Book Review: Fire and Desolation: The Revolutionary War’s 1778 Campaign as Waged from Quebec and Niagara Against the American Frontiers by Gavin K. Watt (Dundurn, 2017)
With the thousands of works written on the American Revolution, there are still areas where, remarkably, the surface has hardly been scratched. Increasingly, modern studies of the American Revolution are taking new directions, examining things in different light, and adding knowledge that challenges long standing assumptions. Even with digging deeper and applying innovative methods, however, there are still some areas of the war that just plain do not garner as much attention. Although the events covered in Fire and Desolation: The Revolutionary War’s 1778 Campaign as Waged from Quebec and Niagara Against the American Frontiers played an important role in the development of the major campaigns of 1779, detailed accounts of these actions are lacking in the vast library of Revolutionary War literature.
Canadian historian Gavin Watt examines this often ignored region and year of the war and highlights tactical expertise employed by Native Americans and their allies. The violent and destructive raids detailed in this aptly named book bridge the gap between key events in 1777—the American victory at Saratoga and Burgoyne’s failed Hudson campaign—and the Clinton-Sullivan expedition of 1779. Watt demonstrates that the actions along the Canadian border were fraught with complications born out of allegiance and personal relationships and played an important role in the military and diplomatic course of the war.
The author’s perspective, one to which many Americans may be unaccustomed, is reflected in the terminology used; for example, rather than using the term “patriot” he consistently uses “rebel.” More important than the terms the author uses, readers are taken out of the loyalist-patriot dichotomy into which students of the Revolution are too apt to fall as Watt strives to maintain an air of objectivity. Rather than viewing each side in a black and white manner and perceiving one side as “good” and the other “bad,” Watt fairly acknowledges that all parties performed both laudable and horrifying acts.
It is remarkable that this part of the war has received so little attention as it not only proved important in the tactical course of the war, but also provides a perfect snapshot of the complicated human dynamics that steered the course of the Revolution. Employing a range of sources, including military and diplomatic records and correspondences from England, Canada, and the United States, Watt shows the wide range of personalities and complex relationships that influenced diplomatic relations. Complexities in relationships extended beyond the difficulties rendered by the civil war conditions and were influenced by cultural and historical factors, particularly with the entrance of the French in the war and the role and influence of the tribes of the Six Nations.
A great strength of this work is that Watt brings the tribes of the Six Nations to the center of the action, underscoring that the Natives were not passive participants but rather played an important role in the defense of the Canadian border. Not only were the British and Americans vying for Native alliances, but intertribal divisions and historical tensions led the Natives to act decisively and in ways that directly influenced the Continental Congress’ campaign plans. The climax of the action—the raids on the Wyoming and Cherry Valleys—illustrate the decisive action taken by Natives that directly resulted in the Continental Congress’s retributive campaigns of the following year. Although these raids are often referred to as “massacres” by American historians, one wonders if the use of that term reflects not only the perspective from which it is studied, but perhaps assisted the narratives created in the postwar years to support and justify early America’s agenda in conquering Native lands.
Although the scope of the campaign can be difficult to grasp due to the several regions and time frames involved, the author eases comprehensive clarity by providing a very helpful comparative timeline of each region’s actions. Given the layout of the chapters as regionally specific—Lake Champlain and Lower Quebec, the Mohawk Region (the subject of two chapters), Pennsylvania, and New York – this is quite useful in tying the content together and gaining an overall sense of the campaign on the American frontier. The book is visually interesting with regular use of images interwoven within the text, including portraits, maps, and weaponry. At times, the narrative’s flow is interrupted by abrupt transitions. This part of the Revolution is unarguably complex with many groups involved, but at times the viewpoints and people discussed switch so often it is difficult to keep track. Particularly disruptive to the narrative are some of the shortest subsections within chapters, some of which either call for expansion to fit cleanly into the context or relegation to footnotes.
Overall, Fire and Desolation provides a detailed account of important but neglected year of the war and adds important context to the military and diplomatic actions surrounding it. Although the narrative reads a bit rough at times, the book highlights the complexities of the groups and personalities involved. Moreover, the Canadian point of view may come as a refreshing change of pace for many readers. This book will appeal to enthusiasts of the military history of the Revolution as well as readers specifically interested in the region’s history or the role of Canada in the American Revolution.
 Zara Anishanslin examines the creation of post-war narratives created from objects, such as a white man’s scalp, to justify the conquering of Native lands by the new United States. See Zara Anishanslin, “’This Is the Skin of a Whit[e] Man’: Material Memories of Violence in Sullivan’s Campaign” in American Revolution Reborn, eds. Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).