TO MAKE alliance with rebels necessarily put France at war with Britain as the governing power, which was of course the French intention. Bourbon policy was not formed out of sympathy with the Jeffersonian principle that a time comes when a people must “assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them.” That was not a monarchical idea, although enunciated by the ally whose cause the Bourbons now embraced. Less philosophical, the French motive was simple hostility to Britain, grown out of seven centuries of rivalry since 1066, and desire to redress French losses in the Seven Years’ War. Thus it was a power struggle of the Old World, not a concern with America, that brought about the French intervention that would make it possible for the American Colonies to win their separation from Britain. The alliance was composed of two treaties, one of commerce and friendship, and the other contingent upon both parties binding themselves not to make a separate peace with Britain before she acknowledged American independence.
In July, 1778, five months after signing her treaty of alliance with America, France declared war on Great Britain, to be followed a year later by Spain, in renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Spain’s price was a French promise to help her recover Gibraltar and Minorca.
The greatest French dread was that the Colonies would reconcile themselves with the mother country and re-establish her trade and her colonial and maritime position, restoring Britain to the pre-eminence which it was France’s chief war aim to reduce. Benjamin Franklin’s deliberate hints to the French about a possible reconciliation, and supporting signs and portents which the French thought they detected, had led them to make the treaty of alliance in the first place. Its pledge against a separate peace barred the way to French fear of settlement between Britain and the Colonies—for the moment. It was soon to revive when the British themselves proposed a settlement with the Colonies.
Seventeen days after the French entered the war, the opening fleet action that had nothing to do with America, yet that would in the long run seriously damage the British war effort, intangibly if not physically, was fought in the Channel near the island of Ushant, off the French coast. The French objective was to gain control of the Channel preparatory to invading England. Having intelligence of the sailing of two French squadrons from Brest and Toulon, the British objective was to prevent their juncture, and in case the two squadrons did join and proceed up the Channel, to attack them unless their force was “markedly superior,” and in that case to return for reinforcements. Admiral Augustus Keppel, the British commander of the Channel fleet, on sighting two frigates, outriders of the French fleet, opened fire in eagerness to bring on a battle. The usual practice of the time was for the admiral to be in the center of the line, where he had the forward and rear extremities of his fleet equally visible, or equally invisible, as the case might be. For successful action, a perfect understanding must exist between the admiral and his second in command, who directs the rear. In this case, Admiral Keppel and his third in command, Admiral Hugh Palliser, belonged to different political parties. Again occurred a misapprehension of signals, whether from misunderstanding or malice was afterward disputed by partisans to the point of blows. Either way, the signal table was inadequate for its purposes. The British code had no signal that allowed a captain to indicate a failure to see or understand a given instruction, nor any by which an admiral could indicate that a second signal superseded the first or other change of orders. No better system of communicating could be worked out except the use of light dispatch boats as messengers, like a general’s aides on land galloping forward with spoken instructions. This was not practical, because ships of the line could not stand still awaiting orders as brigade or divisional commanders could on land. The alternative of placing the admiral in a frigate at the head of the line, so that he might show the path he wanted by his example rather than by signal, was later attempted by Nelson but never generally adopted.
Thirty ships of the line fought on either side at Ushant; none was taken or sunk and both fleets returned without glory to their respective ports. The British public—expecting to see the home fleet return with the French scalp hanging from its belt, having driven the enemy from the seas—looked for someone to blame and fell into furious dispute when charges were raised by Palliser against Keppel, and vice versa, culminating in courts-martial of first one and then the other, fiercely dividing opinion in the public and the navy. Popular sentiment favored Keppel, who was a Whig attached to the Opposition and who, in 1775, had announced that he would not serve against the American Colonists. Only after the French entered the war had he accepted command of the home fleet. Now, charged by Palliser with having thrown away victory at Ushant by ordering his fleet to withdraw when the French were fleeing, he demanded a court-martial to clear him of the accusation. Palliser was a protégé of Sandwich and a loyal supporter of the government. His attack upon a superior officer and a Whig aroused the antagonism of colleagues, of whom twelve admirals signed a protest against his conduct, so that he too took his turn in court. The trials and testimony by witnesses aroused public passion even further. Opinion in general laid the fault for the navy coming home empty-handed on Sandwich, who was believed to have sent Admiral Keppel to sea with an ill-equipped fleet in the hope that he would suffer defeat and thus discredit the Opposition which Keppel openly supported. Jobbery in the yards had, in truth, left ships unseaworthy, underequipped, unprovisioned and undermanned. Opposition members in Parliament charged Sandwich in a “fierce torrent of invective as was ever heard in the House” with “gross incompetency and criminal neglect” of naval affairs. As a stick to beat the administration, his dismissal was moved by Charles James Fox. The motion was defeated by the government’s safe majority of 103 votes. Sandwich remained.
