Defeat in Victory

A painting of the fall of fortress Kolberg, during the Seven Years' War (A. Kotsebu; Wikimedia)

Here is the holiday gift for the history buff—a lush narrative of the French and Indian War. Literary types condescend to history readers as an unimaginative lot (as if the nine thousandth story of boy meets girl meets trouble could possibly be a cliff-hanger). But life is more wonderful than art, and history is life in the large, a medium for the elated discovery of amazements too improbable, too coincidental, too messy and over-the-top, for fiction. Fred Anderson begins this prodigious achievement with one such amazement. We are in a glen in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, and the twenty-two-year-old George Washington is our eyes and ears. He has just led an ambush of a small unit of French soldiers, who quickly surrender. Their wounded young officer, Ensign Joseph de Jumonville, approaches Washington with an official document. It is in French, and Washington looks back to summon his translator. Just as he does so, Tanaghrisson, the Iroquois “Half King” who has guided Washington to the ambush, cries out “Tu n'es pas encore mort, mon père” (“Thou art not yet dead, my father”), raises his hatchet over Jumonville's head, and crashes it into his skull. Reaching into the skull, he extracts a handful of Jumonville's brains and washes his hands in the pulpy gore. This scene occurs on the second page, all but defying you to put this wrist-bending book down.

Europeans remember what started in that glen as the Seven Years' War. They might with justice have called it the First World War, because it raged from Prussia to India, from the West Indies to the Philippines, from Canada to the West African coast. It featured epic land battles with tens of thousands of combatants and casualties, ship-of-the-line slugging matches at sea, sieges of forts and cities, germ warfare, forest ambushes, massacres, mass abductions, and boilings alive. In Europe hundreds of thousands died for nothing; with France, Austria, and Russia pitted against England, Hanover, and Prussia, the war there ended with the restoration of the status quo ante. In North America, in contrast, the British conquered an empire; New France disappeared from history. But—Anderson's profound theme—Britain's triumph was gravid with defeat. Crucible of War ends in 1766, with the bands of affection that bound Britain and its American colonies stretched to tenuity by the political and the psychological no less than the territorial consequences of victory. The American Revolution would emerge from this crucible, the first chapter of “a national history in which war and freedom have often intertwined.”

THE great Iroquois Confederacy had come to occupy a profitable niche on the borderlands of the Ohio Country, between the British colonies and New France, playing one empire off against the other in a tripartite balance of power that had mostly kept the peace since early in the century. A series of treaties with the Colonies in the years leading up to the French and Indian War, however, weakened the confederacy's neutrality. In the Treaty of Lancaster (1744) the confederacy received a bounty of trade goods in exchange for renouncing its claims—so the Indian diplomats thought—to western Maryland and Virginia. In fact, as the Virginia negotiators knew but did not say, Virginia's charter gave it claim to land as far west as “the island of California.” In the Anglo-American understanding, the Indians had traded away their claim, long honored by the French, to the Ohio Country.

Within a year the Virginia House of Burgesses had granted about 300,000 acres along the Ohio River to well-connected land speculators. Anglo-American settlers began to swarm into the Ohio Country. This the French could not abide. The Ohio Country was strategically positioned between their settlements in eastern Canada and in Illinois Country, and to defend these they commenced building a chain of forts from Lake Erie to The Forks of the Ohio, the future Pittsburgh. George Washington was sent to scout, and if possible evict the French. Ensign de Jumonville's letter was an ultimatum to the British to stay out of the Ohio Country, now the property of “His Most Christian Majesty, Louis XV.” The French had maintained their influence in the Ohio Country by trade and also by gift-giving—the office of the “father” in some of the tribes. When Tanaghrisson said “Thou art not yet dead, my father” before splitting Jumonville's skull, he was committing a political act symbolizing the end of French gift-giving, and with it Iroquois neutrality.

The war in North America, which pitted the English and their Iroquois allies against the French and their allies from the tribes in the Great Lakes area, saw battles fought from Detroit to Louisbourg, in Nova Scotia; up and down the Ohio Valley; and, climactically, on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the walls of Quebec, where the British general James Wolfe and his French opponent the Marquis de Montcalm met their immortal deaths. It went catastrophically for the British, and then—after William Pitt became Prime Minister, in 1756, and implemented policies that treated the Colonials as allies, not subjects—for the French. With the help of maps and contemporary illustrations Anderson chronicles this ironic war with an eye for the screaming detail.

