WHITE DEVIL: A TRUE STORY OF WAR, SAVAGERY, AND VENGEANCE IN COLONIAL AMERICA
By Stephen Brumwell
Da Capo, $27.50, 335 pages
REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER
Few works of American historical fiction can match for excitement the section of Kenneth Roberts’ “Northwest Passage” that relates the attack on and subsequent escape from the St. Francis Abenaki Indian village by Maj. Robert Rogers and his renowned Rangers in October 1759 during the French and Indian War. It is absolutely riveting.
Turns out that in the right hands truth, or at any rate fact, can be just as thrilling as fiction. Those hands here belong to Stephen Brumwell, a British historian, who in “White Devil” recounts that spine-tingling episode and several others while explaining the war’s historical and contemporary significance.
Britain’s winning of the French and Indian War (1756-1763), of course, determined the fate of North America and has affected our lives in ways great and small down to this day. Rogers’ Rangers played a notable role in Britain’s triumph.
Further, Rogers’ influence is currently felt in a most particular way. He is, Mr. Brumwell states, regarded as the father of U.S. Special Forces, whose profile is probably higher now in the war on terrorism than it has ever been. In the 1960s the Green Berets informally adopted some of his written rules for warfare.
Born in 1731 in Methuen, Mass., Rogers was a fierce Indian foe, yet he admired them and shared much of their world-view. The style of woods fighting he espoused was basically that of the Indians, using natural cover rather than the rigid battle lines of European tradition.
Rogers, however, formalized and expanded the concept, forming companies of Rangers — recruiting Indians and, amazing for the times, sometimes blacks — who served within, though not as part of, the British army. The British valued them highly for gathering intelligence about the enemy.
To the British he was “the brave Major Rogers” with a reputation for dangerous feats of dash and endurance that was known as far away as the government in London. To the St. Francis Abenaki he was more commonly referred to as Wobomagonda — White Devil. There were many peaks and valleys in Rogers’ career, but the highest peak was unquestionably the raid on St. Francis.
St. Francis (the site of today’s Odanak in Quebec) had a fearsome reputation. The Abenaki were allies of the French, not subjects of French Canada, and were capricious — not to mention ruthless — in their attacks. They fought the British for their own reasons, as well as France’s.
As part of a stark and bloody saga that saw barbarous acts on both sides, the massacre at Fort William Henry in Upstate New York in 1757 (which forms a central scene in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans”) was an especially gruesome piece of butchery by Indians that “swiftly became the most notorious French infraction of the internationally recognized Laws of War.” In retribution for this and other Abenaki depredations, Rogers and a force of 200 men set out to destroy St. Francis.
What a harrowing adventure it was. Mr. Brumwell is as skillful as novelist Kenneth Roberts in conveying its perils and miseries. Facing the stinging cold of the approaching upstate winter, slogging through a dismal morass that stretched for nearly 50 miles, permanently wet and cold — with the French on their trail, they could build no fires — they finally reached St. Francis, fatigued and ravenous, and laid it waste.
That was the easy part. Mr. Brumwell’s description of the trek back — “a nightmarish ordeal” — is an understatement. Freezing, starving, harried by the French and Indians, driven nearly mad by desperation, they ate flesh off the scalps they had taken, and corpses they came across in a river. They may even have killed and eaten two prisoners.
The physical success and morality of the raid are disputed to this day, but its far-reaching psychological and political effects are less in doubt. At a time when French Canada was struggling to survive, it provided, in Mr. Brumwell’s assessment, “a timely fillip for the Anglo-American war effort, and represented a serious loss of prestige for the Franco-Canadians.”
After it, Rogers’ career took a decided arc downward. Frequently in debtors’ prison, he died, rum-soaked, in London in 1795, a victim of his personal missteps, admittedly, but also of the shifting interests of the politicians who had used him.
Indeed, none of the Rangers received much in the way of material compensation for their superhuman efforts. Like soldiers in most eras, once the danger to the populace was past, they had to be content with the citizens’ and politicians’ fleeting gratitude, a commodity whose expenditure does not strain the public purse.
Roger K. Miller, a former reporter and newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer.