The British Problem: Whatever the American weaknesses, the British Government faced no easy task when it undertook to subdue the revolt by military force. Even though England possessed the central administration, stable financial system, and well-organized Army and Navy that the Americans so sorely lacked, the whole establishment was ill-prepared in 1775 for the struggle in America. A large burden of debt incurred in the wars of the preceding century had forced crippling economies on both Army and Navy. British administrative and supply systems, though far superior to anything the Americans could improvise, were also characterized by division and confusion of authority, and there was much corruption in high places.
To suppress the revolt, Britain had first to raise the necessary forces, then transport and sustain them over 3,000 miles of ocean, and finally use them effectively to regain control of a vast and sparsely populated territory. Recruiting men for an eighteenth century army was most difficult. The British Government had no power to compel service except in the militia in defense of the homeland, and service in the British Army overseas was immensely unpopular. To meet Sir William Howe’s request for 50,000 men to conduct the campaign in 1776, the ministry resorted to hiring mercenaries from the small German states, particularly Hesse-Cassell (hence Hessians). These German states were to contribute almost 30,000 men to the British service during the war; complete organizations with their own officers up to the rank of major general and schooled in the system of Frederick the Great. Howe did not get his 50,000 men but by midsummer 1776 his force had passed 30,000 British and Hessians, and additional reinforcements were sent to Canada during the year. Maintaining a force of this size proved to be virtually impossible. The attrition rate in America from battle losses, sickness, disease, and desertion was tremendously high. English jails and poorhouses were drained of able-bodied men, bounties were paid, patriotic appeals were launched throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, and all the ancient methods of impressment were tried, but the British were never able to recruit enough men to meet the needs of their commanders in America.
Providing adequate support for this army over a long ocean supply line was equally difficult. Even for food and forage, the British Army had to rely primarily on sea lines of supply. Transports were in short supply, the hardships of the 2-to-4 month voyage were terrible, and the loss of men and supplies to natural causes heavy. Moreover, though the Americans could muster no navy capable of contesting British control of the seas, their privateers and the ships of their infant navy posed a constant threat to unprotected troop and supply transports. British commanders repeatedly had to delay their operations, awaiting the arrival of men and supplies from England.
Once in America, British armies could find no strategic center or centers whose capture would bring victory. Flat, open country where warfare could be carried on in European style was not common; and woods, hills, and swamps suited to the operations of militia and irregulars were plentiful. A British Army that could win victories in the field over the Continentals had great difficulty in making those victories meaningful. American armies seemed to possess miraculous powers of recuperation, while a British force, once depleted or surrendered, took a tremendous effort to replace.
As long as they controlled the seas, the British could land and establish bases at nearly any point on the long American coast line. The many navigable rivers dotting the coast also provided water avenues of invasion well into the interior. But to crush the revolt the British Army had to cut loose from coastal bases and rivers. When it did so its logistical problems multiplied and its lines of communications became vulnerable to constant harassment. British armies almost inevitably came to grief every time they moved very far from the areas where they could be nurtured by supply ships from the homeland. These difficulties, a British colonel asserted in 1777, had “absolutely prevented us this whole war from going fifteen miles from a navigable river.”
The British could not, in any case, ever hope to muster enough strength to occupy with their own troops the vast territory they sought to restore to British rule. Their only real hope of meaningful victory was to use American loyalists as an instrument for controlling the country, as one British general put it, to help “the good Americans to subdue the bad.” There were many obstacles to making effective use of the Tories. Patriot organization, weak at the center, was strong at the grass roots, in the local communities throughout America, whereas the Tories were neither well organized nor energetically led. The patriots seized the machinery of local government in most communities at the outset, held it until the British Army appeared in their midst, and then normally regained it after the British departed. Strong local control enabled the patriots to root out the more ardent Tories at the very outset, and by making an example of them to sway the apathetic and indifferent. British commanders were usually disappointed in the number of Tories who flocked to their standards and even more upset by the alacrity with which many of them switched their allegiance when the British Army moved out. They found the Tories a demanding, discordant, and puzzling lot, and they made no really earnest effort to enlist them in British forces until late in the war. By 1781 they had with their armies some 8,000 “provincial rank and file”; perhaps 50,000 in all served the British in some military capacity during the war.
