Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians’ First Battles in the Revolution by Mark R. Anderson (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021).
A couple of minor surprises greeted me when I first opened Mark Anderson’s new book on the Cedars, the May 1776 battle that took place a few miles west of Montreal during the American retreat from Canada. As is my practice when inspecting a new book, I started at the back where I found a reasonably thorough index. The bibliography prompted a bit of a rise in my eyebrows (in a positive sense)—the list of sources covers thirty pages and includes an extensive catalog of primary sources from Canada and England as well as the United States. The greatest surprise came when I looked at the endnotes: they cover seventy pages and include a considerable amount of information beyond the mere documentation of sources. Nearly thirty pages of appendices include rolls of the men captured, the cartel for a prisoner exchange, and the resolves drawn up by the Continental Congress as a result of the battle. All in all, an interesting collection of information but, in a book with 300 pages, having nearly half of them devoted to supplemental material made me wonder; just how well could the author address his topic?
I needn’t have worried. In the 158 pages of text, the author does a stellar job of covering the Cedars. The first of the book’s two goals is to show that the battle deserves more recognition than it gets. Mr. Anderson writes that historians have made the battle only “notable for a cowardly surrender at Fort Cedars and the alleged Indian ‘massacre’ that followed.” He addresses the surrender claim in some depth offering up evidence that supports the charge but also explaining some of the reasons for turning over the fort to the enemy. It is an informative discussion but it clearly is not the author’s primary focus.
Mr. Anderson’s second goal is to take a fresh look at the involvement of the Indians and this is where the book shines. Relegated to a minor role by historians, this author makes them the central characters of the book. Indicated in the sub-title of the book—Indians’ First Battles in the Revolution—he writes that the Cedars action, not the 1776 Cherokee battles or 1777 Saratoga campaign and fighting in the Mohawk River valley, provided the first large-scale contribution to the war by American Indians. The Haudenosaunee Iroquois Six Nations, Seven Nations of Canada, and Mississauga become “the event’s most important participants—the Indian nations that shaped the strategic situation and sent hundreds of men to both sides of the battle.” Most notable, considerable space is spent explaining not only Indian culture and warfare practices, in general, but also addressing differences among the various nations, tribes, clans, and even villages. While many authors improperly lump American Indians into a single group, Mr. Anderson creates a setting with myriad subtleties giving a new and different vigor not only to the story of the Cedars but, also, to the conduct of the war in the Northern Theater. He takes the Indians from a shadowy, amorphous cluster and turns them into people.
The claim of a massacre is nicely addressed. The author defines the word and looks at its usage in the eighteenth century, then explains how it came to be applied to the Cedars. As part of the process, he discusses specific incidents, real and falsely claimed, that prompted the use of the expression. Interestingly, his research shows that, at the time, the British, not the Americans, first called the Cedars a massacre. It was later American historians that popularized the image of a massacre—done as a result of a negative image of Indians rather than a close investigation of facts. In the end, while a massacre may have been possible, the author explains how Indian practices and the British officers present prevented if from happening.
The final chapters of the book address the consequences of the Cedars. The commanding officers experienced courts-martial during a time when the American cause had suffered serious setbacks: someone had to pay for the loss at the Cedars. While many know how Congress reneged on the accord involving the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, the author discusses how Congress did the same in this instance a year-and-a-half earlier. During his research, the stories of a few American participants came to light and the author shares some of them, adding to the human side of the story. Each of these discussions adds support to Mr. Anderson’s claim that the Cedars should receive more attention.
More than a mere recounting of the causes, conduct, and consequences of the affair, Down the Warpath to the Cedars gives the reader a new perspective through which to look at the battle—that of the American Indians involved. I do wish the author had included a pronunciation guide for the names of the numerous Indigenous characters he mentions. Beyond that, the author has a quite readable writing style and the chapters are short, making the book easy to take in. This is a book that readers new to the subject as well as those familiar with it will enjoy and from which they will gain fresh insight. It actually left me wanting to further explore the campaign. I guess the author met his goal of attracting more attention to the Cedars.