‘Oh God! It is all over,’ Lord Frederick North, the British Prime Minister, exclaimed when informed that General Lord Cornwallis had surrendered to General George Washington following the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. North said this news was ‘as he would have taken a ball in his breast’.
How in the world, after eight and a half years of fighting, had a rag-tag army of colonial rebels in a fragile new nation of only 2.5 million people defeated the greatest military power on the planet at the time?
The reasons presented here for the British defeat are interrelated and compounding.Logistical complexities, exacerbated by the terrain, aided the largely unconventional tactics of the Americans while undermining the set-piece tactics of the British. Significant, too, is the fact that the American Revolution was but one part of a wider world war.
Bungling of relations and under-estimation of the American Colonies
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 5th Century BC
The British Government bungled relations with her American colonies. They did not understand the specifics of the accelerating social and political changes in America. This lack of British comprehension, combined with ever-increasing American self-confidence, exacerbated by irrational British taxation, fed the drive for independence.
The American colonists, before the French and Indian War, were maturing politically, while British royal governors tended to be lazy, ignorant, and neglectful. The colonists were accustomed to dealing effectively with their governmental issues. They resented what they saw as oppressive and inept British interference. British government across the empire was rife with corruption, ignorance, arrogance, and a distinct lack of empathy with their colonial subjects.
The British authorities, prior to and during much of the American Revolution, did not seem to have been able to imagine the Colonies uniting, organising an army, and supplying that force internally and externally. The British certainly did not anticipate the initiative and skill of the Americans in international diplomacy, enabling them to obtain financial and military support for their cause from Britain’s historic enemies.
Only one theatre of a world war
A compleat History of the American War … is nearly the History of Mankind for the whole Epocha of it. The History of France, Spain, Holland, England, and the Neutral Powers, as well as America are at least comprised in it.John Adams, 1783
The American Revolution was but one theatre of a much larger and highly expensive world war. Britain was engaged with France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, and the Kingdom of Mysore in India during the struggle in the Americas.
The British were stretched thin, particularly because they had still not fully recovered from the exhausting and expensive Seven Years War. Indeed, the entire period 1689-1815 has been described as a ‘Second Hundred Years War’, with the British fighting one war after another against the French.
The Declaration of Independence
The flames kindled on the 4 July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 September 1821
The American Declaration of Independence mobilised support for the American cause both at home and abroad. That audacious document persuaded foreign powers to use the American Revolution to advance their own agendas. It also inspired the rebels in their struggle for independence, and set an example to the world that would soon be followed elsewhere – most notably in the French Revolution.
The amateurs discuss tactics; the professionals discuss logistics.Napoleon Bonaparte
British forces during the American Revolution were operating on exterior lines, the colonials on largely interior lines. This often-stated obvious disadvantage is more complex than that statement would indicate.
It would seem that the British had distinct advantages over the exceptionally militarily inexperienced colonists. The British had a history of supplying large military forces on land and sea using their administrative bureaucracies, their large navy, and access to funds. However, elements of all their ‘advantages’ conspired to work against logical and effective supply-chain management.
Among the problems were: redundant bureaucracy; inconsistent and, at times, inept politicians and administrators; overly conservative generals who would not fight or exploit their military successes; and a great deal of corruption.
The reality for the British forces in America was extremely difficult logistics and communications. Supplies, reinforcements, and even orders from Britain could take optimally 4 to 8 weeks and occasionally even months to be received from London, over 3,000 miles away.
The British usually moved their forces by sea, whereas the colonists had use of the primitive road network. The colonists, operating in their own territory, were able to move faster, with more stealth, and with greater security than the British.
The colonists were certainly plagued by supply shortfalls due to the lack of unified support by their Congress. However, they were more resourceful, willing to live off the land and willing to forage. Additionally, the Americans were, on the whole, tougher and more resilient soldiers than the Europeans.
The British did, over the long duration of the war, adapt to accommodate their logistical disadvantages. They brought logistics, strategy, and tactics into greater congruence, under improved military leadership. But these changes were to be too little and too late to prevent defeat.
Strategy, operations, and tactics
Rarely has British strategy fallen into such a multitude of errors. Every maxim and principle of war was either violated or disregarded.Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 3, The Age of Revolution (1957)
A divided parliament, a stubborn and inflexible king, micromanagement by a failed, cashiered soldier and inconsistent Secretary of State for America, Lord Germain, and the lack of a general staff undermined the British war effort. Military failure increased as the years went by, and as military demands elsewhere increased.
Following initial British embarrassments at Lexington, Concord, and then Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, General William Howe had executed a successful strategy to capture urban centres in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, putting the Americans largely on the defensive.
The British relied on the Americans’ lack of military education and experience. As the war progressed, the American diplomatic efforts, the resentment of European powers at lost colonies, and the promise of new trade arrangements with the American Colonies brought France, and to a lesser degree Spain and the Dutch Republic, into the conflict.
The American fight for independence attracted many European volunteers, often with considerable military training and experience. Quite a number of French and a significant number of Swedish military officers volunteered to join the Americans.
Washington recognised the need to augment the American guerrilla capability with more conventional tactics to attain victory. Without European advisors such as Baron von Steuben, who trained the Continentals at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778/79, and General Rochambeau and expert French engineer officers, the Battle of Yorktown could not have been won.
