IT WAS, wrote Robert Rogers, the New Hampshire frontiersman who had founded and led the Rangers in the war against the French, “a conquest perhaps of the greatest importance that is to be met with in the British annals,” and he went on to enumerate the reasons for that judgement: “the prodigious extent of the country we are hereby made masters of” was one; “the irretrievable loss France sustains hereby, and the importance it must give the British Crown among the several states of Europe” were others; then “the vast addition it must make to trade and navigation”; and, finally, “the security it must afford to the northern provinces of America.”
Rogers had more than a frontiersman’s grasp of immediacies. He also had a colonist’s sharp nose for future realities. The origins of the American Revolution—the War of Independence, as the British call it, in their disinclination to recognise how world-changing was the civilisation to which it gave birth—is a subject that divides historians a dozen different ways. On one point, however, all agree: that the defeat of France in Canada, by its elimination of the danger of French and Indian attacks on the colonies’ frontiers of trade with the interior, and of strategic—if not yet legal—obstacles to settlement across the line of the Appalachian Mountains, sharply diminished in the eyes of the British colonists the value of the redcoat presence in their territories. The redcoat was not yet Tommy Atkins; Kipling’s future perception held good none the less. While the French had been at Carillon, with their Indian allies at beck and call, the redcoats had been a thin red line between kidnap, scalping, and massacre. With the French gone, or repelled at least to the far line of the Mississippi, their Indians were reduced from a danger to a mere menace; after the defeat of Pontiac’s rebellion (1763–65) in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, a revolt by the Indians of the Northwest against a new British arrogance, to less than that. The forts had changed hands. Those formerly of New France were now, if not abandoned, occupied by British or colonial garrisons and so outposts of an Anglo-Saxon power that dominated security, settlement, and commerce throughout Atlantic North America. Thitherto military relationships in the region had been manifold: Britain versus France; settlers versus Indians; British settlers versus French settlers; or some combinations of these. The Seven Years (the French and Indian) War had ranged France, its regular army and fleet, the French Canadians, and their Indian confederates against Britain, its army, the Royal Navy, the colonists, and their Indians. Henceforth, and unless France rediscovered the strength to challenge Britain once again for rights of empire in Canada—which even at the time appeared improbable—relationships were reduced from complexity to simplicity: Britain and her colonists versus such Indians as took issue with the dominance the Anglo-Saxons now exercised between the Atlantic and the Mississippi.
In practice the relations were not to prove simple. Abandoned by their French protectors—for, despite their long history of differences, the French had always been an ultimate support to the tribes in their resistance to English intrusion into their lands—the Indians took fright. Pontiac’s rebellion of 1763 was the chief, though not the only, outcome. To it the British reacted by forsaking diplomacy and instituting a policy of repression and punishment, greatly resented by the Indians, who did not and could not regard themselves as subject to imperial authority. Yet, showing another side of their imperial role, the British also succeeded in provoking resentment among the colonists by declaring in 1763 that the watershed of the Appalachians, for so long a physical barrier to their attempts to penetrate the interior, should now become a legal one. The eastern half of the Mississippi basin was to be reserved to the Indians and closed to settlement, precisely at the moment when, thanks to the explorations and trailblazing of pioneers like Daniel Boone, practicable ways throughout the mountains—the “gaps”—had been found, and the first long-distance roads cleared. As if that did not promise trouble enough between London and the more enterprising of the colonists, the British government ensured that it would attack the interest of them all by imposing taxes intended to pay retrospectively for the costs incurred in lifting the French military menace from the northern and northwestern frontiers.
A strategic simplification therefore came to threaten political complication. As we can see with hindsight, it threatened war; and when war came, it proved to be a very complex war indeed. Politics made it so; geography did as well. The war was not only to be protracted in time, from 1776 to 1781, a long war by any reckoning. It was also to extend for an extraordinary distance along America’s Atlantic seaboard, from the estuary of the St. Lawrence to that of the Savannah River 1,600 miles away, and to reach inland to places like Cowpens 250 miles from tidewater. The patchwork of battlefields and campaign trails that resulted is bewildering to Europeans—perhaps to Americans also—since their picture of the War of Independence is formed by schoolbook memories of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, three sites separated from each other by only a few miles of ground and water around the seaboard city of Boston. What on earth, the European traveller asks himself as he stumbles in the course of some Greyhound or Trailways or rented car journey on an errand wholly unconnected with historical revisiting, can have brought the combatants of the American Revolution to southern New Jersey, or the environs of Kennedy Airport on Long Island, or the back country of North Carolina, or the enchanted city of Charleston, or the green hills of the Hudson Valley, or indeed to already thrice-besieged Quebec? Why did the war between King George III and his American subjects intrude so often upon territories already fought over, sometimes more than once, by the contestants in conflicts over and done with; why, at Savannah or Charleston or Yorktown, did it bloody ground that was bloodied again in the War Between the States of 1861–65? America is not Europe, where space is at a premium and the ways men—and armies—take between places are predetermined by the routes the legionary road-makers surveyed and engineered in the first century A.D. Land is freein America. Space, not time, is the dimension in which the American exists.
What, then, were the forces at work which so often diverted the warriors of 1776–81 into the same tracks as those taken by their predecessors in the French and Indian Wars and would also be followed by their successors in the Civil War? Waterways are a partial but not complete explanation, for rivers and lakes and portages were not the key to movement within English-speaking America to anything like the extent that they were in French Canada. It was already by 1776, at least in New England, a widely deforested land served by an extensive road network and negotiable by man on foot or a horse quite freely over most points of the compass. What attracted soldiers this way rather than that was less a recognition of what was navigable or passable, which is the paramount sense in the wilderness, than knowledge of a secondary geographic pattern that man had already planted in the landscape, a pattern yielding the necessities and even comforts of life, that of townships, markets, agricultural centres, trading posts, and forts.
Forts, I have come to realise, have been a crucial determinant of my discovery of the traces of America’s wars, for it is invitations to lecture at military academies that have so often taken me across the Atlantic and, in America, military academies usually occupy the sites of former fortresses. Not so in Europe. The Dutch military academy at Breda, it is true, occupies a bastioned fortress of the Spanish wars, and the former Spanish military academy at Toledo was originally housed in the medieval Alcazar, which sustained a famous siege by the Republicans during the Civil War in 1936. European fortresses, however, being designed to defy artillery by the thickness of their enormous walls, provide miserable accommodation; accordingly the continent’s two premier academies, St.-Cyr in France and Sandhurst in England, were founded in, respectively, what had once been a royal boarding school for well-born girls and a purpose-built country mansion. In America, by contrast, the extemporised timber and sod structures left over from the wars of the eighteenth century would never have made suitable dwellings for a student body; most, indeed, went quickly back to nature. The sites they occupied, however, having been chosen because they commanded lines of communication and thereafter often remained in military use, naturally offered themselves as locations for military colleges when, during the nineteenth century, the governments of Canada and the United States were founding such institutions. Hence the existence of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on the site of the redoubts built to deny the Hudson to the British in 1778 (there the traces of the earthworks have been carefully restored, so allowing the academy’s British liaison officer to commemorate the bicentennial by hoisting the Union Jack over Fort Putnam at dawn on 4 July 1976). Hence also the location of the Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, near the site of Fort Frontenac, built by France in 1673, and of the Collège Royale Militaire at St. Jean, where a fort, still faintly discernible, to guard the head of the Richelieu River was built by the Carignan-Salières Regiment in 1665. Much further south, the magnificent waterfront campus of the U.S. Naval Academy (established in 1845) covers the site of Fort Severn, constructed to protect the head of Chesapeake Bay as part of the United States’ First System of coastwise fortification, begun in 1794.
Invitations to lecture have taken me to all these places over the last fifteen years, and I now keenly regret my neglect of the opportunities those visits offered to deepen my understanding of America’s strategic geography; the significance of the sites, except in the case of West Point, where the least military-minded must grasp at a glance its command of the Hudson River narrows, simply did not strike me at the time. Not that the academies failed to make an impression. At St. Jean, so close to French Canada’s metropolis in Montreal, it was the Frenchness of the institution that struck; bilingual though it is, I heard French spoken oftener than English, by cadets and officers whose looks and mannerisms reminded me more forcibly of my visits to St.-Cyr than to any of its sister academies in the English-speaking world. The spirit of the Régiment de Carignan-Salières still breathed over the place, and the dark blue of the cadets’ uniforms vividly recalled that of the Troupes de la Marine who campaigned with, or against, war-painted Indians in the surrounding pine forests two hundred years ago. Kingston, by contrast, is pure British imperial. The pillared façades of the city’s public buildings have their counterparts in the Royal Mint outside the Tower of London, the old British Embassy at Constantinople, the Palace of the Order of St. Michael and St. George on Corfu, and, indeed, in Old College at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Kingston’s Royal Military College even outdoes, in some ways, Sandhurst’s Britishness. Watching cadets parade there, I saw them perform a drill movement I knew only from sepia Victorian photographs—it has long been abolished in Britain—while I listened to a running stream of criticism from a sergeant in bottleglass-brilliant boots of their minor imperfections in marching. He hated, he told me after the parade, the adoption by Canada’s army of the naval salute—“the wave, I call it”—he hated the universal green uniform, he hated the use of common ranks—“How can the captain of a ship be a colonel?”—he hated the disappearance of polished brass—the metal of his pacestick glittered with burnishing—he hated rubber soles, non-iron shirts, nylon uniforms, and being mistaken by civilians for an airman. Kipling and he would have got on like a house on fire: “Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where … a man can raise a thirst” were almost the next words I expected to hear at the crescendo of his relentless tirade. Spiritually he belonged with the Royal Canadians who had gone to fight the Boers for Queen Victoria; his cadets were unlikely to be allowed to forget that her great-great-granddaughter was Queen of Canada or that he had learnt his drill at the depot of her Foot Guards.
