John Grenier. The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. xvi + 270 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3876-3.
Reviewed by Ian McCulloch (Canadian Forces College)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth (King's University College, UWO)
An Exercise in Demonstrating the Obvious
After John Grenier’s success with his first book, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (2005), which examined how terror and violence have been part of American war making since the dawn of knapped flints (John Shy considers it worthy of a place "on the short shelf of essential books in U.S. military history" [dustcover]), the chief of the Tactics Branch at the U.S. Air Force Academy gives us The Far Reaches of Empire. It is a disappointing book on several levels. Grenier, an Air Force lieutenant-colonel, promises to offer “an interpretative narrative of Nova Scotia’s military history,” one that “delves into the minutiae of war,” a military history that will tell the story of three sides (Amerindian, French-Acadian, and Anglo-American) in Nova Scotia from 1710 to 1760 but primarily from the viewpoint of the latter (p. 8). However, we are told he will also address how Amerindians shaped Nova Scotia’s history and, in the telling of the proscription and brutal suppression of the indigenous Acadians throughout the region, will explain how they ended up being more engaged in the shaping of their own destiny than has been previously understood. Instead, we are treated to a very land-centric, tactical, and unbalanced treatment of Anglo-American conquest and its attendant challenges within an artificial construct.
I say unbalanced because Grenier relies heavily on British sources and therefore is best at reporting their thoughts and actions. By contrast, he never gets inside the French strategic mindset nor does he really ever truly reconstruct the Acadians’ or natives’ ways of thinking due to superficial research. For example, he uses only printed primary sources for the French, Acadian, and Amerindian part of his narrative, resting his case solely on the Archivist of the Province of Québec (RAPQ) Collection des mss 4 volumes (1883-85) and Casgrain’s Collection des documents inédits (1880-90). He ignores Archives nationals, fonds des colonies, séries B correspondence envoyé, C11a correspondence Canada, C11b correspondence Ile Royale, C11c (Amérique du Nord--quite useful for maritime operations), C11d correspondence Acadie, and C11e documents divers. For someone who makes so much of warring priests and their impact on local conflict, he ignores French church records completely. For the missionaries, he should have consulted the Archives du Séminaire des Missions étrangeres (Paris), Archives du Séminaire de la congrégation du St. Esprit (Paris), and the Archives du Séminaire de Quebec. Among the secondary sources that he overlooked is Barbara Dunn’s excellent A History of Port Royal/Annapolis Royal 1605-1800 (2004).
I say land-centric and tactical because from the outset of the book, Grenier paints himself into a tactical corner. How can one focus solely on war within the boundaries of a tiny eighteenth-century outpost colony (which did not include Cape Breton Island) without any detailed discussion of the territories from which the main adversarial players operated? Adopting such an approach, not surprisingly, limits one’s examination of warfare to the only type that the natives and Acadians were actually capable of mounting against their Anglo-American conquerors: "la petite guerre." While Grenier is obviously most comfortable within this sandbox of his own making, one must ask how can a serious dissertation on warfare in a British colony that is virtually an island (mainland Nova Scotia is attached to the North American continent by a slender filament of land known as the Chignecto Isthmus) and with no internal lines of communication completely ignore naval operations or the role played by fleets on the far reaches of empire? Surely the frontier of mainland Nova Scotia included its coastline?
This problem is underscored by the subtitle War in Nova Scotia, for as all military historians know, the battle space environment of this region of northeastern North America was essentially a maritime one with Nova Scotia surrounded by Acadian and Amerindian populations located on Ile St. Jean (Prince Edward Island), the coastline, and the St. John River valley of present-day New Brunswick, as well as French regulars, Acadians, and Mi’kmaq on Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island). There is no acknowledgment in this book that every major undertaking in this region--the several raids and ultimate capture of Port Royal, the construction of Halifax in 1749, the siege and capture of Fort Beausejour, and the two sieges and capture of Louisbourg--was facilitated by Anglo-American fleets and their ability to project power ashore. The absence of the Admiralty Papers in Grenier’s bibliography speaks volumes.
