Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Meeting Notes: November 20, 2013

"The Men Who Lost America: British Generals and Politicians," Andrew O'Shaughnessy

Many military historians say that Great Britain should have easily won the American Revolution. After all, during the war Great Britain had the best navy in the world and one of the world’s largest armies. Their military was led by veterans of the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French & Indian War), and their war effort was well-financed by a government which purchased war supplies from flourishing British factories that were beginning to enter the Industrial Revolution---one of the greatest economic transformations in world history. So what went wrong and who was responsible?

According to historian Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, the British experienced several major problems in conducting the war but while their military and political leaders made mistakes, their leaders were highly competent professionals. O’Shaughnessy is the author of the recently published book entitled The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. During the November meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, O’Shaughnessy briefly outlined some of Great Britain’s major problems with the war and he analyzed 10 British military and political leaders who played key roles in the war effort.

O’Shaughnessy began with King George III, a man whom O’Shaughnessy described as having received an unfair portrayal in numerous American history books.

“He wasn’t the tyrant as portrayed in the Declaration of Independence,” said O’Shaughnessy. “During the years immediately after the French & Indian War, King George was actually a restraining force when it came to attempts by Parliament and the British prime minister to tax the colonies. However, the Boston Tea Party changed everything.”

O’Shaughnessy described King George as becoming so angry with the Boston Tea Party that he became obsessed with war and a desire to crush the American rebellion against British authority. He ignored various peace negotiations such as John Dickinson’s Olive Branch Petition, and believed the loss of America would be viewed throughout Europe as a major blow to Great Britain as a world power. King George was an intelligent man who possessed great knowledge about the British navy. He was also an avid art collector.

Frederick, Lord North was the British prime minister shortly before and during the American Revolution. O’Shaughnessy said it was North’s policies toward the American colonies which triggered the American Revolution. North thought if Great Britain could isolate Massachusetts from the rest of the American colonies, the rebellion would stop. His isolation efforts underestimated American opposition up and down the east coast to London’s treatment of the colonies.

Once the war started, North spent considerable time making peace offers to stop the conflict. His best offer was in 1778 via the Carlisle Peace Commission, which proposed the elimination of all British taxes on the American colonies in exchange for an end to the rebellion. It was regarded by America as too little, too late.

O’Shaughnessy said that North did a good job of financing the British war effort. “Remember, France went bankrupt after the war,” said O’Shaughnessy. North tried several times during the American Revolution to resign as prime minister, however King George wouldn’t accept his resignation and even threatened to abdicate if anyone other than North took the job. All of the other top candidates for prime minister opposed the war.

The Howe Brothers were regarded as two of Great Britain’s finest officers. William Howe was regarded as an expert in light infantry and was a veteran of the French & Indian War, having fought on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec. Richard Howe was also a veteran of the French & Indian/Seven Years’ War, having served as captain of the British ship that fired the first shot of that war.

During the American Revolution, William Howe never lost a battle where he was in direct command (which was not the case at Trenton). Richard Howe was regarded during the war as an innovator in amphibious warfare, getting 16,000 troops off British ships onto Staten Island in just a few hours.

John Burgoyne was also a veteran of the Seven Years’/French & Indian War. He commanded an army in Portugal which successfully defended this British ally from a Spanish invasion.   

Lord George Germain was a veteran political administrator who had earlier served in the British army and was once wounded and captured in battle. During the American Revolution, he served as Great Britain’s secretary of state for America, and was the most prominent government spokesman in the House of Commons, next to Lord North.

Prior to the American Revolution Henry Clinton had served as a British observer during the Russo-Turkish War in Bulgaria. “He was a constant neurotic,” said O’Shaughnessy. “After the American Revolution he felt his country made him the scapegoat for losing the American colonies, and he once told friends about having a dream where Lord Cornwallis apologized to him for surrendering at Yorktown.”

According to O’Shaughnessy, the British general during the American Revolution who had the most successful career after the war was Charles Cornwallis. In 1786 he was appointed governor general of Bengal and commander-in-chief of British forces in India. In 1798 during the great rebellion in Ireland, Cornwallis led troops that defeated a French invasion force.

Of all the British generals and admirals who fought in the American Revolution, the one who immediately emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation was George Rodney. His 1782 naval victory against the French in the Battle of the Saintes not only protected Great Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean, but also brought sweet revenge to Great Britain for capturing French admiral Francois-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse---the French admiral whose fleet had sealed Britain’s fate at Yorktown one year earlier.

John Montague, fourth earl of Sandwich, was known for “working hard and playing hard”, according to O’Shaughnessy. While serving as Britain’s first lord of the admiralty between 1771-1782, Sandwich was a very capable administrator of the British navy and took more of a global view on the American Revolution than did many of his British colleagues in government. He feared a French invasion of Great Britain and the loss of British colonies in the Caribbean far more than Great Britain’s conflict with the 13 American colonies.

After O’Shaughnessy completed his brief review of his 10 British political and military leaders who “lost” the American Revolution he turned his attention to why Great Britain lost the war.

“The British sent an army of conquest to America instead of an army of occupation,” said O’Shaughnessy. “Although they captured all of the major cities, they faced insurrections. Whenever they spread out, their supply lines got cut because their armies were usually small.”

In fact British armies were so small that they relied on Hessians, Indians and runaway slaves to supplement their ranks, which further provoked many colonists who resented the “foreigners, savages and slaves”. The British also faced major supply problems.

“Supplying British armies was a logistical nightmare. Most of their supplies came from Great Britain since their armies and the loyalist population were never self-sufficient in America,” said O’Shaughnessy. In addition, the British navy was never able to mount a sufficient blockade of American ports, allowing French supplies to reach American armies.

O’Shaughnessy also noted that Great Britain fought the American Revolution with no allies, something it wouldn’t do again in a war until 1940 when it stood alone against Nazi Germany during the Battle of Britain.

In the question and answer session O’Shaughnessy thought the comparison of Great Britain during the American Revolution to the United States during the Vietnam war was a “legitimate one”. As for Britain’s political opponents to the war effort in America, O’Shaughnessy said they were split over whether Great Britain should officially recognize the 13 newly independent states as a new nation.

O’Shaughnessy is the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In addition to his current book on The Men Who Lost America he is the author of An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean.
-Bill Seward

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