Warfare in North America, c. 1756-1815 | British Perspectives

Warfare in North America, c. 1756-1815 | British Perspectives
This collection makes available a wide selection of original documents held at The National Archives, London, concerning warfare in North America from the Seven Years’ War to the War of 1812, giving a unique insight into the turbulent transition of the American colonies from British rule to independence.

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This collection of documents, reproduced from originals in The National Archives at Kew, illuminates the British side of three North American conflicts  – the Seven Years War (1756-63), the War of American Independence (1775-83) and the War of 1812 (1812-14). A selection of documents has been made from four important sets of papers in The National Archives. The Amherst Papers provide a wealth of detail on the Seven Years War in North America. The British Army Headquarters Papers (also known as the Carleton or Dorchester Papers) cover the whole of the War of Independence. Material in the Colonial Office Papers relating to Upper and Lower Canada illustrates the War of 1812. The volumes chosen from the enormous collection of Admiralty Papers present rich evidence on the naval aspects of the three wars. Readers will be able to learn much about high-level strategic thinking and about local operations, sometimes led by relatively junior officers, as well as see documents that illustrate the logistical challenges of war in North America and its impact on the population – native and enslaved, as well as settlers of European lineage.  Nor should the collection interest only historians of these three armed contests, or of military affairs more generally.  The documents provide rich pickings for any scholar who wants to know more about decision-making processes, leadership, allegiance and identity.

The documents take a wide variety of forms. Letters are the most common; copies or drafts or originals of correspondence with the secretary of state or the Admiralty in London are prominent, but also letters between the commanders-in-chief in North America and their subordinates in the field or in garrisons. Reports and memoranda of various kinds are here, too, including interesting material detailing intelligence provided by enemy deserters or inhabitants. Petitions and memorials, calling for the redress of grievances, or compensation, or promotion, provide fascinating glimpses of power relations. Returns of troop strength appear; as do order books giving daily instructions issued by the commanders-in chief (which shine a penetrating light on the organization and culture of the army). Newspaper extracts are also present, together with material on legal cases, and miscellaneous items such as the ‘Book of Negroes’, listing runaway slaves who left New York City with the British at the end of the War of Independence. 


Historical Background

Historians have recently emphasized the links and similarities between the three wars that this collection covers; some even claim that we should regard the period from 1754, when the preliminaries to the Seven Years War began in North America, to 1814, when the War of 1812 came to a formal end, as ‘The Sixty Years War’.[1] The links are evident: the outcome of the Seven Years War created the conditions that led to the War of Independence, and the War of 1812 was in many ways a renewal of the conflict that ended in 1783. Recent historians of North America, furthermore, are apt to point to the roots of resistance to British authority evident during the Seven Years War that came to full flower in the War of Independence and continued to bloom in the War of 1812.[2] An important (but often overlooked) similarity deserves recognition, too: all three wars, though fought in North America, were – or became – part of a wider global struggle from the British point of view. The Seven Years War took its name from the dates of the Austro-Prussian conflict for dominance in Germany that formed its most important European dimension. The French allied with the Austrians, and the British with the Prussians, with each ally at least partly tailoring its military operations to assist the war effort of its German partner. Furthermore, the Anglo-French contest in North America was itself merely a theatre of a conflict between the British and French that was fought across much of the globe – in the Caribbean, western Germany, the Mediterranean, in the seas off the British Isles (which were threatened with invasion) and in West Africa and South Asia. The War of Independence, at least from 1778, when the French intervened on the side of the United States, was also more than a war for and in North America.  Like the Seven Years War, it became a world-wide conflict, spreading to all areas where the British and their European rivals (not just France, but also Spain from 1779 and the Dutch from the end of 1780) were in competition. The Caribbean, the Mediterranean, West Africa, and South Asia were again zones of war, and Britain and Ireland again faced the threat of invasion. The War of 1812, from the British point of view, was an unfortunate distraction from a long-running and very demanding conflict with Napoleonic France – a conflict centred on Europe by 1812-14, but which earlier had important extra-European imperial dimensions.  

