The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’. They are short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and (especially) the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States, causing outrage.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos on each other and the Americans, to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were policed more effectively because of the strength of the Royal Navy – the 1811 bans on the export of American salted fish hit the Yanks particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost America

There were other reasons too.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them to repel American incomers. A key moment was when American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811. War felt inevitable to both sides.

Manifest Destiny Many Americans thought that their nation had God-given destiny to control the entire North American continent. This vision and policy were named Manifest Destiny. Hawkish American expansionists hoped that another war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought that only God himself could set natural bounds to America, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently been president (1801-1809), declared that, if there was war, the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax (on the Canadian coast) in year two, and soon afterwards clear the Brits out of the continent altogether. Hooray.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation of West Florida in 1810. But the war party thought that they could use any conflict with Britain to consolidate their control in the region. In the event, the Florida theatre of the war was to be most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British did manage to take some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819, well after the war had ended, America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election President Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain in the preceding years, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He had served one term as president and was up for re-election in 1812. Declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event, Madison received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November of 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

And nobody expected the Americans to quite so useless. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated by the Brits.

But the Americans didn’t give up and there followed a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. British territory lining the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, and that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this ended up being handed back at the 1815 peace treaty. Hardly driving the British from the continent.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that:

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further American losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) did win the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit.

American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. He was killed in the Battle of the Thames and with his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many Indians had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

The war followed the same pattern in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels. This causes both sides inconvenience, the seizures sometimes escalating to combat and associated deaths of merchant mariners.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire American seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted from $114 million in 1811 to just $20 million in 1814.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Advancing up the River Potomac, Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into the young nation’s capital city, Washington D.C., where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the nearby port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

The British then tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised for these attacks by the opposition in Parliament, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for:

a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground
b) the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813
c) the Americans started the war

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans but the city was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president, 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British had made concessions on the trade embargos before America even declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon which delayed things, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this respect the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border between America and Canada, a border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914, and then in 1939, Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of press-ganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a Great Victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it – ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry – on September 14, 1814.

The poem was quickly set to the pre-existing tune of a popular British song of the day, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.

Summary

The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t enough space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them include several 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – this one has a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto), John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (and it is a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts – in the case of the War of 1812 a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

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)


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