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The Battles That Shaped America
Think Tank Transcripts: John Keegan
ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient ofthe Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation andthe Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. American militaryhistory in the 20th century is a story of battles in foreign lands,from Normandy across the Atlantic to Vietnam across the Pacific. Thisweek we take you back to a time when America itself was the world'slargest battlefield.
Our guest is British military historian John Keegan, whose newbook begins and ends with three words: 'I love America.' The book is'Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America.' From the fall ofQuebec to Custer's last stand, battles that shaped America, this weekon 'Think Tank.'
Joining us today is John Keegan. He taught military history atSandhurst, Britain's equivalent of West Point. He is now the defensecorrespondent for 'The Daily Telegraph' in London and author of manybooks, including, 'The Face of Battle: A History of Warfare,' and'Six Armies in Normandy.' His latest book is 'Fields of Battle: TheWars for North America.' Drawing lessons from America's uniquegeography, he brings to life the battle against the French in Canada,against the British at Yorktown, between the Union army and the armyof the Confederacy, and between the U.S. cavalry and the Indiannations of the American Plains.
Welcome to 'Think Tank,' John Keegan. What is it about Americangeography that made it in our early years such a unique battlefield?
MR. KEEGAN: Well, it was the first territory which Europeansdiscovered in its untouched state and tried to fight in because quiteearly on, the British and the French began to battle against eachother for the possession of the continent.
It was a continent which was covered with virgin forest, for onething, and they really never tried to fight wars of conquest invirgin forest before. It was an extraordinary undertaking andproduced a distinctively American way of warfare, which eventuallydid bleed back into the warfare of Europe. But that was what made itunique, a vast, rich continent covered between the Mississippi andthe Atlantic coast with dense forest.
MR. WATTENBERG: And the Europeans were really not used to suchspace.
MR. KEEGAN: They weren't used to such space, they weren't used toterritory which had no roads, they weren't used to territory whichhad no facilities of any sort at all, a territory in which man had todo everything for himself and make everything for himself. And ofcourse, it was also a territory full of wild, warlike people who didunderstand the territory, the Native Americans.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's talk about the first one of thewars you deal with that we here grow up calling the French-IndianWar. The key pivot of that is what, is the Hudson River? Is that howthat works? And tell us about that war.
MR. KEEGAN: The interconnection between the Hudson River, the St.Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi, that was really it.The French, starting at the beginning of the 17th century, hadachieved an extraordinarily advantageous position. By the end of the17th century, they controlled a continuous water route from theAtlantic down the St. Lawrence through the Great Lakes, and so overland, but only quickly over land, to the Mississippi and on down tothe Gulf of Mexico.
MR. WATTENBERG: So they really had a water highway around America?
MR. KEEGAN: They had a water highway, and what's more, theydecided, and that was the government at home in France, Louis XIV,they decided that this was going to be the control line. They wouldfortify it, they would engage the Indians in alliances, and thiswould be the line which would prevent the English speakers gettinginto the interior.
And it was a very successful policy. Unfortunately, the French hada fatal disadvantage. They had insufficient numbers. The ordinaryFrench would not immigrate. Whereas the English immigrated in vastnumbers, the French wouldn't come.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why was that?
MR. KEEGAN: Very difficult to explain. I have found no goodexplanation for it, because the French government encouraged peopleto come. Indeed, it actually forced people to come sometimes. But theFrench would not come with the willingness that the English came andthe Scots and the Irish, and then of course others. Even during the18th century, other nationalities, too, were already coming. Germanswere coming.
But anyhow, the facts of the matter are that by 1750, there were amillion English speakers crowded into the coasts in a strip betweenthe Appalachians and the Atlantic. But spread over that great arcfrom the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, there were only 50,000French.
MR. WATTENBERG: So there was a geographic aspect to this and ademographic aspect to this.
MR. KEEGAN: Yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: The intermixture. The French had the geographicadvantage.
MR. KEEGAN: The French had everything going for themgeographically. The British had much more going for themdemographically. And it was a question in the end of whethergeographic advantages were going to prevail over demographicadvantages.