Even so, the concept of a Sixty Years War is questionable. It perhaps works best when applied to the Great Lakes region of North America, where the native and French populations found themselves engaged in a more or less continual struggle to resist the encroachment of British colonists and then citizens of the independent United States. From the British perspective, however, the three wars had distinctive features. Most obviously, the Seven Years War saw metropolitan Britons and colonial Britons, despite occasional frictions between them, fighting on the same side against the common French enemy, whereas in the War of Independence and the War of 1812, Britons and Americans in the settler population opposed each other. American Independence severed the transatlantic British nation, and the War of 1812 deepened the division between the two branches of the Anglo-world.  To ministers in London, and British commanders in North America, the Seven Years War was a conflict to protect the colonies from the threat posed by the French in Canada (and their native allies). The War of Independence, from the British point of view, was of a very different character to the conflict that had preceded it; the war that began in 1775 was, in its North American dimension, essentially a struggle to subdue a colonial rebellion and restore legitimate authority.  In the War of 1812, the British were mainly concerned to defend their remaining North American possessions in modern-day Canada from invasion (and incorporation) by the United States.

The Seven Years War in North America began in 1754, when local military forces from Virginia tried – and failed – to expel the French from the Ohio Valley. The French had laid claim to this inland wilderness after the preceding War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), as a way of reasserting their influence over the native peoples of the area, without whose support the French felt militarily exposed to the more populous British colonists to the south of Canada. But what to the French was a defensive measure, appeared to their British rivals as a threat to their colonies. In London, the government even feared encirclement of the North American provinces if the French were able to establish a chain of forts linking their possessions in Canada and Louisiana. After the failure of the Virginians (led by George Washington) to force the French out of the Ohio Valley, ministers in London decided to send regular army regiments across the Atlantic to do the job. In 1755, these regular forces proved no more successful than the Virginians had been; two regiments of British troops, supported by locally raised American soldiers, experienced complete and ignominious defeat by the French and their native allies as they approached the principal French fortress at the site of modern-day Pittsburgh.  

Despite the commitment of large numbers of regular regiments to North America, and the raising of more provincial forces, the war continued to go badly for the British until 1758. In that year, the tide turned. Concessions to the colonies on the status of provincial soldiers compared to the regulars, and a promise by William Pitt, the leading war minister, that Parliament would pay for nearly half of the cost of putting American forces in the field, created an overwhelming numerical advantage for the Anglo-Americans. The French, led by the marquis de Montcalm, fought a skilful rear-guard action, hoping that the longer they resisted British conquest of Canada, the more likely a European peace was to save them. But the British took Louisbourg, the key to the St Lawrence river in 1758, and at the same time cut the St Lawrence population centres off from the Great Lakes by capturing Fort Frontenac.  In 1759, Quebec fell to a British army commanded by James Wolfe (who, along with Montcalm, died in the battle that decided the city’s fate). The following year, Montreal and all New France surrendered to an Anglo-American army led by Wolfe’s successor, General Jeffrey Amherst.

At the moment of triumph, metropolitan and colonial Britons were perhaps closer than they had ever been. The colonists looked forward to a continuation of a successful (as they saw it) wartime partnership and full acknowledgement of their role in the defeat of the French. To the British, however, the outcome of the war, though glorious, created major problems. The British now controlled the whole of the eastern side of the continent, from Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi to the Atlantic coast. In other parts of the globe, the British Empire grew, too – in the Caribbean, in West Africa, and most notably, in population terms at least, in South Asia, where the British East India Company established dominance over the other European companies and became a major territorial power. An empire centred on colonies of settlement of mainly British people in North America and the West Indies was turned into an empire that included French settlers in Canada and the Caribbean, native peoples in North America and West Africa, and very large numbers of Indians in Bengal, Bahir and Orissa. These developments, in North America and the wider world, led ministers and officials in London to the view that the old loose-reined methods of past imperial management were no longer appropriate. Greater control from the centre now seemed imperative. A consequence of this new attitude was the unprecedented commitment of a peacetime regular British army to North America, which ministers expected to be paid for by taxes levied by Parliament on the American colonists.

American resistance to parliamentary taxation developed, during the course of successive crises in the relationship between the colonies and Britain, into resistance to parliamentary authority more generally. As the British government tried to impose its control in response to colonial resistance, it provoked still more determined opposition, which eventually, in 1775, turned into armed conflict. Many colonial Americans harboured the hope that the king would save them from wicked ministers and a corrupt Parliament. When George III disappointed their expectations by siding with his government and championing parliamentary rights, the Americans rejected his authority, too, and declared their independence. 

