Just after starting my most enjoyable exchange posting from the Royal Naval College Dartmouth to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1980-81, I had to teach a session on the War of American Independence or “The Revolution,” as I found Americans called it. This opportunity coincided with a fascinating visit to a local high school where I was asked to say a few words. As a strong believer in questioning students’ assumptions (the role of a civilian lecturer in a military academy, as I was told by my first Director of Studies, the late Harry Stewart), I gave both audiences a strong justification of the British position in that conflict, from the point of view of the assailed great power. In the aftermath of the vietnam War, and in the context of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, my perspective struck a dissonant chord with many members of my audiences, although one midshipman who later failed her examinations said in justification of her poor history results that she had been mixed up as to who were “us” and who “them.” Clearly my strategy had worked, perhaps too well in this case. One of the high-school students who later served me in a restaurant exclaimed: “Gee, you’re the professor who told us how the British were right in the Revolution!” I seemed at least to have broadened her perspective a little. As the following chapters make clear, the war of 1775-83 was a truly global conflict where the political rather than the military dimensions of strategy were never more important. The falling out of Great Britain with a significant proportion of the inhabitants of the 13 North American colonies had major international repercussions. France was determined to bring Britain down a peg or two in order to make her a less overbearing companion in the system of European great powers. Spain wanted to do something to reverse the steady expansion of the British Empire at her expense, and notably – but far from exclusively – achieve the return of Gibraltar and Minorca to Spanish control. Both countries supported the American rebels from the start, if at first carefully and covertly in order to avoid unnecessary conflict with the world’s greatest individual global power. The international nature of the contemporary global maritime trading system meant that other nations were also eventually pulled in or forced to take up officially neutral positions. The Netherlands was dragged, somewhat reluctantly, into war with Britain because of its interests in providing channels of trade with the rebellious colonies. Denmark and Sweden, together with Russia, declared
themselves “Armed Neutrals” to safeguard their shipping. Russia in addition had its own continental interests to pursue, and Prussia and Austria – unlike in the previous wars of the mid-eighteenth century – kept their contemporary squabble, the War of the Bavarian Succession of 1778-79, disentangled from the maritime struggles for global empire. Canada, as the elder William Pitt had boasted, might have been conquered on European battlefields in the previous war of 1756-63, but in this new conflict the 13 American colonies were not going to be retained because of actions in Germany. There has been a tendency to criticize Lord North’s government for not having a continental dimension to its strategy to deter France from coming to the aid of the rebels or, if that failed, to decisively weaken France’s overseas war effort. I was one of those naval historians of the Cold War era brought up by Professor Brian Ranft of the Royal Naval College Greenwich to note well that Britain’s only significant defeat in the last three centuries was in the war in which Britain lacked a continental dimension to its strategy. More recently the pendulum of opinion has begun to swing the opposite way. As Jeremy Black argues in the following pages, Britain as a status quo power had, on balance, no need to risk the perils of continental embroilment any more. She needed to concentrate her military expenditures and strategy directly to pacify America and hang on to Gibraltar. In a subsequent chapter, John Reeve quotes Professor Nicholas Rodger’s assertion that the French navy’s weaknesses were not contingent upon a diversion of resources to the army. They were intrinsic to French naval strategy. Nevertheless, one should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Le Comte de Vergennes, the most important French minister guiding his country’s destiny in the war, was only too quick to do his best to prevent the “Potato War” over Bavaria from getting out of hand. France’s unique opportunity to concentrate on the sea and land dimensions of a truly maritime strategy was too good an opportunity to be thrown away. Britain was also unfortunate that the Marine Royale was in pretty good shape in 1775 to pursue its country’s maritime ambitions. Its gunnery was much improved, although it was still not up to the standards of the ever-improving British. It is true that the newly professionalized French gunners knew their weaknesses as well as their strengths and, as at the battle of the Saints, would take refuge below rather than face more powerful ships in close-range combat. Nevertheless, one gets the impression in this war that the clear British naval superiority, so well displayed in the later stages of the Seven Years’ War and against the navy of Napoleon beginning in 1798, was at its lowest level in relative terms in the 1770s and 1780s. French admirals might sensibly continue to place the attainment of wider objectives before battle for its own sake; by doing so, they achieved perhaps the most decisive result in the French Navy’s history, the battle of the virginia Capes, the immediate prelude to Yorktown. Here and elsewhere, British admirals probably had more reason than at other periods not to take too many risks with their opponents, and this must account at least in part for the uncharacteristic timidity shown by British naval commanders for most of the war. Even the conflict’s greatest British victory at sea, that of Rodney at the