MR. WATTENBERG: So where did this warfare actually take place?Maybe you could just sort of chronologically go through who foughtwho.
MR. KEEGAN: Sure, sure. Well, in the French-Indian War, the SevenYears War --
MR. WATTENBERG: The seven years are which years?
MR. KEEGAN: 1756 to '63.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. KEEGAN: The key events take place first at Louisbourg, at themouth of the St. Lawrence, which was supposed to be a FrenchGibraltar or a French Bataan, if you like, a strong point which wouldensure the British couldn't get down the St. Lawrence. Unfortunately,despite an heroic defense by the French and the remarkable wife ofthe French garrison commander, the British took Louisbourg, and thenthey could get down the St. Lawrence to Quebec.
Now, there was fighting beyond Quebec in the Great Lakes, but thekey episode took place in 1759, when the French had to concentrateall the forces they had at Quebec and the British had brought a greatexpeditionary force there to try and take it. It's a terrificallytough knot. Anybody who goes to the old city of Quebec and looks upat this castle on the heights will see what a wonderful position itis. But in the end, the British managed to find a way around, slipunder the guns, get out behind the fort, get up onto the Plains ofAbraham, and tempt the French out to fight a battle, the Battle ofthe Plains of Abraham, which results in the death of Wolf, the deathof Montcalm, the two conflicting generals, and the death of FrenchCanada. That's the end of it. Canada was British for good, in fact ifnot in law, after 1759.
MR. WATTENBERG: And ending the threat of the French in what wecall the United States of America now.
MR. KEEGAN: Absolutely.
MR. WATTENBERG: The southern part as well.
MR. KEEGAN: Absolutely. You see, the Indians didn't have theFrench as allies, and that was a key episode, that was a key factor.
MR. WATTENBERG: These French-Indian Wars start out as twocoalitions, the French and Indians on one side and the British andAmerican colonists on the other side.
MR. KEEGAN: And the Americans and the Brits win. Of course, theAmericans disliked the French so much that they would occasionally gooff and attack French Canada by themselves without bothering with theBritish. It's wrong to think of it as a completely British war runfrom London. There were plenty of people in New York and Boston whohad very strong motives of their own for wishing to fight the Frenchand get over into the open territory beyond.
MR. WATTENBERG: So then the winning coalition, which is theAmerican colonists and the Brits, they then split apart.
MR. KEEGAN: They split because, as is commonly said, the Americansno longer had a reason to need the British Navy and the British Army.The French had been defeated, the Indian allies of the French were nolonger a threat. The British started to make noises about theAmericans having to pay and contribute to defense of the empiregenerally, and the colonists said we have never been taxed, we onlytax ourselves. And so a great issue of principle developed into awar. That was the American Revolution. A simple quarrel over taxturned into a great -- another great war for the continent.
And curiously here, it was the other way around. The Americans hadthe geographical advantages, and the British, who had the skills andthe weapons, never had quite enough troops or ships. I think that'sthe story of the war of the revolution.
MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, we normally learn in that war that theAmerican, the sort of ragtag American army that Washington led, theywere sort of the underdogs. What you are really saying, I sense, isthat because of the nature of the terrain --
MR. KEEGAN: Yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: -- and that they were fighting at home, the Britshad a -- what, an almost impossible task for them notwithstanding --
MR. KEEGAN: Sure. They were trying to hold the great cities of theAtlantic sea coast, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, ifthey could, and Charleston, Savannah further south. They could neverfind enough troops to hold all of them at the same time.
Then they were trying to control the hinterland, and although itwas a ragtag and bobtail army that Washington commanded, whenever hegot into trouble, he used to jump across the Delaware and wait in therough country on the far side. And the British would then leave himalone, partly because he wasn't bothering them and partly because thecountry beyond the Delaware was too difficult for them to campaignin.
MR. WATTENBERG: It was still that virgin forest.
