Thursday, July 6, 2023

Mohawks and Other Woodland Warriors


Many wargame rules treat Native American warriors of the east according to Hollywood stereotypes: fast moving chaps armed with inferior trade muskets, ferocious in hand-to-hand combat. I beg to differ.


When Europeans first arrived, Indians did fight in wooden armor. Often a first open-order rank would shoot arrows, followed by the charge of a second rank in wooden armor. This changed when the warriors acquired firearms. In short order the warriors learned to hunt with firearms, discarding the armor. By the 18th century they had established a stealthy way of hunting and warfare. Depending on hunting for meat, the warriors became better shots than all but the most feral frontiersmen. They preferred to set ambushes and riddle the enemy at close range. On the attack, they would move quietly through the woods. When the enemy was spotted, a war whoop would let the warriors know it was time for action, while possibly spooking the foe. Warriors would zig-zag as they advanced, fighting tree to tree. If the enemy also took cover, they would rush opposing fighters who were reloading. If you are playing skirmish games, this is where the hand-to-hand would come in. Experienced Indian fighters knew to operate in pairs, one always loaded to hold off a rush. Herkimer’s militia managed to survive that way at the 1777 Battle of Oriskany. Warriors spent much of their time hunting, being stealthy in the woods. And often practicing throwing tomahawks accurately within 10-15 yards. Those few without firearms would have bows. 

Oriskany, 1777

Mass charges to contact would happen when the enemy was starting to give way. In 1779 upstate New York militia made the mistake of catching Joseph Brant’s Mohawk raiders at Minisink Ford. The Mohawks survived the volley fired as they crossed the stream. They then turned on the militia, who formed an open-order square in the woods. After a lengthy fire fight, warriors noted that both militiamen guarding one corner of the square had died. They formed up and rushed the corner, pouring into the center of the square. The militia were wiped out.


At the Monongahela in 1755, the final charge only happened when the British regulars started to break, after a prolonged firefight. This is not how you win a game with forces that shoot poorly and are murderous in melee, as many rules rate natives. St. Clair’s US Army was shattered in similar fashion at the Wabash in 1791, ripped apart by Indian sniping.


One early fight with Puritans did see a charge when warriors had been cornered, in an attempt to escape. Otherwise, charges by large numbers of Indians happened when the enemy had begun to turn tail.



In 1763, Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo and Huron warriors had Colonel Bouquet’s column in serious trouble. His force was flank companies, grenadiers and light infantry. Bouquet was the light infantry expert in the British Army. The first day saw the Ohio country natives slowly pick apart the British with incessant sniping. Bouquet tried a desperate stratagem the next day. A grenadier company made a feigned retreat. The warriors took the bait, pouring into the gap. They were charged on both flanks with bayonets. The grenadiers turned and joined the charge, hitting the warriors from three directions at once. The warriors broke, and Bouquet limped on with his numerous wounded.

 Bushy Run, 1763

Indian warriors fought as individuals rather than units. They came and went as they pleased. They fought for trophies and/or revenge. Prisoners would be taken, either to torture as vengeance for a slain friend or family member, or to be adopted to replace a fallen tribe member. Later, prisoners were mostly taken to be ransomed, as most of the soldiers and civilians taken near Fort Dearborn in 1812 were.  Other trophies might be scalps of those killed, or valuable property. Once a warrior had taken trophies, it was usual to head home. Large Indian victories would see most warriors head home. The venerable board game Mohawk featured this. Great victories would see the few French irregulars left alone on the battlefield by the tribesmen.


The Indians had a much smaller population that the colonists. If they suffered heavy casualties, their families might well starve. Indian warriors were not interested in suffering heavy losses. They were usually averse to storming forts, though many films show them coming over the walls until the reinforcements arrive in the nick of time. A rare exception was Fort Mims in 1813, in what is now Alabama. The fort hardly deserved the name, since the gate was jammed open and couldn’t be closed. The alcoholic fort commandant died trying to shut it when he realized the attack was on. Further, the loopholes in the palisade were at ground level. Red Stick warriors were able to stand at unguarded loopholes and fire at those within. Blockhouses to allow crossfire on the palisade had not been constructed, etc. Forts that were properly designed and garrisoned were another story.


Further on the bad shooter/fierce melee trope is this quote from Andrew Jackson, who exterminated warriors in job lots: “The cowardly dogs cannot stand a charge. It is by this way alone the Indians can be killed; to stand and fight they out-hide and out-shoot us.”  This, from a man who fought them first in skirmishes and then leading armies. Jackson had a great capacity for hate; for the British, who scarred his teen-age face, and the Indians, who might ally with the British and who were occupying the prime real estate in the South. And anyone else who crossed him or insulted his wife. But I digress. Even David Crockett (he didn’t like being called Davy) thought Jackson was too harsh on Indians.


When playing Rebels and Patriots, I class Indian warriors as Skirmishers. The Native class (fast, middling firepower, tough melee) seems a better fit for the Highlanders of the ’45, charging with their claymores, and Vendee Rebels with their pole-arms. If the Indians are a majority of the force, defending their homelands, I’d rate them as veterans, at worst average. If they are acting as auxiliaries for Americans or Europeans, I’d rate them as green since they were along for loot, not that motivated. Also depends on if their prophet(s) have them fired up.


Habitants and Highlanders gets it better, with Indian warriors having excellent morale in woods. Most battles of the French and Indian War were fought in deep woods. Your table should have woods as the default terrain, with perhaps a cleared field here and there, instead of the other way around.


Neil Patterson said...

Interesting post!
Just getting back into F&I War, revisiting an unfinished project from the 1980s....
The plan had been to use Mohawk as the basis for a campaign. At some stage acquired Habitants & Highlanders - the campaign game is similar to Mohawk. I've been musing using the two together...

Steve J. said...

Fascinating reading Vincent:).

Old Nick said...

Outstanding post and very impressive. I have copied it and saved it as you have described exactly how they fought rather then too many of us have them fight on our table top battles. Brilliant!

uiduach OB said...

I couldn't fault a word of that. You nailed it.

Donnie McGibbon said...

Cracking article, really spot on.