For a discussion of the early development of tactics for woods warfare, beginning with Benjamin Church and carried through the early French wars, see the section on Benjamin Church’s Company. The next question is how did that translate into actual experience and how close do we come to that experience in living history reenactments and tacticals? The following is excerpted from my book, Rustic Warriors: Warfare and the Provincial Soldier on the Northern Frontier, 1688-1748. New York University Press, 2011. For the purposes of this website I have eliminated the footnote references. If you want them you can always buy the book or contact me for a specific reference. I ask that this information not be copied without permission.
Governed by the tactics of la petite guerre or woods warfare, battles on the northern frontier, if we can use that grand term for such actions, tended to be short and sharp, often not lasting over a few minutes, or they dissolved into long fire fights. Frontier combat pitted a handful of desperate men in a swift, savage test of wills in the forested wilderness.
Examples of such combat are numerous. In January 1707 Colonel Winthrop Hilton surprised eighteen Indians at dawn and killed all but one while they were asleep. Once the firing began, the action probably lasted no longer than five minutes. Similarly, Johnson Harmon and a company of thirty-four soldiers investigated some campfires they detected as they rowed up the Kennebec river one night in July 1722. They found eleven canoes pulled up on shore and then stumbled over some sleeping Indians in the dark. The provincials opened fire and killed fifteen Indians without sustaining any casualties. The whole affair lasted ten minutes. In September 1725, as a scout of six men were resting on their return to Fort Dummer, they heard a noise like running, looked up and saw fourteen Indians charging their camp. The white men opened fire, but the surprise was complete, and two of the soldiers were killed, three captured and one managed to slip away. The actual fight lasted only two or three minutes.
The attack on Norridgewock in 1725, New England’s most successful engagement with the Eastern Indians, probably lasted only twenty minutes. While Johnson Harmon took half of the force to sweep through the cornfields, Jeremiah Moulton attacked the village. Dividing his men into three sections, he posted one third on the north side of the village, another third to the south and advanced toward the east gate with the remainder. As Johnson Harmon later related the events,
There was not an Indian to be seen, being all in their wigwams. Our men were ordered to advance softly, and to keep a profound silence. At length an Indian came out of one of the wigwams … and discovered the English close upon him. He immediately gave the war whoop and ran in for his gun… the warriors ran to meet the English, the rest fled to save their lives. Moulton, instead of suffering his men to fire at random through the wigwams, charged every man not to fire, upon pain of death, until the Indians had discharged their guns. It happened as he expected; in their surprise they overshot the English, and not a man was hurt. The English then discharged in their turn, and made great slaughter, but every man still kept his rank. The Indians then fired a second volley, and immediately fled towards the river. …they made the best of their way to the River, where they had about 40 Canoes; we followed them so close that they put off, without their Paddles, not having time to take them; we then presently beat them out of their Canoes, Killing the greatest part of them; the River being about 60 Yards over and Shallow, our Men followed them over…with such fury, that but one of their Canoes arrived upon the other side, but others Waded and Swam over, so that we judge about 50 Men, Women and Children got over….
We then returned to the Town, where we found Monsieur Ralle the Jesuit, their chief Commander, in one of the Indians houses, who had been continually firing upon a Party of our Men, that were still in the Town: the said Ralle having Wounded one of our people, Lieut. Jaques soon Stove open the door of said house, and found him loading his Gun, who upon Jaques’s coming in, Declared Voluntarily, That he would give no quarter, nor take any; Jaques hearing that, and seeing him loading, shot him thro’ the head.
Harmon reported that the Indians initially “Stood their ground 4 or 5 minutes” before they broke for the river. The resulting pursuit across the river probably did not last longer than fifteen or twenty minutes.
However, if both sides survived the opening attack, physically and psychologically, it was not uncommon for fire fights of several hours to develop. In fact, combat on the northern frontier either resolved itself very quickly or persisted for several hours. John Lovewell’s last battle is the most memorable extended engagement. Early on the morning of May 8, 1725, John Lovewell and his men heard a gunshot nearby, and upon investigating, found a lone Indian hunting. In an exchange of fire, the Indian was killed and Lovewell and another man wounded. On returning to their packs sometime around ten o’clock, they walked into an ambush. Lovewell, Lieutenants Josiah Farwell and Jonathan Robbins, and several others fell mortally wounded on the first fire, but the provincial soldiers maintained their composure, returned the fire and, under the leadership of Ensign Seth Wyman, regrouped along the shore of a pond. The battle settled down into a fire fight which continued for ten hours until the Indians finally withdrew, leaving the survivors of Lovewell’s command to make their best way home.