On the frontiers the British could also expect support from the Indian tribes who almost inevitably drifted into the orbit of whatever power controlled Canada. But support of the Indians was a two-edged sword, for nothing could raise frontier enthusiasm for battle like the threat of an Indian attack.
Finally, the British had to fight the war with one eye on their ancient enemies in Europe. France, thirsting for revenge for defeat in the Seven Years’ War, stood ready to aid the American cause if for no other purpose than to weaken British power, and by virtue of a Family Compact could almost certainly carry Spain along in any war with England. France and Spain could at the very least provide badly needed money and supplies to sustain the American effort and force the British to divert their forces from the contest in America. At most the combined Franco-Spanish fleet might well prove a match for the British Fleet and neutralize that essential control of the seas needed by the British to carry on the American war.
Of Strategy: The story of the American Revolution can hardly be told in terms of long-term strategy and its success or failure. Neither side ever had any really consistent plan for the conduct of the war. The British, who retained the strategic initiative most of the time, failed to use it to great advantage. They were highly uncertain about their objective; plans were laid from year to year and seldom coordinated even for a single year. Blame for this uncertain approach falls in almost equal part on the administration in England and the commanders in America. If King George III, Lord North, his Prime Minister, and Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Department; the three British officials mainly responsible for the conduct of the war are never provided the timely guidance that might have been expected of them, their inability to do so came about in part because the commanders in the field never furnished accurate enough predictions of what to expect and differed so much among themselves as to the proper course to pursue. In assessing blame in this fashion, one must keep in mind the difficulties of logistics and communications under which the British labored, for these difficulties made it virtually impossible to co-ordinate plans over great distances or to assemble men and materials in time to pursue one logical and consistent plan.
American strategy was primarily defensive and consequently had to be shaped largely in terms of countering British moves. Uncertainties as to the supply of both men and materials acted on the American side even more effectively to thwart the development of a consistent plan for winning the war. Yet Washington was never so baffled by the conditions of the war or uncertain of his objective as were the various British commanders. After some early blunders, he soon learned both his own and the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses and did his best to exploit them. Though unable to develop a consistent plan, he did try to develop a consistent line of action. He sought to maintain his principal striking force in a central position blocking any British advance into the interior; to be neither too bold nor too timid in seeking battle for limited objectives; to avoid the destruction of his army at all costs; and to find some means of concentrating a sufficient force to strike a decisive offensive blow whenever the British overreached themselves. He showed a better appreciation than the British commanders of the advantages in mobility their Navy gave them, and after 1778, when the French entered the war, he clearly saw that the decisive blow he desired could be struck only by a combined effort of the Continental Army and the French Fleet.
The British Offensive in 1776: If the British ever had a single strategic objective in the war, it was the Hudson River-Lake Champlain line. By taking and holding this line the British believed they could separate New England, considered to be the principal center of the rebellion, from the more malleable colonies to the southward. Howe proposed to make this the main objective of his campaign in 1776 by landing at New York, securing a base of operations there, and then pushing north. He wanted to concentrate the entire British force in America in New York, but the British Government diverted part of it to Canada in early In to repel the American invasion, laying the groundwork for the divided command that was so to plague British operations afterward.
