The next installment in our series – in which group members explain their research interests – comes from Dr Richard Hall ….
My current research project surrounds the impact of rumours, tales and stories of so-called Native American brutality and ‘savagery’ along the colonial North American frontier, and how these affected European soldiers sent to fight in the New World. Specifically, I am examining how such tales (epitomising a deep-rooted colonial American ‘rhetoric of fear’ to borrow the terminology of Peter Silver), fed to British soldiers by American provincial allies and civilians during the infamous ‘Braddock Campaign’ of 1755, resulted, in significant measure, in their rout when confronted by their so-called ‘barbarous’ enemies in battle on July 9, 1755.
The rumours, tales and stories referred to above, often originating in captivity narratives, lurid and un-edited newspaper accounts and other forms of press (and expounded upon orally in what can be described as ‘campfire gossip’), evoked what many British colonists considered the almost mystical martial prowess (at least in North America’s backcountry) and merciless brutality of American Indian warriors, large numbers of whom were allied to the French. Their impact upon the outcome of the infamous Battle of the Monongahela, one of Britain’s most catastrophic and significant defeats of the eighteenth century, should not be understated. The focus of my research in relation to this engagement does, in truth, stand in contrast to much of the traditional historiography of this particular event, where it is the distinctly conventional (and unfortunate) General Edward Braddock and the regular regiments he served alongside who fare very poorly. As one historian pointedly commented, this conveniently-viewed British defeat became the inevitable by-product of appointing a ‘Colonel Blimp’ to lead a force consisting of mainly ‘stupid brutes’ (regular British regiments) against an objective defended by Canadian militia, French-allied Native Americans and Troupes de la Marine companies; all of whom were, militarily speaking, adept in the art of the ‘American way of war.’
Nevertheless, as I have outlined above, when examining first-hand British testimony of the Battle of the Monongahela, it is clear that many ordinary soldiers themselves saw this fateful British campaign as one distinguished by their fear of French-allied American Indians. This was something imposed upon them by the psychological barrage of ‘storys [sic] of scalping and mohawking’, to quote one participant, that originated with their colonial allies. On the day of battle, the debilitations of this lurid gossip became manifest in the panic that swept through Braddock’s professional regular soldiers as they faced an ambush that was classically Native American, and one which also seemingly played out in real-time the very stories that they had been told of American Indian methods of war. The troops would also have had visions of the consequences of defeat, particularly if they were to fall into the hands of their enemies; again, something graphically described to them in the stories and tales outlined above.
Beyond this article, I aim to take my research in several directions. First, the work above can be used as part of a wider study into the way in which conflict with Native American tribes (and there are many other notable examples in Colonial American history) helped define visions and understandings of, and prejudices towards, what Linda Colley has called the ‘other’. This of course is not just applicable to indigenous North Americans and is echoed by, for example, English/British perceptions of Scottish Highlanders and Irish Catholics. The second would be to reframe this research to inform a wider project relating to the clash of European and American military cultures and tactics. This is a theme I have explored, among other areas, in my recent PhD thesis which examined the four pronged ‘Braddock Plan’ of 1755. This particular route would see me build upon the works of several very distinguished scholars in this field, including Fred Anderson, Stephen Brumwell, John Grenier and Matthew Ward.