The length of such encounters, and the frequency of firing, was limited by ammunition supplies and loading procedures. The militia requirement of “one pound of powder, twenty bullets fit for his gun, and twelve flints” would be considered a minimum amount and probably reflects the ammunition carried by members of community militia engaged in pursuits. But provincial soldiers involved in scouting and expeditions carried anywhere from thirty to sixty ball, either loose or, more commonly, wrapped with the powder in cartridges. Larger amounts than this presented problems in transportation. If made for a 10 bore British musket, thirty-six cartridges would weigh approximately four pounds. Added to the weight of musket, knapsack filled with spare clothes and blanket, hatchet or hunting sword, and food, thirty-six cartridges represented a reasonable limit for traveling through the woods. The number of rounds could be increased without adding to the weight by reducing the bore size of the muskets. Thus, a soldier using a 16 bore ball could carry twelve more cartridges than a soldier using a 12 bore ball with no increase in weight, which is why smaller caliber fusils and hunting arms were preferred by provincial soldiers.
In addition to ammunition supplies, loading procedures limited the length and intensity of engagements. It is often pointed out that British officers expected their soldiers to load and fire their muskets every fifteen to twenty seconds on the drill field. Actually, British soldiers could not achieve a loading rate of four shots per minute until both the priming flask was eliminated (priming from a cartridge became common in the 1730’s) and the wooden ramrod replaced by a metal one. This rate refers to drill as well, commonly done with blanks or “squibs,” and not combat conditions with live rounds. Under the stress of combat, and loading with ball, two shots per minute was considered good. Provincials were not introduced to priming from a cartridge until the 1740’s, even then, the use of powder horns for priming remained widespread. In addition, extended firing increased the accumulation of powder fouling in the barrels which would eventually interfere with ramming and slow the whole procedure.
Thus, a loading speed of two shots per minute under combat conditions would be considered very good, even unusual. Such a rate of fire impressed Captain Eleazer Melvin enough for him to make a note of it in his scouting report. In May 1748, Melvin led a scout from Fort Dummer to the area around the French fort at Crown Point. While watching Lake Champlain a canoe containing twelve Indians came within view. “Apprehending we might make some spoil upon them, and fearing we should have no better opportunity, we agreed to fire upon them, and accordingly fired six times each in about 3 or 4 minutes.”
Firing during an extended fight tended to be slow and deliberate, both to conserve precious supplies of ammunition and to make every ball count if possible. Samuel Penhallow reported that after the fall of Lovewell, “Ensign Wyman took upon him the command of the shattered Company, who behaved himself with great Prudence and Courage, by animating the Men and telling them, `that the Day would yet be their own, if their Spirits did not flag’; which enlivened them anew, and caused them to fire so briskly, that several discharged between twenty and thirty times apiece.” Over the course of a ten-hour battle this means an average firing rate of one shot every twenty minutes.
Of course, this is an average rate. Evidence seems to indicate that the intensity of battle fluctuated with periods of furious firing interspersed with lulls. One reason for the lulls beyond the need to catch a breath or clean a weapon, was to let the gun smoke dissipate so the enemy could be seen. Black powder produces a white cloud of sulfur smelling smoke which reduced visibility if not blown away by a breeze. The volume of smoke produced on European battle fields was known to envelope armies and even obliterate the sun. But even in the relatively small engagements on the northern frontier powder smoke hampered aim and reduced the rate of fire. During a running fight between a fishing shallop and several canoes filled with Indians, the English, according to Samuel Penhallow, “spent five pounds of Powder, and when the Enemy ceased their chase, they had not one quarter of a pound left. … The number of [Indians] that fell was then unknown, because of a continued Cloud of Smoke.”
