Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Did the British Lose the American Revolution?

So, how exactly did the British lose the American Revolution? After all, the British army was the best trained, best equipped, and most professional army in the world. The Royal Navy was, at the time of the American Revolution, the undisputed ruler of the High Seas. Though economically strained by debt from the Seven Years War and soon by the expanding nature of the American Revolution, the empire's infrastructure was still stable and relatively sound. Not only that, the British Empire still retained the loyalty of at least a third, perhaps more, of the colonists living in the thirteen North American colonies which revolted.

By contrast, the American colonists were in economic and political disarray. The states were not effectively unified. The national government was largely impotent. Continental currency was practically worthless. The American army was poorly supplied, insufficiently trained (initially), and inconsistently paid.

Virtually all the advantages went to the British, and yet the American colonies won their independence. Why?

Why Did the British Lose the American Revolution?

How did the British lose the American Revolution? How did the strongest empire in the world lose thirteen fledgling colonies in North America?

The reasons Britain lost the American Revolution begin with an understanding of what the British had to accomplish militarily in order to win. King George III and Parliament bulled their way into a military confrontation with the colonies, when a political solution would've been far less costly and much more effective in retaining the loyalty of most American colonists.

Had the British government listened to some of its own members, like Edmund Burke, who counseled respect and conciliation toward "our English brethren in the Colonies," the war could have been avoided. This was not to be the case, however, as British Tories carried the day.

Once war broke out, the British had to suppress the American insurrection and restore their preeminence in North America. To accomplish this, they had to crush any American army in the field and win the loyalty or at least compliance (however reluctant or grudging) of a majority of the American colonists.

The British faced three significant obstacles to achieving those objectives:

1) Their army simply wasn't large enough to occupy enough square miles of territory in North America.

2) Distance. The American rebels had the "Home Field" advantage, while Britain had to maintain long supply lines back to the Mother Country.

3) The American Spirit. So long as the colonists were determined to resist, the British would have a difficult time retaining all the thirteen colonies. They had to break the American will to fight or at least disrupt America's unity to make it too painful for the colonists to wage a sustained rebellion.

How the British Could Have Won the American Revolution

Even though waging war in the first place was not the best choice for the British, the British did have several opportunities to defeat the Americans:

1. New York and New Jersey Campaign - 1776

The New York and New Jersey campaign of 1776 afforded Britain its first opportunity to score a decisive blow against the American colonies.

By December 1776, the British had decimated the American Continental Army, humiliating and chasing them out of New York and into New Jersey. Had it not been for Howe pulling his punches a bit in New York and some freak weather conditions (dare we say "miraculous"?), the American army could've been destroyed in Long Island.

Even with a remnant of Washington's army escaping New York, however, the situation still looked bleak. Washington's army was on the run and literally disintegrating. Thanks to casualties, surrender, desertions, and expiring enlistments, the American army was down to a shadow of its former self in December 1776 and faced extinction.

Had General Washington not attacked the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776 (and won), it's likely the American Revolution would've faded into oblivion. The United States of America would've been a short-lived dream. Washington did attack the Hessians, however, and followed up that victory with another at Princeton. Then, in addition to talking most of his troops into extending their enlistments, Washington positioned his army for winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey -- in a way that forced the British to withdraw from New Jersey and retreat back to New York.

While no one should forget the sacrifice and bravery of the Continental Army, it is not an exaggeration to say that the leadership of General George Washington saved the American Revolution.

2. Saratoga and Philadelphia - 1777

The next opportunity for Britain to end the American War for Independence was suggested by British General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne's plan was to invade America from Canada and split the colonies in half - isolating New England from the Middle and Southern colonies.

Had Burgoyne and General William Howe coordinated their efforts, the invasion could have been as devastating to the American colonies as General William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea" was to the South in the American Civil War.

Due to poor communication and the enormous egoes of the British commanders, it was not to be! General Howe launched an attack on the American capital of Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne to fend for himself against the northern American army, commanded by Horatio Gates.

Burgoyne's advance bogged down and was decisively repelled at Saratoga. His surrender to Gates at Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution.

Howe's attack on Philadelphia was militarily successful, but the capture of Philadelphia did little to stop America's resolve to continue the fight, especially given what had happened at Saratoga.

Eventually, the British army withdrew from Philadelphia and fought General Washington's better trained army in its march back to New York. The battle was a draw, and both sides knew the war would go on for much longer.

