Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780
The story told to me about the American Revolution at school was entirely different than the actual chain of events. I suppose because a 4th grader’s attention span is short, or they thought we couldn’t handle the nuance, but like all the incredible dramas about history the facts about the Revolution are harder to digest than the porridge the story has become in American text books.
It began with the French and Indian Wars. That was really where the rub between Empire and Colony began. It is also a distinctly oddly named war as the French and Indians were on the same side, or more properly Indians fought on both sides. I mean we don’t refer to The Korean War as the Korean and Chinese War. To a fourth grader, this is very confusing. Both France and England claimed large territories between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi, and this included the most famous trading route of the New World: the Mississippi. Anyone who has read history from the Sumerians on knows that when Empires bump up against each other in new trading territories, cannon fire often follows. The result of the war was a mixed bag for England as it had conquered Canada and defeated the French in their never-ending struggle for dominance in the New World. That said it cost King George III about 60 million Crown Sterling. So the popular opinion around the English court was that the colonist should pay a portion of this debt. After all, it was spent allowing them to remain freely on land they were exploring and working.
The Stamp Act was passed in 1765, two years after the French and Indian Wars. Any thing that had a receipt, or could be bought or sold and had documentation could be taxed. Lieutenant Governor Hutchison of New York was the first to feel the wrath of outraged Colonists when they stormed his home one evening and threw rocks through the window and set the curtains afire. He was the first one to enforce it and like a lot of Loyalists, he simply had no idea the rage that this simple legislative budgetary fix would arouse.
Although polling is a phenomenon of modern politics, there is a sense that newspaper editors or tavern keepers had an idea how popular or unpopular ideas were. Around half the population of the Colonies were loyal to the King, and other half felt very much a nationality of their own. As time went on and as Britain made one lame mistake after another, not the least of which is the belief that force would reconcile people’s desire to be independent, the opinion slowly shifted to the Colonies. I imagine some people were much more comfortable with the idea of having a large Empire backing them rather than relying on neighbors. They were willing to back a King they had never seen, never met and had absolute power over their lives. For others it was anathema to go on like this. This rift is more human than political, it is in our DNA to be one way or the other.
The Colonists who were on the fence went one way or the other after the Stamp Act; and a few episodes when Colonists in New York or Philadelphia or Charleston looked into the Bay and saw 300 British ships of the line dropping anchor. These tended to move opinion to the Independence side. Take a look at the Constitution, and it forbids an occupying army from quartering soldiers in citizen’s homes and plundering their assets. This was a common practice during the Revolutionary War and did a lot to turn Loyalists affections away. Here is a soldier come to keep you enslaved and dependent, forcibly living in your home. Not exactly a hearts and minds policy, but then the British army did not come to patty cake. They came to crush you. The tensions that arose from these policies did more than fuel the revolution, By the war’s end, there was an untold civil war that happened on American soil, and by then it was American soil. But those that cast their lot with the Crown found themselves in street battles with those who favored independence. The fact of it is that brother fought brother throughout the Revolutionary War, and just as Benjamin Franklin severed ties to his Loyalist son William, families across the land were ripped apart by the war. Families found themselves at arms against each other in the same towns they were born in. Which side are you on? That was the question. And the answer meant quite literally everything.
When you look at things from King George’s point of view, he was not being irrational. Protests were effective and most of the taxes were repealed. What this became was a showdown of wills. At some point Britain had to put its foot down and tell the colonies that the land they live on belongs to the Kingdom, and they themselves are subject to the rules of parliament. That is why a 3 cent tax on every pound of tea was left in effect. It was Parliament’s way of asserting their authority.
This war might not have happened had the King not responded to the Tea Party. Had he and the British nobles bent, gave in, sweetened the deal, had they not sent troops in quartering in Colonial homes and plundering pantries, the momentum, the anger, the outrage might never have bubbled up. I am reminded of the story of Hannibal, who marched into Rome, whipped four large armies, and then camped there in utter defiance. Consul Fabius organized and trained a large army and decided to make hit and run attacks, burn fields and kill livestock around them so they can’t find food. He never engaged them head on, but ran a guerilla war instead. It was a winning strategy. It had results. But then, this was not the Roman way. They were at the top of the civilized world. They would not simply nip at the heels of the invader. They would keep raising armies until they either ran out of troops or one of them crushed him. Fabius was removed in six months. Similarly, the British nobility was not about to have these country bumpkin upstarts defy the rule of the Monarchy. To allow this would send a terrible message of weakness to subjects across the globe under the rule of her Majesty. It would embarrass them, the French court would be laughing, Voltaire would satirize them. You bet, in the 18th century in Europe, honor was worth dying for. Or sending others to die for.
