In the hundred years prior to the American Revolution, colonists fought other wars strictly against Indians. For example, in 1711 the Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina launched a surprise attack that began the Tuscarora War (1711-1713).
Wayne Lee has written an article comparing and contrasting the methods of Tuscarora and the Cherokees, two Native American tribes, as they defending their territories.
The Tuscarora were party to a war, approximately two years in length, against the English and some Indian tribes allied with the English. The centerpiece of the Tuscarora defensive strategy was a large fortification. Professor Lee’s description of the fortress is impressive, so powerful was its defense; when it was place under siege, it inflicted significant casualties on its attackers:
IN 1713, the second year of the “Tuscarora War” found the Tuscaroras facing continued joint English-Indian attacks on their villages along the Neuse River and Contentnea Creek in eastern North Carolina. Over the course of the war the Tuscaroras had progressively refined their traditional defensive palisades, culminating in the complex fortification near the town of Neoheroka. Now besieged in that fort, and threatened with ever closer trenches, siege works, cannon, and even an underground mine, the Tuscaroras resisted desperately. They burrowed out underground bunkers, dug countertrenches, made arrowheads of broken glass, and inflicted significant casualties on the attacking force with constant fire from both muskets and bows. The final furious assault by the English and their Indian allies took three days. They stormed the fort, set it afire, and killed or enslaved its nearly one thousand inhabitants.
Yet fall the fort did, and when it fell, the Tuscarora suffered significant casualties and many of them became POW’s. The fort had been operated by over one thousand Tuscarora, and all of them wound up either dead or doing forced labor.
By contrast, the Cherokee, made guerilla-style raids the centerpiece of their defensive strategy, and did not focus their efforts on building fortifications. After two years of fighting, the English were willing to negotiate a peace treaty; the Cherokee suffered only an estimated sixty to eighty deaths.
Lee points out that we cannot speak of a “monolithic ‘Indian way of war’” inasmuch as we see divergent approaches in the examples of the Cherokee and the Tuscarora. Various groups not only had different methods, but they were redesigning their methods continuously as they understood more about European methods. Lee gives examples to stress the multiplicity of forms used by the Indians: guerilla, large fortification, and large-scale battle formation are three of the modes he mentions. He points out the they were flexible enough to vary tactics as the situation demanded, e.g., between large and small groupings.
He argues that previous historians had, while diverging on their descriptions of Indian warfare style, converged in terms of portraying the Indians as have a limited palette. Lee contends that the Indians worked with a large array of options, being conversant with a number of different tactics, and that we cannot paint a narrow picture of the “Indian way of war.”
The Tuscarora War began with Indian attacks on settlers around the towns of Bath and New Bern. The Tuscarora targeted English settlers, as opposed to Germans and Swiss who were also in the area. Lee contends that the Indians were making a point with the attacks, and saw military actions as symbolic and as a warning to the English, whose settlements were encroaching ever more on Tuscarora territory. The English, Lee writes, responded very differently, seeing this as a declaration of war, and something rather like total war, which would not cease until there had been a decisive defeat of one of the belligerents. Thus the English responded with large military formations to the Tuscarora raiding parties. The Tuscarora withdrew to their massive fortification, Hancock’s Fort. Surrendering this under pressure, they withdrew to a second defensive position, a fortress at Neoheroka. This illustrates one weakness of the Tuscarora strategy – because it is organized around a defensive fortification, the only actions available are surrender or retreat to a different fortification. No positive or constructive course of action – attack or offensive – is available. The ultimate Tuscarora defeat, according to Lee, offers a “lesson,” that a “European-style siege” will “likely overcome a native fortification.” The Indians lacked artillery and other key pieces of technology; they also lacked experience. The Europeans had been perfecting siege techniques for centuries.
The outcome of the Tuscarora war caused the Tuscarora to seek safer residence elsewhere. They migrated northward and joined the Iroquois nation – it was at this time that the “five nations” of the Iroquois became the “six nations.” Millett and Maslowski write:
The Tuscarora Indians, an Iroquois tribe, moved northward after their defeat by the whites and were admitted to the confederacy in the early 1720s. Thereafter the Five Nations became the Six Nations.
Despite their experiences in the Tuscarora War – or perhaps because of them – the Tuscarora, when the Iroquois Nation dissolved because of conflicts among the tribes about whether or not to support the United States in its war for Independence against the British, chose to support the bid for independence:
In the New York – Pennsylvania region the war shattered the Iroquois Confederacy as the Oneidas and Tuscaroras supported the United States and the other four tribes assisted the British.
Like the Tuscarora, the Cherokee had a tradition of defensive warfare, and constructed significant fortifications, documented by the earlier Europeans to arrive in the area of South Carolina, North Carolina, and the areas that would become Georgia and Tennessee. This defensive pattern persisted into the early 1700’s, when the Cherokee allied with the English in various small conflicts. The Cherokee actually requested that the British built a fort in Cherokee territory, apparently so that, in case of attack, the Cherokee would have a place to which to flee for safety. In 1758 and 1759, relations between the English the Cherokee deteriorated seriously. Frictions arose first between individual settlers and small bands of Cherokee: on neither side did the combatants represent the official policy of their respective nations, and diplomacy continued well despite the small but continuous casualties adding up. Finally, an actual war erupted in 1760, when, according to Wayne Lee, the
attacks became serious enough to attract imperial attention, and General Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief in North America, dispatched a force of regulars to Charlestown in 1760, commanded by Colonel Archibald Montgomery, to mount a punitive expedition.
Having witnessed the defeat of the Tuscarora – they mentioned it in their negotiations with the British – the Cherokee adjusted their tactics and “shifted to a ‘new’ defensive strategy,” abandoning reliance upon major fortified strongholds, “avoid the approaching force, abandon the village,” hide in the woods or other natural geographic refuge,
and then harass the enemy — cutting off stragglers, and (for European enemies) targeting supply lines. The Cherokees had not entirely changed the role of war within their society, as the outbreak of the Cherokee War demonstrated. What they had done was to change their way of dealing with large-scale European military intrusion.
by means “of long-distance sniping.” This change of strategy worked well, and led to the very opposite of the situation in which the Tuscarora had found themselves: the Indians laid siege to Fort Loudoun in which British soldiers were put on the defensive, “eventually forcing its surrender.” The new tactics worked to the extent that compared to the Tuscarora, “the Cherokee had escaped major damage.” While there were some Cherokee casualties, they were minimal, “compared to the disastrous defense of Neoheroka.” After negotiating a peace with the British, “the Cherokees proceeded to rebuild their towns and replant their corn.”
Lee’s bigger point is that Indians had a number of approaches in their arsenal of military theory: Lee contends that it is too narrow speak of an “Indian way of war,” inasmuch as the ‘Native Americans’ were constantly adjusting their strategies and tactics. Lee writes that the events of the Tuscarora and Cherokee “reveal a more complex and flexible response.” When the Cherokee saw that “a palisaded village could become a deathtrap when surrounded by English muskets and put to the torch,” they turned to other familiar courses of action. Given the broad range of actions in these conflicts, Lee asserts that the Indians displayed “an extraordinary flexibility.”
The Tuscarora reliance on fortifications reminds one of the Maginot Line and its stunning failure to defend France. One might hazard a generalization that since the large-scale introduction of gunpowder, which has made sieges more lethal, major fortifications have been less secure. One would need to review more cases before asserting such an extrapolation; certainly, many fortresses fell to sieges before gunpowder. One could make an even broader generalization about the notion of defending a place at all, and whether such defense is quite likely to fail based on centuries of experience.