Redcoat Leaders Weren't All Dolts
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 480 pp., $37.50.
THE VICTORS in wars may write the history of those wars, as the cliché says, but history usually manages to delve into the perspectives, interests and exploits of the defeated as it pieces together, over time, a complete picture. A vast literature on the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War and both world wars includes such explorations of the defeated to explain how events unfolded and what factors drove them. But no similar body of literature has emerged to survey the British side of the American Revolution. British historians neglected a defeat that complicated the story of their country’s rise to imperial greatness, while Americans operated within the prejudices and assumptions of nineteenth-century patriotic writers. Later attempts to debunk their accounts rarely challenged the overarching—and overly deterministic—narrative of how the United States gained its independence.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy has set out to correct this oversight. He argues that the British perspective is “essential for making the war intelligible.” British actions, he notes, set the terms for American responses. Resistance to policy made in London drove the escalating tensions that led to open conflict in 1775. British military operations to recover authority over the rebellious colonies then determined how the Americans waged their war for independence. The conflict sprang from a larger dispute over the nature of sovereignty within the British-Atlantic world during the 1760s with origins reaching far beyond the thirteen mainland colonies. A struggle for American independence produced a global war after 1778. Clearly, British outlooks and actions shaped the conflict at every stage, so bringing them into the story provides a fuller understanding of a complex event.
Britain’s role in the American Revolution also connects with larger questions about policy and strategy. Partly a crisis of imperial overstretch, the war led to an almost-unprecedented projection of military power overseas. Neither Britain nor any other European power had deployed so large an army in the Americas. A larger proportion of the Royal Navy operated far beyond home waters than at any point in British naval history until the endgame of World War II. But in the 1770s, unlike 1945, Britain faced two naval rivals in Europe. The American resistance of regulars and partisans, along with limited local supplies, forced commanders to rely on logistical support from the British Isles; this involved voyages of three to four months. The military effort included conventional operations to regain territory and defeat the Continental army as well as counterinsurgency efforts to suppress resistance. Domestic politics and financial concerns, however, precluded full mobilization until the war had escalated beyond America.
O’Shaughnessy uses the intertwined stories of key decision makers to explain how Britain lost a war that, on paper, it should have won. The resulting collective biography deftly captures an era along with the men who directed the struggle that defined their time. The big players included George III, America’s last king; his prime minister, Lord North; three generals; two admirals; and the ministers directing military and naval affairs from London. Thus does the book capture the war from numerous standpoints, exploring multiple factors guiding decisions and the many constraints and obstacles faced by British leaders. O’Shaughnessy argues that the British government persisted in believing it would win partly because its army never suffered any series of linear defeats.
He also shatters entrenched stereotypes of British officials as incompetent and hidebound men whose failings sprang from an antiquated and inflexible aristocratic culture. Rather than hapless figures doomed to lose, they were, says O’Shaughnessy, “capable men who fought a closely contested war” and suffered afterward from comparison to opponents lionized as giants. Preoccupation with their failings masks the reality that the war’s outcome remained in doubt right up to Britain’s Yorktown defeat. It also diminishes the accomplishment of George Washington and other Americans in triumphing against tremendous odds. Greatness, after all, hardly lies in achieving the inevitable.
O’Shaughnessy shows British commanders as capable, often-innovative men who led ably. John Burgoyne, whose showmanship and drawing-room manner later made him “the popular stereotype of the men who lost America,” forged a career on merit as a creative and daring officer. Distinguished service in the Seven Years’ War won him a coveted assignment to raise a new cavalry regiment, which he later led in a successful Portuguese campaign that brought further laurels. A 1766 pamphlet he wrote comparing European armies “showed his ability to think conceptually about warfare.” He expected his officers to study their profession by keeping up with literature on military affairs and be able to perform any task required of their men. Burgoyne’s professional ethos, sharpened by ambition, typified British officers of the day far more than his theatrical personal style.
