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.