The Article: The Prerevolutionary War: A Book Review of ‘The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War’ by Fred Anderson; New York Times, January 8, 2006 In 1754, a senseless massacre began innocently enough. A young George Washington, leading a force of Virginia volunteers and Indians, stumbled into an engagement with a French detachment in a remote Allegheny glen. To this day, the circumstances are cloudy as to who shot first and how the hostilities broke out. What is not in doubt is that Washington bungled badly: he lost control of his men, and before the mayhem ended, 13 Frenchmen were killed, wounded soldiers were brutally scalped and one man was even decapitated. As is so often the case in history, this one small act, however miscalculated, had large consequences. It incited the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). This was a confrontation no one wanted, but what started as a remote skirmish produced a chain of events that culminated in a fierce struggle among the British, the French and dozens of American Indian nations fighting for control of North America. And the conflagration eventually spread to Canada, the Caribbean, India, even the Philippines. Yet, Fred Anderson writes, for all the conflict’s scope and carnage, not to mention its implications, Americans are no more familiar with it than they are with the Peloponnesian War. This is a pity. True, Americans have long had an unquenchable appetite for the Civil War, and more recently for the founding fathers. But however obscure, the inaptly named French and Indian War is itself a drama of considerable significance, one that deserves to be rescued from the graveyard. It was Winston Churchill, after all, who once termed it the “first world war.” Anderson, a history professor at the University of Colorado and the author of the splendid “Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766,” is thus to be commended for “The War That Made America,” a companion to a four-hour PBS series to be broadcast later this month. It is a tale with many facets. After Washington’s murderous expedition, anger bred retaliation, retaliation bred ambition and ambition fueled lust for empire. No one was immune, not the British, not the French, not the American colonists, not even the Indians, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy. The results, Anderson says, were both surprising and morally ambiguous.
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At the outset, France dealt a severe blow to Britain, and it seemed poised to do so again. Britain’s “splendidly brave” Gen. Edward Braddock was taken by surprise by a mixed force of French marines, Canadian militiamen and Indians along the Monongahela River. By day’s end, his men had sustained heavy casualties, he was fatally wounded and his aide George Washington barely escaped death, after having had three horses shot out from under him. Marquis de Montcalm followed up this victory by leading France to a string of successes over the British in 1756, 1757 and 1758. Yet as with so much else about this war, nothing went as planned. France’s fortunes suddenly began to slide. Just as suddenly, in 1759, Montcalm was dead, and Britain celebrated anannus mirabilis [a remarkable or auspicious year] with a rash of stunning victories. By war’s end, Whitehall enjoyed what Anderson calls “the most unequivocal victory” in its history, coming into possession of Canada and Florida, and effectively ending French domination of North America forever. So in 1763 the British crown was at its zenith, overseeing an empire that it considered “the greatest since Rome’s.” The bells tolled for peace, not only in London, but also in the American colonies. Still, there was to be no Pax Britannia. Discontent with British rule quickly mounted. Within a year, the British were facing a revolt in the Philippines, and they failed to learn the lesson that while armed force could conquer lands, “only voluntary cooperation could maintain imperial control.”