3. The Southern Front - 1778-1781

The British had perhaps their best chance at winning the American Revolution by rolling up the American colonies from the South. Things looked good for them, after capturing Savannah, Georgia (1778), Charleston, South Carolina (1780), and the utter destruction of the southern Continental Army at Waxhaws (1780) and Camden (1780).

Unfortunately for the British, the American Congress allowed General Washington to appoint the next American leader for the South. Washington's choice was Nathanael Greene, a remarkable American general who wore the British down in a series of battles, which set the stage for Yorktown (1781).

Had the British been able to crush Greene, Yorktown never would've happened and the British probably would've swept the entire South.

4. Benedict Arnold's Treachery

The last best chance for Britain to win the war was Benedict Arnold. Had Arnold's plan succeeded, he would've handed Britain the keys to West Point. This would have allowed the British to take control of the Hudson River, drive the Americans fully out of New York, and perhaps split New England off from the rest of the colonies (as Burgoyne hoped to accomplish before Saratoga).

Not only that, but Arnold came close to delivering General Washington to the British as well. The loss of America's Commander in Chief would have been devastating to the colonies both politically and militarily.

Alas, it was not to be. Arnold's treachery was discovered, and West Point was saved. And with it, Britain's last best hope of winning the American Revolution evaporated.

The French Connection

French support of the American colonists was, of course, a significant factor in how the American Revolution turned out. Without French support, it's unlikely the Americans could've sustained a long war effort against the British Empire. Trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown certainly would not have happened, were it not for the French.

Once the French recognized the United States and entered the war, the American Revolution became a world war for the British. Losing the American colonies wasn't necessarily the "least of their problems," but it certainly wasn't their only concern.

Still, the Franco-American alliance had problems, and France too had more global than North American concerns. Had the British played their cards more effectively in the southern campaign and had Benedict Arnold's plan worked out better for them, it's still possible they could've won the American Revolution or at least ended it on more favorable terms.

Historians have long enjoyed asking "What if" questions about history, including the American Revolution. Whether the American Revolution could've turned out differently will likely continue to be a subject for such discussions.


Rebecca said...

It's fun to speculate how history would have turned out differently had certain events gone another way. But sometimes it seems almost pointless since the past is unchangeable.

Great article! For someone like me that doesn't know a lot about the American Revolution, it's very informative!

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Darrin said...

I think another reason is the "personal investment." Colonials were fighting for their homes and families. British soldiers were fighting for the crown's property... in a far away land (and one they considered inferior to England)... where they didn't really want to be.

Ashley Hagood said...

This is so interesting! I think Valley Forge and other tough times show how ragged the Continental army was, yet they also speak to the strength of colonial leaders. That fighting spirit that you mentioned really showed up in Washington, Greene and others who led the colonial soldiers. They were also smart and unconventional, and that worked.

David said...

Interesting article!

I think you're right to say the outcome would have been different without the French .. And the Spanish and the Dutch for that matter. At the time these countries were uneasy with British power and saw this as an opportunity to reduce it.

Ranger J said...

I have another theory altogether. The British made one of the most astounding military blunders in history by not taking and holding the Delmarva Peninsula and then using it as a base of operations.

Positioned squarely in the mid-Atlantic region, the peninsula could have acted as a jumping off point for an assault on any portion of the colonies, which would have been within 2-5 sailing days. Its 6000 or so square miles could have provided a base for as many soldiers as the King wanted to send - all of them, even. It could have fed every soldier and sailor in uniform forever, and with its interior lines of communication, could have been an impregnable fortress. All the Continentals in uniform couldn't have forced a successful attack through the marshy neck of the peninsula, nor could they have stopped the British from leaving by land any time they wanted.

From the peninsula, the British could have chipped away at any portion of the colonies, always behnd or ahead of the colonials, and they could have taken their time, fighting when they wanted and laying low when it suited them.

Pamela R Winnick said...

This is great.

Aidiel said...

great article... thanks for sharing

Mobil Keluarga Terbaik di Indonesia said...

i love my country...

Daffodlila said...

Nicely written and reasoned piece here.

Anonymous said...

The untold truth is the fledgling republic had almost as many priviteers(pirates) as they did men in uniform,which were sucsessfully strangleing the british trade economy around the world .But that did not make for a glorious birth of a young nation so that tended to get left out of the history wasnt heroic battles that this nation was built on ,it was fighting dirty.

Anonymous said...

Note to self: Do not hire German/Hessian mercenaries who mistreated civilians to fight one's war against fellow countrymen culturally. Does not win hearts and minds.

