Blame Canada

Commentary Magazine

February 2012

Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War

By Eliot A. Cohen

Free Press, 432 pages


In the popular imagination, the “American Way of War” developed in major conflicts such as the Civil War and World War II: costly wars of attrition that mobilized the full might of the economy and were fought until the enemy was annihilated. The strategist Eliot A. Cohen begs to differ. In his new book, Conquered into Liberty, he argues that the American approach to warfare originated in battles fought hundreds of years ago along a 200-mile stretch of land and water from Albany to Montreal. The Indians called this the Great Warpath, according to Cohen, and from the early 18th century until the early 19th century, it was the scene of unrelenting conflict.

At first the combatants were British and French settlers, each augmented by Indian allies. Following the French defeat in 1759, Canada became British. Subsequent battles were fought between His Majesty’s Government and recalcitrant subjects of the King who dared to raise the banner of rebellion in 1775 and came to blows with the Mother Country in 1812. Even well into the 19th century there were regular fears of another Anglo-American conflict breaking out.

Canada—today generally viewed by Americans as a dull but slavishly friendly neighbor, sort of like a giant St. Bernard—always seemed to be either a place to launch or target an invasion. Cohen neatly captures this counterintuitive reality when he announces in an author’s note that, after having worked as a government official to counter threats from Iran and the Taliban, he was eager to finish this book, “which deals with America’s most durable, and in many ways most effective and important enemy of all.” By which he means Canada.

Conquered into Liberty is a labor of love. Cohen writes that he was “entranced” by his first visit in the early 1960s to Fort Ticonderoga, a key redoubt along the Great Warpath: “The stones and palisades, the 18-century guns, the mountains, and the lake were, and remain, magical.” His interest in colonial warfare was further fed, he writes, by spending his boyhood in Boston, “where colonial history had surrounded me”—and which offered him a welcome refuge from the troubled times in which he grew up.

Yet Cohen brings to this project far more than a history buff’s enthusiasm. He has spent lifetime writing about military affairs, and the results of his research and reflection are evident on every page of a narrative that does not hesitate to invoke modern comparisons to put the struggles of the past into perspective.

Cohen begins in 1690 with a raid on Schenectady, New York. A group of 116 Frenchmen and Canadians and 92 Indian allies spent three weeks journeying along the Great Warpath from Montreal. At night the attackers slipped into town through an open gate and went house to house, killing or capturing the inhabitants and burning their dwellings. In all, 60 civilians were killed along with nearly two dozen Connecticut militiamen; another 27 civilians were taken back to Canada as captives. A relief force from Albany that arrived two days later found a scene of desolation. “The cruelties committed at said place no pen can write nor tongue express,” wrote the would-be rescuers. “Women big with child ripped up and the children alive thrown in to the flames and their heads dashed in pieces against the doors and windows.”

This was typical of the kind of warfare waged along the Great Warpath. Major battles were few; much more common were skirmishes, raids, and ambushes. Civilians on both sides often bore the brunt of the fighting. This was not simply the result of sheer cruelty. It was a calculated strategy on the part of the French, who were badly outnumbered by growing numbers of English settlers along the Eastern seaboard. The raids were designed by the Comte de Frontenac, governor of France’s North American colonies, to spread terror in the English-speaking population and to mask the inferiority of the French forces. It worked—to a point. “Frontenac’s strategy helped buy New France decades of existence,” Cohen writes. But French and Indian excesses ultimately backfired by helping to unite the disparate English colonies and drive them to cooperate with the regular British army in offensives aimed at the French capital, Quebec.

Parts of the British counterattack were spearheaded by men such as Robert Rogers, a native of New Hampshire who had grown up fighting Indians along what was then the edge of European settlement. Having worked as a trapper and trader, he organized a company of “rangers” to scout and harass the French and Indians. Cohen recounts Rogers’s failed 1758 expedition to carry out a “reconnaissance in force” of Fort Carillon on Lake George. The resulting “Battle on Snowshoes” was a debacle in which Rogers lost 125 men, two-thirds of his force. But Rogers managed to escape with a few others and thereby established his reputation as a daredevil who could not be captured or killed. Rogers, whose rules of “ranging” are still issued in modified form to U.S. Army Rangers today, is only one of the many larger-than-life characters who stride through Cohen’s narrative.

As soon as the American Revolution broke out, the colonists began mounting attempts to free Canada from King George. In 1774 the Continental Congress issued a memorable proclamation (from which Cohen derives his title) telling the Canadians: “[You will be] conquered into liberty, if you act as you ought.” The Canadians did not open their arms to the invaders. As a result, several American offensives failed in spite of their strong leadership.

The first expedition, which set off in May 1775, was led by Ethan Allen of the Vermont “Green Mountain Boys” and by Benedict Arnold, whose later treason should not obscure his earlier skill and heroism in the rebel cause. The Americans actually managed to reach and besiege Quebec, but they had no luck in storming the fortified city. Instead their forces were decimated by expiring enlistments, cold weather, smallpox, and lack of supplies. In May 1776 British reinforcements arrived to lift the siege. Canada had been saved.

The British, for their part, fared no better marching the other way. General John Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in 1777 was a turning point in the American War of Independence. It helped bring France into the war on the American side and, thus preserving the freedom of the rebellious colonies.

Two centuries of warfare along the Great Warpath culminated in the naval battles of the War of 1812, fought on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain. Cohen focuses on the contest on Lake Champlain, which, after a feverish campaign of ship-building by both sides, resulted in the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. Here the upstart American Navy under Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough annihilated a British fleet and thereby, Cohen writes, “demonstrated America’s enormous potential military strength.”

All the individual campaigns Cohen chronicles have been written about many times before, even by authors as illustrious as Francis Parkman and Theodore Roosevelt, but his is the first account, as far as I am aware, to bring together the campaigns of the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812 to demonstrate the importance of the Great Warpath (a term I had not heard before). By doing so, he has altered our understanding of these formative centuries, even if he may be suspected of exaggerating the Great Warpath’s importance.

Cohen writes that “Americans’ conflict with Canada shaped much of their military culture” by stressing the importance of logistical arrangements and citizen soldiers in the pursuit of unconditional victory and the transformation of one’s enemies into friends. Perhaps, but much the same argument could be made about Indian Wars in general, which lasted nearly 300 years and were hardly confined to the Great Warpath. The Northeast wars that Cohen chronicles were important, but so were the wars of the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest, and even the Pacific Northwest. After all, some of the earliest battles pitting English settlers against Indians were fought around Jamestown in Virginia, and the most famous of all (Little Bighorn) occurred in Montana—both far from the Great Warpath. But this is a minor quibble with an insightful and compelling narrative that will serve to acquaint a new generation with some of the lesser-known battles that did so much to shape the early Republic.