It's the 250th Anniversary of the French & Indian War: Should We Care?


Mr. Fowler, the Director of the Massachustts Historical Society, is the author of Empires at War: the French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America 1754-1763 (2004).

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A little more than two hundred and fifty years ago a group of militia and Indians led by a twenty-two year old major named George Washington surprised a camp of sleeping French soldiers near present day Pittsburgh. Washington could not have known it, but that brief and deadly exchange of fire began a war that swept across North America and eventually engulfed nearly the entire globe. The outcome of this struggle changed the course of history and laid the framework for the world in which we live.

My own interest in the war began with reading James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe. I devoured Cooper's and Parkman's romantic accounts. But those authors never told the full story. Like most Americans I knew this conflict as the French and Indian War. Later I learned that some Canadians, particularly those of French descent, refer to the conflict as the War of the Conquest, and that in European history it is called the Seven Years War. None of these titles is fully accurate, for in fact the struggle that raged between 1754 and 1763 (hostilities preceded the formal declarations of war by two years) was the first world war.

The war pitted the world's two superpowers, France and England, against each other in a titanic struggle for imperial domination. This was hardly the first time the French and English had grappled. Ancient enmities going back at least to 1066 had often driven these two nations to conflict, but this time the struggle was not about the usual familial claims to thrones or who should control some petty duchy or principality or even who would dominate the continent of Europe. It was a competition to determine which power would dominate the other continents of the world.

At sea, and on battlefields in Europe, North America, the West Indies, Asia, India, and Africa, fleets and armies fought. Every major power in Europe joined the fray. More than one million people died. At the final peace, weary combatants traded territories vaster than all of Europe. England emerged victorious, and its triumph laid the foundation for a global empire from which it would draw the wealth and resources to fuel the industrial revolution and transform the world.

Although the war was fought all over the world, its most decisive battles were in North America. The struggle for this continent among Indians, French, Canadians, British and British colonials was the hinge upon which the outcome of the war swung. Across North America armies fought in the wilderness where field commanders on the ground contended with disease, brutal weather, and scant supplies, frequently having to build the very roads they marched on. As in any conflict, individuals and events stand out: Sir William Johnson, a baronet and major general of the British forces, who sometimes painted his face and dressed like a warrior when he fought beside his native allies; Edward Braddock's doomed march across Pennsylvania; the valiant French defense of Fort Ticonderoga; Hendrick the aged and brave Mohawk chief; and the legendary battle for Quebec between armies led by the aristocratic French general, the marquis de Montcalm and the gallant, if erratic, young Englishman James Wolfe.

Americans studying their own history commonly describe this war as the prelude to the American Revolution. Aside from being provincial, that interpretation both exaggerates and understates its real significance. The ideological split between England and its colonies began in earlier generations. Furthermore, the political, economic and social forces that drove the colonies toward revolution were in operation long before the war began. The American habit of viewing the French and Indian War backward through the lens of the Revolution masks its true importance as a world-shaping event.

To write about this war I traveled to as many places as I could. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel by water from Halifax to Louisbourg and then up the Saint Lawrence to Quebec, Montreal, Kingston and through the Great Lakes to Detroit and Michilimackinac. From the river and the lakes many of the scenes of war look much like they did in the days of Montcalm and Wolfe.

Traveling south from the shores of Lake Erie into the Ohio Valley the names I read along the route resonated, including the great western bastion itself Fort Pitt, formerly Fort Duquesne and now Pittsburgh. The paths of conflict continued south through the Shenandoah and into the Carolinas where today historic sites and signs recall the war.

Louis Antoine Bougainville, an officer with Montcalm, called the battles in North America "petty victories" compared to the grand engagements in Europe, India and Asia. Yet the scale of the struggle in North America gives a false impression of its importance. For it was in the American wilderness, by these "petty victories," that the fate of empires was decided.

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Edward Siegler - 3/15/2005

Another consequence of the French and Indian War is that if things had gone differently we'd all be speaking French. If you're a wine lover or a foodie this might not be a bad thing, but I sort of prefer the English heritige (especially the political one) a little better.