Annapolis carries the visitor back in time also, though to a different age and ethos altogether, that of the United States’ fledgling navy of fierce frigate captains and foreign adventure. Its cadets in their gold-buttoned shell jackets—is there a more handsome naval uniform in the world?—actually seem to have been plucked from John Paul Jones’s quarterdeck, while the tomb of that terrible scourge of the Royal Navy, which lies under a dome reminiscent of nothing so much as that covering Napoleon’s at Les Invalides, lends an anomalous hint of menace to the academy’s idyllic Ivy League campus. Yet is it anomalous? The USN is a fighting navy. Its roll of battle honours may perforce be shorter than the Royal Navy’s but it is quite as extensive. There is no ocean in which it has not waged war, no continent in which it has not harboured its ships, few coasts on which it has not landed its own Marine Corps or the soldiers of the United States Army. Barbary corsairs, slaving schooners, and Confederate blockade runners were the enemies of the Old Navy of pre-dreadnought years, the German High Seas Fleet and the Japanese Combined Fleet those of the New Navy of the twentieth century. In its victories it is outdone by no other navy and equalled by few: the surprise of Midway was as complete as that of Nelson at the Nile, the risk taken at Coral Sea as bold as that of Hawke at Quiberon Bay, the triumph of Leyte Gulf even greater than that of Trafalgar. Its tradition of victory dates, moreover, from its origins; not for it the need which obliged the German naval pioneers to inculcate a code of death or glory: Stephen Decatur and John Paul Jones had established that at the start. How appropriate, I thought, as I watched the U.S. Naval Academy’s élite of future nuclear submariners, on their way to a physics examination, tossing quarters into the grinning mouth of USS Tecumseh’s figurehead—“the God of 3.5”—that the captains-to-be of the most powerful navy in the world should seek to propitiate the old sailing men who have bequeathed its totem of oceanic admiralty to this quiet Chesapeake backwater.
Yet Annapolis looks outward; square-riggers still rip down here from the historic collection of wooden ships at Mystic, Connecticut, while cadets navigate outward each weekend to Capes Charles and Hatteras under sail. On a visit not long ago I took the helm of an Annapolis professor’s cutter on a beat down-bay to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, following the course of frigates long ago to the open ocean. West Point looks inward. George Washington believed, indeed, that it was the key, if not to a continent, then at least to the strategic geography of the thirteen colonies of 1776. Because of its position, sixty miles north of New York City and 120 miles south of Albany at the first upstream narrowing of the Hudson, he called it the “Key to America.” Writing to General Israel Putnam in December 1777, he said, “The importance of the Hudson river in the present contest, and the necessity of defending it, are subjects … so well understood, that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon them. The facts at once appear, when it is considered that [the Hudson] runs through a whole State; then it is the only passage by which [the British] from New York, or any part of our coast, can ever hope to co-operate with an army from Canada; that the possession of it is indispensably essential to preserve the communication between the Eastern, Middle, and Southern States; and further, that upon its security, in a great measure, depends our chief supplies of flour for the subsistence of such forces as we may occasion for, in the course of the war, either in the Eastern or Northern Departments, or in the country lying high up on the west side of it [i.e., along the Mohawk corridor leading to Lake Ontario].”
Everything George Washington meant, the visitor to West Point can appreciate from Trophy Point, where the barrels of cannon captured from the British, Mexicans, and Spanish stare across at what used to be the battery on Constitution Island; any passing cadet will indicate how a chain—some of its links are preserved in the academy museum—closed the river to British warships, just as the Byzantine emperors closed the Golden Horn to the Turks by a chain in the fifteenth century. Unlike theirs, the West Point chain worked. It did indeed “perfectly fulfil the object which is proposed, that of hindering the enemy’s remounting of the North [Hudson] River.” As the historian of West Point’s fortifications, Marguerita Herman, has pointed out, it “achieved its first strategic object … it permitted Washington and the Continental Army to defend the Hudson with minimal troops, even though the British controlled New York, while shifting the main army to operations elsewhere—particularly to the South and to Yorktown in 1781.”
It is indeed to the southward that the casual traveller is most likely to stumble upon landmarks of the Revolutionary War. Others, of course, intermingle with the battlefields of King William’s, Queen Anne’s, and King George’s wars, for the colonists campaigned in the Mohawk and Champlain corridors and even essayed the untried approach to Quebec via the Kennebec and Chaudière rivers in 1775, their first offensive of the war. The traces are less prominent than those left by the Anglo-French struggle, however, even though they overlie them, whereas in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas they are noticeable and numerous. It was in southern New Jersey and across the state line with Pennsylvania that I found the historical markers that most puzzled me, in Princeton and Trenton and at Washington’s Crossing on the Delaware River. What on earth, I asked myself, was Washington doing here, in what is now one of the most tranquil—expensively tranquil—areas of the United States? The road from Trenton to Princeton is lined with meticulously restored colonial houses—named after the original owner, as is the custom thereabouts, and dated sometimes from the seventeenth century—and at Lawrenceville passes the gates of the famous prep school. In Princeton itself the battle markers start at Mercer Street, now a thoroughfare of fine Greek Revival houses, while a stone’s throw away stands Nassau Hall, the centrepiece of the university and in January 1777, when His Majesty’s 54th Regiment mustered in it, the only building on the campus. I spent a whole semester in 1984 working in a room just across the way, as a visiting Fellow, without discovering that Nassau Hall had been a British headquarters or that Washington had chased the redcoats out of it, without even establishing what had brought him thither or where he had fought the battle.
Everything seemed in the wrong place, too far away from the seedbed of the American Revolution in New England to connect with its significant events. However, I caught a sharper aftertaste of the conflict when, on a cold Saturday afternoon in February, I was driven from Princeton along the valley of the Delaware, high in flood, to Washington’s crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry. There is a bridge there now, one end in Mercer County, New Jersey, the other in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but the atmosphere remains authentically eighteenth century, with some empty and tumbledown single-storey cottages, brick-pathed to their front doors, edging the little green on the Pennsylvanian side. The place keeps a mournful, desolate air which speaks of the hardships suffered by the Continental Army in those backwoods during the harsh winter of 1776–77; the river, too, though narrower than Lutze makes it look in the famous painting of its crossing by Washington—I came across a version a year or two later in the State Department, hanging outside the Secretary of State’s door—had a cold, grey, menacing surface, all too easily imagined choked with ice as we see it under the prow of the boat on which Washington rests one booted, resolute foot, on his way to battle at Princeton. Still, my knowledge of the events of the Revolutionary War remained too incomplete to help me associate that genuinely Early American spot with the events which gave the colonies their independence.
So it was also with the traces of the Revolutionary War I had come across earlier in the Carolinas. In North Carolina in February 1976 I followed quite unwittingly much of the route taken by the British under Cornwallis against Nathanael Greene and David Morgan in 1780–81, though in the reverse direction. I had been lecturing at Duke University, Durham, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the most beautiful of all stopping places on the American lecturing circuit. There had been a late snowfall in Chapel Hill, followed by a day of sharp, clear sunshine which brought the members of the men’s and women’s fraternity houses on to Chapel Hill’s elegant main street to bombard each other, and the passing traffic, with a barrage of good-natured snowballs and high-spirited shrieks. The English graduate student who had been assigned me as an escort confided that he had chosen Chapel Hill as the place to do his doctorate because, after a reconnaissance, he had identified it as having the largest concentration of good-looking girls at any East Coast university. I saw what he meant and wished him well.
Shortly afterwards I was being driven away from Chapel Hill’s human beauty and landscaped charm into its harsh Appalachian hinterland. For hour after hour we made our way along the foot of grey-brown pine-clad hills, reminiscent of forested southern Germany, but bleaker, poorer, less populated, the odd shanty clinging to the slope above the road marking how sparse was settlement in this infertile back country, through Hillsboro, where Cornwallis had marched his army in another February 178 years earlier, and Greensboro, near which he had fought the battle of Guilford Court House against Greene on 14 March 1781, to Winston-Salem and then to our destination, Boone, deep in the Appalachian heartland through which Daniel Boone had hacked his way to the bluegrass of Kentucky in the 1760s. Boone had found this country a wilderness, and even in the late twentieth century a sense of the wilderness waiting to return still clung about the city of Boone. It had the look of a frontier town. It was full of wide, vacant lots and makeshift buildings, with fingers of forest poking down from the overhanging mountains into the bedraggled commercial centre. Academically, too, it was an outpost, where students who were the first members of their families to have gone to college were taught by professors in exile from a larger academic world. They found it a struggle, some confessed, to convey to their pupils any understanding of times and places beyond the mountains and the here-and-now. Even the drama of the Appalachian past seemed to lack reality amid these worn-out, worked-over, second-growth hillsides.