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Anonymous said...

So, how exactly did the British lose the American Revolution? After all, the British army was the best trained, best equipped, and most professional army in the world. The Royal Navy was, at the time of the American Revolution, the undisputed ruler of the High Seas. Though economically strained by debt from the Seven Years War and soon by the expanding nature of the American Revolution, the empire's infrastructure was still stable and relatively sound. Not only that, the British Empire still retained the loyalty of at least a third, perhaps more, of the colonists living in the thirteen North American colonies which revolted.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

GO AUSTRALIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Linder said...

I grew up in Great Britain and our history books stated that the British walked away from what the Americans call the war of independence stating that it just wasn't worth it. Britian already had the rest of the world, why would they need one more headache. Rule Britannia!! Just sayin!!!

Phil N said...

"(and one they considered inferior to England)..." Has this changed? The book "1776" suggests that the turning point was the British winter retreat from the New Jersey held line (and leaving to the "drunk" Hessians on Dec 26). Interesting how Benedict Arnold could be considered a hero to Britain, when the name is synonymous with traitor in the US. Less than 100 years later Canada separated (well stopped paying taxes to)without a war.

Anonymous said...

Had a good laugh at Linder's comment that "our history books stated that the British walked away from what the Americans call the war of independence stating that it just wasn't worth it." Right, because the British had been soundly whipped and certainly didn't want any more! Sounds like sour grapes from the losing side to me. God Bless America!

Anonymous said...

One could argue the 'war of independence' was in fact an act of treason committed by traitors more interested in land acquisition for personal gain and a desire to avoid paying their way for security provided by British troops along the borders. Perhaps a more appropriate term for the event would be the 'American Insurgency' or the 'military coup of 1776?

Anonymous said...

So, is that what the english books call getting your behind kicked silly by a bunch untrained group of man? Hey, you do and say what you can to make you feel better. But, if that was really true they would not have come back again a few years later and start another war in a attempt to regain power ( remember the war of 1812). Britain was demoralized and could not continue, just admite, you lost it and pretty bad. I am not American and impartial to any side, but that's the story the entire world knows. Apparently, 200 years has not been enough to sooth the British pain of loosing, and loosing badly.

Anonymous said...

the fact of the matter is, the reason we lost or rather should I say, gave up on America. Was the fact that the English top dogs in them days ie, commanders/generals blar blar blar that had all those colored stripes on their chest, were just so dam arrogant and obnoxious and thought they were invisible and untouchable! which is a bit like it is today but just the opposite side of the Atlantic from us ay...! Anyway lets not get personal! But I suppose one can't blame the English in them days, after all little England took and owned nearly a third of the world, and has been the only country/power to ever do so in history! But our down full, was England just couldn't control so much of the world's mass at anyone time, we were simply being ripped apart from all the land that we had previously taken! So it was decided at the time that we should maybe concentrate on looking after and hold on to what we had already gained else where because quite simply there was more loyalty and acceptance and a lot less trouble involved in keeping peace and order amongst the other lands that we controlled!, and not forgetting all the hundreds of millions in taxes which in today's terms was billions that we earned! I do wonder sometimes what America would be like today if it didn't have the star's and strips and held the Union Jack instead? I think more tea and watching Eastenders on TV, and having the Queen as head of state wouldn't go a miss, oh and maybe using proper English language wouldn't go a miss either! what the hell happend with that one? lol

Anonymous said...

It makes you wonder, what was King George III thinking? said...

Thank you for this blog. That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something thats eye opening and important.

Anonymous said...

Act of treason??? How would u like it to be taxed without representation?????? Cmon now man get out of here with that shit. I wonder how fast it would take us to smack u kids around in todays age?? Oh and your welcome for saving u guys from hitler.

Anonymous said...

Are you for real hitler. Before you decided to be pulled into the war. .Britain and what allies we had sent hitler packing during battle of britain he didnt control the sky so he was going no place apart from russia and that went well. And todays war wheres that big red button.

Anonymous said...

America the country built on terrorist ha say no more there still the same now !! Don't get me wrong I'm discussed in what Briton has done thoughout history to we are both equally hated throughout the world

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Anonymous said...

Why do Americans always bring in the "We saved you from hitler" bullshit?

We all know as a matter of fact that Germany had lost without the need for you Americans to have intervened!

Germany destroyed itself by making the same mistake a Napoleon in Russia also because they couldn't defeat the mighty RAF and such lost the ability to launch a successful invasion of Britain.

