Sunday, December 19, 2004


Here’s a history that won’t put you to sleep

Many of us are familiar with George Santayana’s comment that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Well, that may or may not be true but one thing is certain; many of us are shortchanged when it comes to remembering our past because of the way that history has been taught to us.

That’s not just the fault of teachers. History books, largely, are as sere as the Sahara, and just as salubrious when it comes to enriching one’s understanding of the past.

I consider myself lucky to have come across an amazing book, stacked unfortunately and undeservedly in the used book bin at the Murdock Library in Port Charlotte. “Crucible of War,” by Fred Anderson, is one of those remarkable history books that should be in great demand.

Instead, it suffers an ignominy no good volume should endure.

How good a history is it? Read this:
“As the combatants’ adrenaline levels subsided and the wounded men moaned, the translation went badly. The letter had to be read a second time, and Washington turned to take it back to his own translator. As he withdrew Tanaghrisson stepped up to where Jumonville lay. Tu n’es pas encore mort, mon pere, he said; Thou art not yet dead, my father. He raised his hatchet and sank it into the ensign’s skull, striking until he had shattered the cranium. Then he reached into the skull, pulled out a handful of viscous tissue, and washed his hands in Jumonville’s brain.”

In that brief description of violence lies the essence of Anderson’s achievement. The event was a small skirmish in a clearing on what was then the western English colonial border of North America. The “Washington” described was indeed our commander in chief, present at his most successful battle and most embarrassing (and deadly) diplomatic faux pas.

The deliberateness of the Indian’s decision to brain the Frenchman spoke less of savagery than of a well-thought out political strategy. Moreover, as for poor Jumonville, he could rightly be considered the first casualty of the French and Indian War, more commonly known overseas as the Seven Years War.

So what’s the point? The Seven Years War was the first world war, a conflict that took place just before the American Revolution that actually set loose the passions that would culminate in that successful struggle for independence.

In Europe, Africa, Asia and South America the end of the global conflict would mark almost no change, as the rival empires of France and England transferred small parcels of territory to settle accounts. However, in North America, the end of the war marked the end of the French ascendancy, putting to rest any chance that we today would wind up speaking French instead of the Queen’s lingo.

The French and Indian War is now largely forgotten, but Anderson, through his exciting writing and fine research, has more than done his part to restore this neglected conflict to its place of importance. Just as the Mexican War of the 1840s spawned and trained the leaders who would fight the Civil War, so did the French and Indian War launch the careers of Revolutionary War heroes. Washington, of course, offers the best example of this. He was a big, rangy young striver who saw the military as a short cut to respectability. The Virginia governor ordered Washington to assemble some men and go off into the northwest, when the French were making inroads. The issue was largely a development tussle, one we today could see acted out at a county commission meeting. The difference was that Gov. Dinwiddie of Virginia, to mollify his rich friends whose property was threatened by the Indians, was able to send armed men, led by Washington, to protect property rights.

Washington’s failure to rein in Tanaghrisson was taken by the French as a cassus belli, thus launching a conflict both the English and King Louis’ forces were waiting to join.

But, as Anderson points out, those two nations weren’t the only players on the great board of North America. Indians, whose ancestors had watched the French and British bear fruit and multiply in the New World, were a major third player. The Europeans with the most Indian allies had the advantage.

So Tanaghrisson was playing his card when he set up the ambush that led to his braining of Jumonville, announcing to Washington and all interested that he was on the English side.

Anderson’s victory is that he is able to make this all sound a lot more interesting than I can, and he does so while paying homage to the fine vistas and pristine waters that once spanned our continent. The lyric nature of his descriptions are as out of place in a history book as the deft way he surveys the times of which he writes.

There are no good wars, but the beauty and romance of the French and Indian War still echoes in our culture. From “Evangeline,” Longfellow’s weepy poem about an exiled French community, to the release several years ago of the movie “Last of the Mohicans,” the affairs of those tumultuous years still inform us.

Anderson paints the period in all its glory and color, offering even the most unhistorically-minded reader with a grasp of a time of great importance. It’s no accident that the book is so accessible.

After all, Anderson states in the opening pages that:

“Few reveries haunt history professors more insistently than the dream of writing a book accessible to general readers that will also satisfy their fellow historians’ scholarly expectations.
At least that dream has haunted me, and I must admit that I wrote this book because of it.”

If that is a dream of historians, you wouldn’t know it from the majority of what’s written about our past. And if that dream was indeed Anderson’s, then it’s more than safe to say that he has achieved that goal in his compelling “Crucible of War.”

James M. Abraham, a syndicated book columnist, can be reached at

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