My latest book, The Wessex Turncoat, will be published at the end of June. It tells the story of a redcoat soldier in the American War of Independence. Researching the background for the book was a fascinating task. It really illustrated to me the resilience and gallantry of men on both sides of the conflict. The War was not just between the American revolutionaries and the British. A large part of the British army was in fact made up of German troops hired by King George III. There was also a very large number of Native Americans involved in the conflict, most of them on the British side.
It is said that at the start of the War of Independence, American opinion was split roughly into three camps. A third wanted to stay British, a third did not care either way and a third wanted independence. It was the latter third which mobilised themselves most efficiently and at times savagely, when they terrorised others into espousing their cause. Several reasons were given for the fact that this proportion of the population wanted to be free of the British. They included taxation, lack of representation in the British Parliament and a genuine desire to shape their own futures in a young land full of promise. There was however a more sinister motive – greed for land.
The role of the Native Americans, the Indians, in the War of Independence was a tragic one. Recognising that there was a large indigenous Indian population in America, the British government had imposed a boundary running parallel with the Appalachian Mountains beyond which the land could not be settled by white men. This was known as the Proclamation Line. The land to the west of this line was to be reserved for the Indians. This limitation caused huge resentment among Americans.
As soon as the war broke out, militias were formed to raid the Indian lands. These raids were fully supported by the American military including General Washington. The incursions increased in scope and became a cruel pogrom. Tens of thousands of Indians were deliberately starved to death by burning their crops and their villages. The ferocity of the militias was increased by the fact that many of the Indian tribes supported the British in the war. The reason for this support was that they believed that the British would protect their lands.
The British role was not altogether altruistic, far from it. Cynically, they encouraged the Indians to rise up and in doing so, tie down American troops in the west. In the actual fighting, in particular in the northern campaign of 1776-7, the British employed a large number of Indians. Their skills in wilderness survival made them made them excellent scouts and their fearlessness in battle struck terror into an enemy. Their participation in the war however, caused conflict between the different tribes. General Burgoyne had 1,400 Iroquois and Missisaugas warriors attached to his army in 1777. A thousand of these together with almost as many German mercenaries under a British General, laid siege to the fort at Stanwix where the Americans were supported by Indians from the Oneida tribe, members of the Iroquois Six Nations. This led directly to a civil war within the Iroquois confederacy.
As the war progressed, more and more settlers crossed the Proclamation Line and took over Indian land. In 1776 the Cherokees started attacking the cabins of the encroaching settlers and this evoked a huge and devastating response by the American military. Congress decreed that, “no mercy was to be shown to those that had been at war with the states”. General Charles Lee drew up a plan to overwhelm the Indians once and for all. He sent Colonel Andrew Williamson with over a thousand troops into Cherokee lands from South Carolina, while another force of over two thousand came down from the north. Their orders were “to cut up every Indian cornfield and burn every Indian town”. The devastation caused was amplified when a smallpox epidemic broke out amongst the Indians.
Further north, in 1778 even greater retaliation was enacted when a force of 4,000 soldiers under General Sullivan was tasked with destroying all the Iroquois settlements. He claimed that during the campaign he burnt forty Indian towns and destroyed 160,000 bushels of corn. Such raids as these continued for several years and it is probably true to say that the true losers in the American War of Independence were not the British, but the Native Americans, the Indians. There is certainly no doubt that more Indians died than the British and Americans together.