Woods Battle, Part II


Woods Battle, Part II

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Provincial soldiers adopted many Indian tactics during the course of their long wars, especially the surprise and ambush. Scouting companies were ordered to "be silent in their Marches, and patient and vigilant in their waiting for the Enemy, that if it be possible they make a Discovery of themselves by their [musket] Fires, but to be sure not by Shooting or other Noises." At Norridgewock in 1724, Jeremiah Moulton ordered his men to "advance softly, and to keep a profound silence" as they approached the Indian village. The following year a scout commanded by John Lovewell discovered a party of ten Indians camped near a pond in present day Wakefield, New Hampshire. Lovewell prepared his ambush with care. He divided his men into firing teams of five each, then drawing near the sleeping Indians after midnight, he fired his own gun as a signal. Each five man team fired in succession, catching the Indians in various stages of reaction, and destroying the whole party.

Such surprise tactics were used successfully on numerous other occasions, and in their practice differed little from Indian usage. Provincial soldiers also adopted the Indian custom of using cover and fighting in scattered or extended formation. But the battlefield tactics of the New Englanders and the Eastern Indians dif¬fered in one important respect. When on the receiving end of an ambush provincial soldiers, if they survived the initial effects of surprise both physically and psycho¬log¬ic¬ally, often rushed at their enemy. It fact, for veterans of frontier warfare, the charge became an automatic response to an ambush, and produced three possible results. The Indians broke and fled, the provincials were stopped by superior forces (in which case they scattered themselves and headed for home), or both sides settled down into a long fire fight.

Provincial soldiers used the charge because of the Indians' aversion to hand to hand combat. In Souldiers Conselled and Comforted, Cotton Mather encouraged soldiers to attack boldly when confronted with Indians. "Your Enemies have made themselves notorious for this quality [of running away]... it is easier to kill them then to find them; so they can rarely Take any but a shaking Trembling Aim at one that boldly faces them ... [so] at the first Appearance of the Tawney Pagans, then Courage! brave Hearts; Fall on!" Benjamin Church frequently ordered a charge when confronted by an enemy force. He had his men charge across a bridge during the Battle of Brackett's Woods in 1689. The following year he and his company chased a force of Indians through their village, and later in the raid would put to flight an enemy party which had ambushed his Plymouth Indians. Church would command similar assaults during his last raid in 1704.

Of course the tactic did not always work. At Casco Bay in 1690, thirty men sallied out from Fort Loyal to invest¬igate some musket shots. Perceiving their cattle staring at a fence which lined the woods, the company charged the fence with a cheer and were met with a withering volley that killed the lieu¬tenant in command and thirteen others. The survivors ran to a nearby garrison and held off the enemy until dark, when they slipped back into the fort. Lovewell's men also apparently charged after the first shock of the ambush, but meeting obviously superior numbers they retreated to the edge of the pond and began their long fire fight. Francis Parkman emphasized the "unusual" behavior of the Indians during Lovewell's fight "in rushing forward instead of firing from their ambush," and others, such as John Mahon, have agreed with this interpretation. Mahon wrote that the "Indians deviated from the usual pattern by breaking cover and rushing in mass toward the whites. Then, after volleying at one another in the open, both sides closed in and grappled hand to hand." How¬ever, it was not unusual for Indians to rush forward after their initial volley to increase the psychological impact of the surprise attack. The Indians attacking Lovewell followed their usual pattern of firing and rushing forward. If they found the enemy had not scattered or fallen apart, Indians quickly terminated their rush and took cover to continue firing. There is no indication any hand to hand fighting took place during the battle. When Lovewell's men did not scatter at the first volley, the Indians were content to use fire power to beat the Englishmen. There was no wild melee, no swinging hatchet and musket butt, just a fire fight.

Lovewell's men apparently charged forward them¬selves after the initial volley, meeting the Indians at close range. The best evidence for this comes from the account of Benjamin Hassell, the man who panicked and left the action to report the premature destruction of the company. When Lt-Governor William Dummer related Hassell's story of Lovewell's wounding and his flight to Colonel Thomas Westbrook, he added that Hassell "Cant Deny but our people were charging the Enemy briskly when he left." There is no reason to suggest Hassell lied in this obser¬vation, because it only worsened his own position. Seth Wyman's account, published in the Boston Newsletter a couple of weeks after the battle, also confirms this.

