Pages

October 3 1812: American Military Knowledge


On October 3, 1812, Major General Rensselaer responds to the letter from Colonel Willett, who had offered some advice on how to fight "Indians." Rensselaer responds by considering American "military knowledge". He starts by observing that the professional armies of Europe have made war a  "system reduced to a science."  However, this system  is not effective as against the warfare employed by Natives, which has been "preserved only by tradition among themselves". The Native way of war can only be overcome by relying on the knowledge and experience of such men as Colonel Willnet who have fought Natives. Rensselaer's observation suggests how American "military knowledge", or as some historians have called it "American way of war", may have developed, in part, by fighting and emulating Native ways of war. The irony is that Rensselaer is confronting  professional troops from the British army that are augmented by militia and formidable Native warriors. Rensselaer writes: 
Nothing is more certain than that the strength of a State greatly consists in the personal bravery, and Military knowledge of its citizens. A national character founded on such basis becomes terrible to surrounding foes, and often has the happiest effects in preventing wars. Such was the proud character of Americans at the close of the Revolutionary War and the value of it could not be told. Among the Nations of Europe war is a trade: its system reduced to a science; and the library of the Soldiers is stored with volumes of instructions drawn from long experience. But, whenever the rules and maxims of Military operations sanctioned in Europe, have been applied to warfare with Savages in America, slaughter and defeat have usually been the unfortunate result. As war with Indians is of a specific kind, reduced to system among the Tribes who know not letters, it is preserved only by tradition among themselves; and those who acquire a knowledge of it, must gain it, as you have, by long and careful experience. This consideration renders your wise experience of great value to your Country.
Major General Rensselaer's letter is reproduced below.

Major Gen. Van Rensselaer to Colonel Willett.
Head Quarters, Lewiston Oct. 3, 1812.

Dear Sir - In due course of the mail I have been favored with your very kind and seasonable letter of the 25th ulto. For your personal friendship expressed to me, as well as for the valuable instructions furnished for the service, I beg leave to tender you my cordial thanks. In a crisis like the present, when we are called, again, to meet our enemies in the field, no one more sincerely than myself can regret that the infirmities usually attending the age to which you have arrived (73 years), should deprive our Country of that invaluable store of practical military knowledge which you have acquired in a long and honorable course of service.

Nothing is more certain than that the strength of a State greatly consists in the personal bravery, and Military knowledge of its citizens. A national character founded on such basis becomes terrible to surrounding foes, and often has the happiest effects in preventing wars. Such was the proud character of Americans at the close of the Revolutionary War and the value of it could not be told. Among the Nations of Europe war is a trade: its system reduced to a science; and the library of the Soldiers is stored with volumes of instructions drawn from long experience. But, whenever the rules and maxims of Military operations sanctioned in Europe, have been applied to warfare with Savages in America, slaughter and defeat have usually been the unfortunate result. As war with Indians is of a specific kind, reduced to system among the Tribes who know not letters, it is preserved only by tradition among themselves; and those who acquire a knowledge of it, must gain it, as you have, by long and careful experience. This consideration renders your wise experience of great value to your Country.

I am perfectly satisfied that your whole system is correct: indeed my own reflections, which have been cast upon possible contingencies in this campaign, had suggested to me the general principle which you approve.

You are certainly correct in saying that flight from an Indian is next to certain death. War with Savages imperiously demands three things; Vigilance to discover where they are, caution in approaching them: and when they are found instant dispatch to kill or rout them. I shall remember your counsel with gratitude and pleasure; as a precious legacy from a Soldier of great experience; and should occasion call me to use it in this campaign, I shall adopt and practice your system as far as my ability, and the means I may command will enable me.

I am, Dear Sir, with great respect and Consideration &c., 

Col. Marinus Willett. S. V. Rensselaer.

No comments:

Post a comment