HIST 116: The American Revolution
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
The American Revolution
HIST 116 - Lecture 17 - The Logic of a Campaign (or, How in the World Did We Win?)
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Joanne Freeman: So on Tuesday, I talked about George Washington and some of the reasons why he proved so invaluable during and after the Revolution, and among other things I talked about the ways in which he proved time and again that he could be trusted with power. Well, today and on Tuesday we’re going to be looking at Washington in power, commanding the Continental Army, as we sketch out the chain of events on the battlefield that ultimately resulted in American military victory.
Now in a sense, today’s lecture and Tuesday’s lecture — it’s sort of one big lecture that I’ve arbitrarily divided in half because I can’t fit it all into one lecture. So we’re going to get part of the fighting today and part of the fighting on Tuesday, and the dividing line will basically be however much I finish talking about today, as today’s lecture and I’ll pick up after that on Tuesday.
As you will see — and I’ll come to that in a few minutes — I have basically divided the fighting of the Revolution into four phases — and I’ll explain in just a little bit why four phases, and what that means, and why they make sense, and then I’ll sort of proceed through them as we unfold what’s happening during the actual fighting of the war. And during both of the lectures — during today’s lecture and during Tuesday’s lecture — I’m going to be looking at the unfolding events from two vantage points, so I’m not just going to be looking at how Americans view what’s happening. I’m going to try to get at both the British logic and the American logic as to why they’re doing what they’re doing, why their strategy, why their actions actually make sense, because to really understand what’s happening and why what ultimately did happen did happen, you really do need to understand the logic of both sides in this conflict.
Now in a sense, the underlying question of both of these two lectures is: How did America win? That’s the real question. How in the world did America win? Even to people at the time, this hardly seemed like the most probable outcome of this conflict when it was undertaken. And what we’re going to be seeing today and on Tuesday is that America’s victory, in the end, was the result of a combination of factors. I’m going to talk about a number of them at the beginning of the lecture and then head off into battles, now that we have sort of gotten an understanding of some of the major complications and factors really complicating things for the British more than anything else — but I’ll start out here just by listing some of the things I’m going to be talking about briefly here at the outset of the lecture.
So a combination of factors that helped decide the outcome of the war. One of them is, as we’ll see in just a moment: British logistical disadvantages; British assumptions about the logic of warfare — and, as we’ll see, some of these assumptions did not really apply well to the situation in North America; George Washington’s strategy and the ways in which it sometimes differed from more conventional Old World methods of fighting; the different definitions of victory for the British and the Americans, as again we’ll see in a few minutes. It meant something very different. The British had to accomplish one thing for victory, the Americans had to accomplish something different, and in the end what the British had to accomplish was much more difficult than what the Americans had to accomplish, and I’ll explain that momentarily. So British logistical disadvantages, British assumptions about the logic of warfare, George Washington’s strategy, and the different definitions of victory for the British and the Americans are some of the factors that helped decide the outcome of the war in favor of the Americans.
Now what I’m not going to go into here — and I will go into it on Tuesday — which is another major factor that helped the Americans win the war — that’s the French. That’s actually the French joining the war on the side of the Americans. That has a huge impact for a whole bunch of reasons, as I’ll talk about next week. I’m not going to go into that — into detail now, but I will say that it’s hard to imagine the Americans really winning the war without the assistance of the French, and we’ll see that play out on Tuesday.
Chapter 2. British Disadvantages in the War [00:04:14]
Now before we start talking about the unfolding of the war, I do want to look for just a few minutes on some of these challenges, particularly that faced the British at the opening of the fighting of the Revolution, and how circumstances in the American Revolution were different than circumstances in some of the previous wars that the British had fought. And in a way this leads us to the first of that chain of things I just mentioned a minute ago: British logistical disadvantages. In a sense, that’s what I’m going to be talking about right now: the ways in which the war in the American colonies presented some logistical complications that the British hadn’t necessarily faced in this same way and with this same combination of factors before.
For one thing — in a way the most fundamental thing of all — was just the simple question of supplies, the most basic logistical concern of them all. Because, more commonly in the past, when the British had fought wars in distant territories, often their colonists had provided supplies and even men to the British Army. Well obviously, now the colonists are the enemy, so that’s not going to be happening in this particular war. So instead of a ready stream of local supplies and local forces, British supplies and men had to be shipped over three thousand miles of ocean and then lugged around to the entire Eastern seaboard trailing after the British army in countryside that often was not really friendly to lugging around vast amounts of supplies following an army. And as we’ll be seeing shortly, two of the most significant battles of the war end up being lost by the British in part because of problems with the simple matter of supplies. So that’s one logistical problem.