The British government, however, continued to fight to keep the Americans in the British fold. Their unwillingness to acknowledge Independence was not just a matter of abstract principle. Minsters feared that if the colonists broke out of the protectionist system of Atlantic trade regulation created by the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts, then British prosperity and British power would be fatally undermined. The government sent a large army to North America to subdue the rebellion, paying for German auxiliary troops to supplement British regular regiments. In 1776, the British forces nearly succeeded in breaking American resistance. The main rebel army, led by Washington, was comprehensively beaten at the battle of Long Island in August and in September British troops marched into New York City. General William Howe, the British commander-in-chief, pursued the remnants of Washington’s disintegrating army across New Jersey before going into winder quarters. But at the very end of the year, Washington boldly counter-attacked, defeating a German garrison at Trenton just after Christmas, and then vanquishing a British force at Princeton at the beginning of January 1777. 

Later that year, after inconclusive operations in New Jersey, Howe took his army to Pennsylvania, defeating Washington again at the battle of Brandywine Creek and capturing Philadelphia in September. But while Howe campaigned in Pennsylvania, he left another British army, advancing from Canada, without the necessary support.  Howe believed that defeating Washington was more important than coordinating his operations with the army descending from Canada, led by General John Burgoyne.  Over the course of the summer, Howe progressively downgraded his commitment to help the northern army, yet Burgoyne remained unaware that he was no longer going to receive the support that he expected from Howe. After initial success, the northern army found itself overwhelmed by a numerically superior enemy. Burgoyne was compelled to surrender at Saratoga, in upper New York, in October. This major defeat of a British field army boosted American confidence and – more importantly – encouraged the French to accelerate their preparations to enter the conflict on the American side.  

French intervention completely changed the nature of the war in North America. Not only did the British have to face a greatly expanded conflict, extending across the globe to take in all areas of Anglo-French completion, but the home territories were themselves threatened with invasion. In these circumstances, the British government unsurprisingly brought some of its soldiers and ships home to protect the British Isles. More surprisingly, perhaps, ministers in London decided to go onto the offensive against the French in the Caribbean, redeploying further forces from North America for this purpose. The war in America now became just one of many theatres, and by no means the first call on limited British resources. Hopes of reconquering all of the rebel colonies gave way to the more modest ambition of peeling off the southernmost provinces – South Carolina and Georgia – to help sustain the British West Indian sugar-producing islands with foodstuffs and other vital commodities. The war in the mainland colonies, in other words, was now to be pursued largely for Caribbean ends.

The main British war effort, from late 1778, was in the South. Savannah, in Georgia, fell to British forces that December, and the whole of the province was in British control by early 1779. In 1780, Howe’s successor, Sir Henry Clinton, led a British expeditionary force against Charleston, South Carolina, the largest urban centre in the southern colonies. The town fell after a short siege. But the British soon found it difficult to re-establish their authority in the backcountry of South Carolina, and felt compelled to move north to defeat American forces in North Carolina and Virginia that appeared to be sustaining resistance in South Carolina. By the summer of 1781, Lord Cornwallis, whom Clinton had left in charge in the South when he returned to the British headquarters at New York, was campaigning with most of the southern army in Virginia. Cornwallis hoped to establish a naval anchorage at Yorktown, but found himself confronted not only by local Virginian forces, but also by American and French troops who had marched down from New York, reinforced by further French troops and ships that had come up from the Caribbean. The Royal Navy tried but failed to save Cornwallis from encirclement, and he had little choice but to surrender. The war continued in the Caribbean, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia until the protagonists agreed a general peace in 1783, but the struggle in North America effectively ended with Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown in October 1781.  From that point, the war in the rebel colonies became, from the British point of view, a wholly defensive operation, designed to keep what they could as bargaining chips in the negotiation of the final peace settlement. 

The War of 1812 owed a good deal to American resentment at what appeared to be British attempts to ignore the outcome of the War of Independence. In the background was a nagging doubt about whether the Americans had secured their freedom from Britain. British trade with the United States grew rapidly in the 1790s, to the extent that it easily eclipsed the value of British trade with the North American colonies before the Revolution. At least some Americans worried about the implications of the large-scale consumption of British goods and questioned whether the citizens of the United States were a truly independent people.  The palpable inability of the United States to control its own territory reinforced national self-doubt. The British army did not evacuate its last bases south of the Great Lakes until 1794, even though these bases were in land ceded to the United States in 1783. Meanwhile, the British in Canada supplied the native peoples on the frontier of the United States with weapons, effectively hindering American westward expansion. More immediately, the demands of the protracted war against Napoleonic France led the British into provocative actions that the Americans regarded as a sign of continuing British high handedness. Sailors on American merchant ships were forced to serve in the Royal Navy on the ground that, if they were born before American Independence had been acknowledged by the British government in 1783, they were still the king’s subjects. To prevent American trade with France, the British government introduced new regulations in 1812 empowering the navy to search and seize any neutral vessel deemed to be carrying contraband goods to the enemy. Though the British withdrew the offending regulations in response to American complaints, the concession came too late to prevent a renewed Anglo-American conflict.  