Returning to the Place where they left their Packs, before they could reach it, one of the English discovered an Indian, and calling out to the rest, the Indians rose up from their Ambush, Shouted and fired, as did the English at the same Instant. ... After the first Fire, the Indians advanc'd with great Fury towards the English, with their Hatchets in their Hands, the English likewise running up to them, till they came within 4 or 5 Yards of the Enemy, and were even mix'd among them, when the Dispute growing too warm for the Indians, they gave back, and endeavour'd to encompass the English, who then retreated to the Pond, in order to have their Rear cover'd, where they continu'd the Fight till Night.

Apparently both sides advanced after the first fire, the Indians as part of their ambush tactic, the whites as the automatic response to Indian attack. As they came "within twice the length of their Guns," the Indians real¬ized the whites had not scattered and remained a cohesive fighting force. Lovewell's men found the Indians were not retreating and obviously outnumbered their small band, especially in light of the casualties they had just suffered. Therefore, they both withdrew and began their fire fight. It is perhaps the fact the Indians had not fled when the whites charged that left the impression Indian behavior in that engagement was unusual, but it was only a matter of timing. The Englishmen charged before the Indians had completed the surprise phase of their attack.

This automatic impulse to charge the enemy is illus¬trated in perhaps the most vivid account of combat on the frontier - Eleazer Melvin's journal of his 1748 scout to Crown Point. After Melvin and his men fired on the Indians in the canoe (see above), they heard signal guns at the French fort and so, knowing a pursuit force would soon be sent, started their journey back to Fort Dummer. The next day they crossed the trail of 150-200 tracks obviously belonging to the enemy, and assumed they represented the pursuit force. Melvin and his men followed the banks of Otter Creek, crossed over a mountain range and came upon a branch of the West River.

Our provision being very short, we began our march before sunrise, and travelled till about half after 9 o'clock; being by the side of the river several of the company desired to stop to refresh themselves, being faint and weary, whereupon we halted and began to take off our packs, and some were set down, and in about a half a minute after our halting, the enemy rose from behind a log and several trees, about 20 feet or 30 at farthest distant, and fired about 12 guns at us, but do not know whether any men received any hurt, tho' so near; -- whereupon I called to the men to face the enemy and run up the bank, which I did my self, and several others attempted, but the enemy were so thick, they could not. I was no sooner jumpt up the bank but the enemy were just upon me. I discharged my gun at one of them, about eight feet from the muzzel of my gun, who I see fall, -- and about the same time that I discharged my gun, the enemy fired about 20 guns at us, and killed 4 men ... The men which were left alive most of them fired immediately on the enemy, several of which shots did execution, as can be witnessed by several who see the enemy fall; -- but seeing the enemy numerous and their guns discharged, they retreated. Several ran across the river, where they had some of them opportunity to fire again at the enemy. Some ran up the river, and some down, and some into a thicket on the same side of the river. For my own part, after I saw my men retreat, and being beset by the enemy with guns, hatchets and knives. Several of them attempted to strike at me with their hatchets. Some threw their hatchets, one of which, or a bullet, I cannot certainly tell which, carried away my belt, and with it my bullets, all except one I had loose in my pocket. I ran down the river, and two Indians followed me, and ran almost side by side with me, calling to me, "Come Captain," "Now Captain," but upon my presenting my gun towards them (though not charged) they fell a little back, and I ran across the river, charged my gun, moved a few steps, and one of them fired at me, which was the last gun fired.

Most of the elements of frontier combat are contained in this action. The Indians fired on the provincial soldiers from ambush in a classic surprise attack. Eleazer Melvin, who was a veteran of Lovewell's last battle, instantly ordered and led a charge up the bank. Melvin encountered an Indian at close range and fired at him with his musket. His men attempted to follow but a second volley, and the obviously superior size of the enemy force, halted their forward motion. The provincial soldiers returned the fire, inflicting casualties on the uncovered Indians, and then with muskets empty, they dispersed to make their escape.

