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Conquering the American Wilderness:  The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast

   The conquest of the North American wilderness and its native population by English settlers is one of the most compelling topics in American history. The military misadventures of the English colonists in New England illuminated tensions between American conditions and European military conventions. Successful Indian attacks on colonial forces during King Philip’s War have led some contemporary and modern observers to conclude that the combination of firearms and Indian tactics was too potent for English forces, relying on conventional European tactics. Consequently, it has been argued, exposure to Indian tactics improved the efficiency of English military forces by forcing them to ‘unlearn’ what their European military manuals had taught them. Chet demonstrates that English soldiery did not improve when “textbook knowledge of European tactics” was complemented by experience in wilderness warfare. Moreover, King Philip’s War and the later colonial wars were not won through a succession of tactical victories, but through logistical campaigns of attrition.
   A comparison between the first generation of European veteran commanders in America and the supposedly “Americanized” commanders of the later colonial wars reflects poorly on the latter. Similarly, the British army’s tactical victories during the Seven Years’ War indicate that the British were, in fact, more successful than provincials in countering the challenges of wilderness warfare. Colonists’ military ordeals during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century did not lead to a reevaluation and transformation of their military doctrine. Rather than revitalizing the settlers’ military establishments, these episodes highlighted the ongoing degeneration of colonial armed forces. Indeed, it was the poor performance of colonial forces in King Philip’s War and King William’s War that led colonial magistrates to address their shortcomings through greater reliance on British forces and imperial administrators. Thus, English military achievements in New England during the eighteenth century reflected an increasing degree of British participation, as well as British planning, administration, and command.

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