To give you some credit, you did defeat the Japs and simultaneously killed hundreds of thousands of instant lives defeating them...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, but it's pointless to turn back time. The British lost a war in 1776. That does't mean that the British aren't champions on the battlefield, it simply means that a new day had dawned.

A great, wise man once said being a champion is not always about winning spectacular victories. Sometimes, it's about experiencing spectacular defeat.

Yes, Americans had help from France, Spain and Denmark, but the British invaded with German mercenaries - and they were inciting Indians. In the end, God's own "manifest destiny" shone through, as God always does. :) A new nation aaas born. America.

New England said...

I agree the "we saved you from Hitler" stuff is sickening. I'm an American and have been listening to those who say that in arrogance and ignorance my whole life and it has ALWAYS made me sick. :(

If you help a friend, you never mention it again. That's what friends do. Not every American will say that because the wiser ones know how disgustingly pitiful it is to say. Britain is quite a fighter, we all know that. Only fools think otherwise.

The same fool who are obnoxious at sporting events, their kid's soccer games - - the ones who made everyone cringe at the Holiday party at work!

You know the type I mean - God help us all!

Anonymous said...

Anyone asking for thanks for "saving their ass from Hitler" is a damn fool. As an American service man, I find it utterly sickening when one generation takes credit for another's accomplishments. The Brits fought their "arse's" off, mostly alone, and utterly stoped the unstoppable german war machine. Their navy was still the top dog in the region, maybe the world, but they were being wore down slowly and it would have been a very diffrent war without American support. I have always seen the the UK as our brothers, we were coming, one way or another. Despit how modern day Brits view Americans, we would always have their backs, right or wrong. I know we have a "warmonger" rep, but I assure you, Americans are just about fed up with jumping into one conflict after another. As for the revolution, I'd say yall got a little payback by burning the White House to the ground. Lol

London, UK said...

I am British. In reference to other comments... The fact is that Britain's history is so rich that while the American Revolution was an important event (to Americans) in the grand scheme of things, it's not something that British school history books dwell upon as there was lots of other stuff happening. So while Americans may think they are rubbing our noses in it, they are probably educating us too! To sum up our level of coverage: Boston Tea Party, No tax without representation, Americans revolt, British armies don't meet up, Colonies beat Britain (with help of France and others), Britain loses colonies... BUT, Britain has been losing colonies for 100s of years - Hong Kong was lost only the other week. Since we've now run out of colonies (apart from ones that might have oil) we next plan to split Britain itself. Scotland has plans for September 2014 separation. We'd like to lose the Welsh maybe 2020, just after Britain leaves Europe in 2017 ;)

Anonymous said...

You only won independence from the mother country because we allowed it; the war swung your way mainly because of assisstance from the UK's enemies like Spain, Russia, Holland and France. Also, at the time, the rebels were still British, you were former British citizens, colonists!

Anonymous said...

...and each time you relied on the assisstance of Britains main enemies!

Anonymous said...

Mother Russia can kick your American and British asses all the way up to China :)) just adding some oil in the fire :))

donwreford said...

Russia was stuffed in WW2, they were saved by the British with support from Britain in particular in the early part, Britain and America never trusted each other, because of the reason of what this article states, Britain, had to play a part in both camps, Britain has feared Germany as a superior nation of machinery, Britain having a class system that worked on violence, as stated in the blogs, and article, British, arrogance was a inherent problem, of the upper classes, in particular, a the system of British, philosophy, being divide and conquer, worked well but eventually the British elite, found this was working against them, it the same today in Britain, except its like a disease, it is so inherent that one is not aware of the consequences.

Anonymous said...

Wow, some very wild and bitter comments on what started out as a very interesting and fun blog. I'm British, just to lay that out in the open for a start, but I also feel a kinship with the good people of the USA. Maybe its because of our connected history or maybe its the quarter American blood, on my mothers side (maiden name Jefferson). There are many comments here that range from bang on TRUE to pure stupidity. The fact is the revolutionary war was really the first civil war as American born men fought on both sides, the continental army was NOT a bunch of hicks and farmers as claimed by the end they were well trained and skilled veterans and they deserved their victory. Our troops were led by donkeys, so not much changed their, and it is TRUE the powers in charge did not see it as important enough to destroy any hope of peace. Which was correct as we were trading partners within a couple of years after the war was over. Oh by the way, we did not start the war of 1812, as suggested by one fool. Well not the land war anyway however our navy was a bit naughty in pressing too many US sailors to serve on our ships. and yes we did burn down the Whitehouse, hence why its painted white. All of this is in our past. I don't begrudge any of my American cousins their victory and neither does a vast majority of the UK. I do enjoy our relationship and the warm friendships I have experienced over the years. I also enjoy throwing the cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting that with no war of independence there would have been no union to leave and no civil war......enjoy that one ;)

starfox said...

