Woodland Native American Tactics
Woodland Native American Tactics in the Seven Years' War
Woodland Indians (Native Americans) were involved in the Seven Years' War, known as the French and Indian War in North America, as nations allied but not subject to either French or British interests as well as fighting on their accord in defence of their homelands. These nations include such as the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora (the Six Nations Iroquois) of what is now New York state; the Abenaki and Mohican of New England; and the Lenape (aka Delaware), Wyandot and Shawnee of the Ohio catchment. As we shall see, Woodland Indians actually fought with well proven military techniques of their own.
Tecaughrentanego, a Kahnawake Mohawk, stated that, ‘... the art of war consists of ambushing and surprising our enemies, and in preventing them from ambushing and surprising ourselves.’ Typically, post the introduction of firearms, Woodland Indian warfare consisted of ambushes on enemy groups or destructive ‘commando’ raids on settlements, carried out with surprise at dawn or dusk, going in quickly, with the objective of incurring no casualties but taking captives for adoption, and beating a hasty withdrawal before any substantial opposition could be mounted. Warfare also included fighting alongside European armies.
‘… may we not reasonably conclude that the Indians are the best disciplined troops for a wooden country in the world?’
So concluded James Smith in his 1812 treatise on Indian warfare. Typically, indigenous woodlanders fought in small flexible units as skirmishers, sometimes extending over a wide frontage. There was one ‘captain’ to every c. 10 men. However, when a hundred or more men were assembled, a ‘general’ was appointed to give advice but, as with the ‘captain’, did not command. James Smith, captured (by the Lenape) and adopted by the Mohawk in 1755, learnt their language and lived with them for four years. He subsequently became a provincial officer, campaigning against them in 1763-1764, a militia commander and wrote a treatise on Indian tactics in 1812. With regard to command, he stated that warriors were under ‘good command’ and obeyed orders punctually. ‘Officers’ ordered the unit by shouting but once fighting started every man acted on his own initiative without command and according to the situation yet retained the integrity of the unit.
Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Bouquet (commanding the 60th Regiment of Foot and second in command on the Forbes expedition in 1758) established three maxims on Indians tactics, one of which was that they always fought scattered and never in a compact body. George Washington stated that, ‘Indians are only a match for Indians and without these we shall never fight on equal terms.’ In 1758 he advised that the Cherokee and Catawba were ‘the only troops fit to cope’ with the enemy’s ‘skulking’ way of war. General Wolfe noted how Indians mauled a company of rangers, then executed an adroit withdrawal. ‘Admirable management in their retreat, favoured by the fire of the rest from the bank of the river.’ Colonial exponents of Woodland Indian tactics were Benjamin Church, who adopted them in forming the first ranger unit in 1675. The unit included warriors from the Wampanoag nation, and remained active into Queen Anne’s War in 1704. Written in 1757, Robert Rogers ‘rules for ranging’ is largely a codification of Woodland Indian doctrine. Rogers also included companies of Mohicans and Mohegans, acting under their own officers, in his Rangers.
Smith noted that, as a unit, Woodland Indians were capable of marching abreast or fighting scattered over a wide area without confusion or disorder and could execute manoeuvres slowly or as fast as they could run. Boys were well trained in hunting from an early age, to move silently and wait concealed, and in warcraft from around the age of twelve so that they were well ‘drilled’ when they started to accompany war parties in their teens.
Pierre Charlevoix, a Jesuit priest, writing about his travels in 1761, stated that Indians were trained to fight like bears or mountain lions, but were equally trained to approach the enemy with the cunning of foxes. James Smith stated ‘It is hard to kill an Indian.’ At Point Pleasant in 1774 the Virginians were surprised by the actions of the Shawnee as they were used to fighting an ’invisible’ enemy. William Henry Harrison, aide de camp to General Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the US commander at Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, considered them the ‘finest light infantry troops in the world’.
‘A victory bought with blood is no victory’
Woodland Indians did not fight for the same reasons as Europeans. The taking and occupying ground was not an objective nor was the destruction of the enemy at the cost of a large number of casualties. A war party’s ‘captain’ aim would be to get his men home safely with no casualties and with booty and captives. Nonetheless, James Smith stated that if hopelessly surrounded they would fight to the last man. Joseph-François Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary, wrote in 1724 that ‘... feel very much the loss of a single person because of their small numbers and any loss have such great consequences for the chief of the party that his reputation depends on it.’ Even if a man was lost through natural causes a captain could be discredited. A captain had to be ‘skilful as well as lucky.’ Smith writes, ‘The Indians will commonly retreat if their men are falling fast...’ He also states that they avoided attritional firefights by retreating and, if possible, drawing the enemy on into a more advantageous position. Pierre Charlevoix, wrote that in Indian eyes, ‘... a victory bought with blood is no victory.’
Exceptions, however, did occur where Woodland Indians suffered, in their eyes, appalling casualties, such as a result of being caught in an ambush, to cover the escape of women and children, or as a result of larger-scale encounters alongside Europeans, such as on the Bloody Morning Scout prior to the Combat of Lake George in 1755, where the ambushed Mohawk took no further part in the battle.
