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A Peculiar War

The War for America, 1775-1783

by Piers Mackesy
Harvard, 576 pp., $10.00

Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence

by William B. Willcox
Knopf, 534 pp., $8.95

Washington Irving took pride in his ability to write attractive narrative prose. The knack sustained him and his readers through much of his five-volume biography of George Washington. But when he came to the military aspects of the Revolutionary War he ran into difficulty. The campaigns, he said, reminded him of two drunk men aiming blows at the air but failing to connect. Subsequent historians have shared his discomfort. It was a war with few major battles, and the majority of those won by the British. It was a war that dragged on for eight years; long intervals of inactivity alternated with spasmodic episodes when plans on both sides miscarried. Americans, though they feel gratified by the outcome of the conflict and by the constancy of Washington and his soldiers, which led to victory, cannot allow themselves entire satisfaction. For in large part the victory was brought about by the French intervention. France’s positive contribution would appear to be matched by England’s negative one. How much credit can be allowed to the Americans, when the war against them was in the hands of so inept a set of politicians, generals, and admirals? Still less might English scholars be expected to dwell upon the tragi-farcical performances of Lord North, Germain, Sandwich, Howe, Burgoyne, Arbuthnot, Clinton.

Yet it is on this side of the story that the greatest interest still remains. The American achievement must be set in the context of the British failure. The war cannot be written about in the manner of the great narrative historians of the nineteenth century. To understand any of the encounters that took place in North America, including the near-final miracle of Yorktown, we need to grasp a mass of complex, interrelated problems. We need to remind ourselves that for the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch—all of whom were brought into the fight—what went on in the thirteen American colonies was weighed against all sorts of other factors. This is a subject that requires painstaking analysis. We need to become expert in the logistics of misadventure. Gertrude Stein once quoted a remark about someone to the effect that if he had been a general he would not have lost battles, he would merely have mislaid them. This is a lucky aphorism; taken seriously it tells a good deal about the circumstances of the American War.

The War has found an excellent analyst in Piers Mackesy. He is an Englishman who comes of a military family and has already done a good book on naval warfare in Napoleonic times. In his new book the viewpoint is rightly European, in particular British. The Americans are described in the terminology of the time, as “rebels.” Mr. Mackesy is not concerned except indirectly with the rights and wrongs of the rebellion. The question he examines is the one facing George III and Lord North’s administration: namely, how to end the rebellion and—later—how to defeat the European powers who had also declared war. Even before France intervened her hostility had to be reckoned with. The ships and men needed for North America had to be measured against actual and potential commitments at home and in a restless Ireland, in the West Indies, in Gibraltar and Minorca, and in India. Even before the French formally entered the struggle in 1778 the British were overstretched. Their plight grew steadily worse in succeeding years. The decision to hire “Hessians” from the German princelings was in this context only common sense; they would probably have been right to take Russian battalions if they could have closed the deal. Nor were German troops an unknown quantity to a Hanoverian king, or to many of his officers. Henry Clinton, for example, spoke fluent German as a result of his service during the Seven Years’ War.

In 1776-77 England managed to send to America what was by contemporary standards a large army. Since local supplies proved quite inadequate, the army had to be equipped and provisioned from home. The assembly and dispatch of these varied and costly cargoes required months. They might then be held up for weeks by adverse winds. Once committed to the Atlantic they were vulnerable to bad weather and to enemy privateers and warships. Though the navy was rapidly increased, the expansion aggravated the disastrous shortage of crews. Long spells at sea, in blockading, convoying, and reconnaissance duties, wore out men and vessels. In combination with the Spanish, the French had a larger battle-fleet than anything England could muster. Indeed the Franco-Spanish fleet of 1779, slipping into the Channel without interception, seemed a graver menace that summer than the Armada of 1588; for if control of the crossing could be secured, a French army was ready to invade southern England. If there had been unanimity in forming plans and efficiency in carrying them out, the war would still have been an equation full of unknowns.