A second logistical problem for the British involved the huge expanse of land that constituted the colonies. Basically, the battlefield of this war is pretty extensive. It’s an enormous stretch of land stretching from what would one day be Florida all the way up to Canada and for a little while into Canada, and from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi. Unlike more traditional wars, more conventional wars, wars of a sort that Britain would have been more used to fighting, there wasn’t one central target to attack that could turn the tide of war. Now the British don’t necessarily know this, and we’re going to see them actually try to play out this strategy more than once during the war, but in fact there was not one central target that they could have grabbed and turned the tide of war.
Usually, a really good military strategy was to capture a nation’s capital or the center of government, and sometimes that really would help push a war to its conclusion. You capture the capital symbolically and also as a source of power and leadership, and sometimes that really does push a war to its conclusion. But in the American colonies — and then after 1776, states — there wasn’t any one city that represented America’s center of government. There was one — no one single real American capital, no one core of American strength, and so, as we’ll see shortly, throughout the war the British struggled to determine which major city’s capture might defeat the American cause and bring victory to Britain. And obviously, in the end, this is not a strategy that worked in the American states.
A third logistical problem had less to do with America and more to do with Britain — and that is that the British found it extremely difficult to raise troops to fight this war. First of all, just fighting in a faraway overseas war would not have been popular in and of itself. Add to this the fact that there were some potential soldiers who would not have been that enthusiastic about attacking British colonists, and you end up with a serious problem enlisting men and raising a large enough force for this war. As a result, the British ended up hiring a large number of German mercenary troops from a number of different independent German states, and they end up getting lumped under the heading “Hessian.” That’s sort of how we know them, as Hessians — and this practice in and of itself enraged Americans all the more, because it suggested to them that the British were hiring what they would have considered to be foreign assassins to kill their own colonists.
Fourth — and related to everything that I’ve just said, and as I said at the outset — the British and the Americans had different definitions of victory. For the British to win the war, they had to stamp out a widespread rebellion unfolding under a vast expanse of land. They had to destroy the American cause to emerge victorious from this war. The Americans did not have to defeat the British to win the war. They just had to keep fighting long enough to exhaust British funding and supplies and energy. So for the Americans, the ultimate goal was just to keep fighting, to keep the war going, to force the British to expend as much money and as much manpower and as much energy as possible. And, as we’ll see in today’s lecture, Washington took full advantage of this fact and fought the war with a strategy that maybe wasn’t always really awe-inspiring for onlookers, but was highly effective in exhausting the British forces.
And then finally, fifth — a fifth logistical problem for the British actually wasn’t so much about the American colonists or the British as it was about the British long-time enemy, the French. The British could not just turn their back on the rest of the world to entirely dedicate all of their time and efforts to this colonial revolt. They had to keep their eye on their long-time enemy, the French, particularly after 1778 when the French joined the war on the side of the American colonists. As I said, I’ll talk about that in more detail Tuesday. But once the French are in the war, suddenly now, the British, and in particular the British Navy, have to really be worrying about what the French are doing. What are they doing down there in the West Indies, those French? Do we need to send ships to the West Indies and defend some of our properties there? That really further complicates things for the British, so they can’t just focus on what’s going on in these North American colonies.
Chapter 3. British Assumptions of Citizen Armies and Loyalists [00:10:40]
Okay. So there we’re seeing a couple of different logistical complications for the British: supplies — problems with supplies; the problem with figuring out where is the best place to stage an attack; the problem of raising troops; the fact that victory meant something different for the British than it did for the Americans; and then the complications introduced by the French. In addition to all of these logistical problems, there was the simple problem or at least certainly, the unique challenges that faced the British in staging a war fought by a citizen army. The British army was an impressive force but it more typically fought conventional European wars, tended to be fought on open plains and open country where lines of troops advanced on each other until one line or the other weakened from casualties and retreated. And that’s a war in which you have men who are disciplined and trained to stay in rank and file as this battle rages, until finally the tide turns and one side or the other wins or loses.
This is not the way that the American war unfolded, although it is worth saying — I think a lot of Americans have this image in their head that the Americans were these sort of guerrilla combat folk, sort of running around, hiding behind trees, and sort of befuddled British are marching in their bright-red coats getting shot down in massive numbers. And the fact of the matter is, the British were not oblivious to the situation — the military situation and they didn’t sort of march single file and get mowed down by people hiding behind trees. The fact is that the British did, among other things, make pretty skillful use of Native Americans in staging their own version of guerrilla warfare.
