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THE EMPLOYMENT OF INDIANS DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: BRITISH MILITARY ATTITUDES

[Professor S.F. Wise, Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada]

One of the most controversial aspects of the American Revolution contin- ues to be the role played in it by the Indians, and particularly those employed by the British. One of the blackest charges brought by the framers of the Declara- tion of Independence against George III was that he had "endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and condi- tions". General Thomas Gage, commander in chief in America, has usually been blamed for bringing the Indians into the War.1 Eventually both sides employed Indian auxiliaries, though vastly more were associated with the British than with the rebels. Gage, however, was hardly responsible for this state of affairs. Though British arms and presents were inducements for some Indian peoples to take part, for many others the Revolution represented an opportunity to continue the long struggle against the encroachment of white settlement. That meant some form of alliance with Britain.

Indian motives, complex though they were and varying greatly from peo- ple to people, are not the subject of this paper. We are concerned here with the attitude of those British regular officers charged with the prosecution of the war

towards working in concert with Indian forces. Though it is well known that the use of Indians by European states was as old as the earliest contests between colonial powers in North America, to most British professional soldiers the Revolution was a special case. Putting the matter at its simplest, for most of them it was one thing to employ Indians against the French, quite another, as the Earl of Chatham said, to "loose these savage hell-hounds against our brethren and countrymen in America, of the same language, laws, liberties and religion, endeared to us by every tye that should sanctify humanity".2 To soldiers accus- tomed to the controls normally placed upon the conduct of armies by the rules of warfare, customary Indian practices awoke feelings that ranged from distaste to horror. Most of them believed, with Edmund Burke, that Indians fought merely to indulge their native cruelty and for "the glory of acquiring the greatest number

of scalps... the gratification arising from torturing, mangling, roasting alive by slow fires and frequently even devouring their captives". 3

The decision to use Indians was a political one, taken by the home gov- ernment. No senior British officer questioned this decision, yet for most of them the ethical problem was not dismissed lightly. It is significant that many regular officers found it necessary at some point to justify the use of Indians, usually in terms similar to those expressed by Lord George Germain, who argued that "ei- ther they would have served against us, or ... we must have employed them". 4

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