1776 – 1783: American colonists revolt and declare independence
One of the more obvious oddities about the American War of Independence is that it need not have happened. By no means all citizens established in the thirteen Colonies desired or craved for independence from Britain. If the eventual leaders of the War had listened to some of their colleagues instead of beating the drum, things might have been quite different.
There would never have been a United States; instead a much-extended Canada running from the frozen north southwards to Mexico and the Caribbean. The capital of this tremendous country might possibly have been New York, carrying an ancient English name. Given the tendency shown by other European states to make constant war with Britain, the monarchy might well have transferred to the new capital of Greater Canada – maybe have built itself a new Buckingham Palace overlooking the Hudson River.
But this is the stuff of dreams. We must analyse the causes and effect of the American War of Independence: almost from the arrival on American shores of English pilgrims seeking a new life free from religious bigotry, the colonists recognised the fact that communication, logistics, and consensus between themselves and the Old World were bound to be complex, if not impossible. A War between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain was inevitable from the second representatives signed the Declaration of Independence. There had been great colonial resentment at the commercial policies of England’s King and his Parliament, arrangements designed for the enrichment of the mother country at the expense of the Colonies. After all, popular English thought ran then – that is what colonies are for – to pay for themselves and provide even greater wealth and strategic power for Mother, even if huge distances over oceans had to be overcome. After all (again), why finance, build and maintain a vast navy if you are not going to use it?
The American colonists were never permitted any say in political decisions that directly or indirectly affected their interests. What might have been a comical incident such as The Boston Tea Party (1773) became infinitely more serious, developing into actual armed resistance in 1775, at the battles at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.
All-out war arrived in 1776 when divisions of red-coated British troops arrived, tired and dispirited after the long Atlantic haul. They found healthy, well-trained guerilla warriors, accustomed to shooting and the long knife since boyhood, more than ready to fight and die for the country that had just declared unilateral independence. The English soldiery were there because they were in the Army, officered by men they mostly hated, drawing a pittance (when it arrived), and not being in America for any reason they could imagine.
Coincidentally, there would be a parallel situation in Spain during the opening years of the nineteenth century, when Spanish men, women, children and priests fought side by side against an occupying army of France. As war historians have often observed, there is a wide gap between enthusiastic defence of your country and obedience to your colonel.
Britain had to fight a war more than 3000 miles from home, facing insuperable difficulties of command, supply, snail-like communications, lack of local geographical knowledge, innaccurate maps, inadequate supply of ammunition, a hostile population, and complete lack of experience in combating guerrillas who were dead shots with a musket, and perfectly accustomed to living rough and off the land.
But the colonists had disadvantages too. They had but one brilliant general, George Washington, an English gentleman, and very few others. There were difficulties with financing the war (no-one wanted to pay for it; quite a few hadn’t wanted it in the first place). There were rivalries between the newly declared states. There was little sea power, while the British Navy, though hard pressed, was still the most powerful in the world.
And then France, as she had done for centuries, stepped in. With the French Alliance (1778) the nature of the War changed. The French, as crafty as ever, sent few soldiers to fight on American soil, but instead concentrated on making expensive trouble for Britain in Europe and India.
At first, the British stategy under Howe was the break up the union of colonies by capturing New York, and forcing George Washington to retire to Pennsylvania. But then the solemn but useless Burgoyne made a mess of things at Saratoga (1777), surrendered, and raised the revolutionaries’ morale. It was at this time that the French decided to intervene and get what they could out of the War. After failing to cut off New England from the rest, the British armies began a more southerly campaign. This was at first successful, with 5000 Americans giving themselves up at Charleston, but then English general Cornwallis found himself trapped (bad communications and intelligence again) at Yorktown. Confused and blockaded by French reinforcements, he was forced into admitting defeat.
General Washington made a firm camp at West Point (1778) from which he could threaten Britain’s headquarters at New York. In 1780 (another) Clinton captured Charleston, while Cornwallis vainly chased the colonists’ southern army until they grew exhausted and surrendered at Yorktown (Virginia) in October 1781. This stalemate effectively ended hostilities and a reluctant peace was agreed to at the Treaty of Paris (1783).
During the war the British did indeed enjoy plenty of victories at first, but could not sustain the war for obvious reasons. They destroyed neither Washington’s nor Greene’ armies, and never managed to break the Americans’ iron will.
Sadly, the success of the American Revolution provided the precedent for revolutions in other countries, for a great nation had been seen to crumble in a fight with its own citizens. The French Revolution was much inspired by this colonists’ revolt, as indeed were all the South and Central American uprisings against Imperial Spain. Even the dreaded Russian Revolution in 1917 owed much to the American War of Independence, though the results of the two wars were so radically different. The Russians replaced royal tyranny with a worse Bolshevist one. The Americans repulsed George III (who, poor fellow, was more than a little mad anyway) and set about creating The United States of America.
NOTE: The Thirteen Colonies
From North to South, these were Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. They occupied most of the Eastern Seaboard. They had even fewer ties to each other than they had with Great Britain, but they shared one abiding dream – a massed move to the West. The Act of Independence, breaking as it did the 1763 Royal Proclamation which forbade expansion beyond the Appalacians, allowed the colonies to start their great task of conquering the West, finding their way at last to California.