Modern history



IN MAY 1775 A CONGRESS OF DELEGATES FROM THE AMERICAN COLONIES met in the Carpenters’ Hall of the quiet Pennsylvanian town of Philadelphia. They were respectable lawyers, doctors, merchants, and landowners, nervous at the onrush of events, and seemingly unfitted to form a revolutionary committee. The first shots had been fired and blood had been shed, but all hope of compromise had not yet vanished, and they were fearful of raising a military Power which might, like Cromwell’s Ironsides, overwhelm its creators. They had no common national tradition except that against which they were revolting, no organisation, no industries, no treasury, no supplies, no army. Many of them still hoped for peace with England. Yet British troops under General Sir William Howe were on their way across the Atlantic, and armed, violent, fratricidal conflict stared them in the face.

The centre of resistance and the scene of action was Boston, where Gage and the only British force on the continent were hemmed in by sixteen thousand New England merchants and farmers. There was continual friction within the town, not only between Patriots and soldiery, but between Patriots and Loyalists. Derisive placards were hung outside the quarters of the troops and all was in ferment. On May 25 Howe, accompanied by Generals Clinton and Burgoyne, sailed into the harbour with reinforcements which brought the total English troops to about six thousand men.

Thus strengthened Gage took the offensive. To the north, across a short tract of water, lay a small peninsula connected by a narrow neck with the mainland. Here Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill dominated the town. If the colonists could occupy and hold these eminences they could cannonade the English out of Boston. On the evening of June 16 Gage determined to forestall them, but next morning a line of entrenchments had appeared upon the heights across the water. Patriot troops, warned by messages from Boston, had dug themselves in during the night. Their position nevertheless seemed perilous. The English ships could bombard them from the harbour or put landing-parties on the neck of the peninsula and cut them off from their base. But neither course was attempted. Gage was resolved on a display of force. He had under his command some of the best regiments in the British Army, and he and his fellow-countrymen had acquired a hard contempt for the colonials in earlier wars. He decided to make a frontal attack on the hill, so that all Boston, crowded in its windows and upon its roofs, should witness the spectacle of British soldiers marching steadily in line to storm the rebel entrenchments.

On the hot afternoon of the 17th Howe, under Gage’s orders, supervised the landing of about three thousand British regulars. He drew up his men and made them a speech. “You must drive these farmers from the hill or it will be impossible for us to remain in Boston. But I shall not desire any of you to advance a single step beyond where I am at the head of your line.” In three lines the redcoats moved slowly towards the summit of Breed’s Hill. There was silence. The whole of Boston was looking on. At a hundred yards from the trenches there was still not a sound in front. But at fifty yards a hail of buck-shot and bullets from ancient hunting guns smote the attackers. There was shouting and curses. “Are the Yankees cowards? ” was hurled from the breastworks of the trenches. Howe, his white silk breeches splashed with blood, rallied his men, but they were scattered by another volley and driven to their boats. Howe’s reputation was at stake and he realised that ammunition was running short on the hill-top. At the third rush, this time in column, the regulars drove the farmers from their line. It was now evening. The village of Charlestown, on the Boston side of the peninsula, was in flames. Over a thousand Englishmen had fallen on the slopes. Of the three thousand farmers who had held the crest a sixth were killed or wounded. Throughout the night carriages and chaises bore the English casualties into Boston.

This sharp and bloody action sent a stir throughout the colonies, and has been compared in its effects with Bull Run, eighty-six years later. The rebels had become heroes. They had stood up to trained troops, destroyed a third of their opponents, and wiped out in blood the legend of Yankee cowardice. The British had captured the hill, but the Americans had won the glory. Gage made no further attack and in October he was recalled to England in disgrace. Howe succeeded to the command. On both sides of the Atlantic men perceived that a mortal struggle impended.

