Sunday, October 14, 2012

250 Years Ago ... Wars of the 1700's

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.
In 1762 one of the biggest wars the world had ever seen was coming to an end and France had lost.  But the French residents of North America might be forgiven for thinking that wouldn't matter to them.  They were used to war and used to the idea that things never changed much because of war.

There was almost constant war during the 1700's.  And, yes, battles were fought in the New World.  But until 1762 none of the European wars deeply affected the French colonies in North America.

In 1702 Queen Anne's War (or the War of the Spanish Succession, as it was known in Europe) was fought.  In that war, the English in Carolina fought the Spanish in Florida.  Meanwhile, in the north, the New Englanders fought the French in Acadia and tried to take Quebec, with disastrous results.  That war ended in 1712 with the Treaty of Utrecht.  France was forced to give England a piece of land far north in Hudsons' Bay that it had not returned in the previous war.  France did lose Acadia (Nova Scotia) and Newfoundland, which was a blow.  They relocated their people to Cape Breton Island and built the fortress of Louisbourg to guard the entrance to the St. Lawrence river.

The next war, which began in 1739, was a war between Britain and Spain with a picturesque name: The War of Jenkins Ear.  Basically, Spain had a policy of stopping and seizing ships suspected of carrying contraband.  Robert Jenkins was a British ship's master who claimed that the Spanish had stolen his cargo and cut off his ear.  Jenkins kept the ear, pickled, in a jar.  In 1738 British imperialists, who were hawks, used Jenkins for propaganda, parading him (and his ear) before Parliament and eventually forcing the Prime Minister to confront Spain and demand that she stop seizing foreign vessels.  Spain refused.  Britain declared war.   As part of the war, Britain granted American governors the power to give "letters of marque" to sea captains that desired to attach Spanish ports.

The War of Jenkins Ear led directly, without any pause, into the War for the Austrian Succession (known in North America as King George's War)  which began in 1744.  Britain entered the war on the Austrian side but continued its war with Spain.  France and Spain allied to defend against what they saw as British aggression.  There were a lot of land battles in Europe that I won't go into.

There was a land battle too between British Georgia and Spanish Florida that came to naught when the Georgians realized they might be forced to lay seige to St. Augustine.  Not liking the idea of a seige in a swamp, they retreated.  Later, Spain sent a force from Cuba against Georgia but it never actually attacked.   In 1743 the Georgians again tried to attack St. Augustine and again gained nothing.

In the meantime, the French used their base at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island to attack New England shipping.  Some plucky New Englanders took the opportunity of the war to attack Louisbourg and, after a 46 day seige, Louisbourg surrendered to them. There were great celebrations in Boston and other New England towns.

But, alas, when the war ended and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed, Britain returned Louisbourg to France and France returned Madras, in India, to Britain.  France also withdrew from the Austrian Netherlands.  The status quo was re-established and no one was happy.  The American colonists, especially, were furious at having to give up Louisbourg.

But to people living in the Mississippi River Valley, like my ancestor Jean Baptiste Becquet, European wars would have seemed a long way off.  They didn't affect day to day life except perhaps when ships were sunk and supplies didn't get through.  And even when your country lost, there was no real affect on  day to day life.

After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed in 1748, most people assumed that it was just a matter of time before war broke out again. The new Governor-General of New France, the Comte de la Galissoniere, surveyed the situation in North America.  In September of 1748 he wrote one of his many dispatches back to France, explaining the importance of the Illinois Country, a place which many French bureaucrats saw as an unnecessary expense.  W.J. Eccles, one of the foremost Canadian historians, describes it in The Canadian Frontier:  1634-1760:

He declared categorically that the Illinois country was of very little economic value to France, that for a long time posts and settlements there would merely be a source of expense to the crown and that the French settlers in the region would certainly not become very prosperous. Yet, he declared, the crown must maintain them, regardless of expense, to protect the investment already made, but, more significantly, because they served as a barrier to English expansion, enabling the French to dominate the Indian nations of the lower Mississippi and retain their trade and allegiance.  (emphasis mine)
 Galissoniere believed that, although France could not hope for large profit from North America, Canada and Louisiana could ultimately be self sufficient and their real value would come from growing a large French population.  He believed that the Britain so valued their North American colonies that a large French presence in North American would force Britain to "divert a sizable part of their navy and army" to protect those colonies, thus reducing the forces available to fight in other theaters of war.  But if Britain seized the Illinois country then the "trade with the interior would be destroyed, Louisiana would be quickly lost, and the Spanish colonies, even Mexico, would then be in grave danger."