Excitement rose when the court-martial at Portsmouth enthusiastically acquitted Keppel. The London mob celebrated by looting Palliser’s house and smashing all the windows at Lord North’s. The easy-tempered Prime Minister, a master of survival, climbed to the roof and equably remained there until the rioters dispersed. Unsated, they rushed on to assault the Admiralty gates and howl for the downfall of Sandwich. After Palliser too was acquitted, he resigned his commission in the navy and was later recompensed by the government for his loss of income by appointment to the post Rodney had held as Governor of Greenwich Hospital. Keppel, with a louder gesture, declared that he would not serve again in the navy while Sandwich was First Lord. The withdrawal of the two antagonists in no way quieted the quarrel. A train of dissension and intramural hostility now pervaded the senior service, from officers to dockyard workers, just at the time when Britain’s need of an able, self-confident navy for offense and defense in four theaters of war at once—in America, in home waters, in the West Indies and in India—was at its most critical. Rallying to Keppel, Whig flag officers took up his example and made it a point of honor for opponents of the government to decline service under Sandwich. Divided against itself by party faction, the navy was now deprived of many of its forward-looking officers. Naval officers were Whigs almost to a man.
The navy was ruled at the top by the Lords Commissioners, who were professional seamen exercising political power from seats in Parliament and among whom the First Lord held a seat in the small national governing Cabinet of eight or nine ministers. It was a vast institution administering several hundred warships, with enough cannon to equip an army and enough personnel to man its ranks, dockyards, victualing yards and storehouses around the world. The harm done by the rampant politicizing following the default of Ushant is recorded by Rodney’s friend Wraxall, drawing on Rodney’s private letters. “So violent was the spirit of party and faction in his own fleet, as almost to supersede and extinguish the affection to their Sovereign and their country …” and of such “inveterate an animosity to the Administration … particularly to the First Lord, as almost to wish for a defeat if it would produce the dismission of Ministers.” Naval officers themselves confirmed these sentiments. As Commissioner of the Portsmouth dockyard, Admiral Hood declared in a letter to his brother that “such a want of discipline and order throughout a fleet was never known before, and such a want of regard and attention to the good of the King’s service. The negligence of officers in general is really astonishing, and God knows to what extent the mischief will go.” Admiral Samuel Barrington, who had entered the navy at the age of eleven, commanded a ship at eighteen and whose brother was one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, when declining the Channel command, spoke of the “total relaxation of discipline” and said that the “strain and anxiety” would kill him. “Had I been in command, what I have seen since I have been here would have made me run mad.” He had no confidence in Sandwich or in the Admiralty, who were the “wickedest herd that ever good men served under.” The lesson was not yet clear in the 18th century, as America was to learn to her cost in our own century, that the presence of disunity in the military about method and strategy, and among the nation’s people about the rightness of the war aim, makes it impossible for a war of any duration to be fought effectively and won.
A modern historian, Geoffrey Callender, has offered the provocative thought that the stalemate at Ushant had historic result, for if the French had been beaten and shut up thereafter in their ports, they could not have come to the aid of the Americans, with the probability that the British might then have defeated the Revolution, leaving America to remain part of the British Empire. However interesting may be this prospectus for the history of the world, it is not realistic, for it would have depended on British will and capacity to undertake and maintain a blockade of French Atlantic ports. To tie down the fleet in a static role when protection of trade and defense of far-flung positions from Gibraltar to Ceylon was considered the warships’ primary duty would not have been at all likely, even had there been a victory at Ushant.