It was now imperative for the Patriots to raise an army. Massachusetts had already appealed to Congress at Philadelphia for help against the British and for the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief. Two days before the action at Breed’s Hill Congress had agreed. There had been much talk of whom they were to choose. There was jealousy and dislike of the New Englanders, who were bearing the brunt of the fighting, and largely for political reasons it was decided to appoint a Southerner. Adams’ eye centred upon a figure in uniform, among the dark brown clothes of the delegates. He was Colonel George Washington, of Mount Vernon, Virginia. This prosperous planter had fought in the campaigns of the 1750’s and had helped extricate the remnants of Braddock’s force from their disastrous advance. He was the only man of any military experience at the Congress, and this was limited to a few minor campaigns on the frontier. He was now given command of all the forces that America could raise. Great calls were to be made on the spirit of resolution that was his by nature.

The colonies contained about 280,000 men capable of bearing arms, but at no time during the war did Washington succeed in gathering together more than twenty-five thousand. Jealousy between the colonies and lack of equipment and organisation hampered his efforts. His immediate task was to provide the ragged band at Boston with discipline and munitions, and to this he devoted the autumn and winter months of 1775. Congress nevertheless resolved on an offensive. An expedition was dispatched to Canada under Benedict Arnold, who was to be for-ever infamous in American history, and Richard Montgomery, who had once served under Wolfe. They marched along the same routes which the British troops had taken in the campaign of 1759, and they had only eleven hundred men between them. Montgomery captured and occupied Montreal, which was undefended. He then joined Arnold, who after desperate hardships had arrived with the ghost of an army before the fortifications of Quebec. In the depth of winter, in driving snow, they flung themselves at the Heights of Abraham, defended by Sir Guy Carleton with a few hundred men. Montgomery was killed and Arnold’s leg was shattered. The survivors, even after this repulse, hung on in their wind-swept camp across the river. But in the spring, when the ice melted in the St Lawrence, the first reinforcements arrived from England. Having lost more than half their men, the Patriots thereupon trudged back to Maine and Fort Ticonderoga. Canada thus escaped the revolutionary upsurge. French Canadians were on the whole content with life under the British Crown. Soon Canada was to harbour many refugees from the United States who were unable to forswear their loyalty to George III.

Meanwhile Howe was still confined to Boston. He shrank from taking reprisals, and for at least the first two years of the war he hoped for conciliation. Both he and his generals were Whig Members of Parliament, and they shared the party view that a successful war against the colonists was impossible. He was a gallant and capable commander in the field, but always slow to take the initiative. He now set himself the task of overawing the Americans. This however needed extensive help from England, and as none arrived, and Boston itself was of no strategic importance, he evacuated the town in the spring of 1776 and moved to the only British base on the Atlantic seaboard, Halifax, in Nova Scotia. At the same time a small expedition under General Clinton was sent southwards to the Loyalists in Charleston in the hope of rallying the Middle and Southern colonies. But the Patriot resistance was stiffening, and although the moderate elements in Congress had hitherto opposed any formal Declaration of Independence the evacuation of Boston roused them to a sterner effort. Until they acquired what would nowadays be called belligerent status they could get no military supplies from abroad, except by smuggling, and supplies were essential. The Conservative politicians were gradually yielding to the Radicals. The publication of a pamphlet called Common Sense, by Tom Paine, an English extremist lately arrived in America, put the case for revolution with enormous success and with far greater effect than the writings of intellectuals like Adams.


But it was the British Government which took the next step towards dissolving the tie of allegiance between England and America. Early in 1776 it put in force a Prohibitory Act forbidding all intercourse with the rebellious colonies and declaring a blockade of the American coast. At the same time, it being impossible to raise enough British troops, Hessians were hired from Germany and dispatched across the Atlantic. The resulting outcry in America strengthened the hands of the extremists. At Philadelphia on June 7 Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, moved the following resolution: “That these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.” But six of the thirteen colonies still opposed an immediate Declaration. A large-scale British invasion was feared. No foreign alliances had yet been concluded. Many felt that a formal defiance would wreck their cause and alienate their supporters. But at last a committee was appointed, a paper was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was unanimously accepted by the Congress of the American colonies.