William Howe and Henry Clinton, selected for their commands by George III over more senior generals, also owed their commands in America to merit rather than patronage or seniority. Like Burgoyne, Howe had extensive experience training soldiers; he had developed light-infantry tactics against the French in North America. Lord George Germain, who directed the war from London as colonial secretary, considered Howe unsurpassed in his understanding of past wars and his recognition of the need for irregular tactics in America. Clinton, who had served under some of the great commanders of the age, knew America well, as his father had been governor of New York. He also was one of the most assiduous readers in the British Army. Lord Cornwallis, another veteran of the Seven Years’ War, had studied in a military academy at Turin before proving his merits in the field. These generals approached the conflict with considerable experience and an understanding of the challenges it posed.
Britain’s political leaders also displayed more impressive qualities than their subsequent reputations have suggested. With a lively interest in science, literature and the arts, George III had a breadth of culture and inquisitiveness that characterized the Enlightenment. A firm sense of duty sharpened his attention to detail. Ministers designed policy, but O’Shaughnessy describes the king as restraining more extreme measures before the crisis broke out and acting as a voice of caution. The king also showed an informed understanding of military and naval affairs, and his sensitivity to Europe’s diplomatic balance strengthened his grasp of the issues at stake in America. He articulated the case for war and the consequences of failure more cogently than his ministers.
Lord North, history’s main scapegoat for Britain’s eventual defeat, had stabilized domestic politics after becoming prime minister in 1770. An awkward, ungainly appearance made him an easy target for satire. Horace Walpole, North’s contemporary in Parliament, quipped that the obese, nearsighted prime minister had the air of a blind trumpeter. But his mastery of public finance and ability to defend policy in parliamentary debate showed him to be no joke. North faced aggressive questioning in the House of Commons at least three nights a week, on average, during the parliamentary session, and it took considerable talent to survive, let alone succeed, in such a rough-and-tumble environment. Germain and Lord Sandwich, who directed the Admiralty, also brought wide military and administrative experience to war management and proved effective in handling logistical problems.
BUT, IF the men who lost America were neither incompetent nor inexperienced, where did they go wrong? An answer to that question requires that we go back to the origins of the American Revolution, which lie beyond O’Shaughnessy’s book. Yet they shaped the problem his protagonists faced. With its sweeping victory in the Seven Years’ War, which secured British supremacy in North America and removed the French from Canada, Britain now had both an opportunity and an imperative to reorganize the patchwork structure of colonial governance. But asserting parliamentary authority through tighter enforcement of laws governing trade and taxation generated friction with entrenched colonial interests. New questions about the meaning of liberty also drove Britain and its colonies apart. George III and his British subjects believed parliamentary sovereignty guaranteed ordered liberty and the rule of law, while colonists insisted the assemblies they elected had authority independent of Westminster. Allegiance to the crown, they insisted, did not mean subordination to Parliament. A host of differences on specific practical matters, such as taxation, exacerbated the conflict over governmental structures.
Rather than strengthening British authority, imperial reform efforts made consensus more elusive. Spain, as British historian J. H. Elliott has pointed out, incited rebellions in its South American colonies during the same period through similar efforts to tighten control and more effectively mobilize resources. Austria’s Joseph II faced revolt across the Hapsburg domains, particularly in Brabant and Flanders, when his reforms abrogated local privileges and undermined elites who clung to them. Thus, the growing tension within Britain’s Atlantic empire fit within a larger dynamic of conflict between central governments and distant provinces.
Taxation sharpened the disputes on several levels. Servicing wartime debt and the costs of governing the empire demanded funds that strained Britain’s existing system. The old tax on land burdened the elites who controlled Parliament, while consumption taxes sparked plebeian outrage. Both imposed a politically unacceptable cost that made the 1760s an especially turbulent decade in terms of domestic politics. A succession of short ministries could not pursue coherent policies, but they faced growing pressure to deflect opposition at home by making the colonies pay, which meant collecting existing taxes more efficiently and imposing new duties. Governments also sought to keep down expenses, particularly for the army and navy. The result provoked colonial resistance while reducing the government’s ability to impose its will by force. Preoccupation with domestic squabbles and imperial reform left Britain without European allies to hold France back through military pressure.
