Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel A. Baugh (2011)

(This long book is part of the Routledge ‘Modern Wars in Perspective’ series. Since some of the wars date back to 1460 you have to query the definition of ‘modern’.)

Although an American, the author, Daniel A. Baugh, is a distinguished historian of the British Royal Navy from the Restoration to the mid-Victorian era. In many ways this book is the summit of his career.

Baugh was born in 1931 so was 80 years old when this book was published. This may partly explain why it is so very readable. Baugh was brought up in a more leisurely, less technocratic age and his prose is relaxed and amiable, devoid of modern academic jargon and in many places has a sweet, human touch. Though long, the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Baugh’s naval background

Also, Baugh himself served in the American navy. This gives his accounts of the naval battles a special authority, but more particularly underpins his accounts of naval and military discipline. When Admiral Byng’s flotilla fails to prevent the French seizing Minorca (May 1756) or when General Braddock’s forces are massacred in woods beside the river Monongahela (9 July 1755) Baugh not only describes the events but gives thorough explanations of the mistakes the commanders made, what they should have done differently, and continues on to explain in detail why this or that action was rewarded or blamed, according to the military code of the day.

It’s one of the learnings of the book that praise and blame was so immediate and extreme; a general or admiral who won a battle might be knighted (as the admiral George Pocock was, for his aggressive engagements with the cowardly French fleet off the Indian coast) whereas losers might pay the ultimate price – Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed by the British for losing Minorca; Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, tried and executed by the French for losing their main base in India, Pondicherry, or Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, governor of Guadeloupe, forced to surrender it to superior British forces, for which he was sent to prison for twenty years.

There was obviously a lot at stake for each nation-state in major battles – it is a revelation to learn how much was at stake for the military leaders on the ground.

A big complex war

Including the index, this book weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. It claims to deal mainly with the global aspect of the Seven Years War i.e. the fighting between France and Britain in North America, India, the West Indies, with two campaigns late in the war against Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines – and the war in Europe is specifically addressed by a sister book in the same series, The Seven Years War In Europe by Franz A.J. Szabo, itself a weighty 530-page tome.

But in fact Baugh does devote substantial space to the European war. He has to, because his aim is to give a comprehensive overview of the strategy of the two protagonists of the global war – France and Britain – an aim which involves detailed consideration of the key personnel on both sides. These were, on the French side, King Louis XV, his mistress and adviser Madame de Pompadour and their Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul – and on the English side, King George II, the Duke of Newcastle and ‘the Great Commoner’ as he was nicknamed, William Pitt. And the global strategy of both sides was inextricably linked with their strategy on the continent; the one just doesn’t make sense without the other.

Therefore this book has much, much more about the war in Europe than the two other books I’d read on the subject to date, 1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle For Empire by Tom Pocock, and is vastly better for it. In fact, it’s the first account I’ve read that really makes sense of the whole war.

Understanding in depth

The Pocock and McLynn books emphasised that everyone suspected hostilities would break out again after the cessation of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, but only Baugh’s book explains why that was.

The treaty which concluded that war – the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – was drawn up in a hurry, as both sides were exhausted and running into unsustainable debt. It left many issues about who owned what unresolved, kicking them into the long grass by declaring they’d be sorted out by a ‘Boundary Commission’. But this commission never really got established with the result that conflict on the frontier between French and British North America festered on and, although the British were handed back Madras (in south-east India) in the Treaty, the lack of clarity about Indian affairs also made conflict there inevitable.

The Diplomatic Revolution

Thus (for example) Baugh’s account is the first one which fully explained to me the importance of the abrupt reversal of a century of tradition which took place when Louis XV surprised Europe by suddenly allying France with Austria in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution. They had been enemies for decades.

It happened because in the 1740-48 war Prussia had seized the Hapsburg territory of Silesia and Austria wanted it back. So Prussia was scared of an Austrian attack. Now France wanted to terrorise and/or seize Hanover, the north German principality which was still ruled by George II of England, in order to wrest maximum concessions from Britain when the war ended. If France attacked Hanover, Prussia would see that as a threat to its hegemony over northern Germany. So Britain could see that it would be in her interests to pay King Frederick of Prussia to defend Hanover for her.

And thus a constellation of interests crystallised into the alliances which dominated the war: France and Austria (and Russia, which threatened Prussia’s eastern front) allied against Prussia – who was herself supported by money, and then by troops, sentPhi from England.

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Bargaining chips

The biggest single thing that comes over from reading this long enjoyable account is that warfare was just an aspect of Diplomacy. Nobody expected to fight a war to the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy (as in 20th century wars). Battles were fought to capture strategically important cities or islands or territory, with more than half an eye on the final and inevitable peace negotiations, where they would be used simply as bargaining chips.

