Revolution Myth #5: America had no chance of winning the war

Welcome to the last in our Truth v. Myth series on 5 Myths about the American Revolution. Here we re-examine the cherished idea that we were total underdogs in our war of independence. This article was inspired by a re-listening to the insightful Prof. Allen Guelzo’s lecture series “The American Revolution.”

Yes, the British Army was bigger than the Continental Army, and better organized. And most British officers and politicians in the spring of 1775 thought the war could be won fairly quickly.

But the British Army was not that big—at least not in America. In 1775, there were about 38,000 men serving in the British Army around the world, and around 18,000 men in the Royal Navy (in 270 ships) also spread around the world. To fight in America, men had to be impressed and mercenaries hired, because Britain did not want to pull its forces from the invaluable sugar islands in the Caribbean, which would be snapped up by France or Holland if left unguarded. Sugar was the oil of the 18th century, to borrow Prof. Robert Bucholz’s inspired phrase, and the sugar islands were far more valuable to Britain than all the colonies in North America. So when 16,000 American men enlisted to fight the British in 1775, they were fairly equal in numbers to the redcoats.

The British Army was well-organized and well-run, far more so than the Continental Army. That did stand in Britain’s favor. British soldiers were under no illusions about having control over how long they served (though there were desertions from the British Army during the war).

As for the British attitude to the war, it was far more complex than we imagine. The British knew that those Americans in rebellion would not go down easily. They knew that they could not hope to conquer the vast territory of the 13 colonies, and that any attempt to conquer land battle-by-battle would result in a hopeless loss of men and drain on money and supplies in a war of attrition. They understood that an occupied people almost always win wars of attrition because they have the motivation and the resources to resist for many, many years.

The British approach was to try to destroy the heart of the rebellion—Boston, Washington’s army, the Congress—and get Loyalists to take over local governments.  The British were hampered by poor communication, infighting between generals, the months it took to get orders from London, lack of support from Loyalists, and often conflicting goals (for instance, Howe was told to at once occupy New York City and to destroy Washington’s army in 1776; the impossibility of doing both at once led to delay and paralysis).

So while the British Army itself was well-organized internally, from the start it had management problems at the level of Parliament and its generals, and it was always low on supplies.

By 1778, opposition to the war was making itself heard in Parliament. We picture a vindictive empire trying to keep America in its clutches to the bitter end, committed to stamping out revolution, but in reality there was strong opposition to the war after three unproductive years. Boston had been occupied, and so had New York, but Washington’s army remained at large, the British had lost an army at Saratoga and an important battle at Trenton. The rebellion remained strong despite the occupation of two major cities, and the Loyalists had yet to rise up. Most important, France had joined the war on America’s side, which meant Britain had to increase its expenditures to supply its army and  navy against a stronger—and now much more important—enemy. The sugar islands were at higher risk, and the sugar planters lobbied Parliament vigorously, threatening to oppose any move to relocate  British soldiers from their islands to America. War with France meant war not only in America but in the Caribbean and India.

In these circumstances, Parliament came close to voting not to send any more soldiers to America at all in 1779, and Lord North’s government actually sent a peace committee to Congress, offering the colonies control over their taxation, no more quartering British soldiers on civilians, and acknowledgement of Congress—in short, everything the colonies wanted but independence. This offer was rejected, but it is significant to realize that by 1779, Britain was looking for a way out of the war. Washington fought his last battle against the British in July 1779, a full two years before the official surrender at Yorktown.

By the time Cornwallis’ disastrous attempts to take the Carolinas and organize Loyalists into an army to defeat Nathaniel Greene and turn the tide of the war were over, in1781, and the British surrendered their army to Washington, Parliament was mostly resigned to the loss, and already turning its attention to India, Africa, and the West Indies. It would hold on to its western territories in America, and try to foment Native American rebellion against the U.S. It would happily engage the U.S. in war in 1812, vengefully burning down our capital. But for Britain, its ever-expanding eastern empire and its wars against France in Europe were more important.

We see, then, that the deck was not totally stacked against us. This is not to say that Washington was not a genius and a powerful leader who kept our fight for liberty alive when the odds of success looked bleak. We could have lost that war. But we had more going for us than we think. Britain knew it faced substantial difficulties, just as America did.  Everyone likes an underdog, but we shouldn’t overdo it.

Revolutionary Myth #4: All was well before the war

Part four of our series on 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War dwells on the pre-war period.

In the shorthand version of American history, the colonial period is one of peace and prosperity right up to the 1770s. But especially in New England, the 17th and 18th centuries were strewn with political conflict and open war.