This historic document proclaimed the causes of the revolt, and enumerated twenty-eight “repeated injuries and usurpations” by the King of Great Britain. The opening is familiar and immortal: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

The Declaration was in the main a restatement of the principles which had animated the Whig struggle against the later Stuarts and the English Revolution of 1688, and it now became the symbol and rallying centre of the Patriot cause. Its immediate result was to increase the number of Loyalists, frightened by this splendid defiance. But the purpose of the colonies was proclaimed. The waverers were forced to a decision. There was now no turning back.


All this time the British had remained at Halifax awaiting reinforcements from England and meditating their strategy. Military success hinged on control of the Hudson valley. If they could seize and hold the waterway, and the forts which guarded it, New England would be sundered from the Middle and Southern colonies, which contained two-thirds of the population and most of the food and wealth. The first step was to capture New York, at the river-mouth. Howe could then move northwards, subdue the forts, and join hands with a force from Canada. Thereafter the South, where the settlements lay largely upon the rivers, could be crushed with the help of the Fleet. The plan seemed promising, for the colonists possessed no Navy and Great Britain should have been able to blockade the Atlantic seaboard. But the Fleet was no longer in the high efficiency to which it had been raised by Chatham’s admirals. It was able to bring reinforcements across the Atlantic, but in the event New England privateers did much damage to military operations on the coast and harassed transport vessels and supplies. In June 1776 Howe moved to New York, and began to invest the city, and in July his brother, Admiral Howe, arrived from England with a fleet of over five hundred sail and reinforcements. Howe was now in command of some twenty-five thousand men. This was the largest armed force that had yet been seen in the New World. But Washington was ready. He concentrated his army, now reduced by desertions and smallpox to about twenty thousand men, around the city. From the British camp on Staten Island the American lines could be seen across the bay on the spurs of Long Island, and on the heights of Brooklyn above the East River. In August Howe attacked. The slaughter of Bunker Hill, for thus the action at Breed’s Hill is known, had taught him caution and this time he abstained from a frontal assault. He made a feint against the Long Island entrenchments, and then flung his main force to the left of the Americans and descended upon their rear. The stroke succeeded and Washington was compelled to retreat into New York City. Adverse winds impeded the British fleet and he and his army escaped safely across the East River.

In this disaster Washington appealed to Congress. It seemed impossible to make a stand in New York, yet to abandon it would dismay the Patriots. But Congress agreed that he should evacuate the city without fighting, and after skirmishing on the Harlem heights he withdrew slowly northwards. At this juncture victory lay at Howe’s finger-tips. He was master of New York and of the Hudson River for forty miles above it. If he had pursued Washington with the same skill and vigour as Grant was to pursue Lee eighty-eight years later he might have captured the whole colonial army. But for nearly a month Washington was unmolested. At the end of October he was again defeated in a sharp fight at White Plains; but once more the English made no attempt to pursue, and Washington waited desperately to see whether Howe would attack up the Hudson or strike through New Jersey at Philadelphia. Howe resolved to move on Philadelphia. He turned south, capturing as he went the forts in the neighbourhood of New York, and the delegates at Philadelphia fled. Thousands of Americans flocked to the British camp to declare their loyalty. The only hope for the Patriots seemed a mass trek across the Alleghenies into new lands, a migration away from British rule like that of the Boers in the nineteenth century. Even Washington considered such a course. “We must then [i.e., if defeated] retire to Augusta County, in Virginia. Numbers will repair to us for safety and we will try a predatory war. If overpowered we must cross the Alleghany Mountains.”1 Meanwhile he traversed the Hudson and fell back southwards to cover Philadelphia.

