Military history

14.

THE AMERICAN HORNETS

The Revolution against Britain, 1775–1783

OVER THE GENERATIONS countless security forces have tried to prevent or abort revolts by arresting suspected ringleaders and confiscating their arms. Such operations were successful on numerous occasions in Italy, Ireland, and Poland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—countries where revolutionary conspiracies against foreign occupiers were always in the works. The same might be said of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1967 to 1987, a period when Israeli security forces had considerable success with preemptive raids against Palestinian nationalists. In all such cases, the authorities must have calculated that “it’s easier to crush evils in their infancy than when grown to maturity.”

Those words were written on March 28, 1775, by General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British North America, who faced an incipient revolt of his own. Disturbances such as the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when radicals dumped a load of English tea into Boston Bay to protest a tea tax, made that clear enough. To preserve order, Gage ordered a series of preemptive strikes whose template was established on September 1, 1774, when a column of 260 soldiers marched six miles outside Boston, confiscated 250 half barrels of gunpowder, and returned to base without a shot being fired. Yet in all such operations, no matter how successful, there is always a significant element of risk. A raid can go disastrously awry, as American Special Operations Forces were to discover in Mogadishu in 1993 during the “Black Hawk Down” battle. The redcoats were to learn a similar if even more costly lesson on the outskirts of Boston on April 19, 1775. In the process they were to precipitate the very thing they most wanted to avoid: a full-blown revolution.

Gage hoped that day to confiscate a substantial store of munitions that, according to his spies, was to be found in the town of Concord, twenty miles north of Boston. He also wanted to arrest the notorious agitators John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were hiding in the nearby village of Lexington. A picked force of more than eight hundred light infantrymen and grenadiers was detailed for this mission—elite troops all. Even before they set off, however, their plan had been revealed to the American radicals by informers who may have included Gage’s own American-born wife. Two express riders, William Dawes and Paul Revere, galloped off beneath a bright moon on the chilly spring evening of Tuesday, April 18, to sound the alarm. Legend has it they shouted “the British are coming,” but that is unlikely—as the historian David Hackett Fischer points out, they considered themselves to be British too. What they actually said was, “The Regulars are coming out!”

As those regulars marched across the countryside in the predawn darkness, they could hear an ominous clamor of church bells ringing, drums pounding, and signal guns firing. By the time the advance guard reached Lexington Common at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 19, they found a company of militia waiting for them. The two groups of armed men—240 British regulars in their red coats and white breeches, 60 or 70 local farmers in their work clothes—confronted each other in the early-morning half-light, loaded muskets in hand, just seventy yards apart.

A British officer growled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! Lay down your arms and disperse!”

The militia commander, Captain John Parker, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the moral advantage—to make the British fire the first shot. He instructed his own men, “Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war let it begin here.” Then, as the militia were beginning to disperse, someone fired a shot, perhaps by accident. The frightened and frustrated British soldiers unleashed a “roar of musketry” in response. Seventeen Lexington men fell over. Eight of them lay dead or were dying.

By the time the British column reached Concord around 8 a.m., hundreds of militiamen were converging on the area. Soon there would be thousands, including the famous “minutemen” who were supposed to be ready “at a minute’s notice.” The British did not think much of the fighting qualities of these “country people”—“the most absolute cowards on the face of the earth,” a captain of the Fourth Regiment (“King’s Own”) sneered—but they were about to acquire newfound respect for these lightly regarded foes. Although not professional soldiers, many of the Massachusetts militiamen were veterans of frontier fighting against Indians, and this day they showed what they had learned.8 In the process they would deliver a sobering lesson in the dangers of hubris for future generations of soldiers, including their own offspring who would one day police the far corners of the globe as the British were doing in the eighteenth century.

Before long the fire from the militiamen became so heavy that more than a hundred regulars were driven “in the greatest disorder and confusion” from Concord’s North Bridge. Starting at noon, after a long, grueling morning, with many men already wounded, the grenadiers and light infantry began to march back to Boston along a single, narrow lane. The militia was hard upon their heels. The Americans seldom got close enough for the regulars to mow them down with disciplined volleys. Instead the farmers and tradesmen in arms moved around their flanks “in a very scattered, irregular manner,” making use of hills, houses, stone walls, and fruit orchards to conceal their firing positions. A British soldier later said, “We could not see above ten in a body.” The “Yankey scoundrels” slithered on their bellies like deadly vipers and picked off officers who were clearly visible because of their bright scarlet uniforms and the shiny metal gorgets around their necks. “They did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages behind trees & stone walls, and out of the woods & fields,” wrote a wounded soldier. Another complained, “They would never engage us properly.”

