Review by David T. Jones
Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War, by Eliot A. Cohen, Free Press, New York, NY, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-7432-4990-4.pp. 405, $30.00.
Dr. Eliot Cohen is well credentialed to write military history. Currently, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins’s Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, he earlier taught at Harvard and the Naval War College. He served on the policy planning staff of OSD in the 1980s and was Counselor for Secretary of State Rice from 2007-09.
Conquered into Liberty starts with a provocative title and embraces two argumentative thematic conclusions: (a) the United States lost the War of 1812; and (b) we learned all we needed to know about military strategy/tactics during the two centuries of fighting Indians, French, and British along the “Great Warpath” lands stretching from Albany, NY into Montreal, Canada.
The sobriquet “conquered into liberty” refers to a (previously) totally forgotten 1774 proclamation pamphlet issued by the Continental Congress urging Canada to unite with the colonies by embracing their liberties and freedoms – or suffer the consequences. There is no real indication that our northern neighbors paid attention to the propaganda piece.
As Canada is about to enter into a two-year commemoration of the War of 1812, Cohen’s first conclusion, Conquered’s bow to Canadian triumphalism should increase sales in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. But, as examined below, the judgment is questionable.
At its best Conquered, provides interesting accounts, from strategic background to tactical on-the-ground reviews of long obscure fighting along the Great Warpath for almost two centuries between 1690 and 1871. Thereby, Cohen brings alive a series of often bloody episodes that examine the problems of combat in this wild and very lightly populated area in which command of the waters, particularly Lake Champlain and Lake George, was pivotal for success.
Initially the fighting was between French and British, a North American sidebar for their global wars primarily focused in Europe. Combat increasingly also engaged the Europeans living in the region and Indian tribes as well as British and French regular forces. It is noteworthy that while the Indians ultimately were ground up in the process, depopulated by disease as well as military losses and the era’s equivalent of ethnic cleansing, they were hardly peaceful innocent victims. Indeed, Indian terrorism and the inability of either side to control their depravations are well enough described to leave little sympathy for an outcome that largely annihilated them throughout the region. Instead, the circumstances demonstrate how difficult it is to command effectively tribal groups on whom civilization, let alone the quality of mercy, rests lightly. Read Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, for modern parallels.
And in passing, Cohen describes French and Indian War commander, Louis Montcalm as more than a backdrop/foil for British commander James Wolf’s defining victory at Quebec. Earlier in the war, Montcalm effective held off British/colonial efforts to thrust into Canada.
Cohen also effectively describes the American efforts at the beginning of the Revolution to seize Canada and how the absence of anything approaching trained troops and effective logistics thwarted the effort. Subsequently, he recounts how Americans, brilliantly led by Benedict Arnold, defeated British attacks, first at Valcour Island in 1776 and then at Saratoga in 1777. At Valcour Island, in Lake Champlain, Arnold sparked the construction of a makeshift fleet and then fought a stronger British force to a standstill. His success in rallying American forces at Saratoga demonstrated remarkable leadership/courage.
But Cohen has adopted the now fashionable “reset” view of Arnold as greatly sinned against (while not yet excusing his treason). Describing him as “the most disturbing figure in American military history,” he compares him with southern Civil War figures that got off lightly for their treason. Nevertheless, the Arnold saga reminds one of Frederick Douglas’ reported observation about Confederate courage that it was all the worse since it was in an evil cause.
Some of Cohen’s conclusions are commensurately debatable. His contention that “Ultimately, Canada and Canadians won the War of 1812” is at best an overstatement. Admittedly, it may be seen as a bit tendentious to respond that it was not “Canada and Canadians” that won—if there were winners, they were “British.” Any resident of Canada was “British”—not Canadian. Nevertheless, this is not a trivial point in modern terms where Canadian wacko nationalists contend that the United States attacked “Canada” and is poised to do so again. Our perfect riposte is that we attacked these British possessions because it was easier to march to Montreal than to London. Cohen’s best argument that we lost the war would be based on the debacle defeats of our initial invasions where U.S. military incompetence defeated us as much as British military prowess, but he doesn’t discuss these actions. On the other hand, his conclusion is gainsaid by his description of the 1814 naval battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain where again a technically inferior U.S. fleet commanded by Thomas Macdonough totally defeated a British force manned by veteran seamen. British negotiators in Ghent, earlier flushed with success and anticipating border adjustments to their benefit, were disconcerted. The Times of London noted “Victory remains with the Americans…” And, the overwhelming U.S. victory at New Orleans was fought before Congress formally approved the peace. Prominent historian David McCullough believes that if the British had won at New Orleans, they would have reopened the negotiations. Thus at worst, we “lost” because we didn’t conquer Canada. But we could also argue that we “won” by defeating the British in multiple engagements and creating circumstances where it was clear the United States could not be invaded.
More opaque is Cohen’s conclusion that our current military attitudes reflect the legacy of the Great Warpath. He suggests that inter alia our “improvisational, far less rule-bound” tactics, willingness to perform “cross border operations,” effective focus on logistics, and effective middle-level “managers” were learned from hard lessons on the Great Warpath. Maybe. But maybe Americans had already learned flexibility from living on an unforgiving frontier. Maybe we had never hesitated to pursue outlaws/Indian miscreants wherever they attempted to hide? Maybe our attention to logistics in modern warfare came from the creation of “time study” reflected in 19th-20th century industrial production techniques? That there is a do-what-is-necessary-to-get-it-done approach that is existentially American and applied to every facet of our society; early combat along the Great Warpath simply reflected (rather than created) such attitudes.
Perhaps Conquered most frustrating shortcoming is the absence of modern, coherent maps to provide tactical insight into the military actions related in each chapter. Unfortunately, the maps heading each chapter are archaic “period piece” historical items requiring the skills of an archeological cartographer to decipher. There is no map depicting the “Great Warpath.” Another shortcoming is the total absence of photography—although available photos would likely be only reproductions of stilted portrait paintings, some such as “Green Mount Boy” Ethan Allen, British general John Burgoyne, Ranger leader Robert Rogers, and assorted British and French governors of Canada would have been interesting complements to Cohen’s descriptions.
Nevertheless, as a summing up, Conquered makes for engaging politico military history, often revealing all but forgotten tidbits of times and personalities long behind us.