Benjamin Church’s Approach to War

Benjamin Church’s Approach to War

The following is taken from Thomas Church, The History of Philip’s War, Commonly called the Great Indian War of 1675 and 1676. The work was put together from the journals and papers of Benjamin Church by his son Thomas and first published in 1716. The page numbers refer to the facsimile copy of the 1829 edition published by Heritage Book, Inc (Bowie, Maryland, 1989)

During King Philip’s War, Church had a difficult time getting his white soldiers to understand the purpose of woods warfare. For example, he set up an ambush, but “Captain Fuller’s party being troubled with the epidemical plague of lust after tobacco, must strike fire to smoke it. And thereby discovered themselves to a party of the enemy coming up to them; who immediately fled with great precipitation.” (p.38)

On another occasion, Church and his company, consisting of only 20 men, found themselves trapped along the shore at Sandy Point in Rhode Island. The plan had been for Church to meet up with another part of the English force with the boats. They saw boats down the river and tried to signal them. “Mr. Church orders his men to strip to their white shirts, that the islanders might discover them to be Englishmen.” (42) As the firefight continued, they found themselves running low on powder. “When they were immediately upon this beset with multitudes of Indians, who possessed themselves of every rock, stump, tree or fence, that was in sight, firing upon them without ceasing, while they had no other shelter but a small bank and a bit of a water fence.” Church called to a nearby boat for them to send their canoe ashore to pick them up, but they wouldn’t, “which some of Mr. Church’s men perceiving, began to cry out, for God’s sake to take them off, for their ammunition was spent! &c. Mr. Church being sensible of the danger of the enemy’s hearing their complaints, and being acquainted with the weakness and scantiness of their ammunition, fiercely called to the boat’s master, and bid him either send his canoe ashore, or else be gone presently, or he would fire on him.” The boat left, but another arrived and pulled them out. (43-45)

Church always used mixed forces of Indians and whites. They were kept in separate companies, not directly mixed in a single unit. Church watched the Indians, and asked them about their methods during King Philip’s War. “Captain Church inquired of some of the Indians that were become his soldiers, how they got such advantage, often, of the English in their marches through the woods? They told him, that the Indians gained great advantage of the English by two things: they always took care in their marches and fights, not to come two thick together; but the English always kept in a heap together; so that was as easy to hit them, as to hit a house. The other was, that if at any time they discovered a company of English soldiers in the woods, they knew they were all, for the English never scattered, but the Indians always divided and scattered.” (108-9)

In operation he often separated the whites and Indians. One time while in pursuit of the enemy, Church “followed them by the track, putting his Indians in the front … He gave them orders to march softly, and upon hearing a whistle in the rear, to sit down, until further order; or, upon discovery of any of the enemy, to stop.” (112) Another time he turned it into a contest, to see which group would get the most enemy, the Indians or the whites (it came out pretty much a tie).

Another occasion during King Philip’s War shows how Church’s men were not exactly doing line marching and volley fire. Church divided his force, setting up one part on the backside of an Indian village near a swamp, and ordered the other half to attack at dawn and flush the enemy out. His instructions to the attacking company commander were “to be very careful in his approach to the enemy, and be sure not to show himself, until by daylight they might see and discern their own men from the enemy; told him also, that his custom in like cases, was, to creep with his company, on their bellies, until they came as near as they could; and that as soon as the enemy discovered them, they would cry out, and that was the word for his men to fire and fall on. He directed them, that when the enemy should start and take into the swamp, that they should pursue with speed; every man shouting and making what noise he could; for he would give orders to his ambuscade to fire on any that should come on silently.” (122)

Church would take this experience with him into King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War. The crucial aspect of woods warfare as far as Church was concerned was to keep spread out, not to bunch up. In 1689 in arrived at what is now Portland, ME (called by Church “Casco” and most records “Falmouth” until the end of the 18th century) just as they were under attack. He landed his forces and joined the fight. Unfortunately, when they landed the casks of ammunition they found that they were musket balls and wouldn’t fit the bores of his soldier’s guns. So the townspeople had to hammer them into slugs to reduce the diameter. At one point discusses his movements in the battle. “There being but one Englishman with him [Church], he bid his Indian soldiers scatter, and run very thin, to preserve themselves and be the better able to make a discovery of the enemy.” (169) At the time this would be called the Battle of Brackett’s Woods, but is now called the Battle of Deering Oaks, due a park of that same name.

Church was always rough and ready in action, and expected his soldiers to be the same. No standing around - after all, your life was on the line. For example, “The Major ordered those that were with him, all to clap down and cock their guns” (192) On another occasion in 1704, Church ordered “the remainder of the army, (being landed,) with myself and the other officers, to march up into the woods with a wide front, and to keep at a considerable distance; for that if they should run in heaps, the enemy would have the greater advantage. And further directing them, that is possible, they should destroy the enemy with their hatchets and not to fire a gun. This order I always gave at landing; telling them the inconveniency of firing, in that it might be, first, dangerous to themselves, they being many of them young soldiers. And it would alarm the enemy, and give them the opportunity to make their escape.” (264)

Church got into some trouble with Boston politicians in 1704 when they learned that he had ordered the killing of Frenchman. Church described the incident this way: “[I] saw a little hut or wigwam, with a crowd of people around about it, which was contrary to my former directions. I asked them what they were doing? They replied, that there were some of the enemy in a house and would not come out. I asked what house? They said, ‘A bark house.’ I hastily bid them pull it down, and knock them in the head, never asking whether they were French or Indians; they being all enemies alike to me. And passing then to them, and seeing them in great disorder, so many of the army in a crowd together, acting so contrary to my command and direction, exposing themselves and the whole army to utter ruin, by their so disorderly crowding thick together. Had an enemy come upon them in that interim, and fired a volley amongst them, they could not have missed a shot.” (265-6)