After the evacuation of Boston, Howe stayed at Halifax from March until June, awaiting the arrival of supplies and reinforcements. While he tarried, the British Government ordered another diversion in the south, aimed at encouraging the numerous loyalists who, according to the royal governors watching from their havens on board British warships, were waiting only for the appearance of a British force to rise and overthrow rebel rule. Unfortunately for the British, the naval squadron sent from England under Admiral Sir Peter Parker was delayed and did not arrive off the American coast until late in May. By this time all hopes of effective co-operation with the Tories had been dashed. Loyalist contingents had been completely defeated and dispersed in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Parker, undeterred by these developments, determined to attack Charleston, the largest city in the south. There South Carolina militia and newly raised Continentals had prepared and manned defenses under the guidance of Major General Charles Lee, whom Washington had dispatched south to assist them. The South Carolinians, contrary to Lee’s advice, centered their defenses in Fort Moultrie, a palmetto log fort constructed on Sullivan’s Island, commanding the approach to the harbor. It was an unwise decision, somewhat comparable to that at Bunker Hill, but fortunately for the defenders the British had to mount an un-coordinated attack in haste. Clinton’s troops were landed on nearby Long Island, but on the day the Navy attacked, June 28, the water proved too deep for them to wade across to Sullivan’s Island as expected. The British Army consequently sat idly by while the gunners in Fort Moultrie devastated the British warships. Sir Peter Parker suffered the ultimate indignity when his pants were set afire.
The battered British Fleet hastily embarked the British soldiers and sailed northward to join Howe, for it was already behind schedule. For three years following the fiasco at Charleston the British were to leave the south un-molested and the Tories there, who were undoubtedly numerous, without succor.
Howe was meanwhile beset by other delays in the arrival of transports from England, and his attack did not get under way until late August leaving insufficient time before the advent of winter to carry through the planned advance along the Hudson-Lake Champlain line. He therefore started his invasion of New York with only the limited objective of gaining a foothold for the campaign the following year.
The British commander had, when his force was all assembled, an army of about 32,000 men; it was supported by a powerful fleet under the command of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. To oppose him Washington had brought most of his army down from Boston, and Congress exerted its utmost efforts to reinforce him by raising Continental regiments in the surrounding states and issuing a general call for the militia. Washington was able to muster a paper strength of roughly 28,500 men, but only about 19,000 were present and fit for duty. As Christopher Ward remarks, “The larger part of them were raw recruits, undisciplined and inexperienced in warfare, and militia, never to be assuredly relied upon.”
Washington and Congress made the same decision the South Carolinians had made at Charleston to defend their territory in the most forward positions and this time they paid the price for their mistake. The geography of the area gave the side possessing naval supremacy an almost insuperable advantage. The city of New York stood on Manhattan Island, surrounded by the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers. There was only one connecting link with the mainland, Kingsbridge across the Harlem River at the northern tip of Manhattan. Across the East River on Long Island, Brooklyn Heights stood in a position dominating the southern tip of Manhattan. With the naval forces at their disposal, the Howes could land troops on either Long Island or Manhattan proper and send warships up either the East or Hudson Rivers a considerable distance.
Washington decided he must defend Brooklyn Heights on Long Island if he was to defend Manhattan; he therefore divided his army between the two places in a violation of the principle of mass and the first step toward disaster. For all practical purposes command on Long Island was also divided. Major General Nathanael Greene, to whom Washington first entrusted the command, came down with malaria and was replaced by Major General John Sullivan. Not completely satisfied with this arrangement, at the last moment Washington placed Major General Israel Putnam over Sullivan, but Putnam hardly had time to become acquainted with the situation before the British struck. The forces on Long Island, numbering about 10,000, were disposed in fortifications on Brooklyn Heights and in forward positions back of a line of thickly wooded hills that ran across the southern end of the island. Sullivan was in command on the left of the forward line, Brigadier General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) on the right. Four roads ran through the hills toward the American positions. Unfortunately Sullivan, in violation of the principle of security, left the Jamaica-Bedford road unguarded.
Howe was consequently able to teach the Americans lessons in maneuver and surprise. On August 22 he landed a force of 20,000 on the southwestern tip of Long Island and, in a surprise attack up the Jamaica-Bedford road against the American left flank, crumpled the entire American position. Stirling’s valiant fight on the right went for naught, and inexperienced American troops fled in terror before the British and Hessian bayonets, falling back to the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. It seems clear that had Howe pushed his advantage immediately he could have carried the heights and destroyed half the American Army then and there. Instead he halted at nightfall and began to dig trenches, signaling an intent to take the heights by “regular approaches” in traditional eighteenth century fashion. Washington managed to evacuate his forces across the East River on the night of August 29. According to one theory, wind and weather stopped the British warships from entering the river to prevent the escape; according to another, the Americans had placed impediments in the river that effectively barred their entry. In any case, it was a narrow escape, made possible by the skill, bravery, and perseverance of Col. John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, Massachusetts fishermen who manned the boats.