So they’re not sort of just hanging on to Old World methods of fighting and ignoring what’s going on here in the New World, but even so there were a lot of challenges that they faced in fighting against a citizen army. For one thing, a citizen army is just not going to be as predictable as a professionally trained force. Sometimes the Continental Army abided by predictable military conventions. Sometimes they didn’t, and we’ll hear a little bit of this today. I’ve talked about it a little bit before. The Continental Army — People were always leaving the Continental Army when their term was up, and new people came, and so in a sense you kept having untrained people joining the Continental Army again and again and again. So it’s not even as though necessarily, after a while these men were sort of all long-term soldiers and knew what they were doing. That was never entirely true.
So a citizen army is unpredictable. Also, it’s not just an army that the British are facing. Americans, generally speaking, were prepared to fight if necessary, not just soldiers but farmers. If the British attacked a locality, the people there were prepared to defend themselves and their land and their property. We’ve already seen that just in the talk that I gave about New Haven, where you have Professor Daggett sort of riding out, and the Yale students riding out to sort of fend off the British. So in addition to whatever actual organized army you have, you’ve just got local citizens who are getting involved in whatever’s happening as events and battles come into their own backyard. So the British faced not only an army but armed citizens as well.
A third challenging aspect of a citizen army was yet again something that wasn’t necessarily a common aspect of wars fought by the British Army in the past, and that is — Americans are not just fighting for defense of a realm or defense of a monarch. Intellectually, they were fighting for political liberties and ultimately for independence, which would have felt like a more inspiring cause to many people, a personal cause that would have been something that people had a personal connection with, and certainly gave Americans some staying power and endurance during the war, so that the cause, again, persisted. We’ll see even today one or two low points, at which point you would think things might have just faded, and they don’t — and part of it has to do with the personal implications and the personal meaning of the war to the people who were fighting it in the American states.
Plus, personally, many Americans were fighting for their own property and their own land, right? — even more personal, as I just mentioned a moment ago. If there is an army advancing on your town, that’s about as personal a war as it can be, and again, it’s going to bring people out in numbers and with a kind of determination and enthusiasm that they might not have in a different kind of a war. So having a citizen army — the kind of citizen army — the kind of warfare that’s going to be taking place in the colonies, also all by itself presented some pretty interesting challenges to the British Army.
Okay. So we’ve seen a host of logistical challenges, some complications. I’m going to throw into this mix three bad assumptions on the part of the British that did not help their cause. Okay. Bad assumption number one: they continued to underestimate the Americans. They continued to underestimate the persistence of the Americans, the abilities of the Americans, the impact of whatever the Americans were doing, and right alongside with that they overestimated their popularity among American Loyalists and the power that they had among American Loyalists. Now, probably part of that overestimating Loyalist support was born from reports of overly optimistic royal officials and governors, who reported back to London that — yes, there’s plenty of Loyalists here, and they’re on hand to defend the cause, and when things get underway the Loyalists will rise up and be on our side. And there were some Loyalists — there were a good number of Loyalists who actually did join and fight with the British.
Again, when I was talking about the invasion of New Haven, we saw just here in the town of New Haven how some people chose to help the British, others — their neighbors — chose to fight against them. So there were Loyalists who chose at any given moment to join and support British troops, as opposed to the Continental Army or American troops. But even so, discussion of really widespread Loyalist support was exaggerated. And because of these sort of rosier-than-they-should-have-been reports, British officials in England, far from the American scene, assumed that many colonies were basically Loyalist and all in all you just needed a little bit of a shove and things would be brought right. They assumed that probably, there’s a small band of radicals that are making trouble. You hear this again and again and again when you read British commentary on what’s happening — there’s a band of radicals who are poisoning the public mind, but that there are also Loyalists who will rise up and help the British cause, so it won’t take very much for this to be pushed into some kind of a conclusion. That’s certainly, towards the beginning of the war, something that the British assume.
The British Army didn’t help matters — as far as the Loyalists are concerned — with their behavior in some of the colonies, particularly in the South. The British Army looted farms, trampled fields, paraded their superiority — and so there were places in the South where the British Army was a little Patriot-creating machine. You had people who might have been Loyalist-leaning, but they did not like the way that they were treated by the British Army, and so, pulled back from supporting the British when they might have started out leaning in that direction. Okay. So we have underestimating Americans, overestimating support of the Loyalists.