That conflict took on a largely defensive character for the British.  Much of the frontier fighting was not conducted by British troops but by native peoples supported and sustained by British munitions and supplies. Though naval superiority enabled the British to launch raids along the Atlantic coast, including on the new capital of the United States, and to disrupt American overseas trade, their top priority was to protect Canada from American invasion and absorption. American incursions in 1812 and 1814 met with determined resistance, both from British regulars and locally raised Canadian forces.  Though the war ended with a British defeat at New Orleans, after the peace treaty had been signed at Ghent, the contest ultimately produced no clear winner. The Americans failed to annex Canada and British attempts to attack the United States from the North met with no success.



The Documents

While the documents reproduced in this collection include a few contemporary sketch maps, the vast bulk are texts written in English. A much smaller number are in French or Spanish.  Some letters are wholly or partly written in cypher, which was used to keep hidden confidential information that might have aided the enemy if it had been intercepted. Printed material appears occasionally, but the great majority of the items included are hand written, in the form of signed originals, or drafts, or secretaries’ copies.

The Amherst Papers in The National Archives (WO 34) are part of the enormous series of War Office Papers.  The material selected here comprises, for the most part, letters to and from Jeffery Amherst during his American campaigns in the Seven Years War, both before and after he became the commander-in-chief in succession to Wolfe. Also covered is the period immediately after the war against the French had finished, when Amherst responded to native attacks on his scattered garrisons in what is usually called, after the most prominent of the native leaders, Pontiac’s War. The selected volumes provide a wealth of information on grassroots campaigning and the attitudes of officers at senior and subordinate levels. Other volumes in the series (not included here) relate to Amherst’s subsequent career, including his period as commander-in-chief at home between 1778 and 1782.  More material on Amherst can be found in the collection of his papers in the Centre for Kentish Studies at Maidstone (U 1350).

By far the biggest single collection represented here is the British Army Headquarters Papers, sometimes known also as the Carleton or Dorchester Papers (PRO 30/55). Sir Guy Carleton served as commander-in-chief of the British army in North America in 1782-3, the final years of the War of Independence. He was subsequently ennobled as Lord Dorchester. Yet though Carleton was the last commander-in-chief to add documents to the collection, it illuminates much more than his brief tenure of office. The British Army Headquarters Papers – and the volumes from them selected here – include material accumulated under the direction of all the British commanders-in-chief during the war, from Thomas Gage in 1775, to Sir William Howe in 1775-8, and Sir Henry Clinton, 1778-82, as well as Carleton.  

The volumes provide us with an incredibly rich picture of the British side of the conflict. Of least interest, perhaps, are the copies of letters to the secretary of state in London (the originals can usually be found in the Colonial Office Papers relating to North America (CO 5), which have been printed, or at least calendared, in K.G. Davis’s Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series (21 vols., Shannon, 1972-81). But even material that can be read elsewhere appears here in a different light, because it is set in its proper context – the context of the day-to-day operations and activities of the British military in North America. The same is true of the ‘Book of Negroes’, which lists and describes the more than 3,000 escaped slaves whom the British took from New York City on their final departure and settled as free people of colour in Nova Scotia. More prosaically, the order books of General Howe shed fascinating light on how the army functioned, not least how senior officers persuaded, encouraged, and appealed to the common soldiers, as well as threatening and cajoling them with harsh punishments. The proclamations issued by the various commanders-in-chief are hardly less revealing. They show us that their authority was far from absolute; they depended upon the co-operation of their soldiers and, to a considerable extent, on the willingness of the local population to help.  The rhetorical strategies used in the proclamations and the techniques of persuasion repay careful analysis.  Further insights are provided by the letters from subordinate officers on military operations and commissaries on supplies and payments. Returns of soldiers in various posts (and their dependents) enable us to learn more about the composition of the army, and petitions and memorials from civilians tell us about the impact of the war and British occupation on local inhabitants. 