Military intelligence and counterintelligence
It was worth noting, but hardly earthshaking news. Spies were everywhere, and both sides knew it.Brian Kilmeade, George Washington’s Secret Six: the spy ring that saved the American Revolution (2013)
Both the British and the Americans used intelligence-gathering spies to their advantage. The large Tory/Loyalist population (nearly one-third of the colonials) knew the terrain and were quite willing to provide information and to guide the British forces.
Washington, particularly as the war progressed, with French advice, became highly adept in his use of spies and in employing the intelligence they provided, often paying them out of his own pocket.
We are far from an anticipated peace because the bitterness of the Rebels is too widespread, and in regions where we are masters, the rebellious spirit is still in them. The land is too large, and there are too many people. The more land we win, the weaker our army gets in the field. It would be best to come to an agreement with them.Lieutenant-General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg, Commanding General Hessian troops in North America, 1782
The British relied heavily on Hessian mercenaries to fight their American war. Mercenaries, no matter the quality of the men, may fight with professionalism, but not with the same emotional commitment as the primary troops of a given power. Military historians are well aware of the principle of Napoleon that, ‘In war, the morale is to the physical as three to one.’
Mercenaries were a necessity for the British, spread thin as they were by the larger world war in which they were engaged.
Privateers and pirates
Resolved, That blank Communissions for private Ships of War, and Letters of Marque and Reprisal, signed by the President, be sent to the General Assemblies, Conventions, and Councils or Committees of Safety of the United Colonies to be by them filled up and delivered to the Persons intending to fit out such private Ships of War for making Captures of British Vessels and Cargos…By Order of Congress, John Hancock, President, 3 April 1776
Little known, but significant to the ultimate victory of the American colonists were the privateers of America and other nations that preyed upon the merchantmen of the British. These were ‘legal’ pirates on the high seas sanctioned by governments hostile to Britain.
The privateer effort was underpinned by more than 1,700 Letters of Marque from the United States. The privateer actions involved an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 ships and as many as 70,000 sailors by the end of the Revolutionary War.
The privateer actions, aided and abetted by the French, successfully attacked and plundered more than 3,000 British ships, earning significant bounty for themselves and enriching the American cause. The estimated damage to British shipping ranges from $15 million to $60 million (in 21st-century USD). It is also estimated that 10% of the British troops and cargo sent to America never made it.
That disorder began to make its appearance in Camp, and to avoid its spreading in the natural way, the whole were immediately inoculated.General George Washington, January 1778
Diseases of all sorts, particularly smallpox, affected the colonial forces more than the more exposed and immunised British and German troops. Washington overcame the problem by courageous use of inoculation. His innovative and visionary use of the highly controversial new inoculation process contributed to the preservation of his army.
Smallpox alone reportedly killed somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 Americans during the Revolutionary War – approximately 4% of the population. It is estimated that for each death in combat, ten soldiers died of disease.
Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight-errantry was compatible with all economical forms of society.Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)
So warned the father of historical materialism. Economics provide the essential framework for political and military action, and the simple fact was that the British were financially exhausted at the end of the Seven Years War and in a poor position to fight another major war on a global scale.
There were serious concerns among courtiers and politicians over the cost of Britain’s large standing military. Economic and political pressures had forced the British to rapidly downsize their forces by approximately one-third at the end of the Seven Years War (1763). This smaller force was still responsible for colonial peacekeeping and the protection of maritime communications of what was now a significantly expanded worldwide empire.
The British had doubled their national debt to a dangerous level to win the war and sought ways to recoup their financial losses, rebuild their commerce, and fund their military. The need to restock their treasury led to a number of unfortunate British decisions in relation to taxation and trade vis-à-vis their American Colonies. Thus did economic weakness both help to trigger the American War and to make British defeat more likely.
Foreign aid and military assistance
America could never have won the war without France, and France could never have succeeded without Spain.Larrie D Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American independence and the men of France and Spain who saved it (2016)
Foreign aid to the Americans included cash, loans, weapons, gunpowder, tentage, uniforms, and other military equipment. It also included military support in the form of a French army under Marshal Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Rochambeau, as well as the assistance of French fleets commanded first by Admiral and General Comte d’Estaing in 1778, then by Admiral de Grasse in 1780.
Historians have long appreciated that the Colonies could not have won the American Revolutionary War without this support. What is less well appreciated is the scale of that support. My research – detailed in my recent book, The Key to American Independence: quantifying foreign assistance to the American Revolution – suggests that this amounted, in value terms, to $69 billion (€56 billion) from France and $16 billion (€13 billion) from Spain (in 2010 monetary values).
To put those foreign aid contributions into context, it can be estimated that they amounted to around 20 years’ worth of economic output by the American Colonies at the time.
The true story of the success of the American Revolutionary War is much more complex than the picture painted by many histories. The conflict in America was only part of a much larger war that Britain was fighting as a result of the Seven Years War; and the drain on her resources, already much reduced, is rarely analysed.
Certainly, American pluck, hardy frontier qualities, and wilderness military skills all played a part. However, without the support of their stalwart but often self-serving allies, mainly the French and the Spanish, the United States would never have had the resources, manpower, and time to develop their battlefield expertise to the point where the defeat of the world’s leading imperial power became possible. •
William V Wenger is a retired US Army officer, combat veteran, and the author of The Key to American Independence: quantifying foreign assistance to the American Revolution.
All images: WIPL.