Thus the French captured Minorca not because it had any economic or strategic usefulness, but solely to use as a chip in the endlessly complex game of diplomacy which gripped all the nations of Europe: first, they thought they could use it to bribe Spain into entering the war on the French side; when Spain refused, Minorca became just another bargaining chip to be played in the negotiations which led up to the Peace of Paris in 1763. Sure enough, it was handed back to Britain in exchange for the (far more valuable) West Indies islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (It is striking to learn that little Guadeloupe produced more sugar than all the British islands combined, worth about £6 million a year.)

Similarly, thousands of British soldiers and sailors died in the twin campaigns to capture Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, so it is disconcerting to the modern reader to find out the British government never intended to keep either of them, but just wanted them as bargaining chips with Spain in the final settlement. And, sure enough, shamefully, both ports were simply handed back to Spain, a mockery of the immense suffering of the soldiers and sailors on both sides who perished.

At every point, from before the war even began, statesmen of all the European nations were engaged in playing this game at multiple levels not least because, as Baugh, again, amply shows, the government of each nation was itself made up of sharply conflicting visions, strategies and goals.

Thus, in Britain, King George II was understandably obsessed with his hereditary territory of Hanover in Germany, and so detested William Pitt who had built a parliamentary career on criticising the government’s attachment to a distant and unimportant bit of Europe while ignoring the colonies which were vital to its commerce and economy. Following Henry Pelham’s death, George’s other ministers had to work hard to persuade the king to take Pitt into the government – he was widely admitted to be the most capable parliamentarian of his time – and Pitt proved to be a strategist of genius, but they never got on. When the old king died in 1760 and was replaced by his grandson, George III, Pitt’s days were numbered, and so all the other countries of Europe knew a change of British policy was inevitable.

Much the same level of back-stabbing and politicking took place at the top of the French government, except it’s obvious from Baugh’s account how much more limited and limiting the French setup was: King Louis XV didn’t want to be bothered with details, he was in thrall to his former mistress-turned-confidente Madame de Pompadour, and all their ministers had to tread carefully not to cross her strong opinions.

And no-one in the French government was prepared to face up to the acute financial crisis the war created – Baugh shows the king and Pompadour repeatedly not wanting to be bothered with petty details of money – in their minds, France had a God-given right to be top dog in Europe. But this was to lead to financial ruin, specifically to a financial collapse prompted by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1759.

Both Pocock and McLynn give lively accounts of the battle for Quebec (both probably better, more vivid, than Baugh’s) – but only Baugh goes on to explain in detail how the military and strategic loss led to a cataclysmic financial crash in which virtually all the French government’s paper credit became worthless, scores of bankers and contractors to the army and navy went bankrupt and the king and nobility were reduced to sending their silver plate to the mint to be melted down to create coins to keep the economy going (pp.447-452).

So the actions of generals in Canada could have seismic impacts on their home governments of Europe, which in turn affected how all the other players in the game assessed their ally/enemy, and adjusted their diplomatic and military plans accordingly. It’s like reading about a true life and vastly complex combination of the board games ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’.

Unpopular bargaining

Some of these bargaining chip exchanges were very unpopular. American colonial forces had been involved in a bitter 46-day siege of Louisbourg, the main French port on Cape Breton Island which protected the mouth of the long St Lawrence Waterway, in 1745. There was widespread resentment when statesmen in faraway England simply handed the port and island back to the French in exchange for Madras at the peace in 1748. (I was amused to learn that Aix-la-Chapelle was so unpopular in France that it gave rise to a popular expression, bête comme la paix = as stupid as the peace.) Apparently, being treated by pawns in this giant game was one (of the many) grievances which slowly bubbled under among the men who went on to spark the American Revolution.

So it was only reading Baugh’s book that made me realise quite why a renewed outbreak of war was inevitable and made sense of the way statesmen on both sides spent the intervening years calculating how their countries could best benefit from another war, and drawing up and debating various strategies.

The rise of William Pitt

I now understand much better that the cautious Duke of Newcastle owed his place as prime minister to the king because of his steady adherence to the cause of Hanover’s safety but how, when Newcastle’s man in the Commons, Leader of the House Henry Pelham died in 1754, he needed someone who could command authority in the Commons but also fall in with his policies. William Pitt fulfilled the first criterion but had publicly criticised the government for its adherence to Hanover-based policies (thus incurring the undying enmity of George II). So when Newcastle promoted him to secretary of state and took him into the small wartime cabinet he knew he was recruiting a man entirely devoted to pursuing Britain’s overseas interests in America and India (and the West Indies). But the gamble paid off.

