When the years of simmering resentment between Britain and her American colonists boiled over into war in 1775, nobody imagined the rebels would last for long. But the ill-trained and poorly equipped farmers and shopkeepers were fighting for their freedom and waged war with an exemplary tenacity. Britain was shocked by the bitter resistance they offered, but amazement turned to horror when France suddenly threw in her lot with the rebels: an alliance which transformed a localised insurrection into a costly and bloody global struggle.
With British troops braced for enemy attacks from Tobago to Trincomalee, not a lot could be done to prevent French troops from rushing to America with vital aid for the rebels. A combined Franco-American force humiliated George III and raised the Stars and Stripes over the New World, but France would pay dearly for meddling in British affairs.
The news of the fighting in Massachuchetts came as a shock to the British. Blood had been shed it soaked the road from Concorde to Boston. But George III was not frightened “When once these rebels have received a smart blow” he assured the doubters “they will submit”. He would not allow the Empire to be dismantled by an insolent New England rabble. Nor would he let the opposition in parliament chip away at the British constitution with proposals for appeasement of the rebels. Parliament supported him, Britain would fight for America. “One smart blow - that should do it”. It was clearly impossible for England’s army to conquer all of that vast land. Anyway, Britain did not wish to subjugate the colonies but to bring them home to Empire. At least a third and perhaps a half of the Americans were loyal. Smash the rebel army and the rebellion would vanish with it.
But after 3 years of budget balancing and retrenchment, Britain was ill-prepared for war. We had only 7000 troops in America and within weeks 6000 of those were locked against the sea at Boston by a ring of 16000 badly organised but very determined rebels. On paper the whole British army numbered 29,000 throughout the empire, including. In England and Scotland there were only 9,500 able bodied soldiers to defend the homeland and to reinforce America.
The Americans had no real navy, and sea warfare was expected to be confined to blockading activity. But the British had not enough ships to do even that properly. There were only two ships of the line and some frigates in colonial waters and the Admiralty was reluctant to spare any of the twenty battleships which were on guard duty at home for fear of sudden French or Spanish intervention. Some members of the British military establishment felt that there was nothing to fear from the Americans. General Wolfe had called them “the worst soldiers in the universe”, while another British general observed that “the native American is a very effeminate thing, very unfit for war”.
While the British spent a year getting ready for war which had already begun, the Americans were fighting. They made up in initiative what they lacked in organisation and discipline. In Boston the British garrison had suffered 1054 casualties it could ill afford in dislodging rebels from a commanding position on Bunker Hill.
Sir William Howe was told to move his men to friendlier New York for the winter and prepare for a spring offensive from there. But the supply ships bringing food from Great Britain were blown by gales to the West Indies and when he finally got ships in March 1776, the hungry, tired British sailed not for New York but for Halifax, Nova Scotia, there to lick their wounds. Thus the wars first birthday found most of the British in far off Nova Scotia plus a small band clinging desperately to Quebec. With great clinks and groans and gnashing of gears, the great British war machine was grinding into action.
The cabinet planned strategy, sometimes giving too much thought to small detail and often too little to the grand strategy. The Secretary of state for the Colonies, Lord George Germain was responsible for the conduct of the army n the field - despite the fact that he had been court-martialled for cowardice n 1760, found guilty and declared unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever. To put plans into action Germain had to go through a maze of commissions, boards, officers and departments. Orders had to be issued directly to generals in the field as the army had no central command. It did not have much of anything, it was transported by the Navy board, fed by the Treasury, which hired ships for the job and depended on the Ordinance Board for engineers and artillery. Without these it was helpless. As clumsy as it was the apparatus had to be made to work and work as well as as by William Pitt the Prime Minister in the seven years war. Alas for England she had no Pitt at the helm, the nation lacked leadership.
The plan for 1776 was a good one, New England was the centre of the rebellion, if it could be severed from the rest of the colonies, the harmony and legitimate government could be restored elsewhere. The Hudson Valley and the inland lakes stretched across the back of New England from New York to Canada. The British idea was for an army under General Howe from New York, and General Carleton from Canada would drive towards each other along this line meeting up in Upper New York. This would isolate New England and force the Americans to stand and fight. General Washington who was struggling to build a proper army out of his irregular Americans, needed time. British strategists liked to presume that all would go as planned and allowed the barest possible margin for mishaps, this was a mistake they made persistently and they began making it early.
The Hudson offensive had to wait for spring weather. It was believed, mistakenly, that the British reinforcements could be used first for an attack on Charleston, South Carolina and still get to New York in time for Sir William Howe’s campaign in the spring. Delayed for various reasons, this winter expedition did not reach Charleston until June.
After a half hearted and totally unsuccessful attack on strong rebel defences, the British put back to sea and limped to New York, bringing Sir William Howe his reinforcements in August! Howe now began his campaign to take New York, six months after the time that he was due to have marched north from that city. The British had been right, Washington would fight to defend the city with his army of 9,500. Howe had the largest force ever seen in America but moved his 25,000 troops as carefully as though each were his one and only son. Three times he had Washington’s army and perhaps the end of the rebellion within his grasp and three times by caution or indolence he let it escape.
