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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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.”