by Mark R. Anderson
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021. Pp. x, 292.
Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806168595
Why did Fort Cedars Surrender?
At first glance, Down the Warpath seems to be an attempt to rescue one of the minor battles of the American Revolutionary War from oblivion. The Battle of the Cedars certainly does not figure in most histories of the Revolutionary War, nor is it prominent in Canadian history. It was fought in May 1776, in and around what is today Les Cedres, a small town on the St. Lawrence River, about 35 miles north of the New York State border, and virtually a suburb of Montreal.
In the spring of 1776, American forces—independent scholar Mark Anderson calls them “the rebels”—had occupied Montreal, and were struggling with British and Loyalist soldiers over control of the St. Lawrence and Quebec. In April, Gen. Benedict Arnold ordered Col. Timothy Bedel and his New Hampshire Rangers to move upstream (toward Lake Ontario) and establish a post at The Cedars “to prevent any goods being sent to the upper country, and guard against a surprise from the enemy or their Indians.” (p. 54) Bedel needed more men than the 260 rangers he had in Montreal, so he recruited about thirty Kahnawake Indians, and then added a hundred soldiers from Connecticut.
By April 28, they had reached The Cedars, a small point protruding into the river near some rapids that created a choke point for anyone coming downstream toward Montreal. They constructed a simple fort by raising a palisade and some earthen breastworks, and installing the few cannon they had brought.
The British reacted promptly to this new threat, and assembled a force of fifty regulars under Captain George Forster to attack the fort. Of course, this was not nearly enough men, so Forster sought allies, and recruited hundreds of Indians with promises of captives and booty as their reward for success.
By May 15, Forster was approaching Fort Cedars, and the Americans inside had been warned by Indians in the area. The next day an American relief force left Montreal to come to the aid of the fort. The Americans in the fort, however, surrendered before these troops even approached The Cedars.
Why did Major Butterfield, the fort’s commander, capitulate after just two days of desultory siege by a force smaller than his own? Answering this question is the real heart of Down the Warpath.
Many of the Americans, including most, but not all of their officers, feared that they would be massacred, scalped, mutilated, and perhaps even roasted alive by the British Indian allies. One or two Indians had, in fact, been killed by the defenders, and if there were a serious assault on the fort, many more warriors might be wounded or killed. If so, the Americans believed, the Indians’ vengeance would be terrible—so they preferred to negotiate a surrender to the British officers, who would protect them from the warriors. For the Indians, the issues were different, and complex.
The warriors allied with the British needed to return to their villages with scalps, captives, or plunder, or some combination of the three. Both the American and British, though they needed Indians to fill their slender ranks, feared their way of war, and sought to protect themselves, and their European foes, from these “savages.”
In the end, they were successful: although at least one wounded American was killed after the surrender, almost every British, Canadian and American involved in this battle eventually got home safely. The Indians left with a handful of captives—later released—and almost every single piece of clothing the Americans had had on. Down the Warpath is worth reading for its sympathetic and even-handed descriptions of the “parallel warfare” waged by Indians and colonials.
Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote, and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book he owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for Michigan War Studies Review.
Note: Down the Warpath to the is also available in several e-editions.
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