The accepted view that inadequate naval force was the primary reason for Britain’s defeat in the War for American Independence leaves an open question. Disunited and ill-disciplined the Royal Navy certainly was. Its numbers were too few for its tasks, and as a result of profiteering at the dockyards and the carelessness of the Admiralty’s Commissioners, the ships were in such poor condition that one liner, royally named the Prince William for the King’s son, actually foundered and sank at anchor in the Thames. Its governors were men of limited intelligence, limited experience, no coherent strategy and unlimited assurance of winning. The open question is whether the persistence and will of the enemy in such men as George Washington and the Reverend Daggett of New Haven (whom we shall meet further on) and the geographical logistics of the American continent, where every one of the 50,000 British troops in North America and every bullet and every biscuit of his supply and every letter of instructions to his commanders had to be transmitted over the six-to-eight-week width of the Atlantic Ocean, would not have made the war unwinnable by the British anyway. A larger navy, it is supposed, could have made a major difference by allowing ships of the Channel fleet or the West Indies to be diverted for blockade of France’s Atlantic ports, preventing French maritime intervention in aid of the Colonies, but that could have happened only if the British had thought blockade sufficiently important. They did not, since at no time in the war did they take seriously the possibility of the Americans winning. Blockade of the French ports would have required immobilizing a large number of ships while their bottoms grew foul from marine growth, and would have depended on a concerted decision by the war Cabinet, which could never make up its mind whether concentration of naval forces in one place for blockade was worth weakening the forces available for convoy of trade and for defense of the Caribbean and East Indian colonies and of the home islands.
As in older and later empires, resouces were not equal to the over-extension of the imperial reach. Inadequacy of decision-making was a primary defect. Lord Sandwich begged the King to require that “meetings of the Cabinet” should reduce its decisions to writing, “and when a question is agitated it ought to be decided one way or another, and not be put off as now most frequently happens, without any determination.” Failure to focus available resources on a single objective and give that objective absolute priority was a major failure in strategy. Notwithstanding common opinion, human beings can and sometimes do learn. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American decision, previously agreed with Britain, to give priority of defense to Europe and defeat Hitler first was what made his defeat possible.
In 1778, Britain had no one capable of a decisive determination of that kind. Not the King. While George III had no trouble making up his mind, it contained only one idea—to conquer, but not how. Pitt was gone, felled by a stroke in April at the time of the French alliance, and dead a month later. The King’s two chief war ministers, Germain and Sandwich, were emphatic enough, but not usefully, having no clear plan of strategy and sloppy about implementing any plan they conceived. Saratoga, the most stunning British defeat before the end, was the result of simple carelessness to ensure that two armies, Howe’s and Burgoyne’s, which according to the plan of campaign were supposed to meet to form a pincer, were both informed of the design and timing of the movements planned for them. As it turned out, they were not; moreover, the plan approved by Lord Germain was based on the “wildly fallacious premise,” in the opinion of William Willcox, Clinton’s biographer, that Howe’s main field army could operate through Pennsylvania while a substantial part of it was immobilized in New York and that Burgoyne’s could move independently in the North without reference to Howe. Professor Willcox assigns the responsibility of the “worst” British planning of the war to “intellectual shortcomings” of the three architects, Howe, Germain, Burgoyne, and to the “almost complete lack of communication between them.” The basic fault was complacency rather than mental incapacity.
Complacency is an attribute of long-retained power like that of the Chinese. Throughout her history, China conceived of herself as the center of the universe, as the Middle Kingdom surrounded by barbarians. Outsiders whose misfortune it was “to live beyond her borders” were inferiors, required, if they wished to approach the Emperor, to assume the kowtow position, prone with face on the floor. If not quite so explicitly, Britain carried the same feeling in her soul, a sense of being the world’s moon that pulled the tides of international affairs.
The danger in complacency is that it causes the possessor to ignore as unimportant the local factors and conditions that govern other people with whom it deals. Britons faced with the American Revolution were not interested in Americans or in their magnificent continent reaching from ocean to ocean. No British monarch had ever seen his domain across the Atlantic, and no British minister in the fifteen years, 1760–75, when insurgency was brewing to a boil visited the Colonies to learn what was exercising the unruly subjects or what kind of people they were. The consequence was ignorance, which is a disadvantage in war.
“Know thy enemy,” the sine qua non of successful military operations, was entirely lacking in the war with America, and complacency allowed no room for effort to make good the lack. Lord Sandwich, for example, employed no proper means to obtain intelligence of French naval movements, according to a charge in Parliament by Lord Stormont, the British Ambassador in Paris. His “negligence” was “inconceivable” in that it allowed French warships to leave their ports to sail for the West Indies without an alert to the British at sea who were watching for them. “We have no intelligence,” the Ambassador told the House of Lords. Stormont said he had done his utmost repeatedly to arrange for cutters to lay off the French ports to get information, but could not prevail on Lord Sandwich to grant them.
