Review of The British Defeat of the French in Pennsylvania, 1758

Reviewed for On Point: The Journal of Army History

Cubbison, Douglas R.  The British Defeat of the French in Pennsylvania, 1758:  A Military History of the Forbes Campaign Against Fort Duquesne.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.  ISBN 978-0-7864-4739-8.  10 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index.  251pp.  $49.95.

Military historian Douglas Cubbison explores a turning point in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) with great detail.  The capture of Fort Duquesne was a major victory for the British during the war and redeemed the disaster that befell Edward Braddock’s expedition against the Fort in 1755.  Cubbison makes the bold claim that the campaign against Duquesne led by Brigadier General John Forbes was “among the most important in American history.”(1)  There is certainly credibility to this argument, as the capture of the Fort turned the tide of the war in Britain’s favor, which led to final victory.  The claim has merit within the context of British victory in the war being the catalyst of event that led to the Revolutionary War.  The importance of the campaign is primarily within the confines of the French and Indian War itself.

Cubbison’s motivation for creating this study of the Forbes Campaign lay in his observation that no dedicated scholarly study was produced for the 250th anniversary of the campaign in 2008.(1)  He stressed that his study was different from most historical treatments of events, as he did not delve into social history, and focused on only British and colonial sources.

Each chapter covers specific subjects on the campaign.  The first chapter discussed the life of John Forbes and his appointment to command of the expedition.  Subsequent chapters deal with organization of the forces, logistics, geography, supply, setbacks, and eventual British victory in the campaign.  In addition, appendices provide information about items brought along the campaign, including ordinance and trade goods for Native Americans.

Several positives stand out in this work.  First is the incredible detail.  If readers want to know statistical knowledge of the campaign, Cubbison will satisfy such curiosities, as he provides many segments of primary sources, as well as the appendices noted above that contain itemized listings of military material and other relevant statistics, including casualties and hunting results.  Second, is the inclusion of a couple of hand-drawn maps from the campaign, which illustrate the difficulties that Forbes and his force had to overcome in their advance against Fort Duquesne.  Finally, the documentation is thorough, with many notes and an extensive bibliography.

Despite the positives of the book, there are some areas of concern.  One is the focus on only a select group of sources, mainly British.  While Cubbison defends this in his introduction, the choice to focus on a select group of material limits the scope of his examination and the potential audience.  Further, while it is stressed that the study is not a social history, which resounds with some readers, incorporating some social history would have added to the richness of the story of the Forbes campaign.  A second issue was the long block quotations of primary sources, as while such sources are essential to a historical work, such long quotes, as opposed to paraphrasing, can cause readers to lose track of Cubbison’s history.  Finally, the lack of maps is a small, but important problem, as while this book is intended for those with background knowledge, a map, or maps, would better aid in understanding the campaign, as well as expand the potential audience.

Overall, Cubbison produced a traditional military history on an important campaign in American history.  While this book is geared to a rather focused audience, scholars and readers of military history will find it a useful source, as Cubbison provides amazing statistics and coverage of the many facets of an eighteenth century campaign in America.  While there are some issues with the book, this study of the Forbes campaign is long overdue and opens the door to future scholarly study on the subject.

Review of David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing

Fischer, David Hackett.  Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

David Hackett Fischer has written a remarkable book on one of the more important events of the American Revolution:  the Battle of Trenton, placing that battle within the larger Revolution with great detail.  The book is part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by Fischer and James McPherson.  Fischer’s work, like others in the series examines a significant moment in American history and how that event shaped the course of the development of the nation.  Washington’s Crossing explores the importance of Trenton, as it is one of the most important days for the creation of the United States, as without this event, the Revolution would have likely collapsed.(ix)

Fischer provided an enormous amount of background, starting first with the competing forces.  He discussed the American army, including a brief biography of George Washington, noting more democratic elements within it, like the Committee of Privates in one Pennsylvania unit, as well as an overall lack of discipline.(11-2, 27)  In contrast to the American army, Fischer presented the British army as a more disciplined force.(42-45)  Finally, he explored the mercenary forces from Germany, collectively known as Hessians.

In addition to looking at the forces involved, Fischer devoted space to the background of the battle.  Subjects included the Howe brothers, who commanded the British/Hessian forces during the campaign, as well as the failures at New York.  Fischer then analyzed the desperate picture of the American Revolution, discussing Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis and how it reflected the low point of the Revolution.  Overall, the inclusion of this background is very helpful to comprehending the importance of the Trenton Campaign to the success of the Revolution.