Yet at least they were served by good roads, highways to the outside world, of which there had been none when Cornwallis was beating these forests in pursuit of Greene after the Battle of Camden in August 1780. I picked up their trail when I left Boone by car for Hickory, in a drizzle of sleet from low clouds that filled the tops of the valleys. At Hickory, where I was to take the aeroplane, cloud fogged in the airport, so Air Carolina sent me on to the next airfield, at Charlotte, by taxi. My driver was a grizzled old mountain man, ex-preacher, ex-trucker, grandfather of sixteen, full of mountain wisdom and un-preacherly language, who, finding Charlotte fogged in also, stoutly offered to drive me out of North Carolina and clear across South Carolina to my destination at Charleston. Only the thought that he might not make it back in time to do his midnight mail run deterred him from the adventure, and it was with evident regret that he delivered me to the Trailways depot. Here was someone, I thought, as we made a warm goodbye, with whom Daniel Boone would have been on instant terms. Still, I am devoted to Trailways, to whose gentle rhythm I have slept over hundreds of miles in the backways of the American South, and so it was that I slept my way down the valley of the Santee River to Columbia, twice crossing Cornwallis’s northward line of march, to reach Charleston in the small hours of the next morning. On my way I had passed by the Revolutionary War’s Forts Motte and Watson and left far on my right hand the upcountry battlefield of Ninety Six—ninety-six miles from the Cherokee village of Keowee—where Captain George Chicken, Indian fighter, had killed a buffalo in 1716 and Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish hero of the American Revolution, had besieged a British garrison in May 1781 for nearly a month.
The siege of Ninety Six connected with the British occupation of Charleston in 1780–81, but in a way that, again, I did not understand. I had known the city since my first undergraduate visit to the United States, but associated it entirely with the Civil War, which had begun there with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in its harbour. Its significance for the British-American struggle eluded me. My destination was the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, and it was cadets of the Citadel who, manning a battery on Moin’s Island, had fired the shots which marked the first hostilities between South and North in January 1861. The Citadel, however, had not existed at the time of the Revolutionary War and is today a major source of officers for the armed forces of the United States, while the city, ironically, is now a favoured retirement place for its generals. Mark Clark, the liberator of Rome in 1944, was living on its outskirts when I made my 1979 visit. I was sent to see him and found him still as eagle-profiled and concerned for his military reputation as he had been in his glory days in Italy in the Second World War. General Westmoreland was a resident also. I sat beside him at an official Citadel lunch, where he, too, revealed a sensitivity about his reputation and talked at length in justification of his years in command in Vietnam. It was a relief to turn to my neighbour, an elderly gentleman of immense distinction of appearance and manner whose string of Dutch names—Cortlandt van Rensselaer Schuyler—revealed him to be a scion of the Hudson River aristocracy, and the descendant of two of Washington’s generals—Philip Schuyler, defender of Lake Champlain against the British in 1776, and Robert van Rensselaer, commander of the militia on the Mohawk River in 1780.
Cortlandt van Rensselaer Schuyler was senior to both Westmoreland and Mark Clark in appointment—he was, indeed, then the last surviving general officer of the pre-Pearl Harbor era—but, like them, a West Point graduate. Inevitably we fell into conversation about the place and I told him how deep an impression my visits to it had made on me, particularly because of its difference from my own military academy in Britain. Sandhurst’s dreamy parkland, acres of mown lawns, colonnaded vistas, and soft, creamy façades are the unlikeliest setting I know or can imagine in which to train young men for war. Classical languages, perhaps, or philosophy, or the fine arts—any of those would be appropriate to that sylvan spot; tactics, strategy, drill, musketry, bloodshed seem to have no place at all amid Sandhurst’s bowers and arbours. West Point, by contrast, I said, breathes the martial spirit. Its architecture—the great riverside cliff of the old riding school, the harsh outlines of the cadet barracks, the monolithic blocks of the administrative buildings that march along the plain—is grimly purposeful, the dining hall in which four thousand cadets are simultaneously served lunch at noon is a machine for eating; the monumental chapel, where the largest organ in the world thunders out warrior hymns, is a cathedral to the Lord Mighty in Battle; even the contours of the Hudson hills seem to have been sculpted into military uniformity, while the woodland which covers them is regimentally cut and coppiced. Order dominates the landscape, and the ordered landscape dominates its human inhabitants who seem filled with a sense of being there for one purpose alone—to teach or learn the disciplines of war.
General Schuyler conceded that the four years he had spent at West Point as a cadet between the wars had indeed so disciplined him that little in his experience of war itself, when it came, had surprised him by its arbitrary harshness; when every inch of self, he said, has been subjected to the regulation of a higher, institutional will, the individual loses the capacity to protest against the cruelties and unfairness of the battlefield. I remembered a tour of the West Point graveyard I had been given by a graduate not long returned from the Vietnam War. There, amid the graves of other graduates killed in the Mexican and Civil and world wars, he pointed out the headstones of fellow cadets who had served with him; under one lay a body he had escorted home in the aftermath of the Tet offensive to deliver to a widow. He recalled the first day of Tet, its confusion and danger, his effort to rejoin his unit, his urgent enquiries of other soldiers as to which roads were blocked and which not, his perilous journey across the battlefield, his arrival to discover his comrades locked in combat with an unseen enemy, his questioning about who still lived and who had died, his heartbreak at the news that a close friend was among the fatalities. It was that close friend by whose grave we stood; the widow was now his own wife.
Here was the home of a warrior society; that was what I had been brought to understand at West Point, which is itself a place of war, chosen if not used, in the United States’ struggle for independence. A sense of the centrality of West Point to America’s military history returned to me strongly as I sat in the Citadel’s luncheon room, next to Westmoreland, a former Academy superintendent, and Schuyler, a representative of the Hudson Valley families who had battled the British so doughtily in the years of revolution. It was not an anomaly, however, that the Citadel represented an alternative, anti-Federal tradition, for by one of those strokes of cultural comprehension at which the United States is so adept its history, too, had been incorporated into the national mythology. The warriordom of the South has a double aspect. The firing on Fort Sumter, the mustering of the chocolate-box Blues and Grays and Greens and Rifles and Ladies’ Guards and their rapid transformation into seasoned and fiery campaigners, represent a defiance of government by Washington; the patriotism of the South, in all America’s wars save that between the states, the readiness of its sons to volunteer, their over-representation in the armed forces of the United States, represent a principle of loyalty through military service which has no equal in any other region. In my blinkered European way I had long thought of the War of Independence as one fought by the hard-headed, mercantile, seaboard colonists of New England against the hard-headed, mercantile, seaboard Old Englanders across the Atlantic. I remembered that the Hancocks and the Adamses and Alexander Hamilton were New Englanders or New Yorkers; I neglected to remember that Washington, Jefferson, the four Lees, and Patrick Henry were Virginians and Francis Marion a South Carolinan. I had overlooked altogether that the culminating campaigns of the War of the Revolution had been fought in the Carolinas and Georgia. I had forgotten that its battle of decision, Yorktown, had been fought in Virginia.
In Charleston, therefore, were brought together for me the chronological and geographical extremities of the War of Independence: its offensive beginning only three weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord, in an attack from the north along the Hudson—Champlain-Richelieu corridor against the borders of Canada, which remains a realm of the royal house that lost its first empire in that war; its conclusion, at the end of a year of marching and countermarching through the tobacco and cotton lands of the South, at Yorktown, a place scarcely a day’s journey, at contemporary speed of travel, from the spot where John Smith, with royal authority, had fortified the first place of permanent English settlement in the Americas at Jamestown in 1607. North, South, I knew both ends of the theatre of campaign well. It was the web of interconnections between them that I lacked the knowledge to draw together in my mind. I could visualise the small New England battles with which the war opened, little different as they must have been from other contemporary gunpowder battles in Europe—or on the Plains of Abraham. I could equally visualise how the siege of Charleston in 1780 must have worked, for its defence and attack conformed to the pattern of dozens of cannon and musket sieges conducted throughout the maritime empires of approximately even date in the eighteenth century. What I failed to understand was how the loose ends of the war had eventually been knotted at Yorktown. Equidistant though it was between the seedbed of the war in Massachusetts and its subsequent focus at Charleston, Yorktown had remained a military backwater throughout the six years of conflict. What had determined that that remote and tranquil place should see the Revolution’s culminating act? I determined to find out.
Lexington, Massachusetts, is not the place “Where the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world.” That is at Concord, a few miles up the road. It is, nevertheless, unarguably the scene of the first shedding of blood between the regular soldiers of King George III and his disaffected colonists at the outset of what was to grow into the War of the Revolution. I happened upon the spot quite unintentionally. Simon Schama, who had not yet written Citizens, his best-selling history of the French Revolution, suggested on one afternoon of a visit I was making to Harvard that I drive out to see the house he had just bought following his migration from Cambridge, England. I am glad he did. The house was Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, built, in a manner known only to Americans, partly of magnificent natural materials, partly from the bedrock itself: an outcrop of granite half-filled while supporting the conservatory through which we entered, and a hillside spring trickled in a channel through the floor. I was rapt with admiration. On the way back, I asked, “Where are we?” “Lexington,” he said. “This is the village green where the battle happened.”