The British soldiers, “enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy,” stormed into houses from which they were taking fire and “put to death all those found in them.” But this did nothing to end the agony. The initial British column would have suffered “inevitable destruction,” according to Lord Hugh Percy, had not a brigade of reinforcements under his command arrived in Lexington by 2 p.m. Even with two field pieces and almost 2,000 men, including the remnants of the original column, the British were hard put to get back to Boston under what many officers described as “an incessant fire all around us.” They suffered 65 dead and 207 wounded or missing that day, compared with 49 Americans killed and 44 wounded or missing.

This was a vindication of the approach advocated by the self-described “very corpulent and bald-headed” militia commander, Brigadier General William Heath, who arrived to take command in the early afternoon. An amiable, well-to-do farmer and amateur strategist, he had studied books on irregular warfare as conducted in both Europe and America—“every military treatise in the English language which was obtainable.” Convinced that skirmishing was the mode of fighting best suited to the New England landscape, he was determined to turn his militia into what a fellow rebel described as “Colonist Hussars.”

On April 19, 1775, the day that a revolution broke out and an empire began to crumble, that strategy worked to perfection. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was a textbook example of what civilians in arms could do even against crack soldiers if they fought in the guerrilla style. Even Lord Percy was compelled to concede, “They have among amongst them men who know very well what they are about having been employed as Rangers against the Indians & Canadians, and this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting.”9

GEORGE WASHINGTON WAS less impressed by the “embattled farmers” who, as Ralph Waldo Emerson was to write, had fired “the shot heard round the world.”10 Having served with British regulars in the French and Indian War, he was determined to imitate their mode of warfare. When the newly appointed general arrived in Boston on July 2, 1775, to take command at the behest of the Continental Congress—following not only the Battle of Lexington and Concord but also the Battle of Bunker Hill, where the Massachusetts militia had killed or wounded half of the attacking redcoats—he was appalled to find “provincials under very little command, discipline, or order.” This aristocratic Virginian derided the militiamen as “exceeding dirty & nasty people,” and lamented “an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.” He saw his chief role as “introducing proper discipline & subordination,” and concluded, “To place any dependence upon militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff.”11

Washington rejected the suggestions of Major General Charles Lee, the third-ranking officer in the Continental army, who advocated a petite guerre strategy in which small detachments of armed rebels would avoid pitched battles and harass the enemy forces until they were exhausted. Lee was a former British officer and a self-professed “eccentric” who had more than a little in common with two future visionaries of irregular warfare, Orde Wingate and T. E. Lawrence. Like them, he amused, alarmed, and alienated his fellow officers in equal measure.12 He argued that it was a mistake for the Americans to maintain an army on the “European Plan” and that a “plan of defense, harassing, and impeding can alone succeed.” Washington, on the other hand, preferred to create a disciplined army that would be able to beat the British regulars at their own game. The historian John Shy suggests that Washington and other rebel leaders “stressed a regular army . . . because they felt a need to be seen as cultivated, honorable, respectable men, not savages leading other savages in a howling wilderness.”13

But even though the Continental army would become the mainstay of the revolution, state militias performed such vital functions as suppressing Loyalist uprisings, gathering intelligence, and impeding enemy movements.14 On occasion they even played a leading role. And for all his antipathy to the militia, Washington was enough of a pragmatist that he was willing to take advantage of their efforts when they proved their worth.

Militiamen played an especially vital role in driving the British out of New Jersey after they had occupied the state in November–December 1776. Many of the state’s 120,000 inhabitants were soon inflamed by lurid tales, spread by rebel newspapers and pamphlets, of redcoats stealing everything from looking glasses to frying pans, cutting down fruit orchards, burning houses, even “ravishing” women as young as ten and as old as seventy.15 The militiamen began to fight back in what started as a largely spontaneous uprising. They focused their ire on small parties of British soldiers on foraging or scouting expeditions. Sir William Howe, the British commander, himself nearly fell victim to an ambush while traveling with a bodyguard of twenty cavalrymen.16

He responded by ordering soldiers to travel only in large convoys and threatening to hang on the spot anyone in civilian clothes caught committing an act of war. These measures’ impact, or lack thereof, can be gauged by the complaint of a Hessian officer, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen, who wrote on December 14, 1776, “It is now very unsafe for us to travel in Jersey. The rascal peasants meet our men alone or in small unarmed groups. They have their rifles hidden in the bushes, or ditches, and the like. When they believe they are sure of success and they see one or several men belonging to our army, they shoot them in the head, then quickly hide their rifles and pretend they know nothing.”17