The third bad assumption at the outset of the war is that the British Navy would accomplish most of the damage and largely win the war, because Britain did have this colossal, impressive navy. It was — Really, what Britain was famous for militarily was its navy, but England hadn’t fought a long, sustained land campaign for quite some time, and when it had fought long land campaigns in the past, often they had been fought with allies who supplied land power to complement Britain’s naval forces. So as we’re about to see, all of these bad assumptions joined with all of those logistical things that I mentioned at the outset of the lecture, all of these together are not helping the British as the war unfolds, and they all play a role in the outcome of the war.
Chapter 4. The First Phase: British Displays of Force [00:18:45]
Okay. Let’s now turn to the actual war, to the actual battles. As I suggested at the outcome, the opening of the lecture, I divided the war into four phases. As we’ll see, each of these phases is initiated by a sort of major decision of strategy or policy on the part of the British. Often it’s a strategy that’s initiated by an assumption that makes perfect sense to the British but that does not end up being necessarily a good strategy, given the situation at the time. And again and again as these phases unfold, you’ll see the British make what to them seems like a logical decision and then you’ll see it not play out particularly well, or certainly, not in the way that the British really wanted this to play out.
So let’s turn to the first phase of the war — and we’ve already seen a little bit of this first phase earlier on when I talked about Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. This early phase of the war was guided by the main assumption on the part of the British that all the Americans needed was a little display of force, a little bit of military coercion, and the war would come to a quick close. So basically, just sort of impress upon them the stupidity of what they are doing. Right? ‘We are the British Army. We will come in and remind them what they are doing. They will be reminded that they are behaving illogically, and one way or another, this will end — maybe a little reconciliation, a little friendly sort of gesture on our part toward the colonists, and we can bring this whole thing to a close.’
And Lexington and Concord are part of that strategy, right? Just a little display of force and everything’s going to be settled. Of course, the outcome is not what they would expect; it’s just the opposite. And the British movements, the British troop movements, called forth an outpouring of American enthusiasm and enlistments and alarm, which was further bolstered by America’s victories — or I guess you could call them sort of semi-victories. I don’t know what to call Bunker Hill. It’s sort of a victory but it sort of isn’t — but certainly, some Americans at the time — I suppose because they weren’t crushed to death — would have seen Bunker Hill as a victory. But — So the fact that things were sort of persisting and they were standing up to the British at Bunker Hill in June of 1775 and at Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775, that sort of helps to bolster American spirits.
Now, I have discussed a little bit the Battle of Bunker Hill, and you might remember that that’s the battle in which the British held the ground at the end of the day but at the cost of so many men — almost half of the men that were fighting there that day — that their victory didn’t really seem to be much of a victory at all — which is why you can sort of call it a semi-victory on both sides. And I mentioned on — in Tuesday’s lecture that New York Times article that I had stumbled across that morning about that bundle of letters that were going to be sold at Sotheby’s — that it had all of these letters between British generals and diplomats who were in America writing to each other, not back to London, but to each other about what they were really thinking about what was unfolding.
And there’s a letter from General John Burgoyne, British General John Burgoyne, after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He’s one of the leading generals in the colonies at that point, and he says in this letter to someone else in America, that after that battle he believes that British military prospects in America seem, to use his word, “gloomy.” “Such a pittance of troops as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and insure disappointment… .Our victory has been bought by an uncommon loss of officers, some of them irreparable, and I fear the consequence will not answer the expectations that will be raised in England.” Okay. So there’s Burgoyne saying, ‘Okay. We won the Battle of Bunker Hill. This just doesn’t look good to me.’ He even says in that same letter something along the lines of: ‘When I think back into my history books and my sort of military history past, I can’t seem to come up with a situation that quite looks like this one. This is just weird. I don’t know what’s happening here, but it doesn’t look good to me. It looks gloomy, and our victory was actually pretty distressing, and it’s not going to look particularly wonderful to people in England when they see. It’s certainly not what they’re going to be expecting from us at the outset of fighting here in the colonies.’
So there’s Bunker Hill. I’ve mentioned that before. I don’t know if I mentioned Fort Ticonderoga before. I’ll reiterate it here if I have, and if not you’ll get it for the first time. It was an important battle for the American war effort as well as just for American morale. Fort Ticonderoga is a strategic fort in upstate New York that was held by the British, and in May of 1775, American troops led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — We’re going to have a lot of Benedict Arnold today. You could see why he’s this big hero, and thus why it was so shocking that he did what he did ultimately and deserted. He’s a hero through all of today’s lecture. Here he’s starting out his heroic acts. At the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold are leading. They actually surprise the British garrison and they won control of the fort, declaring their victory, as Ethan Allen put it very dramatically: “In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress I take Fort Ticonderoga.” These guys know drama.