It is still recognisably a village green of the English sort, triangular between a fork in the road out of Boston, with some of the eighteenth-century houses, the Buckman and Monroe taverns and the Meeting House, remaining. Boulders have been placed to mark the spots where the colonists—“Minutemen”—and British regulars stood, and so they also mark where the first American casualties of the war—eight Minutemen killed, nine wounded—fell. Who were the Minutemen, I wondered, and how had this sad, divisive, and unnecessary—I liked to think—but, as it was to prove, irreversible event come about?
I was to acquire the answer only several years later, as a result of a meeting far away and from an unlikely source. John Galvin, the American general serving as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had invited me to stay at his official residence in Belgium. At the crossroads outside a monument marks the spot where the British fired their first shots of the First World War in the battle of Mons, but the general had asked me there for a purpose unconnected with 1914. He was going to conduct me on his celebrated battlefield tour of Waterloo, a struggle of which I had written an account he wanted to go over with me on the ground. The fire power of his escort, deployed in a convoy of advance and back-up cars, would, I reflected, as we drove between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont and back again, have significantly altered the balance if offered either to Wellington or Napoleon on 18 July 1815. When we parted he pressed on me a little book, inscribed to “someone who knows both sides of this battle.” He had, he said, spent most of his year as a student at the U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, writing it. It was called Minute Men: The First Fight—Myths and Realities of the American Revolution.
The myth of the American Revolution is that the armed colonists were peaceful men who sprang to arms—shotguns and squirrel rifles—when oppressed beyond bearing by British misrule. The reality which General Galvin’s scholarly monograph revealed—John Galvin is that unusually American combination of professional soldier and academic historian—was quite different. The New Englanders had developed both a warlike outlook and a legal military organisation in the earliest period of settlement. The danger of attack by Indians made them warlike; the military organisation had followed them from England. There, under Elizabeth I, the Muster Law of 1572 had required her subjects to form and train in units of militia against the danger of a Spanish invasion. The militia principle survived the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but its practice attenuated; both Crown and Parliament had to improvise armies for the English Civil War of the seventeenth century and, though revived again in the eighteenth and surviving until the early twentieth, the British militia acquired a sleepy, half-comic reputation. In America, by contrast, it was a frontline force. The Elizabethan Muster Law provided a model; by 1643, when the United Colonies of New England were formed for mutual defence, the colonists were actually arming and training themselves to take the field at short notice. In 1645 the Massachusetts Council passed a regulation ordering militia commanders “to appoint out and to make choice of thirty soldiers of their companies in ye hundred, who shall be ready at half an hour’s warning upon any service they shall be put upon by their chief military officers.”
Service initially was against Indian raids, of which the Pequot War of 1636–37 in the Connecticut River had given a foretaste. King Philip’s subsequent war of 1675–76 in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts sent a wave of shock throughout the northern colonies. Terrifying though they were when on the warpath, the Indians, however, never threatened the extinction of the colonies by their own efforts. It was their alliances with the French which made them formidable, and it was therefore directly against the French that the colonists’ military efforts were made: by William Phips in 1689–90, by Francis Nicholson in 1711, by William Pepperell in 1745, by George Washington in 1754, and by John Johnson and William Shirley in 1755. From the 1690s onwards the militias of the northern frontier in particular began to acquire real competence in forest warfare, together with a readiness to turn out rapidly for duty in all seasons. As the conflict with the French intensified during the eighteenth century, the militias of the increasingly prosperous New England and Atlantic colonies were meanwhile developing into a semi-regular force, expensively equipped and capable of mounting autonomous operations against the enemy as they did at Louisbourg in 1745.
The extinction of the French threat by British worldwide victory in the Seven Years War caused an abrupt decline in the militias’ fitness to fight. Drills were neglected and musters poorly attended, while energetic men did not put themselves forward to be officers. Officers already holding rank lapsed into lethargy; many of them were conservative stay-at-homes who valued the standing brought by their association with the royal government. They acted as a check, both positive and negative, on the hotheads and firebrands, increasingly irked by the insensitivities of the royal governors and the high-handedness of long-distance rule from London. As early as 1772, Boston was co-ordinating a campaign of resistance to new laws which increased taxes, violated colonial charters, and restrained trade. Without local means to oppose the representatives of the Crown and its armed forces in America, however, protests were mere words. The dissenting colonists required a force of their own, and in a local military revolution of 1774 they set about founding one. In September the dissidents in Worcester County, Massachusetts, a centre of military activism since the days of King Philip’s War, voted to require the senior officers of the militia to resign their commissions, to be replaced by others of stouter stuff. Each county town was to select a third of its men between sixteen and thirty years of age “to be ready to act at a minute’s warning,” and each was also to appoint a committee “to supply or support those troops that shall move in any emergency.” The Worcester resolutions were to provide a model for military reorganisation throughout the colonies.
This showing of a fierce face to the King and his officials did not presage war, any more than Ulster’s swearing of a covenant and raising of a volunteer force was to do at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was an expression of dissatisfaction and a warning against further tampering with established legal practice, not a considered preparation for rebellion. Most colonists remained “loyal,” distinguishing “King,” whose authority was legitimate, and “ministers,” whose misrule was not, even after the first acts of defiance had been committed. Misunderstandings, poor communications between America and England, local misjudgement by royal officials, interference by colonists, and above all the absence of any legal vision of a changed relationship between mother country and its overseas dominions were more to blame for the outbreak of war in 1775 than deliberate intent. Retrospectively, it is all too easy to see how the American Revolution might have been averted; the fact is that it was not and that thereby the most productive civilisation the world has ever known was brought into being. Its military roots and antecedents therefore deserve the close attention General John Galvin has given them.
Moreover, military reality underlay the fiscal disagreements which are usually charted as the steps by which colonists and Crown proceeded to conflict. Victory has a price, as every empire has discovered. The defeat of the French, though resolving a crisis, thereby devolved on Britain a responsibility which its enemy had thitherto largely discharged single-handed: controlling the Indians of the interior. The disappearance of the French threw the Indians into a panic, manifested in Pontiac’s rebellion of 1763, which caused the British Crown to respond with two measures, each ultimately a source of further conflict, though with the settlers instead of the native inhabitants. One was the Proclamation of 1763, which reserved the land west of the Appalachian crestline to the Indians, thereby denying to the most energetic and adventurous of the colonists the new land they were seeking for agriculture and commerce (the subsequent southward extension of the boundary of Canada to the Ohio country exacerbated the resentment the colonists felt); the other was the decision, necessitated by the strategic burden that domination of Atlantic America imposed, to maintain a large military garrison in the region.
No sooner was the Seven Years War over than the British government found itself confronted with the need to find nearly half a million pounds a year, then an enormous sum, simply to pay for its overseas military establishment. The British were already the most heavily taxed people in Western Europe, and the threat of this additional impost aroused outcry in parliament. The response of the landowning and mercantile representatives on whom it would fall was predictable: since it was in America that the heaviest military costs were incurred, the colonists should make an appreciable contribution to what ultimately was a benefit supplied to them without charge by the Crown. Hence the Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764. These were opposed from the outset by the provincial assemblies and, when their reasonable objections were ignored, were largely disobeyed. They were not merely disobeyed—by evasion and by large-scale smuggling in defiance of royal customs collectors—but actively opposed. The large colonial cities—Boston and New York—were the scene of riots and mob violence, provoked not because the voters were people liable for the prescribed taxes but because they were the targets of another arm of the imperial military system, the impressment service of the Royal Navy. Poor colonists, exempt from or only indirectly subject to tax, thus lent their support to the rich colonists who were the local objectors, through a mechanism which conscripted them to do duty at sea in a navy which, in the last resort, was an instrument of restriction of free trade at the point of entry.
By 1774 the British government had serious trouble on its hands. In that year a Continental Congress, a successor to the earlier Stamp Act Congress which had successfully denounced that legislation, met at Philadelphia in September; only Georgia among the thirteen colonies failed to send delegates. It promulgated a remarkable doctrine, a forerunner of that which united British Liberal Imperialists in the late nineteenth century, which would, if accepted in London, have indeed averted the Revolution, but for which British royal and parliamentary opinion was as yet unready: “that the colonies were co-ordinate members with each other and Great Britain of an empire united by a common sovereign, and that the legislative power was maintained to be as complete in each American parliament (the colonial assemblies) as in the British parliament.” To give force to their resolution the delegates agreed not to import British goods on the terms imposed and to set up a Continental Association to enforce non-importation. In response the British parliament voted in February 1775, not long after news of the colonists’ defiance had reached it, a Restraining Act which forbade them to trade both with Britain and with its other dominions, including the West Indies, with which their richest commerce was conducted. It was widely recognised in both Lords and Commons that the measure ordained war, yet a majority was found for it none the less. That was in the face of the most prescient of the warnings uttered: “To conquer a great continent of 1,800 miles [the length of the American seaboard],” said Lord Camden, “containing three millions of people, all indissolubly united on the great Whig bottom of liberty and justice, seems an undertaking not to be rashly engaged in.… What are the 10,000 men you have just voted out to Boston? Merely to save General Gage from the disgrace and destruction of being sacked in his entrenchments. It is obvious, my lords, that you cannot furnish armies, or treasure competent to the mighty purpose of subduing America … but whether France and Spain will be tame, inactive spectators of your efforts and distractions is well worth the considerations of our lordships.”