The detail on the campaign itself is immense, with Fischer describing the conditions of New Jersey under enemy occupation.  Further, his chapters explored key aspects and persons directly surrounding the battle, including Colonel Johann Rall, commander of the Hessian force in Trenton.  Readers will come to have a strong grasp of the battle and the Revolution thanks to Fischer’s inclusion of multiple, detailed subjects on the battle.

In addition to the rich focus, there are several other aspects of this book that make it a landmark work on the Battle of Trenton and the Revolution.  First, is the relative simplicity to the organization.  Fischer structured his chapters both chronologically and by subject.  This organization allows readers to use this book as a great research tool.  Second, is the use of maps and other images that compliment the text, which makes the book accessible to those unfamiliar with the Revolution.

The area where Fischer shines is in his historiography essay.  The essay covers the wide variety of interpretations on both the battle and larger war, focusing upon early views of both the battle and larger war from those who participated in the conflict.  Fischer illustrated how, for each side, Trenton represented different ideas, including republican virtue, criticism of British policy, as exhibited by the Howe brothers, contempt for the Hessians, and religious fervor.(425-432)  He then explored the creation and rise of a romantic school, embodied by Washington Irving, which later combined with an earlier republican school to create the Whig, later called Liberal, school.  George Bancroft characterized this school, which placed the campaign within the larger struggle of democracy and freedom against more oppressive forms of government.(433-437)  This idea of a moral struggle that Fischer alludes to (435) is rather similar to the earlier view held by some participants that viewed Trenton as a righteous victory.(425)

Fischer’s exploration of the historiography included interpretations linked to later events in American history.  He noted how historians after the Civil War studied the Revolution in light of their own participation in the conflict, which renewed their faith in republicanism and a national identity.(438-9)  One of the more interesting aspects he looked at was Marxist Howard Fast’s historical fiction on the war.  Fischer appeared to mention this subject for mere curiosity and hinted at a lack of value of Fast’s work.(445-6)  While Howard Fast may be a way to attract Marxist scholars to Fischer’s book, it seems irrelevant to the overall historiography.

Overall, Fischer’s look at historiography is quite helpful to those unfamiliar with it and wishing to learn more about the war.  He covered the many versions of writing over the years, including the clash in the late twentieth century between academic and popular history, as well as the rise of multiculturalism.  The result is a full treatment of Trenton and the war, which allows the book to be both a standard monograph and reference work.

Another great feature that sets this book apart is Fischer’s inclusion of an annotated bibliography, which lists and discusses the vast amount of primary and secondary sources.  He also provided his own interpretation of the value of various secondary sources.  This section adds to the reference qualities of the work and compliments the historiography essay well, and illustrates that Fischer’s book is based on sound scholarship.

There are so many great qualities to Washington’s Crossing that it is a must read for anyone interested on both the Trenton Campaign and the larger American Revolution.  Fischer provides the necessary background on the players involved and the conflict and created a rather balanced view of the event.   He drew upon both military and social history, discussing the commanders and strategies, as well as providing room for the inclusion of African-Americans and women in the story, which reflected the goals of the series the book belongs to of including traditional interpretations with new trends in scholarship.  His use of appendices, a historiography essay, and bibliography enhance the value of the work to general readers, students, and scholars alike.  While the book appears daunting, it is well worth the effort to examine.  With all the positives to this study, it is very clear why Washington’s Crossing won the Pulitzer Prize and was an American Library Association Notable Book.  David Hackett Fischer made a significant and wonderful contribution to the scholarship of the Revolutionary War.

The Decisive Battles of the Frontier

My apologies for the long break between posts. The last post discussed a good series from the History Channel in its early days before it sold out to ratings. The series Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest examined the lives of four individuals important to the history of the Old Northwest. The History Channel produced another series a couple of years later that dealt with important battles on the frontier. Frontier: The Decisive Battles of the Old Northwest presents the story of four major battles/wars that shaped the early history of the United States well into the 19th century. Both series are well worth watching for history buffs and teachers for classroom use, as they present history well and captivate the viewer.

The first battle discussed in the series is the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 in South Carolina. The episode discusses the background history of the American Revolution, especially the Southern Theater, as well as the important figures involved. The episode discusses the Scotch-Irish frontier dwellers that comprised the Patriot force involved. In addition, the British commander of the Loyalist militia opposing the Americans, Patrick Ferguson, was chronicled. The show treated Ferguson well, noting his genius in military matters. Ferguson commanded units of British riflemen, designed rifles, and was described as one of the best marksmen in the British army. The show notes how Ferguson at one time had George Washington in his sight and could have easily killed him, but did not (one could dream up an incredible counter-factual history from that incident). The episode describes the brutality of the battle, as each side fought bitterly for the mountain, including the death of Ferguson. King’s Mountain is a classic example of the sheer brutality of frontier warfare, especially when adding the clannish feuds of the frontier in the mix.