Echoing the lament of counterinsurgents since ancient times, Muenchhausen added, “Everyone in our army wishes that the rebels would do us the favor to take their chances in regular battle. We would surely defeat them.” But the British were to be disappointed in their desire for “regular battle.” After being chased out of Long Island and Manhattan in the fall of 1776, Washington was careful not to hazard the bulk of the Continental army in a frontal battle that could have led to its annihilation. Most of the time, the redcoats were left to punch at the air, unable, in a British cabinet minister’s lament, “to bring Mr. Washington to a general and decisive action.”18 Washington was pursuing a Fabian strategy of keeping his army in existence as a symbol of resistance, avoiding battle except on favorable terms, and relying on the militia, supplemented by a small stiffening of regulars, to wear down his pursuers. In New Jersey, for example, he detached 2,500 Continental soldiers to “annoy and harass” the enemy in cooperation with the militia.19

Their raids and ambushes made it impossible for the army of occupation to supply itself. At the end of June 1777 the redcoats were forced to pull out of New Jersey after having suffered almost three thousand casualties. Some of those losses were inflicted during Washington’s surprise attacks on Trenton (December 25, 1776) and Princeton (January 3, 1777), following his celebrated crossing of the Delaware River, but many more were caused by swarms of militiamen, dubbed “American hornets” by one rebel officer, who buzzed around the redcoats’ flanks.20 The British commander Sir Henry Clinton later complained, after his forces briefly reentered New Jersey, that “the whole country was now in arms.” This “most unfortunate contretemps,” as Clinton described it,21 made it impossible for the British to extend their authority beyond gunshot range of Newport and New York, their principal northern citadels after their evacuation of Boston.

IRREGULARS WERE TO play an even more important role in the South, where the British had decided to concentrate their efforts after having all but lost the war in the North following their disastrous defeat at Saratoga in 1777. The strategy began to unfold with the capture of Savannah at the end of 1778. The focus then shifted to the Carolinas. On May 12, 1780, Charleston, the richest and largest city in the South, capitulated. It was the biggest British success of the entire war. Major cities such as Philadelphia and New York had fallen before, but their garrisons had escaped. This time, all 5,500 defenders surrendered.22 Lord Cornwallis, the British commander, then routed the remaining Continental forces in South Carolina at the Battle of Camden on August 16.

Cornwallis has gotten a bad press from the colonialists and their descendants. But, like many other senior British commanders, including Sir Henry Clinton, Thomas Gage, Sir William Howe, and his brother, Admiral Lord Howe, Cornwallis was a liberal Whig aristocrat committed to a policy of conciliation. He was sympathetic to the rebels’ complaints, convinced that most Americans remained loyal to the king, and determined to woo the colonists rather than to terrorize them into acquiescence. In an anticipation of the sort of tactics that would be advocated by British generals battling insurgencies in Malaya, Aden, Cyprus, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he wanted to use the “gentlest methods which the nature of this business will admit of.”23 His superior, General Clinton, was of the same mindset. He blamed obstinate British officials and “overzealous loyalists” for spreading “the demon of discord” by ignoring the colonialists’ legitimate complaints. He coined a famous phrase when he wrote in early 1776 of the need “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America,”24 making this the first recorded use of “hearts and minds” in a counterinsurgency context. This phrase would later come to be emblematic of a certain school of “population-centric” counterinsurgency, favored particularly by liberal states such as Britain and the United States. Like later advocates of this approach, from the French field marshal Hubert Lyautey to the British field marshal Gerald Templer and the American adviser Edward Lansdale, Clinton believed that the “future peace, dignity, and happiness of both countries” depended not on iron repression but on finding a “path to reconciliation.” He and his fellow generals wanted British troops to act not as conquerors but as liberators spreading the “blessings that attend British liberty.”25

Unfortunately Clinton’s and Cornwallis’s admonitions against “irregularities” were ignored by their most vigorous and enterprising subordinate. The son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant and a onetime student at Oxford, Banastre Tarleton was a young rake who had squandered his inheritance on fashionable amusements in London and had no choice but to volunteer for the British army in 1775. The very next year he distinguished himself by taking part in the capture of Major General Charles Lee in a New Jersey tavern. By the time of Charleston’s fall, Tarleton, still only twenty-six, was already a lieutenant colonel commanding the British Legion, a green-coated group of more than five hundred infantry and cavalry recruited primarily from recent Scottish and Irish immigrants in the northern colonies. A messenger who met the dashing cavalryman described him as being “rather below the middle height . . . with a face almost femininely beautiful . . . [and] elegance of proportion.” But there was nothing soft about “Ban” Tarleton. He had earned the favor of his superiors by being “cool and intrepid in action.”