The British were hard on his heels and began a rapid occupation of New Jersey. The Patriot cause seemed lost. But Washington remained alert and undaunted and fortune rewarded him. With an imprudence which is difficult to understand, and was soon to be punished, outposts from the British Army were flung about in careless fashion through the New Jersey towns. Washington determined to strike at these isolated bodies before Howe could cross the Delaware River. He selected the village of Trenton, held by a force of Hessians. On Christmas Night the Patriot troops fought their way into the lightly guarded village. At the cost of two officers and two privates they killed or wounded a hundred and six Hessians. The survivors were captured and sent to parade the streets of Philadelphia. The effect of the stroke was out of all proportion to its military importance. It was the most critical moment in the war. At Princeton Lord Cornwallis, a subordinate of Howe’s of whom more was to be heard later, tried to avenge the defeat, but was foiled. Washington marched behind him and threatened his line of communications. The year thus ended with the British in winter quarters in New Jersey, but confined by these two actions to the east of the Delaware. Their officers spent a cheerful season in the society of New York. Meanwhile Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, first of American diplomats, crossed the Atlantic to seek help from France.


Posterity should not be misled into thinking that war on the American colonies received the unanimous support of the British people. Burke for one had no illusions. “No man,” he had written after Bunker Hill, “commends the measures which have been pursued, or expects any good from those which are in preparation, but it is a cold, languid opinion, like what men discover in affairs that do not concern them. . . . The merchants are gone from us and from themselves. . . . The leading men among them are kept full fed with contracts and remittances and jobs of all descriptions, and are indefatigable in their endeavours to keep the others quiet. . . . They all, or the greatest number of them, begin to snuff the cadaverous haut goût of lucrative war. War is indeed become a sort of substitute for commerce. The freighting business never was so lively, on account of the prodigious taking up for transport service. Great orders for provisions and stores of all kinds . . . keep up the spirits of the mercantile world, and induce them to consider the American war not so much their calamity as their resource in an inevitable distress.” Powerful English politicians denounced not only the military and naval mismanagement, but the use of force against the colonists at all.

There was gloating over every setback and disaster to the British cause. “The parricide joy of some in the losses of their country makes me mad,” wrote a Government supporter. “They do not disguise it. A patriotic duke told me some weeks ago that some ships had been lost off the coast of North America in a storm. He said a thousand British sailors were drowned—not one escaped—with joy sparkling in his eyes. . . . In the House of Commons it is not unusual to speak of the provincials as ‘our Army.’” Such antics only made things worse. Indeed, but for the violence of the Opposition, which far outran the country’s true feelings, it is probable that Lord North’s administration would have fallen much sooner. As it was, he commanded large majorities in the House of Commons throughout the war. Not all the Opposition Members were so foolish or so extreme, but in the King’s mind all were traitors. George III grew stubborn and even more intent. He closed his ears to moderate counsel and refused to admit into his Government those men of both parties who, like many American Loyalists, foresaw and condemned the disasters into which his policy was tottering and were horrified at the civil war between the Mother Country and her colonies. Even Lord North was half-hearted, and only his loyalty to the King and his sincere old-fashioned belief, shared by many politicians of his day, that a Minister’s duty was to carry out the personal wishes of the sovereign stopped him resigning much sooner than he did. Though technically responsible as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had no grip on the conduct of affairs and allowed the King and the departmental Ministers to control the day-to-day work of government. George III tirelessly struggled to superintend the details of the war organisation, but he was incapable of co-ordinating the activities of his Ministers. These were of poor quality. The Admiralty was headed by Wilkes’ comrade in debauch, the Earl of Sandwich. His reputation has been mauled, but recent research has shown that at least the Fleet was in much better condition than the Army.

