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.

This reveals an interesting irony. If there was one thing that united the disparate commanders of the British Army, it was pride in their professionalism. Lifelong students of warfare, many went on to distinguished military careers after their defeat in America. In hindsight, their contempt for amateurism is surprising; after all, in nearly every field of endeavor, Georgian England teemed with outstanding amateurs. Yet it was not until Britain’s professional commanders met the Americans in the field that they began to appreciate how amateurs could revolutionize the waging of war. For General Burgoyne, the consummate professional, the colonists might be led by “profligate hypocrites,” whose political views were animated by “sophistry and frenzy,” but they exhibited “great ability” in the field, especially when they transformed their militiamen into marksmen whose accuracy was a continual bane to the more conventionally trained British. The colonial amateurs also brought an extraordinary pertinacity to their warmaking, which was part and parcel of their devotion to liberty. As General Nathanael Greene was fond of saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”  

Lord George Germain, who succeeded Lord Dartmouth as colonial secretary, was intent on winning the war before the French entered it by isolating revolutionary New England and moving the conflict south, where he expected large numbers of loyalists to help him secure and extend his victories. If the southern campaign failed, Germain feared, France might install Washington at the head of what would amount to a French dictatorship. 

As it happened, Britain’s imperial commitments in Canada, Ireland, and the British Caribbean prevented her from giving her commanders the troops and supplies they needed to repulse this decisive French factor. Moreover, as Washington recognized, naval superiority would prove the “pivot upon which everything turned.” Had Lord Rodney prevented the Comte de Grasse from controlling the Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis would never have been trapped at Yorktown.    

Apropos the loyalists who were such a linchpin of British strategy, O’Shaughnessy conjectures that only 16 percent of the colonists could be described as loyalist, hailing mostly from the Hudson Valley, southern Pennsylvania, New York, and the southern frontier between Georgia and Virginia. Still, they were a sizable contingent in an imperial war that often resembled a civil war, and during hostilities, some 19,000 loyalists fought for the British.  

Since the British Army never accorded loyalists equal status, however, their loyalty was always questionable, even if they were prepared to defy the retaliatory wrath of their rebel neighbors. They also resented Britain’s enlisting Indians and slaves, and thought the crown’s soldiers irreligious. Even in the 18th century, the “Bible-faced Yankees” took their religious faith seriously.  

Germain’s appointment of Sir Henry Clinton as Howe’s successor was misguided: He ought to have chosen someone with more daring. An overly cautious, querulous man, Clinton was convinced that he had been set up for failure. This obsessive defeatism was exacerbated by feelings of resentment towards Cornwallis, who treated his colleague with seigniorial disdain. Still, Clinton orchestrated a brilliant siege of Charleston, which gave the British one of their greatest victories. Later, he would regret not resigning after Charleston: Had he done so, he would have been known as Britain’s greatest commander in America. Instead, he sailed for New York and left Cornwallis in charge of a southern command that would culminate in disaster.

O’Shaughnessy’s portrait of Lord Cornwallis is riveting. Here we see that, prior to his defeat at Yorktown, the ruthless general had an impressive victory at the Battle of Camden, at which General Horatio Gates lost 1,000 men to Cornwallis’s 68 killed and 256 wounded. Weeks before Yorktown, Cornwallis was still the most feared of all Britain’s commanders. Yet, like so many of his colleagues, he could never keep what he conquered. Indeed, he even described himself in one letter as “quite tired of marching about the Country in Quest of Adventure.” 

Then, too, he showed a pathological disregard for his men, ordering them to divest themselves of their packs, which left them not only without food and tents, but boots! That he meant to transform them into a light force to prevent Nathanael Greene from teaming up with the legendary Daniel Morgan hardly justified this sadism. Henry Clinton rightly complained that his colleague was behaving “like a barbaric Tartar.” In 10 weeks Cornwallis lost 4,000 men. When it came to what the French called la petite guerre, or warfare by small skirmishes where the object was to wear down the enemy, the Americans always proved the superior force.   

In retrospect, Yorktown seems not so much a miscalculation on the part of a hapless commander—surprised by a joint American and French land and naval force that outnumbered him two-to-one—but a kind of providential delivery. In his memoirs, Clinton claimed that Cornwallis did not do enough to save himself at Yorktown, a classic siege that would have delighted Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. Cornwallis countered that he chose not to fight his way out at Yorktown because he was waiting for relief from Clinton—which, of course, never came. (And, after all, it was Clinton who had ordered Cornwallis to capture the tobacco port in the first place.) 

Yet the likelier explanation might be that this bedeviled man had had enough and yearned to be extricated from an impossible war. As the French mortars exploded over his head, he might have said to himself what another British officer had told a newspaper earlier in the war: “Human exertion is a limited thing. Remember .  .  . we do not contend with an army but with a country.” And in Cornwallis’s case, the enemy included the Comte de Rochambeau, who had marched 400 miles down from New York with 7,800 troops, including some of the cleverest artillery officers in Europe.   

After nine days of incessant artillery fire—and 156 dead, 326 wounded—Cornwallis capitulated. Although some in the colonies thought he should be executed for war crimes, Cornwallis was allowed to return to British headquarters in New York. Before departing, however, he was sumptuously fêted by his American conquerors, who vied with one another to host their defeated adversary. Even in the newly independent America they loved a lord. That Cornwallis received a hero’s welcome when he returned to England proved that this was a love shared by his countrymen. He would go on to become both governor-general of India and lord lieutenant of Ireland, and, after his death, the Dictionary of National Biography summed him up as one of the most successful proconsuls of Britain’s second empire: “If not a man of startling genius, he was a clear-sighted statesman and an able general, as well as an upright English gentleman.”

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and His Family