It is one of the many merits of this book, and the reason why it’s so long, that Baugh takes you right into the heart of these continual political debates and discussions among the most senior statesmen, quoting letters, diaries and journals to show how strategic thinking about each theatre of war changed and evolved, but how the statesmen also had to keep an eye on how things would play out both among the public at large, and in the clamorous House of Commons, and how they’d be taken by the continental-minded king, and how they might be used against them as weapons by the uneasily jostling members of the cabinet itself.

Baugh’s account reveals the layer upon layer upon layer of power politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring which underpinned every event in the long war; it makes for a fascinating and gripping read.

Specific things

I learned some specific things from this book:

  • The Seven Years War actually lasted eight years, since Baugh shows that hostilities broke out in early summer 1755. Quite a lot of naval and land battles took place before war was formally declared the following year.
  • Privateering – It is astonishing how lawless the sea and land were. Before the war proper is declared, in 1755, the British started simply intercepting legitimate French merchant ships, sailing them to English ports, stealing them and their cargo and putting the crews in prison. Some 400 ships were sequestered like this and some 10,000 seamen imprisoned. Whenever any army appeared anywhere it thought it had the right at the very least to plunder the surrounding countryside (in Europe as much as India) and sometimes ravage it (burn crops, food, stores, towns and villages) in order to deprive its enemy forces of food or shelter. Baugh mentions these continual acts of piracy and devastation in passing, but the modern reader is appalled at the sheer scale of wanton destruction.
  • Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette tried to sort out France’s pitiful finances and his name became synonymous with penny-pinching. Around that time a fashion for cutting out black outlines of people became fashionable as a stylish and cheap alternative to painted portraits. In derision these were given the insulting name of ‘silhouettes’ which has stuck to this day.
  • The Watershed principle – France claimed that if any of its explorers had named a river they automatically owned all the territory encompassed by all the tributaries right up to each tributary’s watershed. Hence the its territory of Louisiana looked like a balloon on the map since it covered every single tributary of the massive Mississippi.
  • Wilderness warfare – handy term for the style of fighting required in the vast virgin forests of Eastern America.

Maps

There are 17 maps in this long book, and all are better, clearer and more detailed than those in Pocock or McLynn – but it still isn’t nearly enough. A book like this needs 100 maps. When Baugh says that Frederick II launched his surprise attack on Saxony in August 1756, seizing Dresden before marching on to besiege Prague and fighting a big battle at Lobositz in Bohemia on 1 October … there is no map of this at all; no map showing the borders of Prussia, Saxony or Austria; no map showing the route of Frederick’s army or the location of Lobositz. Why not? I had to google them all. Why? You can never have too many maps.

The Treaty of Paris February 1763

The wars I’m familiar with (especially the first and second world wars) have generated vast mountains of analysis devoted to explicating their beginnings. Apparently, the great controversy about the Seven Years War was how it ended. The French had been thrashed to a standstill, unable to supply their army in Germany (which kept being defeated), defeated in India and Canada and driven out of the disputed Ohio territories, then losing the key islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Austrians were fought to a standstill and had to accept they could never regain Silesia and, when the Empress Elizabeth died and was replaced by the pro-Frederick Peter III they realised they had to quit; while the Spanish failed in their attempt to invade Portugal and then lost Havana and Manila to the British, who destroyed a fifth of their fleet and kept the French fleet locked up impotently in its ports.

Tentative moves to peace began in 1760 but the conflict dragged on for two more years of almost unalloyed British victories and the extraordinarily complex machinations not only between the main nations’ ministers and ambassadors, but also disagreements within governments, especially within the British government, take Baugh over 100 pages of describe. This is a little difficult to follow and then a little hard to care about. The main points that come over are:

  1. Given the hopelessness of their position, credit must go to France’s duc de Choiseul who managed to wring significant concessions out of Britain.
  2. How? It is difficult not to feel contempt for the Earl of Bute – who replaced the meticulous and visionary Pitt as Prime Minister on the accession of George III – and was devoted to achieving peace as quickly as possible regardless of the cost, strategic, financial or reputational. Both Bute and the king lied to Parliament and their own cabinet colleagues, continually reassuring and coaxing the (heavily beaten) French and in the event handing over completely unnecessary concessions in India and Newfoundland.

Ten years later the French would be conspiring how to support the American Revolutionaries and subvert British interest yet again (1775-83), a dedicated enmity which would blossom after the French Revolution (1789) into the twenty year war against Republican and then Napoleonic France (1794-1815). With hindsight Bute’s craven appeasement of France looks unforgiveable.


Credit

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel Baugh was published by Pearson Education Ltd in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2014 Routledge paperback edition.

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