Friday, March 31, 2017

The Men Who Lost America

British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

This book is so readable, the subject so fascinating, that not a single page escaped my highlighting pen.

The basic thesis is that the British did not lose the American Revolutionary War through ineptitude.

 "The perception of the British leadership as incompetent has disguised the extent to which the outcome of the war was in doubt until the very end. It diminishes the achievements of American generals like George Washington and Nathanael Greene, who won against enormous odds and able opponents..."  

Yet the author also maintains that from the start the war unwinnable for the British. First of all they were misled by the belief that there was a significant amount of Loyalist support in America.

Secondly (and perhaps most surprisingly) they did not have naval superiority. This was due to a period of peace in Europe, during which Britain's traditional enemies, France and Spain, were not distracted by conflicts at home. Britain meanwhile had to protect its interests abroad, of which its American colonies were only one, and at the same time be ready to fend off a threatened invasion from France. "Britain was more isolated than at any other time in its history, even more than in 1940."
Each of the nine chapters focuses on a major British figure in the war. What follows are a few factoids skimmed from the book.

1. George III

He reigned in tumultuous times -- not just the American Revolution but also the French Revolution, the Gordon Riots, the Spithead and Nore mutinies, and a portion of the Napoleonic Wars. Though "the driving force" behind the war in America, he was not the tyrant portrayed by colonial America, having "less power than virtually any other monarch in Europe." He was frugal, devout, accomplished, hard-working, devoted to his wife, mixed easily with his subjects, and calmly survived survived several assassination attempts. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral. Yet today he is best remembered for losing America and for going mad.

2. Lord North

North was prime minister at a time when this office was not official. In an age of great orators (Burke, Fox, Sheridan, the younger Pitt), he was one of the most skilful, able to speak for hours at a time without notes. He was particularly esteemed for his wit, and even enjoyed the barbs of his opponents. However, the job was so demanding that he pleaded with the king numerous times to resign. Eventually he went blind and had to be led to his seat by his son for his final appearance in the House of Commons.

 "It was a testimony to North's abilities that Britain remained solvent while France was bankrupted by its participation in the American War of Independence." 

3. Admiral Howe & General Howe

The Howe brothers were "famously taciturn" and known for their "almost reckless courage." Together they orchestrated the capture of Philadelphia, which put to flight the Continental Congress. It was a short-lived victory, for General Howe was ordered to abandon the city and criticized for proceeding with the attack instead of supporting General Burgoyne's southward thrust from Canada. Both Howes resigned and "became an embarrassment to the government."

4. General Burgoyne

Vain and exceedingly ambitious, he was "a popular subject of parody in contemporary satires and lampoons." Despite initial successes, the army he led south from Canada finally met with defeat at Saratoga. He blamed others for the loss, and "together with the Howe brothers he aimed to obtain a court martial or parliamentary inquiry to clear his name." He wrote several successful plays but died "virtually insolvent."

5. Lord George Germain

The minister responsible for the war had previously been declared "unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatever" by a court martial following his role in the Battle of Minden in Europe. It was a humiliation that dogged him for the rest of his life.

6. Sir Henry Clinton

He replaced General Howe as commander-in-chief of the British army, but had at his disposal "fewer troops than his predecessor and a third of the naval support," which made him pessimistic of success. Although reduced to a mainly defensive stance, he won a spectacular victory at Charleston. Fearing he would be scape-goated for losing America, he repeatedly asked to resign, but ironically failed to do so when given the opportunity.

7. Lord Cornwallis

Unlike Clinton, to whom he was second-in-command, Cornwallis had the approval of the king due to his aristocratic upbringing and his boldness on the field of battle. His forces captured Daniel Boone and occupied Monticello, which later resulted in Governor Thomas Jefferson being accused of cowardice. Despite having "won every major battle that he had commanded in the south," he was trapped at Yorktown, where French and American guns pounded his army into submission while the French fleet blocked its escape. Although he lost the final battle of the war, he returned to England a hero.

8. Sir George Rodney

Before the war, he had fled England to escape imprisonment for debt. He was "notorious for being unscrupulous in financial matters" and when charged with the defence of British colonies in the Caribbean, he captured and plundered the Dutch trading centre of St. Eustatius. Preoccupied with his loot, he failed to send timely intelligence to Clinton about the arrival of the French fleet, and then sailed for England to answer criticism of his actions. However, due to a later victory, he emerged as "one of the few British heroes of the Revolutionary War."

9. The Earl of Sandwich

This chapter gives a fascinating look at the state of British naval affairs. John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, was the first lord of the Admiralty, and despite leading a "lurid personal life" he worked tirelessly to build up and refurbish the overstretched British navy. Nevertheless he was so unpopular that "during the Gordon Riots in London in the summer of 1780, he was dragged out of his carriage and had his face cut before being saved by the Horse Guards."

George Washington

Though no chapter is devoted to American leaders, there are many peripheral comments about them. Two regarding George Washington I found particularly interesting.  One, that he was a tall man at six foot four. The other, that he was "the only person to receive universal acclaim from the British press."


Epithets applied to public figures provide an interesting insight into the times. Some are affectionate, others not.

The British:
George III - Farmer George
Admiral Howe - Black Dick
General Burgoyne - General Elbow Room
Earl of Sandwich - Jemmy Twitcher
Vice Admiral Byron (grandfather of the poet) – Foul Weather Jack
Major Patrick Ferguson - One-Armed Devil
General Charles Grey - No Flint Grey

The Americans:
General Anthony Wayne - Mad Anthony
General Daniel Morgan - Old Wagoner
General Thomas Sumter - the Carolina Gamecock
General Henry Lee (father of Robert E.) - Light Horse Harry 
Francis Marion - the Swamp Fox
Andrew Jackson - Old Hickory*

* The nickname was acquired during the War of 1812. He was a boy during the Revolutionary war when he was scarred for life by the saber of a British officer after refusing to clean the officer's boots.