The second episode deals with one of the most important battles of the Old Northwest for the young United States. The Battle of Fallen Timbers was a decisive victory for the American army in the wake of stinging defeats earlier at the hands of the Miami Indian confederacy. The episode notes the background leading up to the battle, discussing the defeats of Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair in 1790 and 1791. St. Clair’s Defeat is the battle that led to Fallen Timbers. On November 4, 1791, Arthur St. Clair’s force of militia and regular US troops were ambushed by the Indian force. The militia broke and ran, leaving the regular troops to hold out for several hours before being overrun and forced to retreat. The battle was a stinging defeat for the nation, as over 800 Americans were killed, which included over 600 soldiers and 200 camp followers (the wives and children of soldiers, as well as prostitutes). The United States army suffered heavily, loosing one-quarter of its standing strength, with the casualty rate amongst the soldiers involved being over 97 percent.

The episode discusses the story of William Wells, a white man who was captured by the Miami from his Kentucky home when he was twelve years old. The Miami chief Little Turtle adopted the boy as his son, and Wells married Little Turtle’s daughter. Wells fought with his adopted father at St. Clair’s Defeat, but would serve the American army after realizing that he could have killed his own kin in the battle. He rejoined his white family and offered his services to the new American commander tasked with avenging the American defeat and rebuilding the army, “Mad” Anthony Wayne.

Wayne reorganized the army, which he named “The Legion of the United States” and instilled strict discipline as he prepared his men for battle. Wayne used Wells as a scout, given Wells knowledge of the Indians. The Battle of Fallen Timbers began in August 1794 when Wayne attacked the Indian forces after waiting for a couple of days (the video noted that the Indians did not eat prior to the battle and Wayne was allowing them to starve) and caught them in a weakened state from lack of food. The Indians soon realized that they were facing a much stronger enemy and fled to a nearby British fort, only t find the gate locked, as the British did not want to involve themselves directly. The battle resulted in the United States gaining much of present-day Ohio via the Treaty of Greenville of 1795. In addition, it solidified American control of the Old Northwest given that the British had occupied forts in the area in violation of the Treaty of Paris.

The third episode discusses the major American victory in the last battle of the War of 1812, which occurred after the peace treaty was signed. The Battle of New Orleans pitted the rag-tag American force, comprising regular troops, militia, pirates, and others under Gen. Andrew Jackson against the British army (most fresh from victories against Napoleon in Continental Europe) under Gen. Edward Pakenham. The episode, like all the others, unpacks the background history of Jackson and the war, including Jackson’s campaigns against southern Indians. It also discusses the diverse makeup of his army.

The episode examines the battle very well, noting surprise attacks by the Americans against the British. It then chronicles the main battle, describing the defensive fortifications erected by the Americans, as well as the valiant assault by the British against the entrenched Americans. The episode notes the staggering losses suffered by the British, including the loss of many officers, Gen. Pakenham among them. The episode notes how the battle secured the American position in terms of the peace treaty, and propelled Jackson to national prominence, with the culmination of his election to the presidency.

The final episode examines the last major conflict between Americans and Indians in the Old Northwest, the Black Hawk War in 1832 in Illinois and Michigan Territory. The war erupted when Black Hawk violated treaties and remained in the village of Saukenuk in 1830 and 1831 following hunting. In April 1832, his band crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, which led the governor to claim that Black Hawk was invading his state. Illinois militia soon pursued Black Hawk, but were ambushed and fled in the Battle of Stillman’s Run. Even though only a few militia were killed, exaggerated claims of thousands of warriors sweeping across northern Illinois rallied whites to fight against Black Hawk. One of those who joined the fight was Abraham Lincoln. The episode notes the destruction of Black Hawk’s band at the Battle of Bad Axe, in which most of his band was trapped on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and killed or captured most of those trapped. Black Hawk and some of his remaining followers surrendered soon after the battle and were sent on a tour of the country. The episode mentions how the war influenced many figures eventually significant to later history, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott.

Overall, this series is as good as the first Frontier series and covers important battles that are significant to the history of the early American frontier. It discusses the battles, places them in historical context, and presents the backgrounds of the events and principle  characters involved. It is a great resource for history teachers for use in the classroom and is worth checking out.