Canada and New England ended up acting out the wars between France and England over and over from 1689 through 1763. In 1689, New Englanders overthrew the Dominion imposed on them by James II. From 1689-1697, New England was a battlefield in King William’s War. Just five years later, word came to New England that they were at war with Canada once again, for in 1702, Queen Anne’s War began. This war lasted until 1711. The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-42) involved New Englanders recruited to fight in the Caribbean, most notably in the attempt to take Cartagena (in what is today Colombia). 65% of the 4,183 Americans who went to fight for Cartagena died.

In 1745 and 1758, New Englanders went to Louisbourg, the major French fort guarding Canada from the sea, successfully capturing it in 1745 only to have Great Britain return it to France in their peace treaty. Harried by French-sponsored Native American attacks from 1748-58, New Englanders retook the fort at great cost in 1758 (it was destroyed in 1760).

So we see that New England was in a state of almost constant turmoil in its colonial years, turmoil almost always caused by England’s wars with France. England spared few troops for North America, focusing on the naval battles in Europe, and more than once promised to send soldiers to back up New England, then failed to do so. This caused great anger and bewilderment in New England, which felt it was being deliberately endangered by its mother country.

Of course, the last in this series of wars between France and Britain in America was the French and Indian War, 1756-63. The road to revolution was taken the next year, when the Sugar Act was passed.

No wonder New England was the hotbed of revolution against England by 1764. A sense of betrayal and separateness had been forged by all those battles against France that New Englanders fought without British help. It would not be until 1815, when the War of 1812 ended, that New England breathed several decades’ worth of peace.

Next—our final myth!

Revolutionary Myth #3: the Revolution happened quickly

We look back and tend to see a constant boil of activity in the 1770s that led to revolution. But here in part 3 of my series of 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War, we will see this is not really so.

When you study colonial town or precinct records, you see that towns, villages, and precincts met once a year (“town meeting”) to set policy, settle debates, take actions, and elect officers. Reading the record books, it seems like discussions took years–meet in April 1737 to debate the town border, meet in April 1738 to debate the town border, April 1739, etc.  While discussions must have taken place between meetings, official actions, committees, and decisions took place only at town meeting. Sometimes an emergency meeting was called to expedite things, but not always.

So with the Revolution. While history books and narratives compress events, leading you to feel like the timespan between the first punitive Act (the Sugar Act) and Lexington and Concord was about 1-2 years, it all unfolded much more slowly. The Sugar Act was imposed in April 1764. The Stamp Act was imposed in March 1765. Patrick Henry gave his famous “if this be treason” speech about the Stamp Act that same year. The Townshend Act came two years later, in 1767. The Boston Massacre was three years later, in 1770.

Usually the Boston Massacre is presented as the tipping point, after which Revolution happened with lightning speed. Many people, if quizzed, think the Boston Massacre must have been in 1775. But it was a good five years before the fighting began. Between the Massacre and Lexington and Concord was the Boston Tea Party, in December 1773. The “Intolerable Acts” were put in place the next year, 1774.  The first Continental Congress met in fall 1774, issuing a declaration of principles…

…but still it was not until April 1775 that the war began. Why did things move so slowly?

First, of course, was communications. It took weeks to months for the Sugar Act or Townshend Acts to take full effect throughout the colonies. Thus it took that long for indignation to build amongst Americans. South Carolina would have heard about the March 1770 Boston Massacre in the spring of 1771. And they only heard about it through the determined letter writing of men like Samuel Adams; newspapers from Boston that published the story would have had it picked up by newspapers in neighboring colonies, like Connecticut and New York, and from there it might have been picked up in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but beyond that point the story as a newspaper story would have died. It had to be disseminated by individuals’ letters, whether private or public.

There was also the winter. Winter made travel much more slow—sometimes impossible—and this meant not only that newspapers and letters traveled far more slowly, but also that all actions were on hold until the spring. Just as armies made winter camp in December and did not fight at all until April or May, so protests and meetings were on hiatus over the snowy months.

Finally, of course, there was peoples’ reluctance to go to war. Each event—Act, riot, shooting, speech—was endured or taken in and then made sense of in a way that would allow people to avoid the terror of war. Each time something happened, Americans hoped it was the last time something dangerous would happen, and that the troubles would die down and life could go back to normal. No people want to endure a war. So there was a great deal of effort expended on diplomacy and peaceful efforts to turn things around.

So really, there was no sustained fever of revolutionary activity in the 1770s, not even in Boston. Events hit people in the spring and summer, went into hibernation through the winter, and were superseded by less inflammatory, daily events the next spring—for which people were understandably grateful. It was really not until March 1774, when the Port Act went into effect against Boston, that events hit rapidly, and even then the winter of 1774-5 was quiet, with Paul Revere’s ride coming the following April 1775.

It is only when we look back and compress events from the Sugar Act to the North Bridge that it seems like a frenzy of revolution. In reality, it took 11 years, from the 1764 Sugar Act to the 1775 shootouts in Lexington, Concord, and especially Menotomy, for the Revolution to begin.

Next: Myth 4: All was well before the war