unlimited ways of war and executions for Americans who engaged in unlimited war) as legitimate goes far in explaining the ferocity of the civil war in the South. Shy's essay on "British Strategy for the Southern War," coupled with Sylvia Frey's depiction of the Revolution in the South as a "Triangular" war among patriots, slaves, and British soldiers, especially suggests the distinctive war in the American South during the War of Independence.21

Yet in none of those works can we put the first way of war of the Revolutionary era in both the context of its development from the previous colonial wars and its impact on the development of the American military tradition that followed. Instead, the War of Independence appears as a militarily self-contained unit, with only tenuous ties to trends that came before it and none with patterns that followed it.22 Thus, these accounts, like Weigley's, are essentially disjunctive and similarly limited in explanatory power.

The break in the military historiography between the colonial era and the Age of the Early Republic is striking. Many fine studies exist that discuss the carryover of military institutions from the colonial period to the 1790s and early 1800s (e.g., the transformation of the Continental Army into the United States Army) or address the specifics of individual conflicts like the Old Northwest Indian War of 1789-1795 or the War of 1812. Few works, however, contextualize the American art of war as it evolved out of the colonial period, through the 1790s, and into the 1810s. Indeed Armstrong Starkey's recent book, European and Native American Warfare, is one of the few attempts to trace patterns of American war making from the late seventeenth century and the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century. The centerpiece of Starkey's analysis, however, is his explanation of how, from 1675 to 1815, regular warfare, primarily because Americans were incompetent at Indian-style fighting, inexorably came to dominate frontier warfare. Like Weigley, Starkey favors grande guerre over petite guerre, and as a result, the place of nonregular warfare in American military history remains ambiguous and unclear.23

This book therefore seeks to examine the whole of the early American military experience from 1607 through 1814 by addressing a series of questions. First, and centrally, how did Americans develop a way of war that was both unlimited in its ends and irregular in its means, and how did that way of war change over time? Second, what cultural, social, and military experiences and perceptions informed Americans' understanding and practice of war making? Similarly, which groups within American society participated in those wars, and why did they choose, or feel required, to do so? Finally, how and in what ways was early American war making distinctive?

The answers to those questions comprise my central argument: early Americans created a military tradition that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of noncombatants, villages, and agricultural resources. Most often, early Americans used the tactics and techniques of petite guerre in shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest. In the frontier wars between 1607 and 1814, Americans forged two elements - unlimited war and irregular war - into their first way of war.

Military history is passé in most academic circles, and its practitioners often are derided as the "drum and bugle corps." More often than not, critics see military history as litanies of orders of battle, the movements of regiments, or the deeds of the Great Captains. I have therefore tried to approach the writing of military history in such a way as to address the criticisms that many have levied against it. My approach is that of the so-called new military historians, who have tried to contextualize warfare by examining its social, cultural, and economic dimensions. In addition, however, I have tried always to bear in mind the essence of war for the soldier: to kill the enemy and destroy his means of resistance. I therefore also concentrate, like traditional military historians, on how early Americans used the first way of war to strike at their enemies, and how they forged a martial tradition from the materials at hand. Most important, this study is not about war in the abstract. It is about the essence of war: killing and destruction.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. The First Way of War's origins in Colonial America; 2. The First Way of War in the North American wars of King George II, 1739–55; 3. Continental and British Petite Guerre, circa 1750; 4. The First Way of War in the Seven Years' War, 1754–63; 5. The First Way of War in the era of the American Revolution; 6. The First Way of War in the 1790s; 7. The First Way of War and the final conquest of the transappalachian West.

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