Rarely has British strategy fallen into such a multitude of errors. Every maxim and principle of war was either violated or disregarded. “Seek out and destroy the enemy” is a sound rule. “Concentrate your force” is a sound method. “Maintain your objective” is common sense. The enemy was Washington’s army. The force consisted of Howe’s troops in New York and Burgoyne’s columns now assembled in Montreal. The objective was to destroy Washington’s army and kill or capture Washington. If he could be brought to battle and every man and gun turned against him, a British victory was almost certain. But these obvious truths were befogged and bedevilled by multiplicity of counsel. Howe was still determined to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the revolutionary Congress and the fountain-head of political resistance. Burgoyne, on the other hand, was hot for a descent from Canada into the upper reaches of the Hudson valley, and a seizure, with the aid of a trust from New York, of the forts which dominated the waterway. Once in control of the Hudson, New England could be isolated and speedily subdued. Burgoyne had obtained leave of absence and journeyed to England late in the autumn of 1776. He offered his advice to the London Government. George III approved his plan and endorsed it in his own hand. Burgoyne was to advance from Montreal through the wooded borders of the frontier and seize the fort at Ticonderoga near the valley-head. At the same time a force from New York would strike north, capture the citadel of West Point, which had recently been strengthened with the help of French engineers, and join him at Albany.

Thus the London planners. The ultimate responsibility for coordinating these movements lay with the War Minister, Lord George Germain. Germain’s career in the army had ended in disgrace, though his military experience may not have been a fair guide to his capacities. Twenty years before he had refused to charge with his cavalry at the Battle of Minden, and been declared unfit to serve by a court-martial. But, secure in the favour of the young King, he had made himself into a politician. The Government were well aware that Howe intended to move in the opposite direction to Burgoyne, namely, southwards against Philadelphia, but did nothing to dissuade him. They gave him no orders to join forces at Albany and they stinted him of reinforcements. “The extraordinary spectacle was thus presented,” writes an American historian, “of a subordinate general going to London and getting the King’s approval to one plan of campaign; of the King’s Minister sending full instructions to one general and none to the other who was to co-operate with him; and of this other general making his own independent plan. . . .”2 On his return to Canada Burgoyne nevertheless sent Howe no fewer than three letters about the plan to meet at Albany, but in the absence of precise directions from England Howe saw no reason to abandon his project against Philadelphia. He held to his course. Having tried and failed to bring Washington to battle, he left a garrison of eight thousand men in New York under Sir Henry Clinton and sailed in July 1777 with the main part of his army to Chesapeake Bay. Instead of concentrating their strength, the British forces were now dispersed over five hundred miles of country, and divided between Burgoyne in Canada, Howe on the Chesapeake, and Clinton in New York.


Washington, from his winter quarters at Morristown, on the borders of New Jersey, moved hastily south-westwards to screen Philadelphia. Having abandoned New York without a serious fight, he could hardly do the same at the capital of the Congress, but with his ill-disciplined force, fluctuating in numbers, he could only hope to delay the British advance. At the beginning of September Howe advanced with about fourteen thousand men. Washington, with a similar force, drew up his lines on the north bank of the river Brandywine, barring the road to the capital. Howe perceived and exploited the faulty equipment of the army in front of him, its lack of an efficient staff and its inability to get quick information. He made the same feinting movements which had served so well at Long Island. On the morning of the 11th he divided his army, and, leaving a powerful body to make a frontal attack, marched up-river with Cornwallis, crossed it, and descended on Washington’s right flank. His tactics went like clockwork. The attack was successful, disorder spread, and the British troops on the far bank crossed the river and drove the whole American force before them. By sunset Washington was in full retreat. As the Marquis de Lafayette, a young French volunteer in the American army, described it, “Fugitives, cannon, and baggage crowded without order into the road.” But here, as at Long Island, Howe refused to pursue and capture the enemy. He was content. On September 26 his advance-guards entered Philadelphia. There was a confused fight to the north of the city at Germantown, but the British pressed on, and soon afterwards the capital fell.

