- Empires at War: The Seven Years' War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763, and: White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America
As the sesquicentennial of the conflict variously called the Seven Years' War, the French and Indian War, or the War of the Conquest is now upon us, we may expect increased scholarly and popular attention to the final clash between Great Britain and France for imperial ascendancy in North America. The works under review here offer some hope for progress in our understanding of this war, as well as some reminders of intellectual hurdles that remain to be overcome. Both studies are carefully crafted narrative accounts that do much to uncover the human side of the conflict, including lengthy lists of dramatis personae to orient readers new to this place and time. Both authors have spent considerable time in archives, and they offer substantial new insights on their respective subjects. Both works depart from the regrettably familiar approach of relying solely on English-language sources, and incorporate crucial French evidence into their narratives. Neither book, however, fully succeeds in crafting an original interpretive framework to recast existing understandings of the conflict.
Robert Rogers comes in for long-overdue scholarly treatment in Brumwell's White Devil. Brumwell, centring his narrative on Rogers's destruction of the Abenaki village of Saint-François (Odanak) on 4 October 1759, states as his goal an effort to determine 'exactly what happened' on that fateful day in order to chart a narrative course between contemporary polarized academic opinions of Rogers as a frontier hero or perpetrator of genocide. Interwoven with Brumwell's personal story of Rogers is a narrative account of the war itself, emphasizing regions in which the New Hampshire woodsman played significant roles. [End Page 109]
Brumwell writes well. His narrative is fluid, well-paced, and sprinkled with intriguing details, such as the nugget indicating that a simplified version of Rogers's famous rules for wilderness fighting, cribbed from Kenneth Roberts's historical novel Northwest Passage, was issued to American ground troops in Vietnam during the 1960s (100). Evidence of the author's painstaking research is presented in 'source notes' at the end of the volume, rather than in traditional scholarly format, presumably in an effort to enhance the book's appeal to the popular market. Brumwell details the rise of Rogers's career to its climactic moment in October 1759, when he, acting on orders from British General Jeffery Amherst, razed Odanak.
Brumwell is enamoured with his subject as a man of action. Although Rogers and his Rangers were costly and ill-disciplined, sustained heavy casualties, made numerous crucial errors in judgment, committed serious intelligence leaks, and regularly inflated casualty reports throughout their respective careers in the Seven Years' War, the author continually asserts the significance of Rogers's personal bravery and heroism. Readers will be left to decide for themselves the merits of Brumwell's claim that the reputed murder and cannibalization of a captive Abenaki woman by Rogers on his retreat from Odanak is best understood as a reflection of Rogers's 'moral courage to keep his men alive' (231).
Rogers's postwar career was mired in struggles with debt, charges of treason, and alcohol. Although Brumwell eschews a comprehensive assessment of Rogers's overall significance to North American military history, he makes a persuasive case for the larger significance of the raid on Odanak (often treated as simply a nasty episode), in the context of the final phase of the Seven Years' War. The destruction of the home village of a prominent Native nation allied to New France played a key role not only in the subsequent Anglo-American diplomacy that separated many Native American allies from Canada in 1760, but also in the unprecedented wave of settler expansion into...