In “Empires in the Mountains,” Russell Bellico shows how the French and Indian War changed the map of the continent and set the stage for the American Revolution.
Bellico, a professor emeritus at Westfield State College in western Massachusetts, has already written three books about the maritime and military history of Lake Champlain and Lake George. This positions him well to write a history of what he calls “ a culmination of a century-old struggle for control of North America” . . . the “first global war.”
In the Huntington Library in southern California, the National Library of Canada in Ottawa and nearly two dozen New York and New England libraries, he found a vast trove of documents.
He visited battlefields in Canada, New York and New England and even donned diving gear to visit the wrecks of warships at the bottom of Lake George.
‘Empires in the Mountains: French and Indian War Campaigns and Forts in the Lake Champlain, Lake George and Hudson River Corridor’
Author: Russell P. Bellico
Published by: Purple Mountain Press, 368 pages
How much: $27.50
In addition to the well-researched text, “Empires in the Mountains” includes 150 illustration from maps, engravings, postcards, paintings and photographs, nearly all clear and sharp.
Strength and weakness
The wealth of information is at once the strength and weakness of the book.
Bellico prefers to let 18th century soldiers and civilians do most of the speaking. Much of what they wrote concerned the savagery of frontier combat.
Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with armies in the tens and hundreds of thousands, many French and Indian War battles were fought with dozens or hundreds of French or British regular soldiers, American or Canadian militia or Indians from the various tribes.
During a battle near Lake George in 1755, Major General Phineas Lyman, who commanded Connecticut militia, described the battle as “One continual clangor of cannon and small arms” and Seth Pomeroy, a lieutenant colonel from Massachusetts, said the battle created a “most Violent Fire perhaps . . . Ever was heard of in this Country.’
In 1756, Bellico writes, 500 French and Indians attacked 50 provincial soldiers, ending the battle, in the description of French commander Louis Antoine Bougainville, with “cruelties even the recital of which is horrible.”
On a noticeable number of occasions, Bellico does not provide a good roadmap to help the reader travel through the forest of facts and impressions.
Perhaps because of the organization or because of the mass of information that he chooses to quote, it is hard to have a sense of the importance of individual events to the whole of the story.
For example, Bellico writes about Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George. He describes many events there and it’s hard to sort out the daily from the noteworthy events, such as the massacre after the British surrendered to the French.
Nevertheless, the book offers good insights. If you drive through upstate New York or western New England, you see communities at peace.
Yet communities such as Lake George or Williamstown, known for entertainment, art, culture and education, once had forts and witnessed dangerous raids and battles.
I remember a visiting Crown Point 30 years ago; it was beautiful and quiet. But in the 1700s, it was noisy and bustling, as the French mobilized to march south to attack the English and later as the English used the fort as a base to conquer French Canada.
Results of battle
Bellico notes that the war created a demand for large quantities of advanced goods that developed the American economy faster than it might have grown in peacetime.
He shows how the experience of frontier fighting created a cadre of officers and soldiers experienced enough to successfully battle the British during the Revolutionary War.
He ends with a list of historical sites where readers can go to get a direct sense of what the French and Indian War felt like.
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