Material on prisoner exchanges tells us much about the delicate matter of allegiance and loyalty. From the British point of view, an important question was whether Americans captured in arms against them should be treated as rebels, outside the protections afforded by the contemporary laws of war, and deserving of no mercy, or as legitimate belligerents, much like the European enemies of George III.  Unsurprisingly, pragmatic considerations determined the answer. The Americans had British captives in their hands, so any punishment of captured Americans as rebels seemed to British commanders likely to invite retaliation against British prisoners of war. The Americans, in other words, despite the rhetoric of rebellion, were treated much like their European allies, the French, Spanish and Dutch. The ambiguous status of the American rebels in British eyes is revealed most interestingly in a letter from General Howe to George Washington at the start of the New York campaign of 1776 (PRO 30/55/3, 229). Howe could not formally acknowledge Washington as his equal, not least because the British government refused to recognize the Continental Congress, which had given Washington his commission. Howe therefore adopted all sorts of circumlocutions to describe Washington’s relationship with his American troops, avoiding any suggestion that the American commander in chief had lawful authority by referring to ‘those who place themselves under your command.’

The twists and turns of the War in 1812, in one of its major areas of conflict, can be followed in detail in the material produced here from the Colonial Office Papers relating to Lower and Upper Canada (CO 42/146-57, 354-5).  The collection comprises primarily original despatches to the secretary of state in London from the governors of the two provinces.  These letters, though mainly intended to give the secretary of state an overview of the military situation, shed much incidental light on grassroots operations. They are especially revealing of the role played by Canadian militias and native auxiliaries in the fighting against the forces of the United States. As with the British Army Headquarters Papers for the War of Independence, the Colonial Office Papers give us a flavour of the impact of war on non-combatants. They also point to British anxieties about the potential of the Americans to persuade Anglophone Canadians, and even French Canadiens, that they had more in common with their neighbours to the south than with the British. Again, then, the questions of loyalty and allegiance can be glimpsed in this collection.

The material from the volumes in the massive Admiralty In-letters series (ADM 1) that are reproduced here give us a picture of the naval side of the wars. In all three conflicts, the Royal Navy played a crucial role. In the Seven Years War, it effectively cut off New France from reinforcements and supplies from Europe, as well as worked with the army in amphibious operations such as the sieges of Louisbourg (1758) and Quebec (1759).  In the War of Independence, the Royal Navy again worked closely with the army, giving the British the ability to land troops almost anywhere long the long Atlantic coastline of the rebel colonies. In the War of Independence, as in the War of 1812, the navy organized a blockade intended to deny the United States access to European markets and European goods. The navy also escorted British troops and supplies across the Atlantic. The reports to the Admiralty Board in London from successive commanders-in-chief of the navy in North American waters provide a unique view of naval operations, the interaction of the navy with the local population, relations between the land and sea forces (which were not always harmonious) and much else besides. The volumes that cover the War of Independence reveal much about the dramatic change wrought by French intervention from 1778. Before the French became open enemies, the Royal Navy enjoyed complete dominance of the waters around North America, despite the efforts of American privateers and the fledgling Continental Navy. But from the moment the French joined the war, the Royal Navy’s dominance was challenged. The final surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown was an almost inevitable consequence of the failure of the Royal Navy to force the French navy out of Chesapeake Bay.  The letters in this collection, though couched in the flat and cautious terms of official correspondence, paint a vivid picture of how French involvement completely altered the character of the naval war.


Stephen Conway

University College London 





[1]  See, e.g., Sixty Years War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, ed. David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2001) and Francis D. Cogliano, ‘The Sixty Years War in North America, 1754-1815’, in Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815, ed. G. Mortimer (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 155-76.


[2]  See, e.g., Alan Rogers, Empire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority, 1755-1763 (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1974); Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

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ANDERSON, Fred, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

BAUGH, Daniel A., The Global Seven Years War, 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (London: Longmans, 2011)

BUCKNER, Philip, and Reid, John G., eds., Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspective (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

CONWAY, Stephen, A Short History of the American Revolutionary War (London: IB Tauris, 2013)

CONWAY, Stephen, War, State, and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

EGERTON, Douglas, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

FLAVELL, Julie, and Conway, Stephen, eds., Britain and America Go To War: The Impact of War and Warfare in Anglo-America, 1754-1815 (Gainesville, FL.: University Press of Florida, 2004)

HOOCK, Holger, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017)

JENNINGS, Francis, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America (New York: Norton, 1988)

MACKESY, Piers, The War for America (London: Longmans, 1964)

MIDDLETON, Richard, The War of American Independence, 1775-1783 (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2012)

MORGAN, Philip D., and O’Shaughnessy, Andrew J., ‘Arming Slaves in the American Revolution’, in Christopher Leslie Brown and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2006)

RANDALL, William Sterne, Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution (London: St Martin’s Press, 2017)

TAYLOR, Alan, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderlands of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

TAYLOR, Alan, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)


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