The British War Effort - The American Revolution
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King and Parliament. The disunity of the American war effort raises the question of why it succeeded. The simplest explanation is the folly of George III and his ministers in alienating not only the American Whigs but also the sentiment of a considerable body of English. Although the English Whigs gave little positive aid to the Americans, they did even less to assist the Crown in its struggle to subdue the colonial revolt. The divisions within the new republic were reflected in the British Parliament. The corrupt English election of 1774 had brought to Parliament men eager to obtain royal patronage. Their votes, in return for patronage, guaranteed the king a comfortable majority. But, although the king seemed to command vast support in his efforts to restore the empire, his supporters lacked the will and tenacity to make subjugation of America a central and unwavering objective.
The English Whigs and George III. For all practical purposes, the real talent of Parliament stood in opposition to the policies of George III. Edmund Burke, who combined oratory and philosophy; Chatham, who had created an empire and lived to see its disintegration; John Wilkes, the king's anathema; Charles James Fox, glorying in his brittle brilliance; and a whole galaxy of English Whigs mocked and denounced the king for his colonial policies. Though unable to prevent his undertaking these policies, they limited the king's ability to mount the war effort necessary to subdue the colonials.
British Public Opinion. More significantly, English public opinion was divided, and this division crucially affected the military and naval leaders of the British armed forces. Such commanders as Sir Jeffrey Amherst and Lord Frederick Cavendish, both of whom had made illustrious careers in the Seven Years' War, refused active commands. In the Navy, Admiral Keppel flatly refused an American command. A deluge of petitions from merchants and from cities expressed dismay at the conflict and protested "a civil war commenced in America by your Majesty's Commander in Chief." Cambridge University was only grudging in its support of the king. The division within the aristocracy of England carried over into the lower classes. Efforts to bring the army to 55,000 men failed when recruiting met with national indifference. "People are much divided in their sentiments about the Americans," read one grim report, ". . . but the bulk of the people of England and Ireland are strongly in their interest." In the end, public indifference caused the king to hire about 30,000 German mercenaries to fight his war. The divisions in colonial sentiment were more than balanced by the open hostility of a considerable number of Englishmen to the war against their transatlantic brethren.
Strategy of War. The loss of Boston had brought British withdrawal from New England. It also brought the need for a new strategy to subdue the colonies. The British resolved to exploit the loyalist centers in South Carolina and New York. The British scheme of reconquest was initially concentrated upon the seizure of New York City and a subsequent drive up the Hudson Valley, both operations to be carried out under General William Howe. A Canadian expedition under Sir Guy Carleton was to drive south until it made a juncture with Howe's forces. Lending naval support to this operation was William Howe's brother, Admiral Henry Howe. Both men expected a negotiated settlement, and had not yet been disabused in this respect by the spring of 1776.
The Early Years Of The Revolution
Defeat in New York. Although uncertain where the first British blow would fall, Washington thought it likely that New York City would be the immediate target. On March 18, he started moving troops into the area and ordered the men of the city to erect fortifications. The American army presented a motley appearance, with little sense of national identity, poor equipment, a thorough lack of discipline, and a tendency to confuse private advantage with patriotism. Washington was driven to plead that the soldiers sink their provincialism for the sake of the American cause. It was this army that confronted, on June 29, 1776, a fleet of more than one hundred British ships loaded with 10,000 men. General Howe led this advance force when it landed on Staten Island on July 2, and ten days later Admiral Howe arrived with an additional 150 troop transports. By August 12, the British had 32,000 men in the area of the city. During the preliminary preparations for battle the Howe brothers attempted to enter into negotiations with Washington, only to be rebuffed when they gave as the preliminary royal condition for a settlement the disbanding of all American armies and political organizations.