Tarleton was hardly the monster depicted in Mel Gibson’s 2000 movie, The Patriot, which has “Colonel William Tavington” burning down a church full of men, women, and children. That never happened. But the real-life Tarleton was part of a faction of British officers, known as the “fire and sword men,” who believed that it was necessary to “strike terror into the inhabitants.” No doubt he would have agreed with the sentiments of a British army captain who wrote, “The Natives are such a leveling, underbred, artful race of people that . . . I frequently long to shove a soup ladle down their throat.” Although Tarleton did not kill women and children, he and other British troops did burn plantations, loot houses, ransack churches, slaughter livestock, kill rebels asking for quarter, and, perhaps most disturbing to white Carolinians, liberate black slaves in the hope of turning them against their masters. One resident of the backwoods complained that he had been “stripped naked” by British troops who stole “horses, cows, sheep, clothing of all sorts, money, pewter, tins, knives.”26

Such methods, even if tame by earlier Mesopotamian or later Nazi standards, sparked a backlash among the liberty-loving residents of South Carolina, who were used to being lightly governed. Since there was no Continental army left in the state, resistance was led by loose-knit partisan units whose most notable leaders were Thomas Sumter (“the Gamecock”),27 Francis Marion (“the Swamp Fox”), and Andrew Pickens28 (who, sadly for his historical reputation, never acquired a memorable nickname). All were men in their forties and of some standing in their communities. Sumter was a wealthy planter and a justice of the peace, Marion a planter and a member of the provincial congress, Pickens a Presbyterian elder. All were also veterans of the Cherokee War (1759–61), when South Carolina’s militia had fought a ruthless campaign against a large Indian tribe in the western part of the state. Along the way, they had learned not only regular soldiering but also the more freewheeling style employed by the Indians. They now applied those lessons in the forbidding swamps and dense forests of the South Carolina backcountry.

Marion became the most celebrated of the three. A Continental army officer recalled that he “was about forty-eight years of age, small in stature, hard in visage, healthy, abstemious, and taciturn.” He dressed in simple “homespun” clothes, with a leather cap that had a silver crescent inscribed with the words “Liberty or Death.” One of his men noted that “his frame was capable of enduring fatigue and every privation necessary for a partisan.”

Born in 1732 to a family of French Huguenots in the South Carolina low country, he never had much education; he remained barely literate throughout his life. He began his military career as a twenty-five-year-old militiaman. In the battles against the Cherokees he revealed himself to be, in the words of his commanding officer, “an active, brave, and hardy soldier, and an excellent partisan officer.” In 1775, after years as a planter, he joined a Continental regiment being raised in South Carolina. Rising through the ranks, he became its colonel and commander. His unit did not survive the British capture of Charleston, but Marion escaped the disaster while nursing a broken ankle at home. He went into hiding in the backcountry, where he organized a band of partisans to prey on British communications between Charleston and Camden.29

Marion’s band sometimes swelled to several hundred men before shrinking again, as its members returned home to tend their crops. But even when he had just “five and twenty men” and “three or four rounds to a man,”30 he would continue to stage lightning raids on Loyalist and British detachments, often around midnight, while carefully avoiding battle with superior forces. “I have had great fatigues, but I surmount every difficulty,” Marion wrote in October 1780 to his Continental army superior, General Horatio Gates, adding proudly (note his dodgy grammar and spelling), “The Toreys are so affrighted with my little excursions that many is moving off to Georgia with their effects others are rund into swamps.”31

The British found it impossible to get accurate intelligence on Marion’s whereabouts because, as Cornwallis noted ruefully, “there was scarcely an inhabitant between the Sentee and Pedee [Rivers] that was not in arms against us.”32 Marion was also careful to elude the redcoats; he advised his men “not to sleep in any house or stay above an hour at any plantation.”33 After one fruitless foray in pursuit, Banastre Tarleton was said to have exclaimed, “Come, my boys! Let us go back, and we will find the Gamecock. But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.” This was later modified into “Swamp Fox,” apparently by Parson Weems, the prolific mythologizer who invented the tale of Washington’s chopping down a cherry tree and who also wrote a biography of Marion.34