Neither France nor Spain would, when the opportunity offered, find themselves able to resist taking revenge on an enemy, currently in extreme strategic difficulty, who had robbed them of so much territory, in India, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Americas themselves; Canada, Gibraltar, Madras, the list was long. All that, in 1775, lay several years in the future. In the immediate present, Lord Camden’s warning concerned only a small part of the great continent of America, Massachusetts, where resistance to the Restraining Act was most resolute, and, in particular, Boston, where the presence of a large force of British troops made a confrontation most likely. In warfare, force tends to attract force. During the winter of 1775 and the spring of 1776, the militia companies of the towns around Boston had been stockpiling powder and ball and withdrawing supplies from the King’s magazines to those of their own. They had also been drilling with renewed enthusiasm, smuggling cannon into their possession, setting up an intelligence network to report on British movements, and agreeing on signals to give warnings of any move by General Gage to pre-empt resistance. Thomas Gage, Governor of Massachusetts (the colony was royal, as were all except proprietary Pennsylvania and Maryland and chartered Rhode Island and Connecticut, which elected their governors), was no incompetent. He had fought at the victories of Fontenoy and Culloden and acquitted himself bravely in Braddock’s battle on the Monongahela, had served as Governor of Montreal, and between 1760 and 1770 had commanded all British forces in the western hemisphere. He understood the American mind, was liked by American people—he was married to a New Jersey lady—but had formed a misjudgement about their probable reaction to the royal policy of repression. He thought a show of force would outface the hotheads, bring the sympathisers to their senses, and lend heart to the loyalists. He had altogether under-estimated the resolve of the Minutemen and the level of their military preparedness.
The extent of his misjudgement was to be shown on 18 April 1775, when he issued his order for a composite force of seven hundred men to leave Boston and march to seize the militia’s stores before they could be dispersed to safe hiding. A meeting of the provincial Congress of Massachusetts had already resolved, if the British marched, “to oppose their march to the last extremity,” but had just agreed to adjourn for two weeks. Gage, advised by a loyalist delegate, Benjamin Church, saw his opportunity and decided to take it. On the night of 18 April, parties from the 4th King’s Own Regiment, 23 rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, and 42nd Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) slipped out of their barracks by a back door, hoping to avoid watching eyes, and embarked in boats to march to Concord, sixteen miles inland, “with the utmost expedition and secrecy … where you will seize and destroy all artillery, ammunition, provisions, tents, small arms and all military stores whatever.” Boston, before the infilling of marshes and shallows of the last two centuries, was then almost an island, and Gage had chosen to send his men by water because spies might thus be deluded about their destination. It was another under-estimation, in this case of the pervasiveness of the resisters’ intelligence network. Paul Revere, a leading member of the conspiracy, had positioned himself so as to observe British movements and, seeing them embark, had himself rowed, also with muffled oars, to where he could mount a fast horse and gallop off ahead to warn the Minutemen of the British approach.
The British landed at Charlestown, on the north bank of the Charles River, and marched off through Cambridge in the dark of the April night. Their route took them up what is now Massachusetts Avenue, past the campus of Harvard University and Radcliffe College, on to State Route 2A and so towards Concord. The men were marching light, but the distance was considerable, and at the twelve-mile mark, when they reached Lexington, they were already tiring. It was early morning, the sun was up, the day was crisp and breezy, and on Lexington Green in front of them the British saw, by one of their officer’s reports, “near 200 of the rebels; when I came within about one hundred yards of them, they began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank.” In fact the Minutemen numbered seventy-seven, under Captain John Parker, a Lexington man who had fought in the French and Indian Wars. He seems to have intended not much more than a symbolic resistance to the British advance, for he did not actually bar the Concord road, deploying his men to its side rather than across it. The British commander, Major John Pitcairn, certainly did not intend to open a firefight; there is a belief that he wanted to surround and arrest the Americans. Before he could deploy his troops out of marching column into enveloping line, however, the damage was done. Someone—British, American, no one knows—had pulled a trigger, and the firing instantly became general. Within a few minutes, ten at most, eight Minutemen lay dead and nine wounded; one British regular had been lightly touched.
The aftermath is briefly related. Pitcairn and his men pressed on the next four miles to Concord, where they were stoutly opposed and turned back. The Minutemen, alerted by Revere, other scouts, and the news of the Lexington fight, had turned out in numbers large enough not only to defend themselves and their arsenals but to harry the redcoats home almost every step of the way. Three were killed at Concord bridge, more as they were sniped from behind cover on the road to Lexington, while at Menotomy (now Arlington) nearly two thousand militiamen raked the retreating column from both sides of the road. By the time it reached Charlestown on the evening of 19 April, it had lost 273 killed, wounded, or missing. The Americans had lost forty-nine killed and forty-six wounded but won a major action. Losses on both sides were too large to be written off as the result of a mere riot or local tumult, of which there had been several in the previous decade. Lexington and Concord, particularly Concord, meant war. It now unrolled.
The advantage was with the rebels. Gage had had an immediate and a subsidiary object in staging his march. The immediate aim was to seize the arms, the subsidiary one to stake out a line of control in the higher land above Boston. He had failed in both, and it was now the turn of the rebels to take the high ground and bring Gage’s Boston garrison under siege. There is high ground in Boston proper, notably at Beacon Hill above the Common, lined with streets of sober, stock-brick Georgian houses among which the modern London visitor might well feel himself back at home in Gower Street or Bedford Square. Across the harbour and the Charles River, however, Dorchester Heights and Bunker or Breed’s Hill offer positions which command both the city and the approaches to it. By 29 April 1775 all this ground was in rebel hands, and soon fifteen thousand militiamen ringed the city. A second Continental Congress meeting at Philadelphia in June deemed them to constitute the Continental Army, and the soldier who made the chief impression at the congress, George Washington, was elected general and its commander-in-chief.
Washington, aged forty-two in 1775, had had a frustrating military career. His honour had been compromised in 1754 at Fort Duquesne, his ardour had been blunted on the Monongahela, his hopes of preferment from the militia to the Crown’s regular forces had been disappointed; he had expressed the desire to “be distinguished … from the common run of provincial officers,” but it had done him no good. Now, passed over by royal officers whom he had dearly wished to join on an equal footing, he was to be given the chance of showing himself a better soldier than they. He was not to arrive at Boston in time for the first pitched battle of the war. That took place at Breed’s Hill (commonly called Bunker Hill) on 17 June, when General William Howe, a veteran of Louisbourg and Quebec, unwisely attacked a fortified American position which had been thrown up overnight within cannon shot of Boston harbour. The soldiers of the Continental Army were to prove great diggers—in that sense they were embattled farmers—and good fighters from behind earthworks. Howe, who might have starved the defenders of Breed’s Hill into surrender, decided on a show of force, ferried two thousand redcoats across the harbour, threw them into a frontal assault, and lost five hundred killed or mortally wounded to American musketry. It was here that the phrase “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” became famous. Washington, who would become a master of the musketry battle at a later stage, inherited the Bunker Hill musketeers’ triumph as the first prop to his assumption of command on 3 July 1775.
There was little he could do at once to build on their victory. If he was to turn the British out of Boston, he needed more and better soldiers—those he inspected on arrival he found “dirty and nasty,” and anxious to go home—and, above all, cannon. Cannon were being brought from Fort Ticonderoga, captured in May by the future traitor Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Until they arrived, which they would in November, Washington could only wait; he took up residence in the Wadsworth House at Harvard, the residence of the college president, and considered plans for action elsewhere.
That must be against Canada, the only part of North America where the British still maintained a force that could intervene against the rebellion. Arnold’s and Allen’s attack on Ticonderoga had been no more than a raid which had succeeded through a lucky surprise. An offensive into Canada would be a weightier undertaking, demanding a logistic effort perhaps beyond the capacities of an improvised army. It was decided, nevertheless, to make the attempt. Ironically, geography determined that the campaign must be mounted against precisely those centres which the French had defended so stubbornly during the Seven Years War and follow, in one case at least, exactly those routes so much fought over in the preceding century and a half of North American warfare. That was the Champlain-Richelieu water corridor to Montreal. The Continental Congress, informed that there were only 550 British troops in Canada and that the French might be willing to throw in their lot with the conquerors’ new enemies, commissioned General Richard Montgomery to lead an amphibious expedition northward from Ticonderoga. Success would depend upon speed and surprise.