TV Documentary on the Legends of the Frontier

I must state that I believe that The History Channel has declined in quality over the years. When it started, the programming was of a higher quality. Then, the channel began to over emphasize the World War II period (not that this time is not important), specifically Nazi Germany, which earned it the nickname “The Hitler Channel”. Now, the programming has gone off the deep end, with shows like Monster Quest and The Universe, which is more in the realm of The Discovery Channel. It has led me to question, whether a new channel dedicated to history is needed to bring quality programming on history back. With that said, I would like write a bit about a great miniseries that was on The History Channel a few years ago and deals with the subject area of this site and is quite good. The show is known as Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest and it is one of two series, with the other series, Frontier: The Decisive Battles dealing with four important battles in the Old Northwest.

Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest focuses on four key figures of the history of the old Northwest. The first episode focuses on Robert Rogers and his rangers that battled the French and their Indian allies for the British during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The episode discusses Rogers’ early life, his service in the British army when he formed the rangers, and his later life. One of the pivotal events discussed in this episode is the attack on the Abenaki village at St. Francis in Canada in October of 1759, in which Rogers destroyed the village, killed many of the village inhabitants (accounts vary as to how many), and then trekking through the Vermont wilderness for days, struggling for food and survival. The episode provides a great amount of information about Rogers, his rangers, and links them to today’s ranger forces. This subject is a great start for this series.

The second episode deals with one of the pivotal events in the intervening years between the close of the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution, Pontiac’s Rebellion. Like the episode dealing with Rogers’ Rangers, Pontiac’s Rebellion examines the life of Pontiac, the Ottawa chief and his rebellion against the British in the Old Northwest in 1763. The rebellion began at Detroit and then spread to many other outposts in Michigan, and eventually to much of the old Northwest. The episode chronicles Pontiac’s life as well, including his death at the hands of fellow Indians.

The third episode chronicles the life and events surrounding one of the most important people in the old Northwest, at least from the American standpoint, George Rogers Clark. The episode, titled The Long Knives, examines the men behind Clark’s epic foray into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution. The episode discusses the training of Clark’s men in Kentucky and his easy captures of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois, as well as his initial capture of Vincennes, Indiana. The show chronicles Clark’s British opponent Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, known as the Hairbuyer, for his trade in American scalps, very well. Clark leaves only a small force at Vincennes, which allows Hamilton to retake the town and its fort, named Fort Sackville. Clark then leads an epic expedition across the cold winter prairie of southern Illinois, which includes several days of marching through chest-deep, frigid waters and huddling on mounds of mud, as the Wabash River was swollen and little dry land existed. Clark and his men, exhausted to the point of collapse, then lay siege to the fort and force its surrender. Clark’s expedition paves the way for securing the old Northwest for the Americans.

The final episode of the series deals with the life of Tecumseh and his efforts at a pan-Indian confederacy to drive out the American settlers in the early 1800s. Included in this episode is Tecumseh’s early life, including his fighting during St. Clair’s defeat and the Battle of Fallen Timbers, his brother, later known as “the Prophet”, fight against the whites, including the Battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison, service and death with the British in the War of 1812. The episode provides great insight into his service in the War of 1812 with the British army and death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Overall, all four episodes in this series are worth watching, as they focus on important people in frontier America and the events surrounding them. Though the programming on The History Channel has declined some over the years, Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest is one program that illustrates how historical programming on frontier America should be done.

Review of The First Way of War by John Grenier

I wrote the following review for On Point: The Journal of Army History and it will appear in an upcoming issue.

The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814. By John Grenier. Cambridge University Press, 2005. i-xiv, 232 Pp. Figures. Maps. Index. ISBN 0-521-84566-1. $30.00

Through gripping accounts taken from primary sources to maps of the regions in question, Air Force officer and Air Force Academy history Professor John Grenier argues and illustrates how America developed its unique military heritage and style of war making based upon irregular warfare. Specifically, Grenier examines the killing of non-combatants and destruction of crops and homes during the wars in the colonies as well as the American Revolution, the Indian wars of the early republic, and the War of 1812.

In his introduction, Grenier discusses the history and historiography of military and specifically American military history, including the development of America’’s unique way of making war. He lists off several historians and works from the past that discuss this topic, which provide the reader with a good background on the subject presented in this work.

Grenier presents the history of American rangers through much of the work and he keeps the story in chronological order beginning with the wars in the colonies from 1607-1689, which occurred between colonists and Indian tribes. He brings to light how ranger companies were generational with sons often leading units that their fathers once led. He then moves into the wars on the continent between France and England in the eighteenth century as well as the lesser-known wars, noting the role that rangers and the tactics they used played in the conflicts in the mid-eighteenth century prior to the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Grenier then breaks the flow of the work with a chapter dealing with the history of petite guerre in Europe. This story is important for understanding this work, but would better serve the work if it was the first chapter as in the current placement as the third chapter, it breaks the flow in a way that hurts the story that the author is presenting. This is not to say that the chapter does not belong as it does, but rather that it belongs in a different place within the larger work.