The Battle of Harlem Heights. The Howes opened their New York campaign on August 22, landing some 15,000 troops on Long Island. The Americans met the British attack with scarcely 8,000 troops, and those mainly raw militia commanded by the incompetent General John Sullivan. The British quickly outflanked and routed the American forces. Had General Howe shown less caution, he could probably have overrun the Brooklyn fortifications. As it was, his delay permitted Washington to retrieve the remainder of his army on the night of August 29-30, by retreating across the East River to Manhattan Island. The American commander was faced with a grim situation: his army had sustained 1,500 casualties in the Battle of Long Island and he faced the real risk of being cut off on Manhattan Island. On September 8, he decided to abandon the city to the British. Six days later Howe's forces landed on the island, swept aside the militia at Kip's Bay, and drove north until repulsed by Washington's forces at Harlem Heights. (It must be remembered, of course, that at this time the city of New York occupied only the tip of Manhattan Island; Harlem Heights was, in colonial terms, a considerable distance away.) Washington had gained a momentary respite, but he was completely on the defensive, uncertain where the British would strike next. Complicating his difficulties was the discovery that a sizable proportion of his army were "summer patriots."
Nathan Hale. As an unhappy Washington sought to extricate himself from a dangerous position, an American spy, Nathan Hale, was captured on September 21, while seeking information about the British forces on Long Island. Hale, who revealed a Spartan courage, was interrogated, found guilty of spying, dragged without ceremony to the execution post, and hanged.
In the midst of growing defeat, the example of Hale stirred American pride. Though it is not certain that Hale said "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country," it is certain that the contemporary ballad written about his deed, asserting that the trials of war held "no fear for the brave," helped to reassure many Americans. During the weeks that followed, Americans would have great need of such reassurances.
The Retreat from New York. The moves of the American army at this time were determined in large part by the actions of the cautious William Howe. He did not attack again until early October, when he began landing forces into what is now the Bronx. Washington, faced with a flanking movement, retreated north to White Plains. Once again Howe's habitual delay prevented a swift decision, and allowed Washington to build up sufficient strength to forestall a total American defeat. But a heavy loss was sustained by the Americans when Fort Washington, on the northern tip of Manhattan, surrendered to the British on November 17 with 2,800 prisoners.
The Invasion of New Jersey. The setback shook American morale and left Washington predicting gloomily, "The loss of such a number of officers and men, many of whom have been trained with more than common attention, will I fear be severely felt. But when that of the arms and accoutrements is added, much more so, and must be a farther incentive to procure as considerable a supply as possible for the new troops, as soon as it can be done." Two days later Lord Cornwallis led a British invasion of New Jersey and compelled the surrender of Fort Lee as Washington's army retreated in pell-mell fashion. Unable to halt the British advance on Philadelphia, Washington chose to retreat in the hope that this action would lull the enemy into a false sense of security. Colonial morale sank even lower when Jersey residents appeared in captains' companies to take the oath of allegiance to the king. Disaffection spread into Pennsylvania as the war approached the Delaware River. In the middle of December, Charles Lee, an overrated American general, fell into British hands, thus adding to Washington's dismay at signs of rapid disintegration within his army. Few could deny the grim poignancy of Tom Paine's lament, "These are the times that try men's souls."
Trenton. Now desperate, Washington, on Christmas night, 1776, struck suddenly at Trenton where a large force of Hessian mercenaries were billeted. Crossing the ice-laden Delaware in snow and sleet, the Americans achieved a complete tactical surprise. They captured almost five thousand prisoners at the cost of only five American casualties. The victory brought a resurgence of hope for the revolutionaries and a swift reaction from the British, who left Philadelphia to march on Trenton. But Cornwallis, reaching Trenton on January 2, 1777, delayed his attack, while Washington moved quickly to smash the British garrison and reinforcements at Princeton. He then retreated northward into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Though all but the eastern section of New Jersey had been retaken by Washington, the state was marked with the devastation of wanton destruction of property. For the rest of the winter, except for scattered British attacks on Connecticut towns, the war remained at a standstill.
The Campaign to Split the Colonies. Farther to the north the British prepared a three-pronged attack on upstate New York under General John Burgoyne. One army was to push southward along Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson Valley, another to operate in the Mohawk Valley, and a third, under Howe, to push up the Hudson Valley. The three armies would unite at Albany.
Late in June 1777, Howe withdrew his troops from New Jersey preparatory to his drive up the Hudson Valley from New York. Unfortunately for British expectations, Howe then decided on his own initiative that he could not help Burgoyne unless Washington left New Jersey to join the northern revolutionary army in obstructing the British drive from Canada. On June 17, Burgoyne and his army of 7,000, unaware of Howe's failure to proceed, launched their march toward disaster.