The U.S. suffered one wounded soldier. The British had forty-eight men captured, plus cannons, mortars, musket flints, ammunition — and these kinds of supplies were really invaluable for the American cause generally, and specifically at this moment they were really useful because the Americans take these supplies, particularly these cannons, that they win at Fort Ticonderoga and they lug them to Boston. And they position them looking down on the city of Boston, and not that long after, the British evacuate Boston, right? — which is what they would have wanted. So March of 1776, the British say, ‘Okay. We lost Ticonderoga and there’s a cannon looking down on us. I think it’s time to leave Boston.’
Now as long as I’m in upstate New York, I’m going to mention some bad assumptions on the part of Americans as well at this point. There was always the feeling in America — and particularly during the very beginning of the war — that Canada was just waiting to be liberated from England, right? — that Quebec is just waiting to be the fourteenth state. So after winning Ticonderoga, part of the American army actually went north to attack Quebec and free it, right? — this idea like, ‘free Canada!’ Canada doesn’t want to be freed. [laughs] It’s just these Americans that are like: ‘yeah, they’re just waiting for us to come.’ So they stage this attack on Quebec to free it. It’s — This — As you’ll see today and Tuesday, this is pretty much a defensive war on the part of the Americans. This is the one little moment or one of very few little moments, that’s really just an offensive invasion on the part of the Americans. Once again, Benedict Arnold. There he is, being heroic during the attack. So was the young Aaron Burr who fought in this battle and supposedly pulled the body of his general, Richard Montgomery, off of the battlefield under heavy fire — and since I think Montgomery was a big person and Aaron Burr was a very small person, I think this was a hard thing to do, and he became sort of a hero afterwards for being the guy who saved his general’s body under heavy fire during battle.
Ultimately, the Americans did not liberate Canada. [laughs] The Canadians just were not interested in joining the American war effort, not even when a delegation from the Continental Congress arrived in Canada, led by Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate with the Canadians about joining the revolt — so the Americans were serious about this. The effort to free Canada ended without effect, and ultimately, during this war at least, the Americans abandoned the idea about liberating Canada. And I say “during this war at least” because during the War of 1812, when once again we’re fighting the British, the Americans are right back there: ‘free Canada!’ [laughs] It’s like: ‘no number two. [laughs] Go away,’ but they’re back; they’re persistent.
Now the main part of the American army at this point in 1776, after the evacuation of Boston by the British, is not in Canada. After the British evacuated Boston, Washington and the main body of American troops went to New York City, convinced that after evacuating Boston, that’s likely to be where the British head, to New York City, and sure enough that’s exactly what the British do. Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces, had been recalled by this time and he’d been replaced by Sir William Howe, who arrived in New York City in July of 1776.
Okay. So here we see another British assumption that does not play out the way in which clearly the British hoped it would. I said a few minutes ago, they assumed a little show of force, a little show of reconciliation and this will end, and we’ve seen a little show of force. Here we see an attempt at reconciliation, the idea being — maybe if we sort of extend a hand in some way, this will end. So newly installed General Howe invited an American commission to hold a peace conference with him on a boat in New York Harbor. This ends up being known as the Staten Island Peace Conference, and somehow this — I have no issue with Staten Island, but I just don’t expect that — all those words to go together, the “Staten Island Peace Conference,” [laughter] which is held September 11, 1776.
At the conference, Howe tells the American commissioners — Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (making a little appearance), and South Carolinian Edward Rutledge, all of them there from the Continental Congress — that he would hate to be forced to destroy his brothers, the Americans. He’s wishing that there was something they could do so that he can be spared the horror of having to kill his brethren. At which point, Franklin supposedly responded by saying, “We will try our best to spare you the trouble.” [laughs] [laughter] Thank you, Benjamin Franklin. Okay. That conference did not accomplish what the British wanted it to accomplish. Nothing happens as a result of the Staten Island Peace Conference.
Howe also wrote to George Washington to see if he could get Washington to come to terms with the British. Right? Maybe if I just deal with him personally, he’ll see that I’m being reasonable and work towards ending this before it really begins. Unfortunately, this is the letter that I mentioned on Tuesday, addressed to Mr. Washington, that he did not want to accept because it wasn’t addressed to General Washington — the etcetera, etcetera letter — so basically, Howe refuses to address Washington with his military title and Washington refuses to accept the letter — so this does not go well either. [laughs] That’s just like: oops, oh, well. That’s an attempt that just stalls before it even gets under way. So there we have basically the first phase of the war, this idea that a little push, a little shove, a little display of force, a little reconciliation, and things will end.