More fundamental was the attitude of the chief war minister, Lord George Germain, who had won his position through the King’s favor by advocating the “utmost force of this kingdom” to finish the rebellion in one campaign, which should conclude with an offer to the Colonies of submission or ruin. That was the extent of his government’s understanding of the rebels.
Planlessness followed from the start of the war, when the British assumed that no plan was needed to suppress a rebellion—only hard blows. Carelessness followed from the assumption that the superiority of British force was so great that it made taking pains in performance unnecessary. A more basic deteriorating factor was dissension at home.
Politics as much as anything defeated the British in the American war. The British have always been obsessed with politics, not so much in terms of opposing systems of belief as in terms of who’s in and who’s out. Transmitted to the navy by the Keppel-Palliser quarrel, it cut like a carving knife through the solidity of the senior service. “So violent was the spirit of party and faction” in the fleet, as Wraxall has told us, “as almost to extinguish every patriotic sentiment.”
Mistrust of Sandwich after the Keppel affair was virtually total except for the King, who relied on him and who, knowing nothing of the nuts and bolts required to keep a fleet serviceable, accepted what he was told and dutifully believed in the navy as a British eagle which would pounce upon and destroy his enemies. Constitutionally unable to change ministers for fear that the unknown would be worse than the known, he held on to Sandwich as he had held on to Bute and now Lord North, as a sinking swimmer might hold on to a post when the waters are closing over his head.
The Opposition despised the First Lord. One of its leading figures, the Duke of Richmond, wrote to Keppel when he was first offered command of the Grand Fleet, before Ushant, that he did not think it a matter for congratulation. If Sandwich has a “bad fleet” to send out, he would “be glad to put it under the command of a man whom he does not love.” He advised Keppel to have each ship examined by himself and his officers and “not to trust Lord Sandwich for a piece of rope yarn.”
Britain’s greatest dread, the belligerency of France in alliance with the American rebellion, was now a fact. It put odds heavily in the balance against her and convinced many of the government party that the immediate necessity was to relieve Britain of a war both costly and profitless in order to free her to meet the French challenge, and the only way to do that was a settlement with the Colonies, as the Whigs had long been urging. Slowly the discouraging truth that the war was unwinnable was forcing itself on the notice of what Edward Gibbon called the “thinking friends of government,” meaning others like himself.* Chatham, formerly Pitt, the great Prime Minister, was the first to have pointed this out, in a speech on November 20, 1777. Before he knew of the American victory at Saratoga, he had told the House of Lords, “I know that the conquest of English America is an impossibility. You cannot, I venture to say it, you cannot conquer America.…” The war was “unjust in its principles, impractible in its means, and ruinous in its consequences.” The employment of “mercenary sons of rapine and plunder” (meaning the Hessians and other German mercenaries) had aroused “incurable resentment.” “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.” By insisting on submission, Britain would lose all benefit from the Colonies through their trade and their support against the French, and gain for herself only renewed war against France and Spain. The only remedy was to terminate hostilities and negotiate a treaty of settlement.
The logistics, Charles James Fox added, pursuing the argument, made military success impossible. On land, generals were placed too far apart to aid each other, while America’s immensely long coast with its innumerable bays, estuaries and river mouths and her self-sufficiency in food, if not in arms, made her virtually impervious to sea power. Indeed, hostilities worked the other way around, by depriving Britain of the tall white pines from America for her masts, and of seasoned timber, tar and other naval stores for ship-building. Whereas in a European land war siege of a capital city usually led to surrender, the separateness of colonial regions meant that capture of New York or Boston or Philadelphia brought no finality. And there was a final problem that Chatham had also remarked. Even if you could conquer the Americans, you could not make them willing partners.
Failure to quell rebels by conventional military action was humiliating to Britain, and the failure to arouse active support by the Loyalists, who had been expected to rise up and overwhelm their misguided countrymen and had been counted upon as a primary component in the military suppression of the rebellion, was a major disappointment, which the British seemed not to realize was their own fault. In their persisting attitude of scorn for colonials, they made no effort to recruit Loyalists for an organized force of their own, or form Loyalist divisions or even brigades, or to offer them commissions as officers in the British Army. If the Loyalists had wished to fight as an organized force and do more than protect themselves from harassment and persecution by the patriots, what military command could they join? The British government, while paying German mercenaries at increasingly disagreeable cost and adding a few miserable results from Irish recruiting, did not use what they had at hand and complained unhappily when a Loyalist army did not arise out of the earth spontaneously. Loyalists, who mainly belonged to the propertied class, had in fact stronger feelings about the war than the ruling British. Their sentiments sprang less from devotion to the Crown than to their privileged position, which the Revolution threatened to overturn. Although the revolutionary leaders were landowners like Washington and Jefferson and men of wealth like the Morrises, they were felt to represent a spirit of subversion rising in the world. As against the Loyalists, the Revolution was essentially a class war which, like all conflicts that threaten the loss of property, arouses the fiercest feelings.