The Fall of Ticonderoga. The Americans suffered the first blow when Ticonderoga, overlooking the western approaches to Lake Champlain, fell in early July. Once again the American armies had to retreat, hoping to lure the enemy into a blunder. Their hopes were answered when Burgoyne made an overland advance on Fort Edward, where the Americans were encamped, rather than making his approach by way of Lake George. For twenty-four days the British army floundered through bog and stream, obstructed by trees felled in its path, to reach Fort Edward, only twenty-three miles from Ticonderoga. As Burgoyne inched along, the British force under Colonel Barry St. Leger in the Mohawk Valley reached Fort Schuyler, which barred the road to Albany, only to retreat precipitously when its Indian allies deserted. Not only was the tactical situation rapidly becoming worse, but the advancing Burgoyne had to face an increasingly critical shortage of supplies. The Americans under General Schuyler had resorted to a scorched-earth policy in opposing Burgoyne's southward march.
Saratoga. Finally made aware that Howe had failed to advance up the Hudson and planned instead to attack Pennsylvania, and increasingly aware of his own precarious position, Burgoyne resolved to push on to Albany. At Bemis Heights the two armies (the Americans now led by General Horatio Gates who had been sent to replace Schuyler because of the New Englanders' dissatisfaction with the latter's policies) met to open the momentous battle of Saratoga. A sharply fought engagement at Freeman's Farm ended in a draw, but British losses were so heavy that Burgoyne could not readily replace them. At the same time a bitter dispute over strategy between Benedict Arnold, who had served gallantly in the battle, and the commander, Horatio Gates, resulted in Arnold's removal from command.
The Surrender of Burgoyne. By early October, Burgoyne's army was in a serious plight. Only swift aid from the British forces in and around New York seemed capable of supplying the relief needed. Sir Henry Clinton, however, uneasy about his position in New York, moved with extreme caution in opening a drive on Albany. Since he met with immediate success it is possible that, had he thrown his full force into action, Clinton could have driven all the way to Albany to effect a juncture with the trapped Burgoyne. As it was, Fort Edward had fallen to the Americans, and the British, now surrounded, dug in on Bemis Heights. There, on October 7, Burgoyne's 5,000 men were attacked by Gates' 11,000. Before the day was finished, the Americans had breached his lines and Burgoyne had retreated to the heights about Saratoga. No longer able to resist, Burgoyne asked for terms. Gates was surprisingly generous. Under the Saratoga Convention of October 16, the British surrendered and were permitted to march to Boston for embarkation to Britain on condition that they not be used again to fight on the North American continent. A similar release was granted to Canadian troops. Though the war was far from ended, the Americans had won a major victory, one which established Britain's inability to subdue the interior regions of her former American colonies. And the British also learned that hopes of a loyalist uprising were futile.
The French Intervene. Once the British colonies rebelled, all Europe wondered whether a renewed war between France and Britain was in the offing The French still smarted from their disastrous defeat in the Seven Years' War, but it was questionable whether they were prepared to identify themselves with a rebellion against royal authority. It was apparent, in any case, that the French would aid the Americans only if they were convinced that such a move was in their own clear interest. The Americans, on their part, realized from the outset that French aid and intervention might prove decisive in converting the struggle from a prospective draw to an outright victory. Beginning in 1775 Congress delegated to Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, John Adams, and John Jay the task of obtaining outright assistance from the French.
American Reservations on French Intervention. Though they were eager to obtain the alliance of the French, there existed a strong reservation among Americans; they did not wish to enter into any alliance which might someday involve them in any future wars in Europe. Nevertheless, well before independence was formally declared, American feelers were put out to test French sentiment on an alliance. As it was, the French had watched with increasing interest the dispute between Britain and her colonies. The central principle of French foreign policy emerged when it became clear that the destruction of Britain's American empire would permit re-establishment of the power balance upset by the total British victory of 1763.