Order broke down in the thirteen North American colonies during the early 1770s as organized protests created alternative centers of authority beyond those sanctioned by the British crown. The British forces in the colonies, commanded by General Thomas Gage, operated under the control of civilian colonial officials. Gage spoke of dispersing Boston rioters like a Dublin mob, but he could not act until magistrates gave authorization. When organized resistance spread beyond port cities, it became harder to suppress with available troops. The 1773 Boston Tea Party marked a watershed, forcing British officials either to impose authority or acknowledge that they had lost it.
At this point, O’Shaughnessy writes, George III became actively involved with the growing American crisis and adopted a hard line. Believing that too much lenience had encouraged the colonists’ defiance, the king embraced Gage’s view that they would submit if British authorities took a resolute stance. Besides, a national mood of retribution emerged in Britain once the news of the Boston Tea Party arrived. North, who defined the question before Parliament as “whether we have or have not any authority in that country,” introduced the Coercive Acts—known to Americans as the Intolerable Acts—to punish Boston.
Returning to Massachusetts as governor, with joint civil and military authority, Gage found rebellious colonists holding the initiative. Pressing Americans to take sides, they compelled loyalists to flee or remain silent. In a letter to London authorities, Gage described a so-called provincial congress as seeming to “assume every power of a legal government.” He privately warned in November 1774 that New England would fight rather than yield. Gage presciently noted that, while a large force might intimidate opponents and draw support, “a middling one will encourage resistance, and gain no friends.” He recommended a British force of twenty thousand to put down the rebellion. Told from London that force should be met with force, Gage moved to secure colonial military stores during the following spring. Fighting at Lexington and Concord turned simmering resistance into outright war. Gage proclaimed martial law and told London he now needed thirty-two thousand men to restore order.
Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne arrived in May 1775 to discover a deteriorating situation. The Battle of Bunker Hill, though a victory for the British, took a fearsome toll and showed that the colonists were more than a ragtag mob. Soon George Washington arrived to take command of colonial forces under the authority of the Continental Congress. Once news of Bunker Hill crossed the Atlantic, a British proclamation on August 23 formally declared the colonies in rebellion.
Sandwich wrote in October that “the nation seems more unanimous against the Americans, than I ever remember them in any point of great national concern since I have known Parliament.” George III, who had refused requests from the colonists to mediate their disputes with Parliament, embraced coercion with the backing of ministers and public opinion. The prevailing view was that the loss of the American colonies would be the first in a cascade of falling dominoes that would leave Britain a third-rate power like Sweden or the Dutch Republic. Caribbean islands dependent upon America for provisions would depart from necessity, taking vital revenue and markets, and Ireland also would soon fall. Only a determined effort to suppress the American revolt could avert catastrophe. Germain joined the government as colonial secretary in November 1775 to take bold, decisive measures required to end the revolt.
But these political leaders underestimated the military challenge before them. The fighting already had dispelled the illusion that British regulars could suppress American resistance with ease. Once Washington’s siege of Boston forced Howe to evacuate the city by sea, the British lost their only colonial foothold. Defeating the rebellion now involved the larger task of conquering America rather than holding territory and suppressing unrest. Germain realized the difficulties and thought it essential “to finish this rebellion in one campaign.” Britain lacked the means to support a protracted effort without disrupting its economy or risking security in Europe. North also feared higher taxes would turn the public against the government’s policy and fuel parliamentary opposition. A larger fleet risked provoking France and Spain into war, and Sandwich only received authorization to fully mobilize the navy in 1778. Britain fought its war in America with the forces on hand rather than those it needed.
BRITISH GENERALS understood that restoring the crown’s authority in America involved three related objectives. They had to defeat and disperse the Continental army; persuade the population to withdraw support—either active or passive—from the Continental Congress and its war effort; and compel American leaders to abandon their resistance. A decisive victory over Washington’s main force offered the quickest way to fulfill all three goals. Military and political leaders, convinced popular support for the revolution was thin, believed that only coercion by a determined minority kept its backers in power. Clinton thought it possible “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America” once the force behind that coercion was broken. Another officer captured the wider British view by distinguishing between loyal and disloyal Americans and urging British troops to “assist the good Americans to subdue the bad ones.” Defeating Washington would end what had become a civil war and enable loyalists to help suppress remaining unrest.