MR. KEEGAN: It was still pretty rough country. And then whenWashington saw an advantage, he'd cross the Delaware again and revivethe war. It was a very, very clever strategy.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Now, your third war is the Civil War,in some places still called the war between the states.
MR. KEEGAN: Yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, now how does the geography and I guess thedemography play out in that one?
MR. KEEGAN: Demography of course favored, greatly favored theNorth, okay, and geography favored the South. There were roughly 32million Northerners and only 4 million white Southerners, so it oughtto have been a walk-over. But the South, if you think about it, hadterrifically strong, natural frontiers. It had the sea coast, theAtlantic sea coast and the Gulf sea coast, neither of them coastswith good natural harbors or big rivers which lead into the interior,except for the Mississippi. Then they had the Mississippi itself,another great natural frontier, very difficult to cross, in fact, ofcourse, impossible to bridge for a long way northwards, verydifficult to cross.
Then you had the Ohio and its river system flowing into theMississippi, and that river system is in confederate hands. Sofinally, you get back to northern Virginia, and this looks like theonly gateway.
MR. WATTENBERG: So the Southerners were like the colonists in theRevolutionary War in that they were undermanned but geographicallyprotected.
MR. KEEGAN: Sure, they were geographically --
MR. WATTENBERG: And the Northerners were like the Brits, in asense.
MR. KEEGAN: Absolutely. They were in a very good geographicalposition. and I think you could argue that if they had not decided toattack, if they'd have only sat inside the Confederacy and confrontedLincoln and the Union and the Union armies with the need to invadethem and destroy the Confederate state, they might very well have gota better outcome. The North might have got fed up with it. It couldhave gone on for a very long time.
MR. WATTENBERG: They actually invaded the North, coming up toGettysburg and --
MR. KEEGAN: Sure. Oh, sure. Indeed, it was -- they had decidedthat they would invade, that it was that they were a fighting state,that it would be a dishonor if the soil of the Confederacy wereviolated by Union troops. So they had a deliberate policy ofattacking into the North which I think was their undoing. If onlythey'd just made the best of their natural defenses and sat it out,I'm not saying the Confederacy would have been a permanency, but itwould have had a longer life than it did.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, and that leads us to your fourth war,which is the war against the Plains Indians.
MR. KEEGAN: The Plains Indians, yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tell us about that.
MR. KEEGAN: It's a very -- of course, increasingly seen as atragic episode, whereas when you and I were schoolboys, it was seenas a great adventure story in which the white men were the goodiesand the Native Americans were the baddies.
I think we've gone too far in seeing the tale as a tragedy becausethe Native Americans wanted -- they wanted great riches forthemselves. We don't -- it's not often represented in that way, butwhen Custer rode off to the Little Big Horn, he was dealing withIndians who had been offered territories the size of France or Spainfor only a few thousand horse-riding nomads.
Now, you may say that it was Indian land anyhow and what was theUnited States government doing offering Indians their own land? Ithink that you have an absolute impasse here. On the one hand, youhave nomads leading a particular way of life who had been inpossession of the territory perhaps for 12,000 years, although not ashorsemen, of course, but -- and on the other, you have huge numbersof European incomers wanting to lead a completely different way oflife, which would end the Indian enjoyment of the open spaces and thebuffalo.
And there is both -- you can certainly represent the Europeans asbeing in the wrong, but I think you can equally represent the NativeAmericans as being selfish because, after all, the nomadic way oflife has been described as the most enjoyable in the world. It's thehappiest way of life that there can be, and in a way the Indians hadwhat only the super rich enjoy today: endless game for hunting,enormous space and total freedom. Now, these are the advantages ofvery, very rich people.
So it is a tragedy, but is it tragic to overthrow a way of lifewhich, if not overthrown, denies hundreds and thousands and millionsof people an entirely different way of life?
MR. WATTENBERG: It's a good question. What were the challenges,the particular military challenges of fighting out on the Plains, asthis immovable force and thrust of immigration backed up by thecavalry goes into this incredibly vast area of land?