Chapter 5. The Second Phase: Capturing New York [00:29:31]
The second phase begins with a switch in strategy on the part of the British, a new strategy, but again, one that’s still grounded in traditional assumptions about warfare. And this new strategy is accompanied by another assumption that does not play out well. The little shove strategy doesn’t work, so now basically we’ll up the stakes — is what the British are thinking; we’ll seize a major city. Basically, the British assumed that if they seized New York, they would split the colonies in half along the Hudson Valley and end the war. To them, it seemed pretty simple and easy to divide the colonies into two halves — and particularly since at this point they still think that the center of all the trouble is New England, that there are these sort of crazy radical people in New England, so if they can seize New York and divide the colonies in half and isolate New England, then maybe things will actually end quickly. So that’s the strategy here as we move into phase number two of the fighting.
So the British descended on New York with an armada bearing 32,000 troops. Okay. That’s just awe-inspiring numbers of men. Washington dug in on Brooklyn Heights, hoping that the British would attack him frontally and that there’d be another kind of Bunker Hill sort of battle, but instead Howe carried out some kind of a flanking maneuver which resulted in American losses of nearly 1,500 men compared with British losses of less than 400 men. However, at this point, Howe made a mistake of a sort that he made repeatedly again and again throughout the war. He’s so confident of victory that he decides he won’t deliver the final death-blow until the next day. Right? ‘Oh, we’ll let the night pass. Tomorrow morning we’ll get up and crush them.’
Okay. Washington is the expert of retreat. Overnight Washington removes his troops under cover of darkness from Brooklyn Heights and brings them into New York. And we’ll see — I think — even in the course of today’s lecture, Howe does this again — that he does well in a battle, he assumes that things are going so swimmingly, that okay, tomorrow we’ll finish things off, and Washington manages to make a hasty retreat and things continue. So Washington removes his troops under cover of darkness to New York City, and basically for the next two months there’s a series of minor battles in New York. There’s one in Harlem Heights. There’s one in White Plains. Howe keeps trying to circle the Continental Army and Washington keeps retreating one way or another, pretty skillfully, helped always in his retreating by the fact that Howe is so slow to just advance and conquer.
Ultimately, Washington fled across New Jersey, over the Delaware River, while Howe, who now is in possession of New York, also seizes Newport, Rhode Island, and establishes outposts in New Jersey. So things are not looking wonderful for the Americans at this point, and the British seem to be doing quite well. But here we do see one of Washington’s most characteristic war maneuvers, because rather than just sort of standing there and engaging with the British, he withdraws and he withdraws and he withdraws again and again and again. Throughout the entire war, he continually maneuvered his army so that if the circumstances didn’t seem overwhelmingly favorable for the American army, he could just retreat to a more secure spot. Now obviously the strategy of retreat would not have been necessarily overwhelmingly inspiring to Americans at the time. It did not also necessarily strike fear into the hearts of the British at first. Washington’s the guy who retreats. This had some people feeling a little bit gloomy and not always hopeful. He’s the army that disappears.
But now in 1776, Washington uses this typical strategy. He doesn’t want to get penned into New York City. He retreats across New Jersey, retreats across the Delaware, goes into Pennsylvania. The British head after him as far as Trenton, New Jersey, led by British General Lord Cornwallis, and there they go into winter quarters. And — Lord Cornwallis had arrived in America in 1776, and he brought with him even more British troops.
And here we have yet another letter from that collection I mentioned being sold at Sotheby’s, and this one’s from an observer who’s on a ship, a British ship in New York Harbor, as he’s watching the Americans leave New York, and he’s writing again to somebody else. He’s a diplomat. He’s writing to someone else in the colonies and he says that he watched the colonists abandon their homes, quote, “to follow the standard of rebellion at the hazard of all they are worth, rather than acknowledge George for their king. The infatuation is inscrutable. I have read somewhere, and I begin to think it possible, that a whole country as well as an individual may be struck with lunacy.” He can’t believe what he’s seeing. Right? He’s watching Washington’s army run, and he watches some colonists basically follow, abandon what they own and follow, as he puts it, rather than acknowledge George for their King. He can’t quite believe what he’s seeing.
