Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: March 19, 2008

"Irregular Warfare on the Frontier," Glenn F. Williams

The March 19, 2008 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, Virginia was held at 6:30 p.m. in the Westhampton Room of the University of Richmond. The speaker was Glenn F. Williams, who was as usual ably introduced by Lynn Simms, the first Vice President for programs. Mr. Williams is working on his Ph.D. from University of Maryland, and, like our last speaker, is with the U.S. Army Center for Military History in D.C. He is the author of The Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois.

Mr. Williams also brought greetings to us from the American Revolution Roundtable of D.C. where he is not only a member but also is the program chairman.

Mr. Williams’ topic was General Sullivan’s expedition campaign against the Indians in the frontier and he started off with a series of questions that he hoped to answer having to do with what was actually the result of this campaign.

The background of all this is that the Six Nations of the Iroquois were almost like an empire because they presumed to conquer other Indian tribes. They also had tribes, at least to the west, who were very much dependent upon them. They, especially the Seneca Nation, were most aggressive and for the most part the British had been able to use them in various ways against the Americans.

There was of course some divergent views among the British as to how to use the Indians. Colonel Guy Johnson wanted to unleash the Indians but Governor Guy Carlton who was the royal governor of Canada, wanted to use the Indians more as auxiliary forces and as backup forces. One of the problems, according to some British thought, was that if the Indians were really “unleashed,” then they wouldn’t really know the difference between Whigs and the Tories, which would of course have had disastrous results for the British.

Around 1777 all of this changed when Lord Germain who was really conducting the war from London sent a letter to General Carlton in the Northern Department to use the Indians in a more aggressive manner. Thus during 1777 and 1778 the British more or less had their way in the frontier because the Indians took the British side. Mr. Williams provided numerous examples of all of these campaigns but with specific emphasis on the Wyoming Valley Massacre which occurred on July 3 and 4 in 1778.

The British plan, so to speak, was to have the Indians cause so much havoc in the frontier that the Americans would have trouble first of all getting the frontiersmen to leave their homes and join militias to fight against the British for fear that their home fires would be stamped out by the Indians and their families would be massacred. Also, the plan was to have so much Indian activity in the frontier that the Americans would have to detach various forces to help protect the frontier.

In the fall of 1778, George Washington ordered two regiments into the frontier. This was really a small effort but at least it made people feel that the Continental Congress was doing something to help the settlers.

Finally, we’re back to the Sullivan Campaign which really took place in 1779. The idea here was to reduce these so-called Six Nations into submission and on the other hand try to cultivate Indian friendships. One of the goals was to bring a lot of pressure to bear on the Indians. Another goal was to destroy their crops so that they would have no food for the winter of 1779-1780. The Americans knew that the British had used certain enticements to get the Indians to join them, one of which was that the British told the Indians that if they would come and fight for them that they would protect them, support them and feed them. Thus, by the Americans destroying the Indians’ crops, this made the British have to support the Indians which they were really unable to do. In fact, it became clear from certain correspondence that the British really were completely unable to feed and clothe these Indians.

Thus, we went back to answer some of Mr. Williams’ initial questions. This campaign was really not an “ethnic cleansing” which is of course a more modern term but really was a strategy on one hand to get the Indians to be friendly with the Americans but also on the other to take away the Indians’ ability to feed themselves which would put substantial pressure on the British. In fact, this really was a successful strategy!

At the conclusion of the talk Mr. Williams took questions. For one thing, the question was asked whether or not the Indians and settlers traveled mostly by water or on land. Mr. Williams indicated that frankly most of the transportation and moving around in those days was by water with canoes and so forth. The Indian paths were only one man wide, the trapper paths were a little bit wider to accommodate pack mules, and the fewer trails for armies were really only wide enough to accommodate cannon.

The question was also asked as to why Washington chose General Sullivan for this campaign. Mr. Williams thought that was a very good question because in fact General Sullivan really had only “two good days during the Revolution:” one was during this campaign and the other was at Trenton.

Mr. Williams also mentioned that at the conclusion of this campaign, so many of the Indians really did migrate up to Canada.

In conclusion, Mr. Williams’ presentation was very good, very interesting, and he used lots of slides which were most helpful.