Surprise was not achieved; Sir Guy Carleton, the British Governor of Canada, got wind of the preparations Montgomery was making and himself began to build boats and stockpile supplies near St. Jean at the point where the Richelieu flows into the St. Lawrence, so as to block Montgomery’s egress. In great haste, Montgomery rushed his twelve hundred men to the old French fort on the Ile-aux-Noix twenty miles below St. Jean, where he laid a boom across the river to stop Carleton’s boats if they appeared. He then advanced on St. Jean and laid siege to the fort, whose remains can be seen at the Collège Royale Militaire. The garrison was small, but Montgomery was unskilled in siegework and was short of ammunition. Abandoning the siege temporarily, he advanced on the old French fort at Chambly, built by the Carignan-Salières Regiment in 1665, took it, replenished his stocks, returned to St. Jean, where the garrison was now so short of food that it was obliged to surrender on 2 November, and then, in the deepening Canadian winter, set off for Montreal. Carleton had used up what troops he had in attempting to reinforce St. Jean and Chambly and was forced to flee from Montreal to Quebec in the face of Montgomery’s advance, which was now turned against Quebec itself.
By extraordinary feats, another American force had arrived at Quebec ahead of him, following a route which, unusually, had not before been put to military use. It was led by Benedict Arnold, the captor of Ticonderoga in May, who had prevailed on Washington at Boston in August to let him attempt it. The route had been mapped during the Seven Years War by the chief engineer of the Braddock expedition to the Monongahela, Captain John Montresor, who was therefore known to Washington already. His map showed that, in theory, a military penetration to the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec could be made up the Kennebec River, which flows into the Atlantic near Portland, Maine (then part of Massachusetts). By ship from Boston, a force could debark at the river mouth, boat up to a twelve-mile stretch of ground called the Great Carrying Place, portage there through three small lakes to the Dead River, then ascend by boat for thirty miles to Lake Megantic and so into the Chaudière River, which debouches into the St. Lawrence at Pointe Lévis, from which Wolfe’s batteries had bombarded Quebec in 1759. The length of the whole route was 250 miles, but Montresor’s map showed that boats would have to be carried for only twelve.
Arnold, with a thousand men and food for forty-five days, set off from the old trading post, Fort Western, on 25 September 1775, in a flotilla of two hundred hastily built boats. The first stage of the journey to Fort Halifax (modern Winslow on U.S. 201) went smoothly enough, but Montresor had under-estimated the obstacles the river itself presented. Rapids and waterfalls have been engineered out of the Kennebec’s course in modern times. In the eighteenth century it was a turbulent watercourse, and the expedition found itself forced to portage boats weighing over four hundred pounds, together with sixty-five tons of stores, at tiringly frequent intervals. The banks of the river were alternately rocky or swampy and increasingly uninhabited; beyond modern Norridgewock there were no settlements at all before Canada. Near modern Brigham, Arnold stopped to build a hospital for his increasing number of sick, then attacked the portages to the Dead River, which took five days to traverse. His numbers had fallen to 950 and food stocks to starvation level; men boiled their moccasins to make soup, ate shaving soap and hair pomade, and slaughtered Captain Henry Dearburn’s pet dog for a mouthful of meat “without leaving any vestige of the sacrifice.” Even after passing the Great Carrying Place, many portages remained, both before reaching and then along the Chaudière. Not until 8 November did the 675 survivors of this wilderness anabasis reach the St. Lawrence.
There then ensued a parody of the battle of 1759. The British garrison of Quebec was too weak to prevent Arnold from crossing the river to land at Wolfe’s Cove and ascend to the Plains of Abraham. Arnold’s force, even when joined by Montgomery’s from Montreal, was too weak to undertake a siege. Carleton, who had made his way in disguise to reach the city ahead of Montgomery, prudently avoided Montcalm’s mistake of coming out to fight. Arnold therefore decided on an assault of the walls in a blinding snowstorm on 21 December. The escalade was a disaster: Montgomery was killed, Arnold wounded, and their little army retired into miserable winter quarters outside the city, in which it remained until May 1776. With the arrival of British reinforcements at the breaking of the ice in the St. Lawrence, its position became untenable and the survivors fled for home via the Richelieu—Champlain route.
The American effort to secure a strategic perimeter at the outset of the Revolution was thus ended. True, Howe had been forced to evacuate Boston on 17 March 1776, after a bookseller-turned-colonel, Henry Knox, had brought down enough cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, dragged by sledge over the snows, to arm a fort on Dorchester Heights which overlooked the harbour. Howe merely transported his army to Halifax, Nova Scotia, however, thus strengthening the position of the British in Canada. They now enjoyed, indeed, most of the advantages the French had always sought in the long years of imperial struggle, and others in addition. They were in control of the mouth of the St. Lawrence, “gateway to a continent,” and of its lower reaches, would physically control the Great Lakes as soon as they deployed garrisons in the old forts, had men in the Forks of the Ohio, oversaw the northern exits from the Richelieu and the Mohawk, and absolutely commanded—in the absence of any American naval force—the seaward approaches to the short rivers of the Atlantic Coast, all the way from the Hudson (New York was considered loyalist), past the Delaware and the streams discharging into Chesapeake Bay, to the Santee, near Charleston, South Carolina, and the Savannah in Georgia. The danger that the rebellious colonists faced, therefore, was that of confinement between the ocean and the Appalachians, and of convergent attacks into that area from Canada and from the great coastal cities actually and potentially under British occupation—New York, Baltimore, Georgetown (modern Washington), and Philadelphia—which would cut their north-south line of communications and expose them to defeat in detail. Enthusiasm for the rebellion, the great dominion of Virginia excepted, was notably weaker in the South than the North; it was significant that those of Benedict Arnold’s men who reached the Chaudière were known to the local French as les Bostonnais. In the summer of 1776 the Revolution, despite Washington’s success in chasing Howe away to Halifax, risked ending as no more than a Massachusetts revolt.
That it should was exactly the intention of George III’s government in London. Lord George Germain, who was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in November 1775, was taking advice from many quarters. One decision had already been taken for him: rather than keep troops landing in Canada, an expedition had been sailed for Charleston, where a show of force was thought to be all that was necessary to hold the Carolinas and perhaps overawe Virginia. The expedition was to prove a fiasco, but that lay in the future. Elsewhere Germain decided to cut New England off from the middle colonies, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, to get control of upper New York, so as to tap the supposed loyalism of the Canadians, and to impose a tight blockade of the colonial seaports. John Burgoyne, one of Howe’s subordinates at Boston, had set forth the key to the strategy in a telling memorandum: “I have always thought Hudson’s River the most proper part of the whole continent for opening vigorous operations. Because the course of the river, so beneficial for conveying all the bulky necessaries of an army, is precisely the route that an army ought to take for the great purposes of cutting the communications between the southern and northern Provinces, giving confidence to the Indians, and securing a junction with the Canadian forces. These purposes effected, and a fleet upon the coast, it is to me morally certain that the forces of New England [i.e., the Continental Army] must be reduced so early in the campaign to give you battle upon your [Howe’s] own terms, and perish before the end of it for want of necessary supplies.” In extension of this scheme, a flotilla of boats was to be built with which Carleton in Canada could take command of the Great Lakes, while he and Howe might then descend from the lakes and the upper Hudson to take the rebels in Massachusetts from the rear.
What this grand design lacked was troops, exactly the problem, in a different form, that was pressing the Continental Congress. Britain’s difficulty was to assemble regulars and transport them across the Atlantic, Washington’s to enlist, arm, and train amateurs who could face regulars on something like equal terms. Both sides were, in a sense, in the market, Washington for militiamen who would enlist or patriots who would volunteer, the British for foreign contingents which could be hired to supplement the ranks of the King’s army, greatly depleted since the end of the Seven Years War. In 1775 it was hoped that Catherine the Great would land 30,000 Russians; by January 1776, treaties had secured 18,000 German troops from Hesse, Kassel, Brunswick, and other small princely states. Nearly 30,000 Germans would serve in America throughout the war. At the outset, however, neither side could count on any large force. Howe began the campaign of 1776 with no more than 25,000 troops on hand or promised, Washington with about 19,000. His advantage was that he could keep his men together to oppose the British wherever they chose to strike; their disadvantage, identified by Lord Camden before the war had begun, was that the sheer size of America dwarfed their means to dominate it. If they dispersed the army, it risked being swallowed up in the enormous spaces of the colonies; their best hope was that Washington would agree to fight a continental, not a guerrilla, war and respond to their strategy.
So—with barely averted consequences of disaster for the Revolution—it turned out. Howe, waiting at Halifax with the army withdrawn from Boston, planned in the spring of 1776 to descend on New York and so split the rebellious North from—the British believed—the generally loyalist South. Washington, in anticipation, had gone to New York in April, where he wrote to his brother on 31 May, “we expect a very bloody summer of it.” His troops followed and began to entrench positions on Manhattan, Governors Island, and Long Island. General Charles Lee had been planning the works since January, but not with an easy mind. “What to do with the city puzzles me,” he wrote on 19 February. “It is so surrounded with deep navigable waters that whoever commands the sea must command the town.” He did what he could to deny use of the East River to the British, by building batteries on Brooklyn Heights, and at King’s Bridge at Harlem, then the only dry crossing to the mainland, but he feared that the Continental Army might be trapped in Manhattan. That was indeed the fate Washington escaped by the skin of his teeth; his escape was to lead to the string of little winter engagements in the back country of New Jersey in 1776–77 which seem to the uninformed traveller so disconnected with the course of the war, and to the harsh sequestration at Valley Forge from which the subsequent resurgence of the Revolution was to flow.