In addition to musket fire and smoke, combat was punctuated by sound of shouting and yelling. Soldiers shouted encouragement and information to each other throughout the heat of battle. Like Seth Wyman at Lovewell’s fight, officers yelled encouragements to keep up the spirits of their men. Soldiers also shouted, yelled and screamed inarticulate war cries during the heat of battle. When the French ambushed the provincial soldiers landing below Quebec in 1690, the New Englanders “Shouting and rushing upon the Enemy at once they run away as fast as [their] legs could carry them.” During fights on the frontier, both natives and English added their cries to the din of battle. The Rev. Thomas Symmes captured the essence of this yelling and screaming in his description of Lovewell’s fight. “The Fight continu’d very Furious and Obstinate, All towards Night,” he wrote, “The Indians Roaring and Yelling and Howling like Wolves, Barking like Dogs, and making all Sorts of Hideous Noises: The English Frequently Shouting and Huzza’ing, as they did after the first Round.”
Soldiers on both sides also taunted and shouted insults at each other, usually to draw the enemy out into the open. Francis Parkman wrote that when they had trouble coming to grips with the French forces outside Quebec in 1690, “the New England men taunted them as cowards who never fight except under cover.” Although some historians have interpreted this as an indication the provincials still clung to European style warfare, it was no more than goading the French to reveal themselves. According to Cotton Mather’s stimulating account of the siege of Storer’s garrison in 1692, the Indians used the same taunts. “The Indian replied unto Captain Converse, Being you are so Stout, why don’t you come and Fight in the open Field, like a Man, and not Fight in a Garrison, like a Squaw?” Familiarity between New Englanders and the Eastern Indians through trade and other contacts promoted the exchange of insults during battle. According to the legend, John Chamberlain and Paugus knew each other quite well and hurled personal affronts before their dual on the shore. Jeremy Belknap wrote that the Indians invited Lovewell’s men to surrender, “holding up ropes, and intimidated them with their yells.”
In almost all circumstances, the Indian method of warfare – the hit and run raid, ambush and surprise – governed combat on the northern frontier. “They are extremely skilful in the art of surprizing, and watching the motions of an enemy,” according to one description published in 1757, “… they disperse themselves thro’ a country singly, or in very small parties, and lie on the lurch, to pick up stragglers, or procure intelligence: in which they act with an astonishing patience and indefatigableness … remaining in one place, and often in one posture, for whole days and weeks together, till they find an opportunity to strike their stroke, or compass their design, whatever it may be.”
One of the few first-hand English observations of Indians preparing and executing an ambush is contained in the report of Caleb Lyman. Acting on intelligence from Albany that the Indians had established a fort on the Connecticut River, Lyman led a scout of five friendly Indians to investigate sometime in May 1704. Approaching the supposed site of the fort, they halted “to consult what Methods to take; and soon concluded to send out a Spy, with Green Leaves for a Cap and Veste, to prevent his own Discovery, and to find out the Enemy.” The scout had no sooner left, however, when they saw two Indians in a canoe and heard the firing of a gun, Lyman recalled the scout and “concluded to keep close till Sunset.”
At Sunset, Lyman and his five Indians moved down to the river where they saw smoke from a campfire. With “utmost Care and Diligence” they worked their way to within twelve rods of the enemy’s wigwam.
But here we met with a new Difficulty, which we feared would have ruined the whole Design: For the Ground was so covered over with dry Sticks and Brush, for the space of five Rods, that we could not pass, without making such a Crackling, as we thought would alarm the Enemy, and give them Time to escape. But while we were contriving to compass our Design, God in his good Providence so ordered, that a very small Cloud arose, which gave a smart Clap of Thunder, and a sudden Shower of Rain. And this Opportunity we embraced, to run thorow the Thicket; and so come undiscovered within sight of the Wigwam; and perceived by their Noise, that the Enemy were awake. But however, being unwilling to lose any Time, we crept on our Hands and Knees till we were within three or four Rods of them. Then we arose, and ran to the side of the Wigwam, and fired in upon them: And flinging down our Guns, we surrounded them with our Clubs and Hatchets, and knockt down several we met with.
