Clash of Cultures: The Wilderness War

Up to this point in the Gideon Hawke Series I have explored the fighting between Americans and British, Americans and Germans, and Patriots and Loyalists. I have even delved into the seedy underworld of espionage. Now, as I work on Gideon Hawke #4, A Constant Thunder, I have for the first time crossed the threshold into cross-cultural warfare: Americans versus Native Americans.



Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea): Mohawk leader

When British General John Burgoyne launched his campaign from Canada down the Hudson, a wave of Native Americans moved in advance of his army. While Burgoyne made some efforts to put constraints on these warriors, his limitations ran contrary to the fundamental reasons why Native Americans went to war, because the Native American concept of warfare was very different from the European model. Operating in small bands under a “democratically” recognized leader, these men joined the campaign both for profit and to prove their worth as warriors. They valued individual valor, and unit discipline was an alien concept. Furthermore, many aspects of their culture, such as the taking of scalps, or the abduction or torture of captives, were abhorrent to Americans, as was their tendency to appear out of the wilds and descend upon isolated families or towns. That said, from our distant perspective it is easy to see that many tribes could in many ways be considered “progressive;” while they might be intolerant of outsiders, among their own people they were remarkably tolerant, and women had a prominent role in governance and strategy. Their brutality in warfare and the underlying values of Native American culture were so alien to the culture of transplanted Europeans that their motivations were rarely understood except in the context of their being considered “savages.”


This explains why the specter of Native American attack spread panic across the northern States, but also galvanized resistance to Burgoyne’s invasion. As a result, substantial militia and Continental forces moved to reinforce the American forces in the Hudson Valley. One of the units which marched north to challenge Burgoyne and his Indians, and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the campaign, was Morgan’s Rifle Corps.

One of the Rifle Corp’s first tasks when it arrived in the Albany area was to take to the wilds of the Hudson Valley and defeat the bands of Native Americans and Loyalists who still dominated “No Man’s Land.” At that point, in the wake of the American successes at the Battle of Bennington and Oriskany (the latter arguably an American defeat, but one which caused heavy losses to the tribesmen), Native Americans were beginning to abandon Burgoyne, but were still very active. Thus the Rifle Corps soon found itself in numerous small but vicious encounters with Native Americans; this was a clash of cultures as much as a clash of arms. Many if not most of Morgan’s men had experience in Native American warfare, so they knew what they were getting into. They knew that their foe was at home in this strange, wild environment, and that the fighting would be bitter, close, and to the death.

As I write A Constant Thunder, this is the type of warfare in which Gideon Hawke has found himself. It will challenge his sense of right and wrong. It will test his endurance. It will force him to compromise on his ideals. He will have to quickly learn the ways of his enemies and beat them at their own game. If he succeeds it will be quite an accomplishment, but it will only be a preamble. Death, and an alien world, may lurk in the woods, but destiny awaits at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights.

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