Britain had based her calculations on ending the rebellion by the spring of 1777; instead, in 1778 a successful conclusion in America was as far off as ever. The entry of France added force to the arguments that the war was unwinnable and brought about an astonishing reversal by Lord North’s government—an offer of peace terms and of conciliation to the Colonies, which it was hoped would bring them back to the house of the parent and break off their betrothal to France. The Conciliatory Propositions, as they were called, were submitted to a stunned and unbelieving Parliament in February, 1778. Their purpose was rather to placate the Opposition than to negotiate peace with the Americans. The Opposition, which enjoyed the Commons’ most eloquent and effective speakers, Fox and Burke, continually denounced the war as unjust, and as certain to be ruinous to Great Britain by the ever-increasing cost of maintaining enlarged armies and fleets at the price of increased taxes.
To stem the disaffection, the government made its peace proposal for the sake of its own hold on office, the primary concern of every government, regardless of policy. A Peace Commission was appointed in March, headed by Frederick, fifth Earl Carlisle, a young man of great wealth, scion of the Howards and owner of the regal Castle Howard. Known chiefly as a fashion plate, he was otherwise qualified mainly as the son-in-law of Lord Gower, a prominent member of the Bedford Gang, a political group faithful to the King and Lord North. Ample wealth and great estate are not attributes that as a rule accustom the possessor to walk softly and adjust to compromise. Life had not trained the Earl of Carlisle to be a negotiator, especially not vis-à-vis followers of Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
Except for one missing element, the peace terms proposed by Britain appeared to be a package of everything the Americans wanted: exemption from taxation by Parliament, membership in the House of Commons accepted as a principle (method and numbers were to be worked out in discussion), recognition of Congress as a constitutional body, repeal of the tea duty and other punitive acts—in short, everything except the grant of independence, on which the Americans insisted as a prior condition of, not a subject for, negotiation. Upon this rock of independence the mission foundered, nor was there any mention of withdrawal from the country of British troops and ships, another American condition; and without these conditions, members of Congress would neither meet nor talk with the peace commissioners. In any event, the peace overture had come too late. Having pledged to France to make no separate peace, the Americans could not have come to terms with the British even if they had wanted to. “The pride of men,” Edmund Burke noted, “will not often suffer reason to have any scope until it can be no longer of service.”
To end a war and restore peace in its place needs delicacy. The tactics of Carlisle and his colleague on the commission—Governor Johnstone, so called because he had formerly served as Governor of West Florida—were so heavy-handed as to suggest that they were intended to fail, as perhaps they were. The British government, hating and rejecting the thought of independence, had, as was suspected, planned the Peace Commission as a gesture to quiet the Opposition, without wanting a positive result. They were not likely to get one by Governor Johnstone’s methods, which were as counterproductive as possible, as we shall see. Before his service as Governor of West Florida, he had been a naval officer of the aggressive, dictatorial and quarrelsome kind. Given to dueling, he had been found guilty by court-martial of insubordination in a duel, but not sentenced except by reprimand because of personal bravery in action. In Florida his staff had officially protested his autocratic conduct. He was not the ideal selection for a peace mission. Carlisle, as noted, knew nothing of negotiation. William Eden, the third commissioner, had been confidential secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations, which governed relations with the Colonies, and, as a member of both the English and later Irish parliaments, had to deal with both Americans and Irish, two troublesome peoples. During the war with America, he served as the director of secret intelligence. In these positions he might be supposed to have learned the utility of tactful procedures, though if he had, he seems not to have been able to convey them to his colleagues.
The British government itself had nullified the mission before it could act, by ordering the evacuation of Philadelphia for transfer of command to New York, giving an effect of British withdrawal just as the peace commissioners were due to arrive in America. The appearance of yielding was enhanced by the transfer of 5,000 troops, which had held Philadelphia, to the West Indies to counter expected French attack on the islands. Philadelphia was thus rendered indefensible and Carlisle deprived of his theorem that “gunpowder or guineas will fix the business.”