O’Shaughnessy argues that politicians and generals tried to accomplish too much with too little, gambling on a quick victory through seaborne mobility and the skill of British regular troops and commanders. Germain organized the largest force any European power ever assembled for service in the Americas for Howe’s attack on New York. The British won successive victories in 1776, nearly capturing Washington at Brooklyn Heights and driving the Continental army across the Hudson River into New Jersey. Although Washington complained that “our affairs are in a very bad way,” he kept his army together and withdrew behind the Delaware. Despite tactical victories, Howe fell short of his strategic objective against the elusive Washington. He also found less support from loyalists than anticipated. Washington’s counterattack on overextended British lines in New Jersey in late December erased many of the previous campaign’s gains and salvaged the American cause.
Howe and his brother, navy admiral Richard Howe, sought to leverage military success into a negotiated return to allegiance even after the United States had declared independence on July 4. Both leaders avoided harsh measures that risked alienating the population, but their ambiguous strategy failed to strike a fatal blow or bring political dividends. William Howe found neither the loyalist support he needed to restore the crown’s authority nor any willingness to discuss terms among representatives from the Continental Congress. North, who differed with his colleagues and the king in favoring concessions to end the conflict, also failed to find a middle ground between defeating the colonies and capitulating to them. He struggled to hold political support at home for the war Germain and Sandwich directed. North lacked the “despotic and commandeering temper” necessary to put the state in motion and focus efforts. Rather than imposing a consistent strategy to achieve the government’s policy, ministers largely deferred to commanders in America without coordinating their efforts.
THE FACT that Britain lacked the means to repeat a campaign on the scale of 1776 increased the pressure for a quick, decisive victory that would end the war on British terms. Germain had seen the opportunity for using armies in New York and Canada to separate New England from the other colonies. Coordinating operations given distance and communications of the day presented formidable difficulty, and Germain, partly by necessity, gave commanders discretion to follow their own plans. Howe used that discretion to mount a seaborne assault on Philadelphia rather than go up the Hudson Valley. Capturing the American capital, he believed, would inflict a major political setback and force Washington into a decisive battle with the potential to cripple the Continental army. But Howe’s gamble upset Germain’s plan and left Burgoyne’s army in Canada without support from New York.
Burgoyne, notes O’Shaughnessy, “showed a respect for rebel fighting ability and appreciation of the problems posed by warfare in America.” His plans called for the use of artillery to break up field entrenchments used by Americans for shelter, while mobility and flexibility would enable a quick movement down Lake Champlain and then over to the Hudson River. Though hampered by a lack of wagons and draft animals, Burgoyne achieved notable success in summer 1777 by capturing Ticonderoga. But then Burgoyne advanced beyond his supply line and any easy retreat avenue. Gambling his army on his ability to capture Albany, he ended up trapped and outnumbered at Saratoga, where he surrendered in early October. This decisive American victory soon brought France and later Spain into the war.
Meanwhile, Howe’s tactical victories in Pennsylvania did little beyond extending the British position over wider territory since Washington’s army withdrew south of Philadelphia. After another peace mission failed, Clinton replaced Howe, giving him orders to consolidate his forces in New York for defensive operations. With French intervention in 1778, Germain and Sandwich shifted resources to defend British interests in the West Indies, even at the risk of an attack on the British Isles. Sandwich had long been preoccupied with the threat from Britain’s rivals in Europe, but North and others in the cabinet bet on winning in America before France intervened. Now the war in America turned into a contest for imperial survival fought largely elsewhere.
Clinton bitterly complained that he faced an impossible task with insufficient means. He had foreseen the events that led Burgoyne to disaster and pressed Howe to fight in New York rather than Pennsylvania. O’Shaughnessy describes him as providing “the most incisive accounts by a contemporary of the strategic shortcomings of the British war in America,” but the embattled general’s insights gave him little solace. Clinton also perceived problems in the British tendency to occupy territory but then withdraw, leaving behind disappointed loyalists now powerless to help the cause. He urged that ground taken be held and garrisoned as part of what later would be termed a counterinsurgency effort. Orders to release troops from his command for service elsewhere, however, nullified that strategy as well as any conventional offensive.