He is a master of the foreshadowing, chapter-ending sentence:

• Against a backdrop of irresolution and disharmony in the Colonies, a new leader arrived: “Whatever union they would know and whatever coherence their efforts at defense would have, would rest in the hands of the bluff, profane major general whose ship entered Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 19, 1755.”

• Would Pitt's ambitious war plans of 1758 succeed in mobilizing the Colonies? “To the man who in an unguarded moment had said that he knew that only he could save his country, no question could be more important; no answer awaited with more dreadful anticipation.”

• “But other developments were already looming when Loudoun's fleet weighed anchor, against which no amount of planning could have prevailed.”

• “Like so many of his better qualities, Washington's capacity for misgiving was something that would only develop with time.”

• “And the hard road he had traveled from Jumonville's Glen, in ways he would not comprehend for years to come, had done much to prepare him for the harder road that lay ahead.”

The literary prototype of this kind of narrative lacquer is Francis Parkman's (serialized in The Atlantic in 1884), with its purplish sentence “But as the needle, though quivering, points always to the pole, so, through torment and languor and the heats of fever, the mind of Wolfe dwelt on the capture of Quebec.” Nineteenth-century storytelling conventions like this flourish kept readers in their seats, and Anderson has adapted those conventions to suit astringent modern tastes (his Wolfe is a lucky fool with a death wish) without losing their old-time pull.

DEFEAT in victory: Anderson traces this moral theme, the heavy tax of pride on success, in both the macro and micro dimensions of his tale. An exemplum is the fall of Fort William Henry, on Lake George, to a multicultural army of 6,000 French regulars and Canadian militiamen and 2,000 Indians, including Nipissings, Ottawas, Abenakis, Caughnawagas, Huron-Petuns, Malecites, and Micmacs, recruited from as far away as 1,500 miles by French promises of booty and liquor, already a potent drug among the Indians. Michael Mann's stirring film (1992) faithfully depicted the siege of Fort William Henry. Garrisoned by 2,500 men (including five companies of His Majesty's 35th Foot, under Colonel George Monro, and 1,600 Colonials from New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts), the fort proved porous to French cannonballs.

Montcalm opened the siege with a demand for Monro's surrender. “Humanity,” Montcalm wrote, “obliged him to warn [Monro] that once [the French] batteries were in place and the cannon fired, perhaps there would not be time, nor would it be in [his] power to restrain the cruelties of a mob of Indians of so many different nations.” When French siege mortars had finally made splinters of the fort, Montcalm offered Monro generous terms of surrender, a gesture of respect for his gallant resistance—but he did so without consulting his Indian allies, who, Anderson writes, had expected “plunder, trophies to prove their prowess in battle, and captives to adopt or sacrifice as replacements for dead warriors or perhaps hold for ransom.” What the English called “the massacre of Fort William Henry” now ensued, as the Indians, finding little booty in the evacuated fort, fell upon the sick and wounded, killing many until they were stopped by the French. The next day, after carrying off “all the blacks, women, and children they could find among the camp followers,” they attacked Monro's retreating column, mercilessly killing nearly 200 Colonials, mostly with knives and tomahawks, and carrying off hundreds more.

Victory for the Indians? “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.” The massacre, moreover, cemented the Colonials' hatred of Indians. The British having relied on Indian help to win the war, they took steps to assure the Indians of the Ohio Country protection from Colonial incursions. But after Yorktown the Indians would be on their own, against Americans who wanted them dead.

Victory for the French? The Indians felt betrayed by Montcalm's attempt to deny them their promised spoils, and thus “never again would Indian allies flock to the French colors as they had in 1757.” Almost as bad, Montcalm's failure to honor the terms of Monro's surrender would come back to haunt the French: “After 1757, British officers would never be inclined to offer the honors of war to any French force.”

Behind this accursed victory, and Britain's larger one, was a failure to understand that the empires of eighteenth-century North America were not “metropolitan creations” but “negotiated systems” that rested on respect, even affection, and could not be held together by decree, duplicity, or force. Empires, Anderson quotes another scholar as saying, were “sites for intercultural relations”—in North America, among French, Canadians, English, Anglo-Americans, and Indians. It would have been asking anachronism of imperialists to expect this kind of anthropological understanding of their empires. Multicultural empathy is a post-imperial bloom among the human graces—and yet the politicians and soldiers of the French and Indian War who were capable of it succeeded, whereas those who were not failed. Crucible of War is history teaching philosophy by example.