Saints in April 1782, was most likely a result of contingency as much as intention. Spain’s navy gave the allies numerical superiority over their British enemy, but there was one weakness that had not been attended to by the Continental maritime powers. The British naval obsession with cleanliness had a key operational purpose, the ability to deploy fleets with healthy crews, in a modern sense, keeping the ships’ mechanisms in working order. It was rampant illness, coupled with the brilliant “fleet-in-being” strategy adopted by the British, that defeated the great Franco-Spanish expedition of 1779 to capture the Isle of Wight so it could be exchanged for Gibraltar after the war. In his study of Spanish policy and strategy in Chapter 8, Thomas Chávez demonstrates how, despite such reverses, the Spanish record in the war is remarkably positive. Not least of the contributions was the synergy with the French that led to Yorktown. The allies had been planning a descent on Jamaica but, when news came in of the decisive opportunity offered by Cornwallis’ predicament, the allied leadership decided to take advantage of it. The Spanish would look after the Caribbean; de Grasse would go to Chesapeake Bay. This movement of ships and men had to be paid for in theater, and Chávez documents how Spanish resourcefulness provided the funds. The American historical debt to Spain is thus almost as great as the one owed to France. The British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 was clearly the major turning point in the American victory. Again, it and the covering battle of the Virginia Capes were not the only factors in the outcome of the war. As Ricardo A. Herrera shows later in Chapter 5, Cornwallis’ stand at Yorktown came at the end of a failed campaign where the Loyalists, upon whom Britain’s hopes in its southern strategy rested, had demonstrated their inability to play their part in the overly ambitious British plans. The Loyalists receive too little attention in accounts of the war. Their potential was greater than the jaundiced British commanders later believed, as Donald Stoker and Michael W. Jones point out in the opening chapter on American military strategy in the war. They also clearly demonstrate how Nathanael Greene’s masterly Fabian strategy of preserving his “army-in-being” was another key factor in forcing Cornwallis northwards to his ultimate surrender. As long as the rebels could keep their forces in the field, the British could not win. One is drawn to the conclusion that perhaps the greatest British missed opportunity of the war was the Howe brothers’ failure to smash Washington’s army after the masterly amphibious beginning to the New York campaign in 1776. To be sure, Washington’s skill in keeping his forces from being prematurely crushed was a factor. Probably more important, however, was the Howe brothers’ reluctance to seek a military solution, a cautiousness rooted in their own Whiggish anti-Lord North political positions and in their interpretation of their instructions to achieve a negotiated peace. Like many Britons, they failed to pay sufficient regard to the colonial fixation with independence as the Americans’ minimum, non-negotiable political objective. Once the opportunity was missed decisively to remake the political context by clear military success, the
stage was set for the ultimate failure of pacification and the loss of the 13 colonies. The battles that actually reset the agenda were Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781, not for their direct military significance but for their political results. The first brought in France, and thus later Spain, although the strategic connection from Madrid to the rebellious colonists ran firmly through Paris. The latter led to the fall of the North government in March 1782 and the advent of the Rockingham Cabinet, which was committed to peace negotiations. As Jeremy Black points out in Chapter 3, the center of gravity of the overall war had moved firmly to the Caribbean by then. Rodney’s victory in the fleet action of the Saints resulted from an opportunity to stress the traditional British naval virtue of superiority in firepower. By then, Britain had also corrected the quantitative naval balance. With the overall strategic position thus redressed, Britain was ready for a compromise eighteenth-century peace in which, as John Reeve points out, she retained the main strategic benefits of 1763: Gibraltar, Canada, India and the important parts of the West Indies. The British calculated that the new confederation of former colonies might well not be a permanent friend of France and Spain, and in this they were proved to be correct. This book, given its wide-ranging approach, has allowed an international group of experts to provide a number of interlocking perspectives on a very complex global conflict. Not all the chapters agree with each other in every detail, but this adds to, rather than detracts from, the collection’s value. One cannot but read it as a whole without acquiring valuable new insights, be they on the broader significance of the raiding activities of John Paul Jones or the tangled attitudes of the Native Americans, who were natural allies of neither side and had important interests of their own. Reading it will also mean that one cannot ever again take a simplistic view of this most multifaceted conflict. It has certainly made me think again. The book also has another utility in present times. It clearly demonstrates that in any era the pacification of a hostile, unwelcoming country can be more difficult than it promises to be at first sight. This strategic reality was underscored a generation ago in Vietnam, and it has been dramatically illustrated once again at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Contemporary politicians and strategists in Washington and London therefore have much to learn from contemplating this book’s re-examination of the War of American Independence.