Washington had two weeks to prepare his defenses on Manhattan before Howe struck again, landing a force at Kip’s Bay above the city of New York (now about 34th Street) on September 15. Raw Connecticut militia posted at this point broke and ran “as if the Devil was in them,” defying even the efforts of a raging Washington to halt them. Howe once again had an opportunity to split the American Army in two and destroy half, but again he delayed midway across the island to wait until his entire force had landed. General Putnam was able to bring the troops stationed in the city up the west side of Manhattan to join their compatriots in new fortifications on Harlem Heights. There the Americans held out for another month, and even won a skirmish, but this position were also basically untenable.
In mid-October Howe landed again in Washington’s rear at Pell’s Point. The American commander then finally evacuated the Manhattan trap via Kingsbridge and took up a new position at White Plains, leaving about 6,ooo men behind to man two forts, Fort Washington and Fort Lee, on opposite sides of the Hudson. Howe launched a probing attack On the American position at White Plains and was repulsed, but Washington, sensing his inability to meet the British in battle on equal terms, moved away to the north toward the New York highlands. Again he was outmaneuvered. Howe quickly moved to Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson between Washington’s army and the Hudson River forts. On the advice of General Greene (now recovered from his bout with malaria), Washington decided to defend the forts. At the same time he again split his army, moving across the Hudson and into New Jersey with 5,000 men and leaving General Lee and Major General William Heath with about 8,000 between them to guard the passes through the New York highlands at Peekskill and North Castle. On November 16 Howe turned against Fort Washington and with the support of British warships on the Hudson stormed it successfully, capturing 3,000 American troops and large quantities of valuable munitions. Greene then hastily evacuated Fort Lee and by the end of November Washington, with mere remnants of his army, was in full retreat across New Jersey with Lord Charles Cornwallis, detached by Howe, pursuing him rapidly from river to river.
While Washington was suffering these disastrous defeats, the army that had been gathered was slowly melting away. Militia left by whole companies and desertion among the Continentals was rife. When Washington finally crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania in early December, he could muster barely 2,000 men, the hard core of his Continental forces. The 8,000 men in the New York highlands also dwindled away. Even more appalling, most enlistments expired with the end of the year 1776 and a new army would have to be raised for the following year.
Yet neither the unreliability of the militia nor the short period of enlistment fully explained the debacle that had befallen the Continental Army. Washington’s generalship was also faulty. Criticism of the Commander in Chief, even among his official family, mounted, centering particularly on his decision to hold Fort Washington. General Lee, the ex-British colonel, ordered by Washington to bring his forces down from New York to join him behind the Delaware, delayed, believing that he might himself salvage the American cause by making incursions into New Jersey. He wrote Horatio Gates, “. . . entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient….”
There was only one bright spot in the picture in the autumn of 1776. While Howe was routing Washington around New York City, other British forces under Sir Guy Carleton were attempting to follow up the advantage they had gained in repulsing the attack on Canada earlier in the year. Carleton rather leisurely built a flotilla of boats to carry British forces down Lake Champlain and Lake George, intending at least to reduce the fort at Ticonderoga before winter set in. Benedict Arnold countered by throwing together a much weaker flotilla of American boats with which he contested the British passage. Arnold lost this naval action on the lakes, but he so delayed Carleton’s advance that the British commander reached Ticonderoga too late in the year to consider undertaking a siege. He returned his army to winter quarters in Canada, leaving the British with no advance base from which to launch the next year’s campaign.