Early French Assistance. In June 1776 France began covertly to supply the colonials with munitions and other necessities. Silas Deane, disguised as a merchant in the Indian trade, began a lively import of munitions and simultaneously ran an agency recruiting European officers to assist the American war effort. In September, Deane was joined in France by Franklin and Arthur Lee. The presence of Franklin added immense prestige to the American delegation since he enjoyed an overwhelming reputation among French intellectuals. He, as John Adams grudgingly remembered, "was considered . . . a citizen of the world, a friend to all men and an enemy to none."
The news of the American victory at Saratoga led France to decide upon open intervention. As the Comte de Vergennes, French foreign minister, expressed it, "The power that will first recognize the independence of the Americans will be the one that will reap the fruits of this war."
On January 7, 1778, the French royal council agreed to a friendship and trade treaty with the United States, and on February 6 they entered into a full alliance. With the latter treaty France committed herself to the complete independence of the Americans, and convinced the British that the time had come to seek reconciliation. But negotiations failed when the British first insisted on parliamentary supremacy and then would not acknowledge the fact of American independence. Britain's final proposals, carried by the Carlisle Commission, provided for the abandonment of a standing army in peacetime and the amendment of colonial charters only at the request of the assemblies. In addition the British agreed either to grant Americans representation in Parliament or to accept the Continental Congress as a permanent institution, and to make judicial appointments contingent on the good behavior of those appointed. Similar proposals, had they been made three years earlier, would have averted the revolution. Now they seemed a weak device to persuade Americans to relinquish a nearly attained independence.
The Campaign in the Middle Colonies. While Burgoyne floundered toward disaster at Saratoga, Howe prepared to seize Philadelphia. Anticipating ready assistance from the city's Tories, he hoped to gain control of Pennsylvania, sever the new republic, and prevent Washington from aiding Gates in opposing Burgoyne. As it was, only a strenuous campaign permitted Howe to secure control of the lower Delaware Valley by November. Extreme caution led him to launch his campaign against Philadelphia by way of Chesapeake Bay rather than directly up the Delaware. On September 11, Howe inflicted a heavy defeat on Washington at Brandywine. Further disaster struck the revolutionaries when several hundred American troops were taken unawares at Paoli, Pennsylvania, on September 21, 1777. Five days later Philadelphia fell; and the Continental Congress, after conferring dictatorial powers on Washington, fled to Lancaster. On October 4, the American forces opened a surprise attack upon Howe's troops encamped at Germantown. After early gains, the Americans panicked and sustained heavy losses. Both forces now settled into winter quarters, the British in the comfort of Philadelphia and the Americans in the wretched misery of Valley Forge.
The Battle of Monmouth. Early in June 1778 the British, commanded by Clinton (who had replaced Howe), withdrew from Philadelphia and retreated across New Jersey. The British intended to concentrate their forces at New York to meet an anticipated joint American and French attack. Washington opened a pursuit and finally, on June 28, ordered an attack upon the British as they prepared to withdraw from Monmouth Courthouse. General Charles Lee, ordered by Washington to move against the British rear, retreated instead, permitting the British to wheel about and attack first. The ensuing battle ended in a draw. Lee was later tried by a court-martial and removed from the army. In early July, Clinton completed his withdrawal to New York without further incident.
Benedict Arnold and Major Andre. The arrival of a French fleet under Count d'Estaing signaled a joint Franco-American campaign against Newport, Rhode Island. The venture failed when the British sent a fleet of their own to challenge the effort. Sporadic action during the early part of 1779 brought a signal American victory at Stony Point, New York, when Anthony Wayne overpowered British fortifications guarding the west shore of the Hudson. In late August, Major Henry Lee achieved a swift victory when he overwhelmed the British garrison at Paulus Hook (now Jersey City). These events were overshadowed by the treason of Benedict Arnold, an ambitious general who put personal gain above patriotism and entered into negotiations with the British to surrender West Point, of which he was commander. His plans went awry when Major John Andre, the English officer with whom he had negotiated, was captured. Though Arnold escaped, Andre paid with his life. The treason of Arnold was symptomatic of a growing dissension within American ranks. Sporadic mutiny erupted as the Continental forces protested the paucity of their food, the absence of pay, the ragged condition of their clothes, and the seeming indifference of Congress to their plight. Only such prompt action as the execution of mutinous ringleaders in three Jersey regiments prevented these protests from getting out of hand.