Now by this point — this is December of 1776 — Washington had roughly 3,000 men fit for duty in the army, a really sad point for Washington and the army. It’s at this point that Thomas Paine makes another appearance, comes to the fore again. He writes a series of pamphlets published under the title The Crisis, and the first one appears in December of 1776, actually I think December 19, 1776. By this point Paine had actually joined the American army, so he’s in the army, and he wrote these Crisis essays while he was in the army. And Washington had them read to the troops to boost their morale — and as with Common Sense, these Crisis essays include some of the most famous prose of the revolutionary era. And I’ll just read the most obvious ones, which some of you probably already know:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
He’s good at coming forward at tough moments and then having these sort of inspiring words — again, which is why Washington’s having them read to the troops. Paine’s words were really needed in December of 1776, because it’s a real low point for Washington and the army. Failure literally seemed to be just on the horizon. In less than three months, the British had captured New York City; they had captured part of New Jersey; food supplies and pay in the American army were at an all-time low; and, almost worst of all, enlistments of soldiers in the Continental Army ended at the end of the year. And so Washington, there he is, and he knows that the people in the Continental Army — their formal enlistments end at the end of December, and they could all just walk away and say, ‘Oops, my enlistment’s done, thanks, Sir, nice fighting with you, goodbye’ — and Washington could literally be left without an army.
So he does one last desperate measure literally to prevent the army from entirely disappearing. He uses the only thing that’s available to him at this moment — and that is his personal influence. He makes a personal plea to the army to please stay with him for just six more weeks as a personal favor to him: ‘Please don’t leave. Just — For me, for your commander, just give me six more weeks and then you can go. As a personal favor to me, who you respect, give me just six more weeks.’ Most of the soldiers agreed, and with that, Washington made one last desperate attempt to attack the British at Trenton, New Jersey.
And Washington’s strategy is good in this case. He basically waits until Christmas, really banking on the element of surprise, and then he launches a surprise attack against an encampment of Hessians at Trenton — and he wins the day with a loss of only four men and he gains roughly 900 prisoners. This is great for Washington. This is such a low moment, and he really does get the element of surprise. The Hessians are just sort of stunned, and at first apparently think that there’s a little sort of advance guard of Americans who are attacking them, and they suddenly realize to their horror — no, this would be the American army; [laughs] we’re in trouble. And they fight and there is a battle — but again, they really lose the day. The British, learning of the attack, are somewhat distressed. However, they think — they assume at this point that they have the American army cornered at Trenton, and thus they decide the next day [laughs] they will attack the Continental Army. Okay. So once again they’re not good at the element of surprise, the British. They keep sort of taking their time. Taking your time was not good at this point of the war. It is not a strategy that is working for the British.
So sure enough, Washington does what Washington does so well; he retreats under cover of night, and in this case rather than just retreating, he actually leaves campfires burning in their camp so it looks as though the army is still there. And then leaving what looks like the encampment there, under complete darkness he moves his troops away, directly into enemy lines in Princeton, New Jersey, which he also captured. Again, he did two unexpected things. He manages to retreat — he pretends as though he’s not retreating; and then he moves his troops into enemy lines in Princeton and captures it.
Now during the battle, supposedly there was a cannonball that was shot through Nassau Hall, the big main hall of Princeton, the College of New Jersey, and there’s a story that goes along with that. There’s no actual evidence to support the story, but I’ll offer it because people tell it over and over and over and over again, so clearly someone somewhere believes it, and even though it might not be true, I’ll give it to you anyway. The story is basically that Alexander Hamilton is the guy who shot the cannon or had the cannon shot that went through Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey, the theory behind that being, he actually really wanted to go to the College of New Jersey. He’s fighting. He is fighting at the Battle of Princeton — and he wants to go. That’s his first choice for a college. ‘Where do I want to go? Ah, the College of New Jersey.’ But he’s in such a hurry. He wants to advance through the program at Princeton as fast as he can. So basically — ‘I don’t want to have to wait for everyone else. If I finish a course in a month, then I want to move on to the next one.’ This is a little bit of a radical proposal, and the people at Princeton, at the College of New Jersey, say no, so he ends up going to King’s College, to Columbia, instead. He is fighting at the Battle of Princeton. He is in command of a small artillery group, which is firing cannon, so the story is, he was rather pleased to see a cannonball go firing into Nassau Hall, since they had rejected him basically; they didn’t take him for college.
One way or another, Washington wins at Trenton; Washington wins at Princeton; and then he settles into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, for the winter of 1776. So basically in nine days in the dead of winter — and really in the dead of winter when gentlemen do not normally stage military campaigns in a traditional war — the American army pushed the British back sixty miles from their ultimate goal, which was Philadelphia. And, as important, the battles of Trenton and Princeton were vital to American morale — to civilian morale and military morale alike. As an Englishman said at the time, “a few days ago [these Americans] had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again. … They have recovered [from] their panic, and it will not be an easy matter to throw them in to that confusion again.” So here ends the second phase of the war, with the Eastern seaboard definitely not cut in half, the Americans definitely not defeated.