Although its consequences were to be far reaching, this limited victory did little to dispel the gloom that fell on the patriots after Washington’s defeats in New York. The British, aware that Continental enlistments expired at the end of the year, had high hopes that the American Army would simply fade away and the rebellion collapse. Howe halted Cornwallis’ pursuit of Washington and sent Clinton with a detachment of troops under naval escort to seize Newport, Rhode Island. He then dispersed his troops in winter quarters, establishing a line of posts in New Jersey at Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Princeton, Trenton, and Bordentown, and retired himself to New York. Howe had gained the object of the 1776 campaign, a strong foothold, and possibly, as he thought at the time, a great deal more.
Trenton and Princeton: While Howe rested comfortably in New York, Washington desperately sought to re-concentrate his forces and redeem the defeat in New York. General Lee had the misfortune to fall into British hands on December 12, and his 2,000 remaining men then made haste to join Washington. Eight decimated regiments were also pulled from the Northern Army, and with some Pennsylvania militia Washington was able to assemble a force totaling about 7,000 by the last week of December 1776. If he was to use this force, he would have to do so before the enlistments expired on December 31. With great boldness, Washington formulated a plan to strike by surprise at the Hessian garrisons at Trenton and Bordentown on Christmas night, when the troops might be expected to relax their guard for holiday revelry. A Continental force of 2,400 men under Washington’s personal command was to cross the Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry above Trenton and then proceed in two columns by different routes, converging on the opposite ends of the main street of Trenton in the early morning of December 26. A second force, mainly militia, under Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross below near Bordentown to attack the Hessian garrison there; a third, also militia, under Brigadier General James Ewing, was to cross directly opposite Trenton to block the Hessian route of escape across Assunpink Creek.
Christmas night was cold, windy, and snowy and the Delaware River was filled with blocks of ice. Neither Cadwalader nor Ewing was able to fulfill his part of the plan. Driven on by Washington’s indomitable will, the main force did cross as planned and the two columns, commanded respectively by Greene and Sullivan, converged on Trenton at eight o’clock in the morning of December 26, taking the Hessians completely by surprise. A New England private noted in his diary for the 26th: “This morning at 4 a clock we set off with our Field pieces and Marched 8 miles to Trenton where we ware attacked by a Number of Hushing and we Toock 1000 of them besides killed some. Then we marched back and got to the River at Night and got over all the Hushing.” This rather undramatic description of a very dramatic event was not far wrong, except in attributing the attack to the “Hushings.” The Hessians surrendered after a fight lasting only an hour and a half. Forty were killed and the prisoner count was 918. Only 400 escaped to Bordentown, and these only because Ewing was not in place to block their escape. The Americans lost only 4 dead and 4 wounded.
Encouraged by this success, Washington determined to make another foray. By an impassioned appeal to the patriotism of the men, supplemented by an offer of a $10 bounty in hard money, he was able to persuade at least part of his old army to remain for six more weeks. With a force of around 5,000 Washington again crossed the Delaware on the night of December 30-31. By this time Cornwallis had hastily gathered together the scattered British garrisons in New Jersey, and took up a position confronting Washington at Trenton on January 2, 1777. Convinced that he had the Americans in a trap, he put off battle until the next day because of the exhausted state of his troops. In the night Washington slipped away, leaving campfires burning brightly to deceive the British. The next morning he struck another surprise blow at Princeton, inflicting heavy losses on two British regiments just leaving the town to join Cornwallis. Washington then went into winter quarters in the hills around Morristown, New Jersey. Cornwallis did not pursue. The British had had enough of winter warfare, and Howe drew in his outposts in New Jersey to New Brunswick and Perth Amboy.
Trenton and Princeton not only offset the worst effects of the disastrous defeats in New York but also restored Washington’s prestige as a commander with friend and foe alike. In the execution of the two strokes east of the Delaware, Washington had applied the principles of offensive, surprise, and maneuver with great success and finally achieved stature as a military commander. If these victories did not assure him that he could recruit such an army as Congress had voted, they did at least guarantee that he would be able to field a force the following year. Sir William Howe found that, despite his smashing rout of the Americans in New York, he was left with little more than that city, a foothold in New Jersey, and the port of Newport in Rhode Island.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: American Military History; Army Historical Series; Office of the Chief of Military History United States Army (United States Army Center of Military History)
CONTRIBUTOR : Eddy Toorall