An offer of peace terms by one belligerent will always give an impression of a weakening of purpose and will to victory. The other party, sensing weakness, will be less disposed to accept terms. This is one reason why ending a war is always more difficult than starting one. The Peace Commission and the Conciliatory Propositions unavoidably gave an impression that British enthusiasm for the war was fading, which was indeed the case and which naturally gave the Americans reason to reject terms or even to discuss them.
Frustrated and affronted in America by the refusal of Congress to meet with him and his colleagues, Johnstone’s idea was to persuade individual members by worldly rewards to move the recalcitrant Congress to enter negotiations. He made his proposals in writing, offering to bribe Robert Morris of Philadelphia, one of the richest men in America and a devoted partisan of the Revolution, and also Joseph Reed, the Pennsylvania patriot, who was offered £10,000 if he could reconcile the Colonies with Britain. Johnstone suggested that peerages could be arranged for other members who might succeed in promoting a settlement. Among those he approached was Henry Laurens, President of the Congress. When Johnstone’s letters were given by their indignant recipients to the press, public outrage forced the overenterprising commissioner to resign from the Peace Commission and return to England. Eden, more circumspect, took no part, unless private and undocumented, in his colleague’s too zealous maneuvers, writing only to his brother at home that if “my wishes and cares could accomplish it, this noble country would soon belong once more to Great Britain.” His chief of mission, Lord Carlisle, was left to resort to a tactic of threats of terror and devastation. In a public manifesto of October, 1778, which he ordered distributed to all members of the Congress, to George Washington and all American generals, to all provincial governors and assemblies, to all ministers of the Gospel and commanders of the British forces and prison camps, he proclaimed in the name of the Peace Commission that the Colonies having made alliance with the enemy of Britain, it became Britain’s duty “by every means in her power to destroy or render useless a connexion contrived for her ruin”; in short, to replace the “humanity and benevolence with which she had hitherto pursued the war” by sterner practices. Carlisle’s notion of benevolence addressed to people who in every colony had already suffered pillage and destruction, the burning of villages and the laying waste of farms, fields and timberlands, did not lend him credibility. Taking advantage of his threats, Congress recommended to local authorities that the British text should be published in gazettes of their districts, “to convince the good people of these states of the insidious designs” of the Peace Commission.
Military ill success and the personal humiliation of the Peace Commission had prompted the commissioners to issue the manifesto known as the Carlisle Proclamation. Its expressed threats were modest compared to the intentions of its first unpublished draft, proposing “a scheme of universal devastation,” to be applied by the army and fleet, which its author fondly believed “will have effect.” A test came in Connecticut. Whether or not taking its cue from the Carlisle Proclamation, a short campaign of terror was carried out by Governor Tryon of New York in July, 1779. Compared by Henry Laurens to the operations of the Duke of Alva, in dreadful memory of the Spanish Terror, the Connecticut raid was no massacre, but vicious enough to stimulate rather than subdue resistance, a well-known effect of such measures, and to induce residents to record the events in many journals.
Apart from geographical convenience, Connecticut was chosen because it had made itself obnoxious to the British in and around New York by manufacturing munitions for the colonials and furnishing more troops for the rebel cause than any other colony except Massachusetts, and by launching frequent raids on land and water that interfered with the military plans of Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief. Moreover, its population was counted as three-quarters disloyal. Clinton had decided upon “severe punishment” to be inflicted by a force of 3,000 troops coming from New York under the command of Major General Tryon, Governor of New York, and to be joined by 2,000 sailors and marines crossing from Long Island in 48 transports with tenders escorted by two warships. The largest collection of ships that had ever entered Long Island Sound, the armada made an impressive sight as it came up to New Haven and anchored in the early light of dawn July 5, 1779.
On the previous day, July 4, Tryon had issued an eloquent proclamation distributed in printed copies evidently thought to be truly persuasive, for although their effect, he reported, “cannot be discovered until further operations and descent upon their coast,” he expected his words to awaken “terror and despondency” among the people of the coast, whom he believed to be “already divided and easily impressible.” He told them that their lives and “the existence of their habitations on your defenceless coast showed Britain’s forbearance and lenity in its mild and noble efforts.” He urged the population to give up their “ungenerous and wanton insurrection into which they had been deluded by designing men for private purposes.” In this plea, General Tryon reflected the enduring British belief, which held Britain to the expectation of an early victory around the corner, that the mass of Americans were basically loyal and only waiting to overturn demagogues and agitators to come back to their old allegiance. “Can the strength of your whole province,” continued the proclamation, “cope with the force of Great Britain? You are conscious it cannot. Why then, will you persist in a ruinous and ill-judged resistance? We hoped you would recover from the frenzy which had distracted this unhappy country and we believe the day will come when the greater part of this continent will blush at their delusion.”