But, already, land speculators in Virginia, Pennsylvania and other colonies (many of whom were the leading men of the colonies) were already preparing to form the Ohio Company to exploit the land west of the mountains and war hawks in Britain were very interested in destroying French overseas trade.  The British were aided by the local Indians who enjoyed having British traders and posts so close to them. The land speculators had no plans at all to preserve the hunting grounds of the Indians but they offered the Indians high quality merchandise at prices cheaper than the French could offer.

Galissoniere, knowing a bad situation when he saw it, decided to send a French expedition to the Ohio country to map it and to make clear that France claimed it as her own.  But the leader of the expedition, Celeron, found the situation even worse than Galissoniere feared.  It was relatively easy to drive the few British traders from the area, but the local Indian population were not impressed by the show of force and not inclined to give up their trading privileges with the British.  They put up a resistance.

Galissonier's successor, Jonquiere, took a different approach.  He tried to woo the local Indian population with presents and promises.  But he too was unsuccessful; the Indians wanted to be able to trade with the British.  Finally, his successor, Duquesne, went all in and sent troops to build a fort near the forks of the Ohio.

The Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War as the British colonists called it) began in America in 1754 when an American force, led by George Washington, was sent to tell the French to vacate their new fort.  The French politely refused.  Two years later the world was at war on a global scale. Winston Churchill said it was the true first world war. Battles were fought in Europe, North America, Central America, India and Africa. Many European countries were involved but, from the perspective of North America, it was a war fought between Great Britain, on the one hand, and France and Spain on the other hand.
At first, the war went well for the French in North America.  They defeated far larger British forces and were holding their own in the war.  But by 1759 the British had defeated the French navy and from that point on things went downhill as supplies and reinforcements could not get through.  More importantly, trade goods could not get through and that affected relationships with the Indian allies of the French.

As Fred Anderson points out in his Crucible of War:  The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, the relationship between the French and its Indian allies was the key to retaining it's North American colonies:

France maintained its empire in America for more than a century despite the steady increase of British power and population because the governors of Canada had generally sponsored cordial relations with the Indian peoples of the interior.  Trade was the sinew of these intercultural relationships, which in time of war became the military alliances that made the frontiers of the British colonies uninhabitable and rendered a successful invasion of the Canadian heartland impossible.
As trade goods became difficult for the French in Canada to obtain, the alliance became frayed.  The Indian allies didn't receive "pay" as such, but they expected "presents" in appreciation of their efforts.  The French could not deliver "presents" because its ships were not getting through.

However, the biggest problem for the French may have been the French commander sent over to lead the Canadian troops - the Marquis de Montcalm.   Rather than let the Canadian troops and their Indian allies fight in the manner that they had always fought, Montcalm sought to impose a European "order" on the local troops.
... Montcalm  had aggravated the situation, and accelerated the failure of the alliances, by seeking to command the Indians as auxiliaries, rather than to negotiate for their cooperation as allies. Eventually the combined effects of poor supply  and Montcalm's Europeanized command alienated even the converted Indians and the habitants, so that in 1760 the chevalier de Levis and his regulars stood alone, abandoned by the peoples that they had crossed the Atlantic to defend.
As Anderson points out, the British moved in the opposite direction.  At the beginning of the war, using European tactics,  the British were losing.  George Washington watched General Braddock and his troops go down to defeat by the French and Indians outside Fort Duquesne.  But once the British started to allow the colonists to fight in their own style, the tide turned.

By 1759 Quebec had been taken by the British.  Then on September 8, 1760, with Montreal surrounded, the governor of New France surrendered.  New France was occupied, awaiting news of what would happen to them when peace was negotiated.  If past history was any model, things would go back to the status quo.

In 1762 the British still had not taken Louisiana but the people of the Illinois Country had spent two years wondering  when they too would be attacked by the British.  What they could not know was that ongoing peace negotiations in Europe would bring an end to the war and would change their lives forever.