By now however the London plans for the northern theatre were beginning to miscarry. Burgoyne, with a few hundred Indians and seven thousand regulars, of whom half were German, was moving through the Canadian forests expecting to join with the British forces from New York. After an arduous journey he reached Fort Ticonderoga, from which the Americans promptly retired, leaving their artillery behind them. He pushed eagerly southwards. If only Howe was moving up to West Point nothing could prevent an overwhelming success. But where was Howe? On the day that Burgoyne moved upon the next American fort Howe had sailed southwards from New York. All concerned were confident that after capturing Philadelphia Howe could quickly return to New York and reach out to the expedition from Canada. He failed to do so, and Burgoyne paid the price.

As Burgoyne advanced the New England militia gathered against him. He was a popular and dashing commander, but the country was difficult, he was harassed by raids, and his troops began to falter and to dwindle. He could still succeed if help came from New York. Clinton’s garrison there had been halved, since Howe had called upon him for reinforcements. Nevertheless Clinton marched north and captured two forts below West Point, but as the autumn rains descended Burgoyne was cornered at Saratoga, and the New Englanders, their strength daily increasing, closed in. He was only thirty miles from Albany, where he should have met the column from New York, but he could make no headway. Days of hard fighting in the woodlands followed. His supplies ran low, and he was heavily outnumbered. The Americans were operating in their own country by their own methods. Each man fighting mostly on his own initiative, hiding behind bushes and in the tops of trees, they inflicted severe casualties upon some of the best regiments that Europe could muster. The precise drill and formations of Burgoyne’s men had no effect. An American deserter brought news that Clinton was moving northwards. It was too late. The Germans refused to fight any longer, and on October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered to the American commander, Horatio Gates. The surrender terms were violated by Congress and the main body of his army were kept prisoners until the signing of the peace. Burgoyne returned to England to attack and be attacked by the Ministry.


At this point in the struggle the Old World stepped in to aid and comfort the New. Although militarily indecisive in America, Saratoga had an immediate effect in France. The French, though technically at peace with Britain, had been supplying the Patriots with arms, and French volunteers were serving in the colonial army. At Versailles Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane had been urging an open alliance, but for a year both sides had wavered. The French Ministers hesitated to support the cause of liberty overseas while suppressing it at home, and many Americans feared that France would exact a heavy price for declaring war on England. Now all doubts were swept away. The colonists could not survive without French supplies, and the mass of Frenchmen were vehement to avenge the defeats of the Seven Years’ War. The French Navy had been strengthened; the British Fleet was disintegrating; and when the news arrived of Saratoga Louis XVI resolved on an official alliance. There was consternation in London, where the Whig Opposition had long warned the Government against harsh dealings with the colonists, and the British Ministry formulated a generous compromise. It was too late. On February 6, 1778, before the Congress could be appraised of the new offer, Benjamin Franklin signed an alliance with France.

Thus began another world war, and Britain was now without a single ally. She had lost one army as prisoners in America. There were no more troops to be hired in Germany. Old fears of invasion spread panic through the country. The Ministry was discredited. In the agony all minds except the King’s turned to Chatham. On April 7 Chatham dragged himself upon crutches to make his last speech against an Opposition address for recalling the Army in America. He had always stood for conciliation and not for surrender. The corpse-like figure, swathed in flannel bandages, tottered to its feet. The House was hushed with the anticipation of death. In whispering sentences, shot through with a sudden gleam of fierce anger, he made his attack “against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy.” He warned the nation of the dangers of French intervention and the use of German mercenaries. He scourged his countrymen for their inhumanity. “My lords, if I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country I never would lay down my arms—never, never, never.” He dismissed the threat of invasion with contemptuous sarcasm. He struggled to speak again after the reply of the Opposition leader, the Duke of Richmond, but collapsed senseless in an apoplectic fit. On May 11 he died as his son William was reading to him from Homer the solemn scene of Hector’s funeral and the deep despair of Troy. George III displayed his smallness of mind by opposing the plan to erect a monument, which would be, he said, “an offensive measure to me personally”; but the City of London defied him, and Burke’s inscription was a fitting memorial: “The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness are the virtues infused into great men.” Such men were very few in the England of Lord North.

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