london,uk said "'s not something that British school history books dwell upon as there was lots of other stuff happening"

you dont dwell upon it cos britain got their as$ beat (the patriots did as well but won the war). i lol at the idea that it wasnt dwelled upon simply becos there was other stuff going on.

Anonymous said...

...i agree to some degree, yet it doesn't change the historical fact that the americans won their independence by defeating british rule. Of course we needed some help, but so did britian during world war 1 & 2, and yes we were going to enter those wars regardless i know. Britian supported the south during the american civil war as well. But it is now 2014...and Britian is Americans closest ally, bar none.

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Anonymous said...

do you have any source to show that this is right

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London, UK said...

starfox said...
'london,uk said "'s not something that British school history books dwell upon as there was lots of other stuff happening"

you dont dwell upon it cos britain got their as$ beat (the patriots did as well but won the war). i lol at the idea that it wasnt dwelled upon simply becos there was other stuff going on. '

Britain fought many successful colonial battles, but these are not dwelled upon any more than the losses. Britons have several thousand years to include in history curriculum with focus on home events rather than colonial wars. There were victories (Trafalgar) and humiliations (1066, Hastings) both are covered in great detail.

In terms of detailed history, America has little, whereas Britain has vast amounts. So yes there is a lot to cover which means certain events have less coverage - we can't dwell upon them!

The revolution was clearly important to Americans, the birth of their country, but from a distance, it is one of many, sorry.

But the British can't and don't feel bitter about the independence as you and some others seem to imply. America continues to be a great asset spreading British values; it is English that Americans speak, within a capitalist democracy.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't just religious freedom that drove immigrants to suffer the journey into a foreign land like the new world. It was personal freedom... a way to live one's life as they believed was their God-given right that was impossible to realize elsewhere.

Whether Britain had won all the military battles during the revolutionary period or not does not change the fact that the country that Britain was attempting to keep "under its wing" was populated by vast numbers of like-minded people, some of whom who had British ancestry. The percentages also do not matter. What is important is that is was continually growing in predominance within the culture of a new country.

So... it was more of a British reality check that saner minds finally prevailed that determined whether Britain was able to recognize the futility of trying to militarily control those minds. Later in history, they faced a similar situation in India where Hindus and Muslims had also had enough "handling for their own good" and were determined to achieve independence and by using only non-cooperation.

But I do agree with the fact that, had Britain employed some political and economic tact in the late 1700's, they could very well have kept the colonies hog-tied for some time, at least until the pervasive sentiment of freedom-lovers gradually and proportionately overwhelmed their ability to manage it from across the sea and eroded their philosophical grip on the population.

Funny thing is: the predominance of the crown had been waning (from a cause that I believe is simply a matter of realized self-determination of a people) for over 100 years, so eventually, America would have become self-governing anyway. It would have just taken longer and been a drain on the British economy longer.

Hence, the American Revolution was, in retrospect, a boon for Britain since it could focus then its monarchy on its less independent-minded, less revolutionary-minded, less aristocratic-minded holdings.

No need to thank us, though, Brits. It was our pleasure. ;)

Anonymous said...

Britain lost the war as it was engaged in a global conflict with France/Spain/Holland at the time. Although America was important to Britain, it really wasn't as important as the rest of the empire at the time.

The influence of France was THE deciding factor in the conflict. The Brits learned from their mistakes in America and dominated France thereafter.

Anonymous said...

Bunch of untrained men? The British trained men you mean that decided to fight back with help.
The British were beaten but it was not quite the thumping you globally believe. To use an analogy. If 100 men were to kick the arse of 10 men running away constitutes arse kicking you would be right.

Anonymous said...

Taxed for nothing...what has changed? Smack us kids...sometimes battles are not won in the air so it'd take you just as long as the any other wars you've won. Oh wait a minute when have you actually won a war single handed? It was the Russians who actually ended the war by invading Berlin prior to the US getting anywhere near it. Throwing the last punch at a badly beaten opponent does not make you a saviour.