Although momentarily checked by the attempted charge and return fire of the whites, the Indians recognized the odds changing in their favor when they perceived the soldiers scattering. At this point Melvin, who had advanced the farthest, became exposed and vulnerable, and the Indians closed in throwing knives and hatchets at him as most of their guns had been discharged. Melvin ran down the river bank with two Indians paralleling his course, and taunting him in the hope he would stop his flight. But Melvin kept them at bay by pointing his empty, and useless, musket at them until he crossed the river. The Indians stopped their pursuit at that point, sending a parting shot to speed him on his way. The whole action lasted only a few minutes, and the number of shots fired were very few. Most of the participants fired their weapons only once, with only a few of the whites who crossed the river, and the Indian who fired the last shot at Melvin, getting off a second round.

Melvin's account illustrates the difference in attitude between the Eastern Indians and provincial soldiers. This culturally based difference is subtle, but existed nonetheless. The Indians entered battle with considerable caution, and a belief that death brought little glory. Discretion was indeed the better part of valor to the Eastern Indian, and no cultural dishonor resulted from its use. Thus Eleazer Melvin was able to fend off his pursuers with a useless gun. In contrast to this, the white cultural approach to battle encouraged provincial soldiers to exploit the caution of the Indian. Therefore, charging the enemy, if physically possible, became an almost automatic response. Certainly Melvin ordered his charge with little reflection or thought.

There is no right or wrong involved in cultural attitudes, they are just different. Combat is a test of wills between two opponents, and in reacting to this test the opposing forces draw on instincts honed by their individual societies and traditions. In the French, New Englanders faced an enemy who may have differed in tempera¬ment, politics and religion, but whose basic cultural back¬ground was the same. Both were Europeans, and their battles, like Port Royal and Louisbourg, came closest to the European model.

However, in opposing the Eastern Indians, provincial soldiers not only had to face a foe with deep cultural differences, they had to fight that foe on their own terms. Indian warfare dictated the style of combat on the northern frontier. Strategy was simple -- attempt to gain a superior psychological edge through the use of surprise attack. Tactically, the Eastern Indians maximized the effects of surprise by firing, then rushing the foe with hideous yelling. Ideally the enemy would scatter and could be destroyed piecemeal. If they did not scatter, the Indians were content to use overwhelming firepower to wear down their foe in long fire fights. New Englanders adapted to this warfare by employing the surprise attack themselves, and were more than willing to match the Indians musket for musket in a fire fight. But they also used the charge whenever practical to break up enemy formations and possibly drive off Indian raiding parties. Such a tactic could back-fire, but the success rate made the charge an almost automatic response for many veteran soldiers.

This account of woods battle needs to be applied to the experience of reenacting. Reenactors tend to fire rapidly and often. While Lovewell’s men fired twenty-five to thirty shots in ten hours of combat, it is not unknown for reenactors to fire that many shots in ten minutes. Reenactors are firing blanks as British soldier did in training, but unlike those British soldiers they are not ramming for safety sake, and this increases the rate of fire. I am amused when reenactors talk about bringing 80-100 rounds to a battle, when their historic counterparts often carried no more than 30-40. For a public battle this may make sense … the public wants to see the musket fire and the powder smoke. What we show them is not historically accurate, but entertaining. A rate of fire of one shot every twenty minutes reflecting historical circumstances would probably be boring and perplexing.

However, we can approach the historic experience in tacticals outside the public’s eye. We have engaged in tacticals where the participants were willing to play the game, to imagine that the weapons were firing lead shot, and that a misstep would mean death. At a French war tactical many years ago at Pound Ridge, NY we came close. In that action the native reenactors acted like the natives described above … wary of loaded muskets, but prepared to spring on anyone who unloaded their musket without back-up nearby. Reenactors shouted the names of those they knew on the other side to get them to reveal themselves, and everyone learned the power of a loaded musket. A loaded musket kept the enemy at bay, so there was no indiscriminate and wasteful banging away. I spent well over an hour in one tactical and fired a total of six times, and left the engagement feeling like I had experienced what our ancestors experienced … a deadly game of cat and mouse, working with the men of my unit to make sure there were weapons loaded at all times, taking cover, having patience to wait until a sure shot appeared. It was an enlightening and fascinating experience, one that I treasure far more than any smoky, rapid fire contest I have ever been in. We should all aspire to such an experience.

Steven C. Eames, Ph.D.