Strange to think today of the megalopolis of New York as a field of military manoeuvre. The points of encounter are buried beneath the suburban streets of Brooklyn Heights and the concrete of Harlem. Almost the only open spaces remaining from the campaign of 1776 are Greenwood Cemetery and the Cemetery of the Evergreens, passed in a rush by transatlantic passengers on their way to John F. Kennedy Airport, covering what were then the marshes beyond the village of Jamaica. New York itself was a city of only twenty thousand people, its northern border running along Chambers Street, where City Hall now stands. Between it and Harlem, ten miles to the north, the surface of the island was largely farmland, but some was forest and rocky outcrop—as it remains in Central Park—and much of it swamp. Infilling has doubled Manhattan’s habitable size since 1776.
Lee’s fortifications were dug so as to use the line of Brooklyn Heights as a barrier against a British advance; the forts in rear were designed to stop the British fleet running the narrows. Howe did not attempt to do so. Having dropped down to Sandy Hook, the entrance to New York harbour, on 29 June, he made Staten Island his base, camping his troops among its tranquil Dutch farmsteads; the army which, under General Sir Henry Clinton, had tried but failed to capture Charleston, South Carolina, arrived to join him on 1 August, raising his numbers to 25,000. During this leisurely prelude to action there had been two developments of critical importance: the Continental Congress had made a Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia on 1 July, and Howe, with his admiral brother commanding the fleet, had, in the capacity of peace commissioners to which they had insisted on being appointed by the King, met but failed to agree on terms with a delegation of revolutionaries. The Conference House where they negotiated still stands near the Outerbridge Crossing connecting Staten Island with New Jersey.
Now it could only be war to the finish. Howe was ready by mid-August and decided to confront the Americans in the Brooklyn positions. It was a grave mistake of strategy; had he forced the narrows, seized King’s Bridge and sent ships to patrol Long Island Sound, the whole of Washington’s force, the Revolution’s only real army, would have been marooned on two offshore islands. Instead he attempted a shorter encirclement, aiming to pass above the northern shoulder of Brooklyn Heights, along the line of the modern Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, towards what is today Prospect Park, taking Washington from the rear. It nearly worked. On 22 August, fifteen thousand British and Germans were rowed across from Staten Island, landed near Coney Island, and panicked the defenders into flight. In the course of the next three days the British advanced to Washington’s main line of resistance and their right wing actually got behind it, via Jamaica, almost as far as Flatbush. The Americans fled in disorder to their last line of defences. Had Howe pressed on against his demoralised opponents on 28 August he might have ended the war there and then. Fortunately for the Revolution, memories of Bunker Hill and of how resolutely the rebels had defended their earthworks on that battlefield deterred Howe from pressing his advantage. While he ordered his own men to dig earthworks, Washington held a council of war, summoning a contingent of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who were serving in his ranks, and had them row the survivors of the Continental Army across New York Bay to Manhattan.
Washington lived to fight another day, but his army’s position was still perilous. Howe’s correct strategy at this stage would have been to bypass Manhattan by the East River, which his fleet controlled, and tranship his vastly superior force to the mainland across King’s Bridge from Harlem, into what is today the Bronx. Instead he again attempted a short rather than a long encirclement, debarked men on 15 September at about modern East 32nd Street, only to have Washington slip past him up Broadway. Howe caught up and at one stage his advance guard was marching parallel with Washington’s up the line of modern Park Avenue, with what is today Central Park alone separating them; had Howe wheeled left, the decisive battle of the American Revolution might have been fought in the vicinity of today’s expensive apartment houses on Central Park West. The Americans, however, managed a spurt, reached the Harlem Heights, where Manhattan island sharply narrows, and pitched their advance line along that of modern 125th Street. There for three weeks Howe and Washington sat and stared at each other.
Why Washington sat out the confrontation defies analysis. Even a short encirclement, Howe’s favoured manoeuvre, would have trapped him in the Harlem pocket. Wait he did, nonetheless, until Howe took the correct decision, boated troops to the mainland above King’s Bridge and ordered them to capture its approaches from the mainland side. On the map, Washington was trapped again, in worse circumstances than ever. Brave delaying actions by parties of American riflemen saved him on 12 October; when Howe landed more troops at New Rochelle, a little further north, on 18 October, Washington had more troops in position and they fought a successful defensive battle, allowing him, far too late by any prudent military calculation, to gather his men for a precipitate retreat across King’s Bridge, from which they reached White Plains on 22 October. Then, on 28 October 1776, in the heart of modern New York City’s rich and leafy suburban overspill, Howe launched what should have been a climactic assault on his enemy’s position, but the Americans had again thrown up the sort of improvised earthworks he had learnt to fear at Bunker Hill. When his first assault failed in the face of an American cannonade, he retired to prepare a more deliberate attack. He also considered it necessary to deal with two American strong points in his rear, Fort Washington on Manhattan and Fort Lee on the Palisades across the Hudson, guarding what today are the eastern and western approaches of the George Washington Bridge. By the time he returned to deal with the main business, the Americans had slipped out of their White Plains entrenchments, marched beyond Jarrytown to Verplanck, and crossed the Hudson by ferry into what is still the wild country of Bear Mountain State Park.
I first came this way in the fall of 1957, driving to visit the country house of John Houseman, the great film producer, to whom I had been given an introduction. The grandeur of the Palisades, starting sheer out of the Hudson, and the tangled woodlands round Bear Mountain startled me by their reminder of how close the wilderness stood to the world’s greatest metropolis; the same sensation has returned often since, whenever I stand with my back to the forest and see the pinnacles of New York scraping the skies across the Hudson a dozen miles away. In 1776, however, Bear Mountain was not wild enough for Washington. “If overpowered,” he said as he beat his retreat southward into New Jersey, “we must cross the Allegheny Mountains.” It was nearly to come to that. On 20 November, Howe sent his subordinate, General Lord Cornwallis, across the Hudson after Washington, who cleared Newark on 30 November as Cornwallis’s advance guard entered the town. Breaking the bridges of the short New Jersey rivers, the Hackensack, Passaic, and Raritan, behind him, Washington got to the Delaware at Trenton on 7 December. He had sent orders ahead for a fleet of boats to be assembled and for those not needed to ferry his army to be destroyed; when Cornwallis arrived on 9 December, the remnants of the Continental Army, six thousand out of the nineteen thousand with which Washington had begun on Long Island, were safe in Pennsylvania, while Cornwallis had no means of sustaining the chase.
The two parties to the war were now in strategic equilibrium. Howe, controlling New York and with his army and fleet intact, retained the freedom to strike at Washington wherever he could be found, but needed to find and fix him if a decision to the war was to be concluded. Washington, though his numbers were severely depleted and proving difficult to restore, could use the barrier of the Delaware as a screen behind which to manoeuvre against the British weak spots. He had a vulnerability, which was the open city of Philadelphia, seat of the Revolution’s government on the lower Delaware; if, however, he could divert Cornwallis from it, the war might still be kept alive without that retreat behind the Allegheny Mountains to which he felt himself being driven after his escape from White Plains.
This balance of advantage and disadvantage was to dictate the course of operations in the Middle Atlantic region throughout 1777 and 1778. Operating in a corridor only some hundred miles long and fifty wide between Philadelphia and New York, the two armies feinted, sidestepped, attacked, and retreated as opportunity offered. In December 1776, just after his flight over the Delaware, Washington recrossed the river, at what today is commemorated as Washington’s Crossing. He fell on Clinton at Trenton on 26 December and pursued him to Princeton, where he won a second small battle on 3 January 1777. He then trekked across the Raritan to Morristown, on the Passaic, to wait out the winter in the New Jersey back country; he was to return there, after his arctic ordeal of 1777–78 at Valley Forge, behind Philadelphia, for the winter of 1778–79. Spring and summer were a period of inactivity, as Howe tried to tempt Washington out into the open; despairing of the attempt, he chose suddenly to use his amphibious power, sailed his army from New York in July, landed at the head of Chesapeake Bay, forced battle on Washington behind Philadelphia, his weak spot, at Brandywine Creek on 11 September, took Philadelphia, beat Washington again at Germantown, just north of the city, on 4 October, and harried the remnants of the Continental Army to Valley Forge, on the Schuylkill River, which flows into the Delaware below Philadelphia; today the Pennsylvania Turnpike runs past the memorial park.
The crucial actions of 1777 took place, however, not in the Middle Atlantic states but far away in upper New York, along lines of strategic manoeuvre which had been trodden, boated, and portaged since the beginning of European warfare in North America. The New York campaign of 1777 was, indeed, an uncannily exact repetition of those of 1758 and 1760 by the British and Americans against the French, with the difference that it was now the British who were based in Canada and their direction of advance—from, instead of towards, the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes—was southward, not northward. The plan to bisect the rebellious colonies via the Hudson from Canada had, of course, been implicit in London’s scheme of reconquest from the start. It had been delayed for want of troops, by over-optimistic beliefs in the degree of loyalism in New York, and by hopes that Howe, from his central positions in New York City and New Jersey, could achieve the desired result single-handed. It had also been a necessary first step that American control of upper Lake Champlain should be broken; but Carleton, Governor of Canada, had achieved that in a landlocked naval battle, fought with fleets of purpose-built ships, against Benedict Arnold on 11 October 1776. By the spring of 1777 the way was clear. All that was lacking was the impulse to start. Who should be blamed for the failure to supply it is much disputed. Howe, whose relocation to Philadelphia had taken him away from the scene of action, was a bad communicator; Carleton, who might have got things going in 1776, was disgruntled at being replaced in military command of Canada by General John Burgoyne; Burgoyne had spent the critical months of early 1777 in London. By the time he got to Lake Champlain with seven thousand troops in June, the campaigning season was far advanced. The auguries were not good.