In the end Howe did capture a third of the rebel army before Washington and the other 6000 Americans scampered like scared rabbits across New Jersey and beyond the Delaware River.
By then it was November, the end of the fighting season and his half of the giant pincers which were to have snapped off New England was a long way from its objective. So, as it happened was Carleton’s half.
The Americans besieging Quebec had suffered a difficult winter as had the British defenders inside the walls. In May, when a squadron of British warships appeared off Quebec to relieve the fortress, the rebels fled. Carleton at last with an army, set off for Albany to meet Howe who would not be there.
Another year another distraction, in 1777 it was Philadelphia, seat of the Continental Congress and hive of loyalists that lured the British and diverted them from their purpose in the Hudson Valley and possibly cost them the war. Philadelphia pulled Howe like a magnet. It could be taken, he told London. At this time the communications between the government in London, who were directing operations, and the field generals were poor indeed, with often, pre-worked out strategies being changed in the field by generals.
In a plan by General Burgoyne, for a British advance from Canada on two fronts, one moving down Lake Champlain and the Hudson, while a second marched eastwards from Oswago along the Mohawk valley, the two wings would converge on Albany from the north and west and meet up with sir William's men coming from the South. London approved this plan but Howe changed his mind, he sent only 3000 men to meet the army from Canada. Finally he decided to send none at all, but to hold a force ready to ‘assist’ Burgoyne if he needed help. Burgoyne was already marching into the rebel thickets of Upper New York when he discovered no one was coming to meet him from the south. His army of 7000 took Ticonderoga and pressed on to Fort Edward where it had to wait 30 days for fresh supplies from Canada
Meanwhile patriots led by Benedict Arnold routed the auxiliary British force from its siege of Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk and pushed it back to Oswago.
Burgoynes western flank was now exposed and militia swarmed like bees about him growing bolder every day. If Burgoyne moved across the Hudson and towards Albany, the Americans may cut off his line of retreat, if he withdrew, what would England have thought of him?
The blow struck at Saratoga shook the empire to its foundations and opened cracks in the wall for all to see. Prime Minister North tried to resign, Howe, Burgoyne, Carleton and Germain plunged into an orgy of mutual recrimination.
Britain had little to fear from the embryonic American Navy, but one officer, John Paul Jones, proved as daring as any privateer, and gave Britain constant trouble. Jones was a Scottish gardeners son who with ice cool nerve, horrified George III by bringing the war into Britain’s back yard. From his base in France, which was allied with the rebels since Britain’s humbling defeat at Saratoga in 1777, Jones sailed the Ranger into the Irish Sea and took a number of prizes. Then on April 23rd 1778, he swooped on Whitehaven in Cumberland and spiked the towns guns. That same day he raided the Earl of Selkirk’s house off the Solway Firth, and failing to find the Earl at home, walked off with his silver plate.
In August 1779, Jones again went raiding, this time with two ships, the Bonhomme Richard and the frigate Alliance. The little squadron stumbled on a British convoy, whose escorts included the heavily armed Serapis, off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. In a grim and bloody action, Jones brought the Bonhomme Richard alongside the Serapis, and for over three hours the two ships tore at each other with crashing broadsides. As guns began to explode aboard the Bonhomme Richard the captain of the Serapis, called on Jones to surrender, “I have not yet begun to fight” roared back the doughty Scottish-American. When Jones’s guns smashed the mainmast of the Serapis, her captain had no choice but to strike his colours. Jones boarded her, hauled up the Stars and Stripes and with customary civility of 18th century warfare, took the defeated captain to his own ship for a glass of wine.
As Britain struggled into the sixth year of war with America, General Cornwallis made a fatal mistake. To secure a port for supplies and communications, he fell back on Yorktown in Virginia. But before the Royal Navy could arrive to relieve the town from the sea, the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse arrived, forced an English fleet to retire and firmly blockaded the British.
Cornwallis could only watch helplessly as the French admiral ferried in a 16,000 man Franco-American army to lay siege to the town. Outnumbered two to one Cornwallis abandoned his outer defences, and Washington moved in close enough to pound the centre of the town with his heavy guns.
After 5 days of ceaseless bombardment and loss of two key redoubts, Cornwallis asked for surrender terms. Two days later Yorktown capitulated and 8,000 men with their muskets, cannon and horses marched into captivity as their bands appropriately played ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. For Britain, the war was as good as over. Humbled by one of the most appalling military disasters in her history, she also concluded a peace treaty with America in 1783.
. But not really, in a desperate and spectacular movement, Washington’s small army crossed back over the Delaware on Christmas night and fell with ferocity on the thin defences Howe had staked out in New Jersey. The Americans seized badly needed supplies and killed or captured 1300 troops whilst losing only two of their own - who froze to death.
He was brave and a gambler, he moved forward, the Americans leapt on his lines f communications and mauled his army, he tried a last plan to break through to Albany near Saratoga. He was surrounded and outnumbered and with no hope of rescue, he surrendered.
The retreating Americans blocked his passage through Lake Champlain with fleet of jerry-built gunboats. The British built heavier boats won the miniature naval battle but the delay was crucial. Instead of pushing on to Fort Ticonderoga, Carleton backtracked to the north of the lake and tucked his army into sheltered winter quarters thus ending another frustrating year