How was it possible for Tryon, Governor of a colony, to know so little of the people he was fighting? Only the year before, giving firm notice of their intent, Connecticut and six other colonies—two from New England, two from the mid-Atlantic and two from the South—signed the Articles of Confederation that were to be the foundation of the United States of America.
At sunrise on July 5, a gunshot from the ships of Tryon’s raid sounded the signal for landing. Instantly, a string of boats filled with redcoats was seen dropping astern from every transport and pulling directly for shore. They were met by a biting blaze of musket fire from a people who proved less “impressible” than supposed. Warned in advance by compatriots in New York of Tryon’s coming, defenders armed with ancient long-range Queen Anne muskets poured into New Haven from nearby towns to a total of several thousand. Knowing every tree and fence, and fighting for their homes and rights, they fired upon the invaders from the protection of the tall Indian corn now at its full July height. As excellent marksmen, they severely damaged General Tryon’s assumptions, but they could not repel his numbers nor save their homes and neighbors from pillage, fire and murder. The sharp crack of musketry and the smoke of burning buildings marked the invaders’ line of march. Smashing their way into every house, they tore and trampled on furnishings, piled up furniture to set it in flame, beat, raped and savaged the residents, and in one case murdered an aged and defenseless victim. He was Mr. Benjamin English, who, according to an account in the Connecticut Journal two days later, reproved a group of drunken redcoats for rough and insulting behavior to his daughter when they broke into his house demanding refreshments. They ran him through the body several times with bayonets. His daughter, on entering the room where he lay on the floor bleeding as he died, cried out, “Oh! How could you murder my poor old father so cruelly?” One of the soldiers asked “Is he your father?” and at her reply of “Yes,” he stamped upon the old man’s chest and upturned face, crushing his nose.
In the midst of the skirmish in New Haven, a body of students from Yale College, marching to meet the enemy, raised a cheer as they saw their former president, the Reverend Dr. Naphtali Daggett, astride his old black mare and carrying his fowling piece ready for action, riding furiously to the attack. Professor of divinity and president of Yale for nine years, he galloped past and soon was seen standing alone on a nearby hillside, firing upon the advancing British column. Coming up, the officer of the column shouted, “What are you doing there, you old fool, firing on His Majesty’s troops?” Firmly, Daggett replied, “Exercising the rights of war.” Asked whether, if his life were spared, he would do such a thing again, he answered, “Nothing more likely. I rather think I should.” Cool defiance can invite respect, if only temporary. Instead of shooting him, the soldiers permitted Daggett to surrender and marched him back to town at the point of their bayonets, wounding him with small stabs as they pricked him forward under the burning midday sun of the hottest day, one observer said, he had ever known. “The stoutest man almost melted in the heat.” When the Reverend’s strength failed and he was ready to sink to the ground in exhaustion, the soldiers drove him on with blows and bruises from the barrels of their guns and stripped his shoes from him to take their silver buckles, while they called him a “damned old rebel” and a thousand insults. Bleeding from his wounds, he was finally left where neighbors took him in and cared for him, but the battering had been too much. He died within the year—as everyone firmly believed, from the treatment he had received.
Two churches and a meetinghouse were burned at New Haven, which Tryon excused on the ground that they had caught fire accidentally from houses burning nearby. Papers and manuscripts taken from Yale College were not recovered, despite the indignant protest of President Ezra Stiles to Tryon, telling him that a war “against science” had been “reprobated for ages by the wisest and most powerful generals.” As the Duke of Alva would not have done, Tryon actually replied, saying that an inquiry had turned up no information about the papers. It was an insignificant item amid tragedy that did not end at New Haven. Governor Tryon’s forces moved on to pillage and burn Fairfield and Norwalk and destroy the salt pans at Horse Neck before they re-embarked for New York.
