Redcoat Leaders Weren't All Dolts

Redcoat Leaders Weren't All Dolts

Mini Teaser: The British generals who lost the American Revolution were hardly incompetent fools.

by Author(s): William Anthony Hay

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.

Pullquote: The growing tension within Britain's Atlantic empire fit within a larger dynamic of conflict between central governments and distant provinces.Image: Essay Types: Book Review