MR. KEEGAN: The elusiveness of the Indians; finding them. ThePlains Indians at the height of their military prowess were among themost effective warriors who have ever lived. One of their greatskills was their ability to disappear into the landscape, not befound. Despite the fact that they had huge strings of ponies, theywere encumbered with women and children, somehow they could go away.And the cavalry would beat the landscape for miles in every directionand never get a whisper of them.
The disadvantage the Indians suffered under was that they couldn'tstick together for long periods. They'd quarrel, the bands wouldbreak up or they'd think of something else to do. They'd decide theypreferred to go hunting than fight Uncle Sam. That was theirdisadvantage. But they certainly had geography on their side.
MR. WATTENBERG: In the course of writing this book, you havevisited most or all of these battlefields?
MR. KEEGAN: I tried to go to all the places. I can't say I've beento all the sites of the Revolutionary War. I have been to almost allthe sites of the Civil War, and I made a great, long, special journeyto the Little Big Horn to see Custer's Last Stand.
MR. WATTENBERG: What happens -- I just in my very few forays intolooking at some of these battlefields, you end up seeing a shoppingmall right in the middle of it or a supermarket or whatever. I mean,can you still get any sense of it, really, today?
MR. KEEGAN: I think you get a terrific sense. I'll tell you threeplaces that come to mind: Beaver Dam Creek just have Richmond, wherea most horrible little battle broke out between the Confederates andthe Union in 1962, part of the Seven-Day Battle's run. It'sabsolutely as it was today. I think it sounds the same, it smells thesame, it looks the same. I went down on a still, hot day at noon, andI thought -- I really didn't like the feeling. I thought of the 2,000casualties in a tiny, little area, up to their knees in mud andwater. I thought this is one of the most sinister little battlefieldsI've ever been on.
Quebec, too, I think you get it because the old city looks justlike it did and you can imagine the French cannon dominating theriver. And the Little Big Horn gives you the feel of the Custerbattle in a particularly eery way because they've never moved thebodies. They're still buried where they stand under those littlewhite headstones, and if you stand on the Last Stand hill and lookdown the battlefield gleaming in the sun, you see these little groupsof headstones and you know that that's where three or four troopersgot surrounded by the Sioux, and then finally the big group, whereCuster and his closest companions were shot down.
MR. WATTENBERG: I think you mention somewhere in your book that weare a peace-loving nation with a warlike history.
MR. KEEGAN: That's right. There's a very -- there are all sorts ofdistinctive American characteristics about warmaking. One is thatwhen you get -- when you decide to do it, you do it in a tremendouslyworkmanlike way. It's commonly said that this is the land of the workethic or that the business of America is business. I think all thatis true, and you see it manifest in the way Americans make war.You're not warlike, but when the great republic decides that itsvital interests are threatened, there is a tremendous nationaleffort, they agree on a program, they almost agree on a finishingdate, and they get on with it until it's over and then they can goback to ordinary work.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just read you, just to close this out, acouple of quotes of yours. One is, 'It is through the Americans'power to wage war that they dominate the world.' And then, 'Americanshave a secret, the secret of a way of life different from any otherlived on earth.' And then you say, 'That's what I'm still trying tofind out.'
Now, just looking at world history now for a moment, thisinterplay of the power and the magnetism of the American way of lifecombined with this military dominance, is it that confluence thatgives us this global power?
MR. KEEGAN: I think the one follows from the other. America hasthe dynamism it does because individual Americans, let aloneAmericans in groups, take the idea of work with a seriousness notknown in Europe. Europeans are clever and ingenious and creative, andof course they're industrious as well, but there is a relentlessnessabout the idea of work in America which has no counterpart in Europe.
And so when you -- I mean, you know, I think you have these greatbursts of energy focusing, and if you focus on war, which you dooccasionally, other people had better look out.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. On that note, John Keegan, thank you verymuch for joining us.
And thank you. Please send your comments and questions to: NewRiver Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we canbe reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the World Wide Web atwww.thinktank.com.
For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.
ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.
'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation andthe Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
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