What could they have thought to gain by this persecution of civilians—to persuade Americans to give up their cause and return obediently to the sovereignty of Britain? To be worth the effort, war requires a rational objective, political and, in the short run, military, not just foolish aggression. Ultimately, the end sought is surrender of the enemy and the giving up of his purpose, whatever it may be, by the military destruction of his armed forces and his supporting resources, by penetration and occupation of his territory, by fear and despair induced in the population by terror. From the days of the Tarquins on the banks of the Tiber to the Germans in Belgium in 1914 and again at Lidice in Czechoslovakia in 1942, when every adult of the town was collected in a group and shot dead in retaliation for some act of resistance, this method has rarely brought the desired results, unless it is total and undeviating. Did Clinton and Tryon expect otherwise? More likely they and their soldiers were simply moved to vent violence by the angry frustration of unsuccessful war, which is what usually generates atrocity—as in the case of the Americans at My Lai—except when it is authorized and organized from above, as in the case of the Spanish in the Netherlands, the Japanese in China and the Germans in both World Wars. It is always possible to say, and is always said afterward, that the agents were merely acting on orders of higher authority, but when does normal inhibition in the common soldier or other agent cry stop? If inhibition has been systematically weakened by prevailing policy, it does not operate.
Given the firm intent of the British to hold their empire of the American Colonies and the equally strong intent of the Colonies to achieve independence, there was in fact no solution to the conflict. From King George down, every Englishman, including most of the Opposition, was convinced that Great Britain’s greatness depended on the possession of colonies and that to give up America would mean the fall of Britain as a world power and her reduction, as Walpole wrote, “to a miserable little island as insignificant as Denmark or Sardinia.” “If American independence were recognized,” declared Shelburne, a leader of the Opposition, “on that day, the sun of Great Britain is set.” Even if she won, trade and useful connection with an angry defeated people would dry up, unless measures were taken to recover their friendship. The Tryon raid did not seem the surest way to recover friendship.
Without trade or colonies, Britain’s ruin seemed foretold. “Like Carthage she will fall when the commerce on which she is founded is no more,” an official said, a prophecy that found an echo in the sage of Strawberry Hill. “She will lose her East Indian Colonies next,” Horace Walpole predicted, “and then France will dictate to us more imperiously than ever we did to Ireland.” France had every such intention, but history had laid out a different path. The challenge of Napoleon, thirty-odd years later, stimulated Britain to a revival of her energies and her will, and when her recovered navy under Nelson turned the challenger back at the Nile and at Trafalgar, Britain, instead of sliding as predicted to the level of Denmark or Sardinia, regained her dominant place as a world power and retained it for another hundred years until the crash of 1914.
In America, the Carlisle peace overture had brought only failure to finish a humiliating and interminable war. Faced with the absolute refusal of members of Congress to meet for talks, Carlisle and his fellow-commissioners went home in November, 1778, empty-handed. Their visit, like the Tryon Raid, had been an exercise in futility.
At the same time, American fortunes suffered a graver exercise in futility in the fiasco of the first military assistance produced by the French alliance—the more disappointing because it was naval assistance, the kind wanted most. Early in July, 1778, when the French first entered the war, a French fleet of 12 ships of the line and 3 frigates, under Admiral Count d’Estaing, had arrived on the coast of Virginia and moved up to New York. The plan of action contemplated a joint offensive on New York by the French fleet together with American land forces, but the large French warships found themselves unable to cross the bar at Sandy Hook in New York Bay. At Washington’s suggestion for a combined attack on Newport, Rhode Island, d’Estaing then sailed north. A British fleet under Admiral Howe from New York moved after him, but a series of frustrations intervened, culminating in a furious storm that dispersed both fleets. Battle was averted when, in the gale, d’Estaing’s flagship suffered the loss of masts and rudder, forcing him to retreat into Boston under a makeshift jury rig for repairs. From Boston he sailed away without action, leaving soured hopes and no love. Americans in their disappointment claimed they had been “deserted in a most rascally manner as if the Devil himself were in the French fleet.” To smooth over a riot of bad feeling took earnest effort by Washington and others, but to no great purpose, since d’Estaing was not fortune’s favorite. From Boston he sailed to the West Indies and returned the following year for another joint venture with the Americans: to recapture Savannah, which had been taken by the British the year before. In the fighting, Count d’Estaing was wounded and this assault, too, failed in its purpose. The cherished hope of naval superiority, which should have shut the British off from their supply line, vanished with the last sight of d’Estaing’s masts as they disappeared over the horizon, taking the frustrated Admiral back to France.
*Gibbon had been elected to Parliament as a supporter of the government in 1774.