‘They are commonly well equipped, and exceedingly active and expert in the use of arms’
Indigenous Woodlanders were excellent, elusive skirmishers in woodland and brush and their marksmanship was equal to, if not superior to their colonial enemies. They were also very specific as to what firearms traders supplied them with too and have been known to refuse those that did not meet their specification. From around the beginning of the 18th century Woodland Indians generally carried light muskets, prior to the 1760s the French ‘fusil de chasse’ from the Tulle arsenal. British traders also supplied fusils to the Iroquois and Ohio peoples to meet their specification. Woodland Indians were well versed in gun maintenance, moulded their own shot and had ‘screweyes’ (gunsmiths) resident in their villages to maintain these firearms from the late 17th century. Bows had generally fallen out of use, except for hunting,
At home Woodland Indians practised target shooting and obtaining meat depended on the individual’s skill. The accuracy which Woodland Indians achieved with flintlock muskets surprised colonial observers. As an example, albeit from a later period at the Wabash battle in 1791, their skill was reported by the Americans who could see little in the surrounding woods but small flashes of light, and then clouds of smoke, revealing where Indian muskets had fired. The Indians were distant, silent figures who dashed from cover to cover, changing locations after every shot. ‘When fairly fixed around us,’ Lieutenant Denny remembered, ‘they made no noise but their fire, which they kept up very constant and which seldom failed to tell, although scarcely heard.’
Warriors made use of trees and other cover to reload behind. Another tactic developed by Woodland Indians was working in pairs, one firing whilst the other reloaded, which was copied by colonial soldiers, such as Rogers' Rangers.
In addition, it was practice to pick on enemy officers. A missionary wrote, ‘They say too, that when they have shot the commanders, the soldiers will all be confused, and will not know what to do.’
Indians from the eastern Ohio catchment could also be rifle armed. The Iroquois also had a few by 1750. A midshipman who accompanied Braddock’s expedition of 1755 noted that Indians were ‘… very dexterous with a rifle barrelled gun.’ In 1760 one of Montgomery’s men in the campaign against the Cherokee noted they ‘... had vastly the advantage of us with their rifle barrelled guns, which did execution at a greater distance than our muskets.’
‘The Indians rose from the ground like flushed birds’
Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Bouquet’s other two maxims on the approach to warfare by Woodland Indians, was to attempt to surround and never meet an attack but immediately give way and return to charge.
Traditionally, a half-moon of firing was typically used to catch the enemy in a circle of fire. For instance, Lieutenant Denny observed in 1791 on the Wabash that ‘As the Americans approached the Indians rose from the ground like flushed birds. Those directly ahead of the charge fell back, and maintained a distance of about 50 yards. Others evaded left and right to positions at a similar distance.’ The Indians, Denny further observed, ‘... seemed not to fear anything we could do. They could skip out of reach of the bayonet and return as they pleased.’ During the French and Indian War, Quarter-Master Sergeant John Johnson of the 58th Foot stated, to his frustration, that Indians would never face them in open ground. He wrote ‘... at our approach they betake themselves within the skirts of the woods and lie concealed beneath trees and bushes till we were within their reach, and then suddenly fire upon us, and rush out at us before we were ready to receive them, and very often beset us round about, and do us considerable damage.’ Likewise, Captain William Amherst wrote in 1758, ‘Their whole dependence is on a tree, or a bush, you have nothing to do but advance, & they will fly, they never stand an open fire, or an attack.’
‘… they disliked fighting at close quarters’
James Smith stated that they never attacked unless there was a prospect of a sure victory with the loss of a few men and that (contrary to the media and hence popular opinion) they disliked fighting at close quarters, which was a risky proposition when you aim to get back home with no casualties.
At the Monongahela in 1755, it was only when the British were running did the Indians move in to carry off loot and captives; there was no charge on the battered British column. Even so, charges were carried out where there was a distinct advantage, often accompanying European troops, for example with Compagnies Franches de la Marine against the 77th Highlanders, surprised near Fort Duquesne in 1758.
However, against skirmishers in cover both sides could creep forward during a firefight. In close proximity a single warrior might dash out at a vulnerable enemy individual to engage in hand-to-hand combat as a matter of bravado and then retire back to ‘safety’.
Woodland Indians, unless they could take it by surprise, would not attack defended structures, such as a building, but are quite content to lay siege, snipe at it and wait.
‘... a horrible and violent scream... ‘
If both sides were aware of each other’s presence phycological measures were enacted. In 1759, one description of the engagement at La Belle Famille near Niagara related that, ‘… the engagement began by a horrible and violent scream of the enemy’s savages... It was this scream, perhaps the most horrid sound that can be imagined, which it is said to have struck panic into the troops of General Braddock.’ Lieutenant Matthew Leslie of the 44th Foot wrote: ‘The yell of the Indians is fresh on my ear, and the terrific sound will haunt me to the hour of my dissolution’.
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Calloway, C. G. The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army. New York: Oxford University Press. 2015.
Chartrand, R. Monongahela 1754-55: Washington’s defeat, Braddock’s disaster. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2004.
Eid, L. V. The Cardinal Principle of Northeast Woodland Indian War, in Cowan, W. (ed.) Papers of the Thirteenth Algonquin Conference, p243-250. Ottawa: Carleton University. 1982.
Graymont, B. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse University Press. 1972.
Smith, J. A treatise on the mode and manner of Indian war: their tactics, discipline and encampments, the various methods they practise, in order to obtain the advantage, by ambush, surprise, surrounding, &c. Paris, Kentucky: Joel R Lyle. 1812.
Winkler, J. F. Point Pleasant 1774: Prelude to the American Revolution. Oxford: Osprey Books. 2014.
Larry Burrows for the initial version of this article