The Magazine

Dispirit of ’76

The American Revolution as seen from the other side.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In his groundbreaking history of the American War of Independence from the British standpoint, The War for America (1964), Piers Mackesy argued, “To understand the war, one must view it with sympathy for the Ministers in their difficulties, and not with the arrogant assumption that because they were defeated they were incompetent, and that all their actions proceeded from folly.” 

Sir William Howe

Sir William Howe

Following Mackesy’s lead, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy revisits the men who sought to recapture America, and finds that there was much to admire in their otherwise ill-starred endeavors. Here, in this superb study, are fascinating sketches of George III, Lord North, Lord Germain, Lord Rodney, and Lord Sandwich, as well as of the Howe brothers, Sir John Burgoyne, Sir Henry Clinton, and Lord Cornwallis. According each subject his own biographical narrative enables O’Shaughnessy to interpret events from a multitude of perspectives, giving the book a layered, novel-like richness.    

Its central contention is that we can only appreciate the character and scale of the American victory if we appreciate the skill and resourcefulness of the British war effort, even though the strategic and tactical skills of Britain’s gifted commanders were finally no match for the war’s myriad logistical difficulties—or the more fundamental difficulty of trying to win back the loyalty of those convinced, as Benjamin Franklin told Admiral Howe in July 1776, that 

It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty, burnt our defenceless Towns in the midst of winter, excited the Savages to massacre our Farmers, and our Slaves to murder their Masters, and is even now bringing foreign mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood. These atrocious Injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country we once held so dear.

Here Franklin exploded not only the myth that America was full of loyalists but the concomitant myth that if only Britain waged the war fiercely enough the colonists would surrender. George III never left off believing that the colonists “will be lions, whilst we are lambs; but if we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly prove very meek.” Edmund Burke might insist, “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.” But for the king, such magnanimity would only embolden the seditious minority tyrannizing his loyal American subjects, and he would not hear of it.  

If resolve characterized George III, irresolution characterized his prime minister, Lord North, who was convinced that he was not the man to salvage an unwinnable war, even if it was crucial to Britain’s imperial prestige. O’Shaughnessy’s portrait of this ungainly, popeyed, ingenious figure is brilliant. While he takes North to task for failing to unite the cabinet around an agreed policy, he extols his management of the huge war debt, which went from £127 million in 1775 to £232 million at war’s end. O’Shaughnessy also praises North’s “unalterable suavity” in debate. As one can see from Hansard, his jousts with the opposition were marvelously deft.  

The most ambivalent of the king’s commanders were the Howe brothers—Major General William Howe, who had scaled the heights of Abraham and captured Quebec in 1759, and Lord Admiral Richard Howe, who had fired the first shot of the Seven Years’ War from H.M.S. Dunkirk and become a pioneering expert on amphibious warfare, the one thing that might have saved Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown. Like Burke, the Howe brothers were convinced that the British in America were at war with their own principles. As Burke argued in his great speech, On Conciliation with America (1775), “Deny [the colonists] .  .  . participation in freedom, and you break that sole bond, which originally made, and must preserve the unity of the empire.”  

When the Howe brothers arrived in New York, their chances of victory were hardly negligible. With 32,000 troops to George Washington’s 19,000, they certainly had numerical superiority. General Howe was initially successful in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, but shortage of food and supplies prevented him from following up the victory. Howe also claimed that he held back to avoid estranging what he thought was the loyalist majority in America. Yet it was not British might but British plunder that turned Americans against the redcoats and gravely undermined the professional standards of Howe and his colleagues. When Franklin upbraided the British for their “barbarity and cruelty,” he was attacking those professional pretensions at their tenderest point.