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The Making of a Disaster

Picture the following situation. The greatest power in the world is confronted with an insurgency thousands of miles away, which it expects to put down quickly and easily. It sends a large army to deal with the insurgents, but counts on many loyal supporters to flock to its standard. Recruiting soldiers, however, is difficult, and since the great power cannot enlist enough of its own troops to deal with the situation, it has to hire thousands of mercenaries. It occupies the remote land, sends increasing numbers of soldiers, spends enormous amounts of money, and suffers more and more casualties, all of which arouses a good deal of criticism at home. The hawkish cabinet minister in charge of the war remains confident and vainly tries to micromanage the war an ocean away. But finally the great power is unable to put an end to the insurgency. It carries on for many long years until its political will is sapped, and it is forced to abandon the distant country it invaded.

This could be the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, or it could be what might happen with America’s intervention in Iraq. But it is neither of these. Instead, it is the story of Great Britain’s attempt in the 1770s and 1780s to put down the rebellion of its colonists in North America. Of course, there are enormous differences between Britain’s experience with suppressing rebellion in its empire in the eighteenth century and America’s recent experiences abroad. Nevertheless, the parallels between the British experience in North America over two centuries ago with recent American interventions abroad, especially in Vietnam, are eerie.

In its efforts to suppress the rebellion in North America, Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, could not realistically envisage a simple military victory. Even if it won a military victory, that could be only the first step in the restoration of peaceful relations and stability. Britain’s ultimate goal had to be political, which is why the British shed, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, “iron tears” in their efforts to hold on to their colonies with bullets. Since Britain had to win the allegiance of the colonists in order to bring them back into the empire, the commanders in chief, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard, Lord Howe, believed they could not wage a simple war of conquest and terror. They could not bombard the ports and ravage the countryside as Marlborough had ravaged Bavaria earlier in the century. Believing they had to fight a peculiarly delicate kind of war, the Howe brothers saw themselves at the outset as conciliators as much as conquerors. This probably blunted their ability to suppress the rebellion at the outset when the opportunity was greatest. At any rate their hard-line superior in London eventually accused them of a “sentimental manner of making war.”

While the British objective was thus blurred, the rebels’ objective, like that of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong or the Iraqi insurgents today, was clear-cut—defeat the British army and undermine the British will to continue the struggle. With the contest being a test of wills, the American rebels had the advantage: they had much more to lose than did the British. For them, as for the Vietcong, defeat would mean the end of their hopes of being a nation or, as in the case of the Iraqi insurgents, it will mean the end of their cause, anarchic and destructive as that cause may be.

But for Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, the situation was different. Britain did not have the same fear of defeat as the colonists had. Losing the struggle would not mean the end of the British nation, or the occupation of the realm; nor would it decisively affect the ordinary lives of Englishmen. “Oh! My dear sir,” the notorious English gossip Horace Walpole remarked sarcastically to a friend in Italy in 1777, “do you think a capital as enormous as London has its nerves affected by what happens across the Atlantic?” Since defeat could not produce the same kind of fear in London as defeat did for the Americans, the British willingness to continue the fight inevitably turned out to be weaker than that of the insurgents.

All these sorts of parallels between remote and recent American history are implied in the colorful and entertaining account by the American historian Stanley Weintraub of Britain’s eight-year-long struggle to put down the rebellion of its North American colonists. The British officials, as Weintraub makes only too clear, had little or no understanding of the kind of conflict they were getting into. They scarcely glimpsed the problems of suppressing a revolutionary struggle involving an armed insurgent population, especially one three thousand miles away. All many of them saw was that Britain was the greatest power in the world, having just defeated its only rival, France, in a war for world dominance. If it couldn’t suppress rabble in its own colonies, then what did being the strongest nation in the world mean? How could near-savage amateurs stand up to His Majesty’s crack troops, the best in the world? The contempt that some royal officials had for the colonists knew no bounds. Benjamin Franklin recalled hearing one British officer say at the outset “that with a Thousand British Grenadiers he would undertake to march from one end of America to the other and geld all the Males partly by force and partly by a little Coaxing.”

Knowing how it all turned out, Weintraub can’t help mocking those smug British officials, like the hawkish Lord George Germain, the secretary for America responsible for the war effort, for their ignorance and naiveté in thinking the Americans would be pushovers. Since Germain labored under the decade-and-a-half-old disgrace of a court-martial conviction for cowardice, he had a vested interest in taking a hard line and in using “the war to remake his reputation.” With the largest military force ever seen in North America on its way to New York in the spring of 1776, Lord George, who was not a peer but had a courtesy title, was confident that this huge armada could secure the “unconditional submission” of the colonists.