The numerous Mi’kmaq and Maliseet attacks on fishing vessels and trading schooners in Nova Scotian coastal waters as well as a robust legacy of Acadian privateering should have made it clear to Grenier that he needed to address naval warfare within his construct. As a result, he fails to make the connection with maritime strategy. The conquest or "occupation" of mainland Nova Scotia was more about securing access for fishing grounds and opening forward operating bases at Canso and Halifax respectively rather than securing farmland for New England planters. New Nova Scotian ports not only denied access to French fleets but also protected Anglo-American mercantile fleets and their lines of communication. Regional warfare in this area historically was all about devastating fishing fleets and stations (e.g., the Sieur d’Iberville actions in Maine and Newfoundland, 1696-97).
Grenier glosses over the story of Canso’s place in Nova Scotia’s wars, a tale complicated by an active smuggling operation complicitly carried out by both French and English agents. Both governments openly opposed smuggling in the name of mercantilist imperatives, but colonials on both sides diligently circumvented the regulations. The ultimate destruction of bases, such as Canso, was partly a punishment and partly a once-and-for-all plunder of contraband in the name of enforcing a much-flaunted law.
Grenier’s claim that his examination of Nova Scotia is part of the growing trend by colonial historians “to examine all the North American colonies as part of a larger empire” does not jive with his close regional focus (p. 5). Perhaps he took to heart Adam Smith’s observation as late as 1776 (The Wealth of Nations) that the coalescent British Empire existed in imagination only. He then makes little use of such works as Ian Steele’s Warpaths (1994), and does not even mention James Pritchard’s In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730 (2004), which does for the French precisely what he proposes.
Strangely, Grenier does not apply the same methodology to his discussion of the “Acadian colony” (one of his subthemes) and their place within the French Empire. He skims over French colonial policy, content instead to focus on their victimization and their own role in their subsequent “ethnical cleansing” at the hands of the Anglo-Americans (p. 4). He neatly sidesteps the fact that the French did the same thing elsewhere on the continent: herding natives onto reserves in the form of missions and waging genocidal wars against the Natchez and the Fox. He does not mention French plans in 1689-91 to overrun New York and expel all Protestants. Despite his expertise in The American Way of War, he is strangely silent about the two decades of brutal partisan warfare (1690-1711) that preceded his story and--along with King Philip’s War--did so much to influence American colonists’ views of war and how to treat an enemy. As a result, his sometimes microscopic analyses of local developments in Nova Scotia throughout the book are made to carry too great an explanatory weight.
His discussion of British colonial policy regarding the area is also strangely skewed. He notes the limited British settlement in the outpost colony and the difficult “task of bringing the Nova Scotia frontier into the fold of empire,” assuming there was some master colonization plan for the region, although he readily admits on the same page that “the empire and centralized British state had yet to coalesce fully in 1710” (p. 13). He also ignores the fact that French commitment to the region with regard to promoting colonization or allocating military resources had been just as limited up to 1710 (which was why Port Royal was such a pushover in 1690 and 1710). Steele's Warpaths clearly points out that, under the Walpole administration, British colonial policy limited efforts in North America as a whole--not just in Nova Scotia!
The book has more than a few factual slips. Nova Scotia was not a new name (p. 12). The Board of Trade was an advisory committee; it could not command army deployments nor did it have a budget from which it could allocate resources (pp. 31, 38). Grenier is seldom very clear which French/Canadian officers or which troops served in Acadia/Nova Scotia, and how many. There was no militia in Nova Scotia (pp. 115, 135). The British were not “collapsing” at Albany in 1746; indeed, Canada was desperately short of supplies and the next year faced a revolt in the West (p. 129). There was no regular Light Infantry in 1755 (p. 185). There are numerous errors with regard to the origins, rank, or posting of French and British officers (e.g., pp. 27, 109, 113, 133, 135, 136, 180-181, 198-199, 209). The account of the aborted expedition against Louisbourg in 1757 has a succession of mistakes with regard to which administration planned it and why it was cancelled (pp. 189-190).