Grenier then examines America’’s way of war making in the French and Indian War. He notes that Britain realizes the need for American rangers, especially after Braddock’’s defeat, but that they are slow to realize this. Shortly after Braddock’’s defeat, various units of American rangers are formed in response, including one unit formed by Robert Rogers (the famous Roger’’s Rangers). He also notes how the British after initially relying on the rangers attempt to replace them, but fail. Finally, he concludes the chapter by examining how the British adapt the American way of war.

Grenier also examines the Revolutionary War period, primarily focusing on the war on the frontier, which includes stories about George Rogers Clark as well as the Northeast frontier. Grenier then examines the 1790s, which present great defeats and triumphs on the frontier from St. Clair’’s defeat to the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The story then carries into the early 1800s, focusing on events like the Indian war in the Northwest against Tecumseh and the Creek War to the south, finally ending in 1815.

Overall, Grenier’’s scholarship is quite good with many primary sources drawn together for this work, including the papers of Sir William Johnson, as well as many government documents. He also provides a good selection of maps and illustrations to aid the reader in understanding. His style is formal, but not beyond the general reading audience, which gives it a wider audience as both historians and general readers can understand the book. Though he is an Air Force officer, Grenier proves that he knows the subject well. His work adds greatly to the scholarship of both American history and US Army history. Both historians interested in the topic and general audiences will benefit from reading The First Way of War.

Thoughts on the PBS Documentary “The War That Made America”

My apologies for not keeping up with this site, but I hope to keep up with it, as I am reviewing a book dealing with the period, and I hope to get other writers involved.

I have been meaning to write something about the documentary “The War That Made America” for some time now. As one who enjoys good television programming on the subject of early American history, I not only own this show, but both “Frontier” series put out by the History Channel (back when it was good), as well as the A&E documentary “The American Revolution”, which is a classic (reviews on these will appear some day).

That said, I would like to highlight some of the good parts, as well as some of the bad with this program. The documentary is narrated very well by Graham Green, an Oneida actor who had ancestors that fought in the conflict. The documentary is packed with information and good living history excerpts. It examines the war from all sides and discusses many of the important figures and events of the war, though sometimes with only a mention. In addition to good narration and balance, the research is quite solid. Finally, the acting for the living history is good and certainly not as annoying as recent documentaries on The History Channel.

There are a couple of problems that I do have with this program. While the acting is quite good, the way it is presented is somewhat awkward. This is because in many of the scenes the main character in question (Washington, the Marquis de Montcalm, etc.) pulls a stunt out of Saved by the Bell, in which the scene seems to freeze with the actor portraying the character in question talking to the audience. While the tactic is interesting and makes the attempt to have a historical figure communicate with the audience, I believe that a traditional scene, similar to a movie would be more appropriate. This is only a small problem that does not negatively affect the value of this program much.

The other, more serious, problem is the portrayal of George Washington. The program portrays Washington as a brash and blundering young man. While this may be somewhat true based upon the events involving him and the ignition of the war, it must be noted that if he were so brash and blundering, how could he have secured a position as a major in the Virginia militia? Yes, his family was well off, but Washington did possess valuable experience.

In addition to the portrayal of Washington, another problem is the overt amount of attention paid to him by the program. While I certainly revere Washington and admire him, I also know that he was a minor player in the grand scheme of the war in America. More attention could have been paid to other aspects of the conflict, like the siege of Louisbourg.

Overall, while there are minor problems, I find this program to be very good and a useful tool for educators wishing to find a good program to show classes dealing with this period. I applaud PBS (which is a rarity given my views on their politics) on this fine program and encourage everyone to consider watching it.

A late, great colonial historian worth reading

Every now and then, an author comes around that is worth reading, even after death.  Howard Peckham is that author.  Peckham, who died in 1995 served as both a history professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Clements Library from 1953-1977.  He wrote numerous articles and several books during his life.  His most well-known book was Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1948), which explored the famous Indian rebellion of 1763 led by Pontiac, in which he placed Pontiac in the context of a local leader within a greater anti-English movement by the Native Americans. 

Another well-known work by Peckham is The Colonial Wars, 1689-1763 (1964).  This book chronicles the history of the series of wars between the English and French, and their respective colonists in North America, as well as the Native Americans.  This work, though dated, is well worth reading in order to begin understanding much of the period covered by this site.  If one desires great reads by an accomplished historian, then consider reading Howard Peckham.