Crucible of War

Earlier this year I picked up AGEOD’s Birth of America from the Target bargain rack, which is about the only way a title published by Strategy First is going to find its way into a major retailer. The game was well-reviewed and spawned a series of follow-ups covering different 18th and 19th century conflicts, but my chief reason for buying it is that I have an embarrassingly shallow knowledge of early American history. Since my interest in wargames and history have always marched lockstep, I thought Birth of America might be a good way to dip my toe in the water. Then I grabbed Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. While historical literacy isn’t a necessary component for playing a wargame, it usually helps you make sense of what you’re being asked to do.

My one disappointment with Crucible is that it is not a particularly interesting book of military history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans probably gave me an unrealistic expectation for how action-packed the French and Indian War was, but that doesn’t change the fact that fighting in the New World tended to be a grubby, ad hoc affair. While over in Europe, Frederick the Great was sending waves of grenadiers into dense lines of white-coated Austrians, British commanders in America were pleading with colonial assemblies to raise a handful of battalions. The most pivotal battle of the war, Quebec, is shown to be a case of mutual blundering followed by an almost inexplicable French collapse. The rest of the war mostly consisted of small expeditions against wilderness forts, accompanied by constant, tedious negotiation with the native peoples.

This might have more to do with Anderson’s own interests than it does with the subject matter. His coverage of the battles makes for good reading, but every campaign reads almost as ponderously as it unfolded. Anderson gets into the nuts and bolts of Indian diplomacy and colonial – military interactions, and ends up belaboring a couple points. One Indian negotiation is much like another, but the reader is treated to the repeated site of Indian warriors bearing gifts and liquor back to their villages, Indian chieftains struggling to maintain their social position, and English officials providing the same hollow assurances. Likewise, we find the colonial assemblies (particularly Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) to be chaotic, bitterly divided, and constantly carping about how difficult it is for them to prosecute this war. If Anderson’s goal is to make you feel the exasperation of any British official who had to deal with America during this period, he succeeds admirably.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is in the war’s closing stages, as the action shifts to London. From that point onward, Anderson seems to be on happier ground. We see Pitt at the height of his power beginning to succumb to a megalomania that disturbs his most important political allies, which sows the soil for the attack that the newly crowned George III and the Earl of Bute are waiting to unleash on him. George III doesn’t come across well in this book, despite Anderson’s attempts to be fair minded, because there is no hiding the degree to which he creates one ministerial crisis after another. George is a monarch very much in the vein of Kaiser Wilhelm II: spoiled, self-assured to a degree far beyond his abilities, and deeply desirous of asserting his prerogative over the state. Both men would take control of a government that wasn’t broken, and then bring the state to ruin in the name of fixing it.

Of some surprise is the degree to which Grenville emerges as a minor hero on the political stage, considering that he writes the Stamp Act that puts the first severe cracks in the foundation of colonial relations. While Anderson does not conceal the degree to which Grenville governed like a tin-eared technocrat, he also celebrates the degree to which Grenville was a perceptive and conscientious head of government. When George III begins making a concerted push to fire him, ultimately replacing him with the inept Duke of Cumberland (whose life after Culloden seems to have been spent plumbing the depths of his own incompetence), there is a definite sense that George is stepping off a ledge into thin air. When the Stamp Act meets with a firestorm of colonial resistance, there is nobody left in government by 1766 that is both competent and strong enough to lead Britain out of the crisis.

The reactions in America to London’s expanded efforts at administration also make for fascinating reading. At first, nobody seems to find anything remarkable in the act and the colonies are on the cusp of accepting it without complaint while leading citizens are fighting for the privilege of administering the tax (the better to skim off the top). Then Patrick Henry passes a resolution in the Virginia House of Burgesses asserting that England lacks the right to lay taxes on the colonies, it gets printed in some newspapers, and the entire seaboard explodes.

In Boston, we see the local Sons of Liberty variant contact both of the city’s official unruly mobs (honest) for the sake of raising nine kinds of hell. Similar mob violence occurs in other northern cities, providing an excellent excuse for simmering tensions within colonial politics to explode. The Penn family and its enemies immediately fall to settling old scores against the backdrop of civil disorder. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry start overturning rocks and find that the state’s leading planters have embezzled fortunes from the province. In Boston, an angry mob goes looking to lynch Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who spends the long night cutting through backyards and staying with different friends as he is hunted through the city. The mob contents itself with getting liquored up at his mansion, then destroying it. By the time the Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect, there is nobody left who is willing to enforce it.

The book ends on an ambivalent note. Anderson argues that the American Revolution was far from inevitable even at the time of the Stamp Act’s repeal, but that British misconceptions about the nature of their rule in America doomed them to a series of mistakes. Pitt himself, who supported the Stamp Act’s repeal and exulted in colonial resistance, is shown making the argument that the British military could grind the colonies to dust if it needed to. Nobody in London really grasped that their relationship with the colonies was based on the colonists’ affection for the mother country and their sufferance of Britain’s occasional commands. If Britain had allowed the relationship to drift along as it always had, the Revolution might have been avoided.

On this point, Anderson’s point seems purely speculative, and not entirely supported by what he has already shown. While colonists seemed to love the Empire and consider themselves Englishmen, Anderson never really explains what we should make of the shocking violence and resentment that erupted against the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty spoke and thought with cataclysmic overtones, and the mobs they mobilized were as likely to rip apart redcoats as they were stamp collectors. Many colonial elites, like Washington, still cherished their status as Englishmen. But in Boston, New York, and Virginia, there were large and growing factions that were becoming self-aware as Americans. Toward the end of the Stamp Act riots, John Adams wrote in his diary about what a glorious year it had been for America. Looking over the smoldering wreckage of British policy and legitimacy in the colonies, Adams was already starting see the shape the future would take, and he liked what he saw. It did not include a nation of Englishmen.

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