Grenier claims Acadians and natives were resisting British authority after 1755 with the intent “to overthrow a government through armed conflict” and that this defiance “stands as one of the 18th century’s foremost guerilla wars” (p. 177). Both assertions imply that the Acadians and natives had a well defined operational endstate or master plan toward which they were working in a synchronized way. This is the weakest and perhaps most dubious part of his entire book.
It was clear from the outset that the French had no military resources to devote to serious campaigning on the Nova Scotia peninsula or in the waters around it. The French for this entire period were purely acting on the defensive. The only major French offensive actions were the capture and destruction of Forts Oswego (1756) and Fort William Henry (1757) in what is now upstate New York, and these were preemptive defensive operations to buy space and time while larger French armies pursued major strategic objectives in Europe. The center of gravity for New France during the final years was the Quebec-Montreal corridor, not the forgotten provincial backwater once known as Acadia.
Grenier, in his own words, states that the Acadians and natives during this time “would have to depend on la petite guerre to make life difficult for the British” (p. 186). The resultant piecemeal skirmishing (prompted more by despair and desperation of a people in survival mode than any allegiance to the Bourbon lilies) hardly merits the sobriquet of an organized insurgency. Their midge-like disjointed activities were a far cry from any major uprising designed to overthrow British rule. Grenier strings together a series of inconsequential and uncoordinated skirmishes characterized by small unit tactics and feeble logistics--a succession of "so whats?" in the tactical, operational, and strategic scheme of things. His claim that British military operations in Nova Scotia constituted counterinsurgency operations is unpersuasive. Not a single British frontier fort or outpost was seriously threatened or captured during this period because all were easily resupplied or reinforced by the ubiquitous Royal Navy or the New England merchant marine.
There are several more significant failings in a book purporting to be a credible and interpretative narrative of colonial warfare in this tiny outpost colony of a fledgling empire. The discussion of intelligence is weak throughout. Father Le Loutre (the priest for whom Grenier names an entire period of warfare in Nova Scotia!) was more of an intelligence and diplomatic agent in Acadia rather than an acknowledged military leader. Grenier’s bewildering explanation that “the War takes his name because he, more than anyone else, wanted the Anglo-Americans out of Nova Scotia” is astonishing (p. 136). Here, Grenier gives vent to an ancient American prejudice. This was no priest's personal war. It was another proxy war like the one waged by Vaudreuil the Elder in the 1720s.
The lack of consideration of native politics or their style of warfare is a problem throughout this book. The Abenaki and Mi’kmaq peoples lived in scattered villages throughout the region with a very atomized political system. This frustrated the French for decades. To imply that a nomadic people possessed any centralized form of control for waging war against the Anglo-Americans or were in lockstep with the Acadians is disingenuous at best.
At one point, Grenier lapses into what-if reverie: “If the French could have mustered the manpower and supplies, including some cannon, they perhaps could have given the British a run for their money on the isthmus” (pp. 185-186). But they could not. There is absolutely no discussion of logistics and no analysis of how supply problems constrained French, Acadian, and native warfare.
In sum, this disappointing book is an exercise in demonstrating the obvious ("the centrality of warfare to imperialism" [Fred Anderson, dustcover]) while overlooking the essential elements of any real discussion of warfare in and around Nova Scotia with the exception of the lowest tactical level, skirmishing. Grenier largely omits the strategic picture and limits theater strategy to what serves his study. His artificial construct of “Nova Scotia only” does not work because Nova Scotia was never a discrete theater and was never treated as such by either side.
The same historical credo that Grenier deploys to argue his thesis--viz. Nova Scotia “should be studied in concert with the mainland possessions” of empire--should equally apply to any assessment of military operations in and around Nova Scotia (p. 5). The French, British, and American forces moving through Nova Scotia all used combined operations as a rule rather than the exception, and established and used ports as staging points for larger campaigns. Some Acadians and natives were indeed active on the Nova Scotia peninsula, but their impact on the Imperial Way of War was negligible.
. See William Godfrey, Pursuit of Profit and Preferment (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982) especially in regard to the Bradstreet brothers.
. On the circumvention of regulations, see also Thomas Truxe, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Ian McCulloch. Review of Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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