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Volume 14, Number 3 (Spring 1974)

The Old French Wars

imageArms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763,
by Douglas B. Leach.
Macmillan (Macmillan Wars of the United States), 1973.
556 pp., $14.95.

Regis Courtemanche

This is a chronicle of the early years of colonial settlement, with emphasis upon the struggle for territory among France, Spain, and England—the Indians looking on or participating on one side or another. An engrossing study of frontier warfare, it cites numerous examples of indifference, savagery, and the curious gallantry of the eighteenth century. A British officer, for instance, while besieging Louisbourg, sent in two pineapples as a gift to the wife of his French opponent.

Another aspect that forces itself upon the reader is the incredible adaptability of the settlers, children as well as adults. In one episode, the French from Montreal crept across the province of New York for three months on snowshoes, attacked an English settlement, and then vanished into the still winter forest. Children captured by the Indians often refused to return to their parents, once they had gleefully thrown off the restraints of civilization.

Professor Leach has built upon his previous books on colonial warfare to write this work, the first really comprehensive study of the military side of the British colonies in North America. For bicentennial background it is indispensable. The author has consulted a vast number of sources: obscure diaries, unpublished doctoral dissertations, and much secondary material. He has not used the relevant foreign archives, but does have printed reports from the colonial office, personal papers from the British Museum, and other overseas material.

Covering an enormous area and time span, the book proceeds in a chronological manner. From St. Augustine in the south to Halifax in the frozen north, more than 150 years of history unfold in a brisk and scholarly narrative. The illustrations complement the text very well: the description of a musket is followed by modern photos of the correct way to load and fire the piece. Paintings by Frederic Remington and Howard Pyle bring colonial scenes to life. Also included is a useful glossary of military and naval terms, such as “glacis” and “quoin,” that may be unfamiliar to the reader.

Essentially the struggle was a contest between two very different types of people. The French long held the lead in the fur trade because they were willing to fraternize with the Indians. As one British colonist said with scorn, the French “live and marry among them in short are as one people which … is not commendable but gains their affection.” Indians were often treated with contempt by the English settlers, and this attitude contributed to the British lack of success in trade and war for many years. But numbers finally told; by 1715 there were 100,000 colonists in New England and only 15,000 in New France. At Versailles they were concerned about Continental affairs. Voltaire congratulated the government for making peace in 1763 with the statement, “France can be happy without Quebec.”

One of Professor Leach’s main themes is that mutual antagonism between Britons and Americans can be traced back to the military history of the seventeenth century. The regulars’ disdain for the unkempt colonial militia, the lack of cooperation from politicians and farmers, inflated prices charged by colonial merchants to British troops, all these and more drove a wedge between Englishmen and the new settlers.

A good solid book, history is no pale creature here: a British colonial officer, supping with Indian allies, enjoyed his broth until he saw a Frenchman’s hand in the kettle, “which put an end to his appetite.” But the reader’s appetite for American history will only be whetted by this exceptional work.  

Dr. Regis Courtemanche (1933–2004) was a professor of history at C. W. Post College, Long Island University and author of No Need for Glory: The British Navy in American Waters, 1860-1864.

Posted: November 30, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

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