- White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America
Stephen Brumwell, fresh from a very successful study of the British army in America during the Seven Years' War (Redcoats, Cambridge University Press, 2002), has now turned his attention to one of that war's most famous characters: Robert Rogers. White Devil, however, is both more and less than a simple biography of Rogers and his rangers, it is a full study of the many characters and peoples involved in the campaigns leading up to Rogers's climactic raid on the Abenaki community of St. Francis in French Canada.
Brumwell's focus on the St. Francis raid provides a compelling narrative thread, and allows for a complete "plot arc" worthy of any historical novel. White Devil opens with the captivity of Susanna Johnson—taken (with her family and others) from Fort Number Four in New Hampshire, and carried to St. Francis. Her eventual return home, and her new-built connections among the Abenaki, provide a satisfying dénouement. Brumwell, however, is no mere storyteller. Although beginning with a white captive, he quickly turns her experience into an opportunity to discuss the nature of the Abenaki community at St. Francis; a discussion carefully grounded in recent work on Native American history, but artfully done without a burdensome historiographical discussion. This is a quality that runs throughout the book. Brumwell frequently finds opportune moments for deeply informed topical discussions that fit comfortably within the narrative.
After having thus laid some cultural and geographic foundations, Brumwell then turns to the outbreak of war and the growing reputations of Robert Rogers and the Abenakis of St. Francis. Both quickly became feared practitioners of wilderness warfare. Rogers provided skills and leadership for British forces sadly lacking in frontier scouts, while St. Francis, actually an ethnic polyglot of peoples, many of them refugees, served as a white hot center of resistance to English encroachment. The story's pace picks up as Brumwell recounts the early campaigns of the war, especially along the Hudson–Lake Champlain axis. One of the virtues of this section is the way in which the activities of Indians and Rogers's rangers are folded into the operations of the regular European troops. Their usefulness was not simply in conducting ambushes, or fighting from behind trees, but in their ability to move quickly and quietly through hundreds of miles of wilderness, take prisoners, and otherwise gather information about enemy intentions. Theirs was a war for information—a war sometimes fought with great savagery.
The next four chapters recount the decision for the St. Francis raid (largely a project borne of vengeance), and the harrowing details of its execution: harrowing for the mostly old men, women, and children killed in St. Francis, and harrowing for the rangers forced in their return march hundreds of miles out of their way. Brumwell then concludes with a brief chapter outlining the conclusion of the war, including the personal failures and disappointments of Rogers in the postwar years. [End Page 228]
Brumwell's intent here is to tell a dramatic story informed by the latest scholarship, including not only the relatively recently collected Abenaki oral histories and the discovery of Rogers's hand-drawn map of the raid, but also the sophisticated historical work now available on the nature of native societies and of wilderness warfare. In this purpose he is wildly successful. The book is a delight to read, and consistently reassuring in its depiction of current issues in the scholarship. Brumwell also hopes to rescue Rogers from military critics who have downplayed the rangers' effectiveness, but he makes no attempt to gloss over some of his more savage qualities; qualities that led the Abenakis to refer to him as a "white devil." This is a fine book, and while perhaps not designed for a graduate seminar, it could do very well for some undergraduate courses. The endnotes are nontraditional, but adequate for most purposes...