The Men Who Lost America: British Command During the Revolutionary War and the Preservation of Empire Andrew O’Shaughnessy

Oneworld, pp.466, £30, ISBN: 9781780742465

On Christmas Day 1776, the ambitious, well-connected war hero, General John Burgoyne, soon to be appointed commander of British forces in Canada, agreed a wager of 50 guineas with Charles James Fox ‘that he will be home victorious from America by Christmas Day 1777.’ Nine weeks short of that date, on 17 October, Burgoyne surrendered his sword and an army of more than 8,000 men, together with 50 cannon and vast quantities of muskets and gunpowder, to an American general, Horatio Gates, after defeat and encirclement at the battle of Saratoga in upstate New York. No bet was ever more comprehensively lost.

The victory at Saratoga, won by citizen-soldiers over professional troops,  played a vital role in the dramatic events that led to the birth of the United States. And the story that Americans tell about those events, of a people who earned independence by their own individual endeavour, remains integral to the way they see themselves today.

The narrative comprises both physical action — the civil resistance to unjust taxation from London that spiralled into violence during the decade from 1765 to 1775 — and, more significantly, the evolution of an idea of freedom from the English common law’s support for the inalienable rights of a property-owner into an authentically home-grown assertion of each person’s innate right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was in the crucible of the Revolutionary War that these two ingredients fused into a national reality, enabling American enterprise and commitment to triumph over the brute force of German mercenaries and British redcoats.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s fascinating examination of the war does not challenge this scenario. Instead, by rescuing Britain’s generals, and to some extent its politicians, from the general charge of unthinking incompetence, he seeks to buttress it. ‘If we take seriously the capabilities of the British leadership,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘the achievements of the American commanders appear much greater.’

On the basis of his earlier ground-breaking history on 18th-century Atlantic colonialism, the Anglo-American O’Shaughnessy commands respect, but it is also possible to draw another conclusion from his research, one less flattering to national pride but perhaps more apt for the age.

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On either side of Burgoyne’s capitulation, there is ample evidence to show the formidable nature of the colonial power that the Americans faced. In response to the early reversals in 1775 at Bunker Hill and the forced evacuation of the garrison from Boston, a numbers surge brought the British army up to more than 30,000 men. The fury of the colonists’ rage militaire that had led to a rapid increase of militia forces, and the creation of the Continental army under George Washington, was contained, and a series of skilfully fought battles turned Washington out of New York, driving him into headlong retreat across New Jersey.

Even after Saratoga, desertion rates among American militia and regular forces were starting to rise, and at Valley Forge that winter Washington would struggle to hold together the core of his depleted army. Meanwhile, British troops under General William Howe occupied Philadelphia, the rebels’ unofficial capital, forcing representatives to the United States congress to seek refuge in a village in the distant foothills of the Appalachians.

Central to O’Shaughnessy’s thesis is his well-sustained argument that in Britain neither politicians nor generals believed military means alone could restore parliament’s power to tax colonists who were so numerous and so motivated to resist. It was George III, he suggests, who personally silenced his ministers’ doubts by insisting that acceptance of colonial demands would deliver an irreparable blow to national prestige. ‘We are contending for our whole consequence,’ he declared, ‘whether we are to rank among the Great Powers of Europe or to be reduced to one of the least considerable.’ A divided leadership ensured that every attempt at a political solution was compromised, while at crucial moments Lord George Germain, minister for the American department, undermined the military effort by diverting resources to other, more winnable conflicts.

Burdened with a task that their political masters believed to be impossible, the generals pinned their hopes on rousing the estimated one quarter of the population who remained loyal to the crown. Developing a picture first presented in Sir John Fortescue’s multi-volumed History of the British Army, O’Shaughnessy demonstrates how skilled Howe and his successor, Sir Henry Clinton, in particular, were as commanders, and how effective their highly trained soldiers were in battle. Night attacks, feints and manoeuvres in the field, and a readiness to abandon heavy equipment in favour of greater mobility repeatedly kept Washington’s force on the run. The hit-and-run policy of the Continental army at Trenton and Princeton picked off isolated garrison troops, but was never able to inflict a decisive defeat in open battle. On the other hand, British military superiority failed to produce the much-anticipated loyalist rising.

Nevertheless, as late as the first months of 1781, there was reason to believe that Washington’s army might be on the verge of collapse. Shortages of supplies, arrears of pay and ebbing morale had fomented mutinies and desertions that reduced its effective strength to fewer than 6,000 men. In April 1781, Lord Cornwallis, Clinton’s successor in command of troops in the field,  marched with 7,000 men from the Carolinas into Virginia almost unopposed, occupied its capital and came close to capturing its governor, Thomas Jefferson. In May, Washington himself confessed ‘we are at the end of our tether … now or never our deliverance must come.’ Yet, just six months later, Cornwallis was trapped in the port of Yorktown and, four years to the day after Saratoga, was forced to surrender, effectively ceding victory and independence to the new United States of America.

The rapid reversal of fortunes presents the author with a challenge. Undoubtedly the collapse was due in part, as he suggests, to the vacillation of Germain, who issued conflicting orders, left lines of command obscure and removed almost half the British army from north America for service elsewhere. O’Shaughnessy is clearly correct too in ascribing much of the credit to the ability of American commanders, notably General Nathanael Greene, who nullified the threat from Cornwallis in the south, and above all to Washington, who kept intact the continental army against all odds and thereby gave a focus to national resistance.

Yet The Men Who Lost America also makes it abundantly clear that by themselves American generals could no more have achieved outright victory than their British counterparts. Without some outside intervention, a military stalemate would have been the most likely outcome of the Revolutionary War. As the appetite for fighting waned, individual American states would surely have negotiated their independence. But the emergence of a United States, problematic enough even after Yorktown, would have been nigh impossible.

What swung the balance was the longterm consequence of Burgoyne’s capitulation. When news of it reached Europe, an English-speaking war became international. Old enemies, France, Spain and the Netherlands, felt sufficiently encouraged to support the rebels, contributing soldiers, ships and, in the case of the Dutch, almost unlimited funding to their cause. Their efforts reached a peak in 1781. When Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown, it was a French fleet that prevented supplies reaching him, and the army that besieged him, though led by Washington, consisted mostly of French troops.

No doubt most Americans will continue to tell the old dramatic story of their country’s birth as they always have done. But in a shrinking, increasingly connected world, that extra international dimension might usefully be stressed a little more.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, General Burgoyne, General Cornwallis, George III, George Washington, History, the American Revolutionary War, the American War of Independence