On the other side, the Colonials weren’t all in favor of revolution. Many just wanted to be comfortable and raise their families and were perfectly comfortable with the notion of monarchy and Empire, and were in fact comforted by it. They could have chosen to pay a few cents on a pound of tea and the war would probably never have happened. But when 3,000 British troops occupied Boston and denied them public assembly, this was an affront to freedom itself. These people had been having public assemblies for 150 years and took umbrage at the implication that these rich elitists across the ocean would rule over them in this detail out of spite. They understood spite. They could dish out spite in buckets. The war could have been avoided, but the personalities of the combatants made it a certainty.
At the outset of the war the Colonies did not have a standing army but rather a militia. Each able-bodied man supplied his own musket, his own boots, and coats. Most often they had to give up tending to the very things that earned them a living and their wives had to take over caring for a ranch or running a business. We owe a lot to the wives of Colonists who worked overtime at home for six years while their husbands were away fighting often hopeless battles. We owe a lot to the kindness of neighbors who took care of each other in the absence of a father. Colonists were supposed to be paid for their service, but the Continental Congress at the time was itself an iffy proposition. It was often operated broke and on borrowed time. The Congress moved from Philadelphia to New York and then it moved again. Often the Revolution itself so burdened Colonists that they simply could not pay taxes and when the coffers were dry, and commissions expired, entire brigades of Colonial soldiers went home. So the war fighters were paid, even though many never collected, and the soldiers would not be expected to fight beyond their year to year contracts.
Conditions were absolutely horrific. The cold took soldiers in every year of the conflict, in the same ways that cold always degrades Armies: by taking toes, fingers, a man who drinks too much and falls asleep in the snow, and low morale. At times, all Washington had were words and hopes. “We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again. If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth new Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times,” he wrote to Philip Schuyler, July 15, 1777.
Often his officers and soldiers vented their wrath for endless war on members of the Continental Congress, who then vented their wrath directly at Washington. Washington was no Alexander. Alexander ate with his troops, and fought with them. Washington, in the military tradition of the European theatre of course lived in absolute luxury while his men starved or froze or dropped dead from exhaustion. Sometimes Washington vented back:
“Can you then consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution, and retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt? Can you consent to wade through the vile mire of dependency, and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which has hitherto been spent in honor? If you can — GO — and carry with you the jest of tories and scorn of whigs — the ridicule, and what is worse, the pity of the world. Go, starve, and be forgotten!”
He this wrote to the Officers of the Army, March 12, 1783
“The Army (considering the irritable state it is in, its suffering and composition) is a dangerous instrument to play with.”
George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton, April 4, 1783
Had the colonials learned a thing at Lexington or at Ticonderoga when Ethan Allen and his band of guerilla fighters, The Green Mountain Boys surprised and overwhelmed a British Fort? Apparently not. Instead of doing what as working, Washington recruited a Prussian Lieutenant named Von Steuben to teach the Colonials to fight in the way the British are best at: rows of musketeers or math-lockers delivering enfilading gunfire towards rows and rows of men 50 yards away from them. This might as well have been Frederick the Soldier King. Washington was a great statesman but a bad general who got out witted by minor British commanders time and again. He had a few bright moments, but the brightest moments were few and far between and usually the result of a more talented commander like Daniel Morgan who kicked Bannister Tarlton’s butt at Cowpens. Washington’s army didn’t just fall apart a half dozen times, he simply was not up to snuff against British regulars and British officers. The battlefield etiquette inherited and imported from European combat tactics menat that snipers did not shoot down officers. How many times did this kind convention save Washington’s life and the life of his best generals? Face it, had a good military commadner been at the helm, the Colonials would have bled the British dry with indirect asymmetrical warfare.
Either way, the Colonials did not really win this war on the battlefield. They won it at the Royal Treasury. They won it by simply refusing to buckle under no matter how many British Marines or mercenaries the King sends. To win the battles of the Revolutionary war, all the Colonials had to do was keep standing up in the ace of adversity, keep costing the Crown. Like so many insurgencies, this was a winning strategy.
The American Revolution was under manned, under funded, poorly prosecuted, and barely popular. The fact that it happened at all is amazing and the fact that the Colonials prevailed is history repeating itself time and time again.