Although accounts of the preparation are rare, the impact of the surprise attacks is well known. According to John Gyles’ clear description of the attack on Pemaquid in August 1689, the men had worked in the fields all morning, stopped to eat, then went back to work, dividing into groups among the various fields. The fort fired the signal cannon and Gyles’ father said he hoped the news was good, “But to our great surprise, about thirty or forty Indians at that moment discharged a volley of shot at us from behind a rising ground near our barn. The yelling of the Indians, the whistling of their shot, and the voice of my father, whom I heard cry out, `What now! What now!’ so terrified me (though he seem to be handing a gun) that I endeavored to make my escape. My brother ran one way, and I another, and looking over my shoulder I saw a stout fellow, all painted, pursuing me, with a gun in one hand and a cutlass glittering in the other, which I expected in my brains every moment.” When Gyles tripped, the Indian tied him up and led him to where the other prisoners were being gathered before being taken into a long captivity.
The Indians relied on this scattering effect, and the psychological paralysis induced by sudden shock, to give them a quick and easy victory. Flushed like so many quail, the enemy, isolated and terrified, would be dispatched with tomahawk or knife as the Indian muskets had been discharged in the initial attack. However, despite the romantic descriptions provided by Hollywood, novelists and even historians, hand to hand combat between two equally prepared opponents during the French and Indian wars was an extremely rare occurrence. The Eastern Indian involved in or even confronted with such an encounter usually withdrew from the action. It should be emphasized that the sources describing Indian war combat are all white accounts, many of which have undoubtedly been exaggerated or altered by time. However, the conclusions presented here are based on an overall impression covering sixty years of warfare, not on any particular incident. Eastern Indians avoided close combat wherever the odds were not overwhelming in their favor.
This aversion to hand to hand combat was noticed and misinterpreted as cowardice by both contemporary New Englanders and some subsequent historians. Cotton Mather exhorted communities on the frontier to maintain their watching and warding, because they faced a “Mischievous Enemy; but a cowardly one. The Cowards never durst Assault you, but when they can surprize you. Though they have come Three or Four Hundred miles to molest you, yet if they find you Awake when they come, away they Go again.” Indian behavior in battle, as well as the interpretation of that behavior as cowardice, illustrates the differences between European and native American cultures. In Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts, Harry Turney-High wrote that the prime motive of the American Indian was individual glory, that honor went to the individual, not the village or the tribe. Thus, opportunities for martial glory would be gauged by the individual, and his judgment as to moment, whether to refrain or proceed, would be respected by his peers. Europeans, on the other hand, traditionally view war in a more communal sense. The purpose for war is communal (be it town, country, or kingdom), and the fear of cowardice, of letting down community and/or comrades, often surpasses the logic of the combat situation, even the prospect of death.
The Eastern Indian also took with him the handicaps and burdens of wilderness living. As a hunting society whose numbers were relatively small, every male played an important role in the support of their families and village. Death or a debilitating wound diminished the ability of the family and the tribe to provide food, and unlike their white adversaries, the Indians had no governments to petition for pensions or relief to compensate for death or disability. Therefore, the Eastern Indian and the New England provincial soldier entered battle with different social pressures. Finally, religious beliefs contributed to the native psyche. To Native Americans, all living things possessed certain power, but this power ebbed and flowed. As James Axtell wrote, this personal power “could be acquired and lost. Since a person’s current power was always uncertain, the Indians avoided competition, fostered respect for other persons, and approached all encounters as if potentially dangerous.” These thoughts probably produced a good dose of caution.
Perhaps this caution explains the repeated instances where Indians refused to approach provincials who appeared prepared and ready to fire on them. On numerous occasions individuals in garrison houses saved their lives by giving the appearance of preparedness and strength by shouting commands to imaginary defenders or thrusting unloaded and useless weapons out the loopholes. In April 1747 three boys uncovered a party of Indians who had laid an ambush for some men working in a nearby field. The Indians fired prematurely and one of the boys returned the fire wounding an Indian. The other boy aimed his weapon but did not fire it, which kept the Indians at bay until the men arrived to drive them off.
The Eastern Indian calculated the odds of survival differently than the European. They tried to gauge the effects of their surprise on the enemy and withdrew when the advantage disappeared. Believing in the axiom it is better to “run away and live to fight another day,” they preferred long distance fire fights to close hand to hand combat because it was easier to disengage from the former if the tide turned against them.