Two hundred and sixty-six years ago this month, a column of British regulars commanded by Gen. Edward Braddock was cut to pieces by French soldiers and their Native American allies in the woods just outside today’s Pittsburgh. The defeat turned into a rout when Braddock was shot off his horse, leaving the retreat to be managed by a young colonial officer named George Washington, whose own previous foray into the region had lit the tinder for the war.
This was the beginning of the French and Indian War (also known, much less poetically, as the Seven Years’ War), which as a boy I thought was the most interesting war in all of history.
I had encountered it originally through a public television version of “The Last of the Mohicans,” but I soon found that the real conflict exceeded even James Fenimore Cooper’s romantic imagination: The complexity of forest warfare and the diversity of the combatants on both sides, colonial, European and Native; the majesty of the geographic setting, especially the lakes, mountains and defiles of upstate New York; the ridiculous melodrama of the culminating battle at Quebec, with a wee-hours cliff-scaling that led to a decisive showdown in which both commanders were mortally wounded, James Wolfe in victory and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in defeat.
In school the war faded into the background of my history classes. In world history it was folded into the larger categories of colonial warfare and endless Anglo-French conflict; in American history it was treated mostly as a prelude to the real business of the American Revolution. (Not only Washington but also Ben Franklin and a long list of future Revolutionary-era officers, from Daniel Morgan to Charles Lee, played roles in Braddock’s doomed campaign.)
But returning to the 1750s as an adult reader of history — and as a columnist trying to offer constructive thoughts about the history wars in K-12 education — I think my childhood self was basically correct. The war that evicted the French from North America was not only incredibly fascinating but also one of history’s most important wars. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it was more important than the American War of Independence: The Revolution merely determined in what form Anglo-America would spread to embrace continental empire and global power, while the French and Indian War determined whether that continent-spanning America would come into being at all.