Still, he counted on Colonel Barry St. Leger, whose mission was to advance from Lake Ontario down the Mohawk corridor towards Albany, to create an effective diversion; and he was sure his force was large enough to sweep aside the American militia and take Albany himself. After its loss to the British in 1664, the Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant had written that “whosoever, by ship or ships, is master of the river, will in a short time be master of the fort.” Burgoyne began the campaign as the master of the waterways above the navigable Hudson and had no doubt he would soon be at Albany and shortly afterwards at New York City.
It was not to be. Burgoyne’s failure and failing, akin to those of McClellan in the peninsula below Richmond, Virginia, eighty-five years later, was to be both over-prepared as well as under-assured of his ability to sustain the force he had at his command. Because the forts of the corridor, Ticonderoga in particular, lay in his path, he brought an enormous train of artillery, 138 cannon, with him; because the superabundancy of timber supplied by the Hudson wilderness threatened the danger of the Americans throwing up successive lines of barricades against his advance down the narrow valley, he declined to proceed without assembling the means to move it, a stockpile of thirty days’ supplies. “All his wants,” wrote a contemporary, “were owing to his having too great an abundance.” Ticonderoga, which, since its building in 1755, had been French, British, and American, fell easily to the British artillery on 6 July. Then the delays began. Schuyler, Burgoyne’s opponent, falling back towards Fort Edward on the Hudson, created inundations as he went, felled trees across the road, and broke bridges; the British had to build forty as they followed. The great green of the American forest supplied them with the materials, but also Schuyler with what he wanted to place new obstacles in their path. Burgoyne was also forced to detach troops to protect his rear as he moved southward, for volunteers were joining Schuyler in numbers. It was not until 29 July, three weeks after taking Ticonderoga forty miles away, that he reached Fort Edward, and his difficulties, rather than decreasing as he got near his objective, were compounding. St. Leger’s expedition down the Mohawk River from Lake Ontario was stopped at Fort Stanwix, guarding the first portage near modern Rome, New York, in early August. The Americans, moreover, were starting to fight back. On 16 August a party of foragers detached by Burgoyne to look for urgently needed supplies were defeated at Barrington, east of the Hudson in its Hoosier tributary. On 22 August, Benedict Arnold, marching up the Mohawk, relieved Fort Stanwix and frightened St. Leger back into Canada. By early September, Burgoyne’s numbers and supplies were depleting rapidly, as his soldiers deserted and those who remained ate up what was in hand. Carleton, who might have sent large reinforcements from Canada, nursed his grievance and sent few. A strong offensive had imperceptibly dwindled into weakness, and Burgoyne faced isolation in the Hudson forests.
He concluded that his best hope was to put the barrier of the Hudson between himself and the increasing number of New England militiamen who were rallying to the fight. On 13 September, therefore, he crossed to the west bank and marched south towards Albany, where he hoped both to revictual and to receive reinforcements from Henry Clinton, the general Howe had left in New York to guard his main base. Both hopes were in vain. The Hudson highlands at West Point were too strongly held by the enemy for Clinton’s small force safely to risk a passage up the river; reports suggested that Albany was empty of supplies. Clinton did his very best to get up to Burgoyne in his positions at Saratoga (modern Schuylerville); indeed, he got as far as Kingston, but his message urging his fellow general to march towards him was intercepted; they were still separated by eighty miles of wild country. Bereft of news, Burgoyne havered. He was confronted by one of those American entrenchments now so familiar to the British, attacked it on 19 September at a point called Freeman’s Farm, and was repulsed; he now entrenched his own position, in the hope that Clinton would appear. When he did not, Burgoyne made a second assault, at Bemis Heights, was counterattacked by the ferocious and ubiquitous Benedict Arnold, fresh from his success on the Mohawk, and pinned against the west bank of the Hudson. His splendid little army had been reduced to a strength of 3,500, and even that small number faced starvation, while the well-supplied Americans outnumbered him. On 14 October, with the gold-and-scarlet warning of an approaching American winter colouring the forest around them, Burgoyne and his officers entered into negotiations for a capitulation with their opponents. Terms were agreed on 17 October, allowing the British and the German troops to march away as long as they returned to Europe and took no further part in the war. Thus the campaign of 1777 ended in a forthright American victory; to their control of New England, won in 1776, was now added that of New York and the Canadian border.
The irony was that the British ought to have won the campaigns of 1776–77. The strategic advantages which the French had always enjoyed—control of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, dominance of the head of the Hudson and Mohawk corridors—were theirs. The military advantages the French had never enjoyed—the presence of a large regular force onshore and of an unchallengeable fleet offshore, supported by a string of excellent bases at Newport, Rhode Island, New York, and Philadelphia—were theirs as well. So, too, was the support of a large proportion of the population among which their army operated. There had been nothing but enmity for the French in British America, while at least a third of the colonists during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown and a third neutral. Moreover, once the loss of Massachusetts had been accepted, the theatre of operations was reduced to a perfectly manageable size. No more than eighty miles separates New York and Philadelphia, from which Morristown and Valley Forge, Washington’s winter refuges, are each only twenty miles inland. Washington, admittedly, was a master of cat-and-mouse marching; but in a test of strength he was the mouse and Howe the cat. The suspicion is that had Howe and his soldiers had the stomach for winter warfare shown by Benedict Arnold on his march up the Kennebec to Quebec in 1775, Washington would indeed have been driven beyond “the Allegheny mountains” and the Revolution would have been overwhelmed by American climate and distances.
As it was, Washington profited from the disaster of Saratoga to sit out the third winter of the war at Valley Forge and to begin the campaign of 1778 on strategic terms that were quite suddenly and utterly transformed. In February, France had seized the opportunity for revenge presented by Britain’s difficulties to sign a treaty with the American revolutionaries, promising alliance in the case of war with Britain. As the British recognised, war was now the French purpose, and they found themselves forced to disperse both their fleet and their army to guard against danger in the West Indies and the Mediterranean, where Spain was also moving towards hostilities. In May, Howe, dispirited by his failures, very much of his own making though they were, resigned command in America, to be replaced by Clinton. Clinton had been in Philadelphia only a day when, on 9 May, orders arrived from London that he was to evacuate Philadelphia and concentrate his forces at New York, so that a surplus could be found to reinforce the West Indies and Florida; Florida, ceded to Britain by Spain after the Seven Years War, was an obvious target for reconquest.
Since the reinforcement required ships as well as men, Clinton found his fleet depleted precisely at a moment when Britain’s three-year-old command of American waters was threatened by the sailing of a large French squadron across the Atlantic. All military prudence argued for evacuating Philadelphia by sea, but, since there were insufficient warships to protect what transports could be had, the army would have to march by land. Winter and spring in Philadelphia had been pleasant; it was, and remains around Society Hill, a European city of well-ordered streets, decorous architecture, and fine public buildings. It was also, in 1778, full of loyalists, three thousand of whom were judged to be potential victims of revolutionary vengeance. When their number was added to the eight thousand troops of the garrison, and the five thousand horses which Clinton required for his own further operations and dared not leave to Washington for his, the departing forces needed over twelve miles of road simply to move in a single column. It presented a highly vulnerable and almost indefensible target—as Braddock’s long column had been at the Monongahela or Elphinstone’s would be on the retreat from Kabul in 1842 or that of the French expeditionary force during the abandonment of the Vietnamese northern highlands in 1950. Clinton sensibly declined to follow the militarily compromised route through Trenton and Princeton, scene of Washington’s successes in December 1776 and January 1777, instead striking eastward towards the coast along a bad road through swampy terrain. Washington, abandoning Valley Forge, raced after him in the boiling heat of a New Jersey June, which killed some British and German troops by sunstroke, but unwisely entrusted the advance guard to his subordinate, Charles Lee. When Lee caught up with Clinton’s rearguard near Monmouth Courthouse (at Englishtown, just west of U.S. 9) on 28 June, he made the mistake of attacking off his line of march without deploying properly. Clinton turned in a trice, pressed the Americans against a natural obstacle, savaged them, and disengaged to complete the march to Sandy Hook at the mouth of New York harbour a week later. It was a classic example of how roughly regular troops can handle under-trained opponents—despite Baron von Steuben’s use of the drill book at Valley Forge the previous winter, under-trained the Continental Army still was—in the open field. At Sandy Hook, Clinton found Admiral Howe, who had brought the fleet up from Philadelphia, and it sufficed to transport his men back to the safety of New York. Washington, following by land, arrived at White Plains on 30 July. Nearly two years of campaigning between the mouths of the Hudson and the Delaware had restored the armies to the positions they had held in the Independence summer of 1776.