Seen in this sympathetic light, British strategy begins to look less ridiculous. The hope was to finish off the rebels in 1776 or 1777. At two or three moments the plan was near to accomplishment. It rested upon the belief that the pacification would be greatly aided by American loyalists. Here the British were disappointed, yet not absurdly wrong. Refugee loyalists insisted that the rebel cause was by no means universally popular; and in Georgia, Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, and New York the occupying forces found plenty of evidence of loyalist sentiment. But territory had to be permanently occupied for the loyalist spirit to show itself unequivocally. Except in Georgia, the British were unable to spare men for such reconstruction. When France, Spain, and Holland successively entered the war, there was no alternative but to starve the North American theater in order to protect other threatened areas. From Howe, Clinton inherited an unsatisfactory command; if he complained too much, and saw the war too narrowly, he could not altogether be blamed. There was much to be said for cutting down the British scale of operations against the rebels, or even for coming to terms with them. But it was not as easy as that. Where combat was so much a matter of accident, there was still a hope that a fortunate combination of accidents—the death or capture of Washington, financial crisis, the defection of important rebel leaders—might prove decisive. And as Mr. Mackesy points out, George III had grounds for believing that the loss of the thirteen colonies would in turn entail the loss of Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Floridas, and the West Indies. If the British gave priority to other theaters, and fought the rebels mainly in the South, the scheme made sense. Indeed old imperial appetites were whetted. Some of the French sugar islands in the Caribbean might be conquered, and Spanish New Orleans, and the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. There was the prospect of winning a foothold on the Panama isthmus. The war might still be turned to advantage.

These were some of the delimiting factors of British strategy. The unpopularity of the American war at home is another. Feeling against the colonists was strong in the first couple of years; there was a surge of patriotism under the threat of invasion—an English “Spirit of ‘Seventy-Nine” comparable with the American “Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six.” Yet the Opposition was persistent, and, according to Mackesy, irresponsible and malignant, in its disapproval of the American war. Senior soldiers and sailors showed a marked reluctance to stake their reputations on so disagreeable a contest. As in the case of the Union effort against the Confederacy eighty years later, British policy was ambivalent. The desire to punish and defeat jostled with the dream of forgiveness and reconciliation. There was a division within the country and within the minds of individuals.

All this is exhaustively and admirably discussed by Mackesy. He is especially good on maritime questions. he ranges across the globe. The marchings and countermarchings in North America are set beside expeditions and battles in the West Indies, the Channel, the Mediterranean, and in southern India. In consequence the affairs of America dwindle. The war becomes a vast, shifting panorama: a series of manoeuvers that demanded more than the administrative systems or the technology of the time could possibly deal with. Messages go astray or arrive too late; ships founder or are blown helplessly off course; sailors are laid low with scurvy; fleets cannot find one another; regiments are racked with seasickness and fever; treasuries are drained; energy turns to anger, to petulance, to apathy, for the French and Spanish (and even the Americans) as well as the British. Yorktown was the only ambitious campaign of the whole war that went smoothly.

Was then the attempt to subdue the colonies hopeless? Here Mackesy’s answer is perhaps ambiguous. Like other recent historians, he feels that George III and certain of his ministers—notably Lord George Germain and the Earl of Sandwich—have been unfairly abused. Given the circumstances they did what they could. But could the circumstances have been different? The system certainly made the worst of a bade job. Responsibilities were parceled out among jealous, cumbersome and sometimes corrupt departments. Jobbery was rife: the bad example spread downward from court and cabinet. The great families pushed their own men and undermined their rivals. Far too many officers had seats in Parliament, or the ear of a minister. The navy’s conduct was if anything worse than the army’s.

As for the army, we have an erudite and imaginative case study in William B. Willcox’s biography of Sir Henry Clinton, the soldier who held the chief command in America from May 1778 until October 1781. Professor Willcox shows that Clinton was no fool, but neither was he a great leader. Nor were his contemporaries, unfortunately for England. If one or two had been, the American war could have been won temporarily at least. Willcox offers a psychological explanation, plausible as far as it goes, of Clinton’s curious blend of competence and intelligence with timidity and querulousness. We are left though with the reflection that the system of eighteenth-century government and war-making was itself enough to produce such inhibitions. No wonder the Americans felt they were well rid of Europe. In retrospect, their impulse to break loose, to simplify, and to purify seems more than justified.

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