The British capture of Savannah presented a chance to test his approach. It demonstrated an American weakness in the South that Clinton exploited in early 1780 with his siege and capture of Charleston, along with seven American generals, more than 2,500 Continental army regulars, and artillery and supplies. It marked the greatest American defeat of the war. Pockets of loyalist support offered a chance to restore British authority in the Carolinas, particularly as regular American opposition in the region had been decimated, leaving only partisans who could be suppressed through counterinsurgency efforts. The war seemed to have turned dramatically in Britain’s favor.
Clinton left further operations in the South to Cornwallis, who had proved his ability in campaigns since 1776. He did not, however, leave Cornwallis a force large enough to garrison territory while conducting operations elsewhere. Nathanael Greene, sent by Washington to salvage the Continental army in the South, coordinated with partisans and maneuvered to avoid tactical defeats. Then Cornwallis made a fateful mistake. Rather than adopting a defensive posture to consolidate British control in South Carolina, he opted to go after Greene. O’Shaughnessy notes parallels between Burgoyne’s march to Saratoga and Cornwallis’s later move to Yorktown. Both generals disregarded orders, overextended their supply lines and suffered attack from enemy militias.
Although Cornwallis gave “a fair trial to the ardent wishes of government at home,” he soon found loyalist support illusory. Pyrrhic victories diminished his force and left the British exposed in South Carolina. Admiral Thomas Graves likened the British Army’s movements in America to “the passage of a ship through the sea whose track is soon lost.” Cornwallis still appeared to be a formidable enemy when he invaded Virginia in spring 1781. But despite creating pandemonium there after an epic march through the Carolinas, he failed to gain traction. Clinton ordered him to establish a post on the Chesapeake with plans for shifting much of the army for a campaign elsewhere. Washington, however, marched French and American troops to Virginia just as the Royal Navy lost control of the sea. Yorktown became a trap rather than a refuge or escape, and Cornwallis surrendered his army on October 19, 1781. The fox, as O’Shaughnessy remarks, had caught the hound.
When news of Yorktown reached London, North responded as if he had been shot. “O God! It is all over!” he exclaimed. Germain and George III showed more fortitude. Although Yorktown decided the contest in America, the larger war remained far from over. Admiral George Rodney’s victory in the Caribbean saved Britain’s position in the West Indies, while Gibraltar withstood a Spanish attack. The feared erosion in Britain’s global position stemming from defeat in the thirteen colonies never materialized.
WHAT WENT wrong for Britain in North America? A large part of the problem, O’Shaughnessy demonstrates, was that its mission was an impossible task. Britain never had the ground or naval forces needed to conquer and hold America. The navy could support army operations or blockade the colonies before 1778, but not both. The war’s expansion only widened the gap between ends and means. Support from loyalists fell short of what both politicians and commanders expected. Loyalists, far from helping subdue the rebels in any serious way, left the British to carry the war’s burden largely alone. The army had to defeat regular American forces while fighting persistent counterinsurgency efforts and drawing supplies across the Atlantic. Neither the British government nor its commanders managed to solve this problem of scale or reframe the challenge in a more manageable way, and not even the most impressive victories could shift the strategic balance.
O’Shaughnessy’s focus on the men who lost America accentuates the larger failure to balance goals with resources or coordinate distant operations effectively. Comparing his story with the British experience in other conflicts underlines the point. Britain overcame weaknesses and leveraged strength when commanders and their political masters in London worked in tandem. They failed that test in the American war. Yet even though Britain lost in America, it held ground elsewhere and laid a foundation for recovery. Defeat did not reduce Britain to a third-rate power, and its revival in the 1780s positioned it for a more crucial strategic struggle against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. It seems that the lessons demonstrated by the men who lost America guided Britain in that later conflict and the age of empire that followed.
William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University specializing in British history and international relations since the eighteenth century.