The Literary and Military Career of Benjamin Church: Change or Continuity in Early American Warfare

Article excerpt

Much of American scholarship on the colonial era has focused on the cultural and political transformation of Englishmen into Americans in thirteen of Britain's American colonies. This is one way of solving the problem of the American Revolution - explaining why on earth these people rebelled?2 In the field of military history, this investigation has produced histories depicting colonists as "Indianized" sharp-shooting frontiersmen fighting as irregulars (avoiding large-scale combat and focusing on small-scale hit-and-run engagements).

A battle scene in the movie "Last of the Mohicans" illustrates this cultural transformation: after a treacherous Indian guide led the English into an ambush, the Redcoats tried to get into a tight formation to offer massed fire, but their Indian assailants were just too quick; they swirled around the English and picked them off with firearms, tomahawks, clubs and knives. Eventually the Indians were defeated by other Indians and by Daniel Day-Lewis, an Indianized English settler who had learned how to fight like an Indian, using individual wit, quickness and strength, as well as individual marksmanship, rather than relying on a preordained system for the production of massed fire.

This is not to suggest that scholars who support the notion of "American tactics" have taken their histories from James Fenimore Cooper, but like him, they suggest that English colonists were militarily transformed during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from defensive-minded collectivists to offensive-minded individualists. Whether focusing on tactics or logistics, these scholars hold that exceptional frontier conditions in North America transformed English colonists into exceptional Englishmen, alienated from the mother country by a uniquely American martial culture. Understandably, this story-line has been used as an allegory for a much wider cultural transformation - Americanization - that explains not only the American victory in the War of Independence, but also the birth of American democracy, nationhood and separatism.

The burden of proof that is attached to this type of Turnerian argument is considerable: one ought to demonstrate that the frontier experience can legitimately be presented as the American experience, despite the fact that only a fraction of Americans experienced frontier life firsthand.3 The question, simply stated, is whether the east coast, including colonial governments and military establishments, was shaped more by forces of Americanization (coming from the west) or by forces of Anglicization (from the east).

Benjamin Church and Robert Rogers, the legendary Indian fighters of King Philip's War and the French and Indian War, occupy an exalted position in the historiography of the American way of war. They represent bookends for the transformation that Englishmen supposedly underwent in America during the span of the colonial era. What Church invented (by borrowing from Indians), Rogers perfected. The author's orginal intention, in Conquering the American Wilderness* was to find the instructional mechanism by which the knowledge acquired by Church was disseminated among colonial officers from one generation to the next.

An examination of the performance of colonial forces, however, indicates becomes clear that English soldiery did not improve over time with exposure to Indian tactics. In fact, a comparison between the first generation of military commanders (European veterans) and the supposedly "Americanized" commanders of the later colonial wars reflects poorly on the latter. The colonists' military ordeals during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries did not lead to a reevaluation and transformation of their military or tactical doctrine. Rather than revitalizing the settlers' military establishments, these episodes highlighted the ongoing degeneration of colonial armed forces.

It was, in fact, this poor performance of colonial forces in King Philip's War (1675-1676) and King William's War (1689-1697) that led eighteenth century colonial magistrates to address the shortcomings of their own military forces through a greater reliance on British forces and imperial administrators. …