Chapter 6. Third Phase: Defeating Washington and the Battle at Saratoga [00:41:42]
The third phase of the war begins in 1777. Largely, it consisted of the British attempting to subdue the middle colonies, once again proceeding under the assumption that if they get the right city it will cause things to end. In this case they think: ‘okay, we did New York; we’re heading for Philadelphia. Yet another major city, and the government’s in Philadelphia, so maybe if we manage to get that city as well, things will turn our way.’ That’s how things happen in a conventional war: capture a key city, things turn your way often — and again, in America this is not a strategy that works well. As Cornwallis put it at the time, in the end he decides that the only way to really defeat the Americans would be to catch George Washington, or, as Cornwallis put it, “to bag the fox,” right? — and so he’s on a traditional fox hunt. You have to bag the fox and then it will be over. I don’t know if Philadelphia’s going to do it.
But at any rate, the British do head off for Philadelphia, 1777, the third phase of the war. This is Howe’s plan, and at first the British do well in Pennsylvania. There are actually a couple of clashes in Pennsylvania at Brandywine and at Germantown, and both times, Continental Army units crumbled, and Howe was ultimately able to enter Philadelphia. And in these skirmishes, one after another, nearly twenty percent of the Continental troops were either killed, wounded or captured, so the British are doing pretty well at first. Not helping matters, as far as American morale goes, is the fact that when Congress hears that the British are headed for Philadelphia they run in mass panic, like: ‘ah, [laughs] [laughter] the British are coming.’ — which does not really make the Continental Army feel like they have much faith in them to protect them. Right? They literally leave town.
There’s actually a really amusing letter. I think by this point Alexander Hamilton is an aide to George Washington and he sends a letter to the Continental Congress basically saying: ‘Run! [laughter] They’re coming!’ So the Continental Army flees to another city in Pennsylvania — so things are looking good for the British in Pennsylvania. However, further north something else is happening to the wing of the British Army that had been in Canada and now is headed south, led by British General John Burgoyne in a battle at Saratoga, New York, with Burgoyne’s troops suffering from supply problems. So here we have a battle where supplies are a major problem. Burgoyne ends up, at the Battle of Saratoga, surrendering almost 6,000 men to American forces led by General Horatio Gates and aided by Benedict Arnold, the man who appears to be everywhere in this phase of the war.
For the Americans, this feels like a real turning point. It’s a stunning victory for the Americans, really unexpected, and it’s just as stunning a defeat for the British. And there’s actually a journal entry by one of Burgoyne’s lieutenants describing the events with the British commander, with Burgoyne, and with the troops and the surrender. He describes what he sees. And he writes in his journal “Gen. Burgoyne desired a meeting of all the officers early that morning, at which he entered into a detail of his manner of acting since he had the honour of commanding the Army.” So basically Burgoyne calls all of his officers, and he’s trying to explain to them how they ended up in the situation that they’re in, how — what logic did he follow so that they’re where they are now. And the lieutenant continues in his diary, that Burgoyne was, quote, “too full to speak; Heaven only could tell his feelings at this time. … About 10 o’clock, we marched out, according to treaty [marched out to surrender], with drums beating, … but the drums seemed to have lost their former inspiriting sounds” and seemed
“as if almost ashamed to be heard on such an occasion. As to my own feelings, I cannot express them. Tears (though unmanly) forced their way, and if alone, I could have burst to give myself vent. I never shall forget the appearance of [the American] troops on our marching past them; a dead silence universally reigned through their numerous columns, and even they seemed struck with our situation and dare scarce lift up their eyes to view British Troops in such a situation. I must say their decent behavior during the time (to us so greatly fallen) merited the utmost approbation and praise.”
So he’s actually describing this shocking moment where the British can’t believe they’re surrendering that number of men to the American forces, and the Americans are so stunned that this is happening, that they’re actually just silently watching it. They can’t — No one can quite believe what’s happening at Saratoga. It’s a huge victory. It has important consequences that I’ll talk about more next Tuesday as we head into the last phase of the war, which largely takes place in the South, and see its repercussions and its implications.
Have a great weekend. I think lurking somewhere is that sheet of paper. I assume it made its way somewhere. Whoever has that magical sheet of paper — There it is. Okay. Bring it up when you’re done. Have a great weekend.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|