Weintraub’s book is not a conventional military history of the war. He does not assess military strategy or describe many of the battles in any detail; indeed, to appreciate his book it helps if one already knows what happened militarily. Instead of a military narrative, he gives us an explicitly chronological account (usually six months per chapter) filled with interesting vignettes and anecdotes and with the contemporaries’ lively and often comic impressions of the war, drawn, especially on the British side, from a multitude of sources, including newspapers, diaries, and letters, some of them little known.

This approach nicely recaptures the day-to-day confusion and bewilderment of the par-ticipants, especially the British three thousand miles away from the war, as they struggled to deal with the ever-changing reality in America. Because of the slowness of transatlantic communication (it took six weeks or more for news to cross the ocean), British officials in Whitehall were responding to months-old events by making decisions and giving orders that were already undermined by subsequent events they would not learn of until weeks or months later. “Unfortunately for him,” writes Weintraub, Secretary of State Germain “was in the position of an astronomer who sees in his own moment of vision occurrences on distant objects that happened eons before.”

Weintraub’s approach creates a strong effect of dramatic irony. Although the author and readers know how everything would turn out, the participants did not, especially the British on both sides of the Atlantic, who are the participants on whom Weintraub concentrates—apparently they are the ones who most made fools of themselves. Thus we can shake our heads at the Brits’ arrogance and smugness, their stumbling and bumbling, their crisscrossing letters, their contradictory orders, their fanciful newspaper reports, their wishful thinking, their false rumors of this and that, and their many predictions of victory right around the corner.

Through most of 1776 most British officials thought, with good reason, that victory would come easy. The British army under General William Howe had humiliated George Washington’s army in New York in the late summer and fall and had driven him in pell-mell retreat across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. With loyalists assuring the British that the rebels were largely defeated and all that was left was a mere matter of mopping up, Howe had “the most sanguine hopes” of crushing the rebellion. It certainly looked that way. As thousands of patriots flocked to the British lines in response to an offer of a pardon and to swear allegiance to George III, these were “times,” as Thomas Paine said, “that try men’s souls.” By mid-December 1776, with his army disintegrating and enlistments about to expire, Washington thought “the game is pretty near up.”

Hence the psychological importance of Washington’s defeat of two of Howe’s exposed garrisons at Trenton and Princeton at the end of December 1776 and early January 1777. These small tactical victories dampened British expectations of an imminent end to the rebellion and certainly gave a boost to the Americans’ morale. They also emboldened the opposition to the war in Britain.

Almost as if he is thinking of Vietnam or Iraq, Weintraub makes much of the growing opposition to the war in England itself. Indeed, because he tends to quote freely from the British press, which was much more radical than the Parliament or the nation generally, he gives a somewhat misleading impression of the extent of opposition that in fact existed, at least at the outset of the war. Nearly all the acts of Parliament that mobilized the nation against the North American rebels and sustained the war were carried by two-to-one majorities. Although it’s true that representation in the House of Commons was hopelessly corrupt by modern or even by contemporary American standards, still most of the British political class supported the effort to suppress the rebellion at the beginning.

King George III, of course, was the greatest hawk of all, and in a monarchy, even in a mixed constitutional monarchy like that of Great Britain, that was crucial. Not only was the empire the King’s empire, but in the English constitution he alone had the authority to declare and wage war. (That is why the American people in the Constitution of 1787 made so much of giving their Congress, not the president, the exclusive authority to declare war, a constitutional provision that has been flatly ignored during this past half-century.)

The King was not upset by the defeats at Trenton and Princeton. The losses in men were mostly among the Hessian mercenaries, he said, and he was eager to soldier on. In 1777 British strategy was to have General John Burgoyne move down the Hudson Valley from Canada with eight thousand men and cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and thereby break the back of the rebellion. Back in London Germain expected General Howe to move north and meet up with Burgoyne. But Howe had something else in mind before coming to Burgoyne’s aid. Both he and Germain continued to believe that there was widespread but latent loyalist support in the middle states that needed only British victories to be awakened. Howe thought that taking Philadelphia, the rebels’ capital, would arouse the loyalists and destroy the rebels’ morale once and for all. In order to avoid crossing the Delaware River under enemy fire (a haz-ard Weintraub doesn’t acknowledge), Howe went by sea, leaving everyone, friends as well as enemies, wondering where he was or where he was headed. “He was,” as Weintraub points out, “running his own war.” After six weeks Howe landed at the head of Chesapeake Bay, as far away from Philadelphia as when he started. He eventually took so long in capturing Philadelphia that he was unable to move north in aid of Burgoyne. That “linkage with Burgoyne,” Weintraub says, “might have made the rebellion unwinnable by the Continentals.”

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