Marion’s favorite hideout was on Snow’s Island, at the confluence of the Pee Dee River and Lynch’s Creek. Amid the Spanish moss and oak and pine groves, he and his followers built crude huts to protect themselves against wind and rain and storage bins to hold their scanty provisions. “They slept in the open air, according to their means, either with or without a blanket,” wrote a member of the band. “They had nothing but water to drink. They fed chiefly upon sweet potatoes, either with or without fresh beef. And they submitted to this without a murmur; but all sighed for salt! for salt! That first article of necessity for the human race.” Marion won his men’s gratitude by distributing the coveted condiment when he had some available. A British column managed to capture Snow’s Island in March 1781, but it made little difference. Marion and most of his men were gone at the time, and they could always pitch camp elsewhere; unlike a regular army, they did not have permanent bases or supply depots they had to defend.35

Washington realized that while these irregulars could make life miserable for the British, they could not by themselves liberate the state. Therefore he replaced Horatio Gates, the failed head of the Continental army’s Southern Department (and a rumored rival for his own position), with Nathanael Greene, a lapsed Quaker from Rhode Island who had started the war as a self-taught militiaman but had swiftly risen to become one of Washington’s most trusted generals. Major General Greene’s job was to rebuild the battered Continental force in North Carolina and lead it into South Carolina. Greene found, he wrote, “but the shadow of an army without clothing, tents, and provisions.” Realizing that “we have it not in our power to attempt any thing . . . but some little partizan strokes,” he split his regular forces and ordered them to operate with militia units to “keep up a partizan war” on a slightly larger scale than before.36 Marion, by now a brigadier general, was paired with a Continental cavalry regiment under Lieutenant Colonel “Light-Horse” Harry Lee of Virginia, who would father the future Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The Americans continued to fare poorly in conventional encounters with British forces. They won the Battles of King’s Mountain (October 7, 1780) and Cowpens (January 17, 1781), but they lost at Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781), Hobkirk Hill (April 25, 1781), and Eutaw Springs (September 8, 1781). Whatever the outcome, however, the British suffered heavy casualties, and the Americans survived to fight another day. Greene, a canny strategist, summed up his philosophy when he said, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”37 Because the Americans were able to make up their losses more easily than the British (more Carolinians were willing to fight for the rebels than for the royalists), they got the better of this war of attrition.

By the spring of 1781, Cornwallis despaired of winning in South Carolina. Complaining that “the perpetual risings in different parts of this province . . . keep the whole country in continual alarm,”38 he shifted the bulk of his force first to North Carolina and then to Virginia, where he entrenched at Yorktown on the Chesapeake coast. The surrender of this redoubt to a Franco-American army on October 19, 1781, after the French navy had prevented resupply from the sea, would mark the effective end of the Revolutionary War. While the final victory was won by regular troops, their triumph would not have been possible without the efforts of the bedraggled South Carolina irregulars who tied down and slowly bled Cornwallis’s army at a time when its success in the South seemed assured. A recent history of the revolutionary struggle concludes that this “was where the war was won.”39

WHAT GETS OVERLOOKED in most accounts of the American Revolution is that even after Yorktown the British could have continued fighting. They had lost only eight thousand men. Their remaining troops in North America, more than thirty-four thousand strong, still outnumbered the combined Franco-American forces, and more could always have been raised from a British population of twelve million or purchased from the German states that had already provided so much manpower.40 If the Americans had been resisting the Roman Empire, there is little doubt that a fresh army would have been raised and George Washington and other leading insurgents would have been crucified. But such a response was unthinkable, given the state of British “public opinion”—a phrase that first saw print in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, the first volume of which appeared, by a fateful coincidence, in 1776.41 This was a new and hugely important development in the long history of guerrilla warfare: a parliamentary government could not prosecute a war that did not enjoy popular backing. Insurgents’ ability to manipulate popular sentiment—to break the enemy’s will to resist—helped to offset some of the advantages enjoyed by an incumbent regime and gave them a greater chance of success. Public opinion would play an even larger role in future wars as Britain and the United States, which still restricted the franchise in the eighteenth century, became more democratic and as similar political systems spread around the world. Future insurgents, from nineteenth-century Greece to twenty-first-century Lebanon, would make full use of this potent new weapon wielded so expertly by the American rebels.

Initially the British people had supported the effort to suppress the American Revolution. A contemporary memoirist wrote that there “does not perhaps occur in the annals of Britain a single instance of a war more popular at its commencement.”42 But from the start there had been a substantial undercurrent of opposition. The Whig party, whose ranks included such eloquent spokesmen as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, had argued for a policy of conciliation rather than confrontation. Many of these Whigs saw the Americans’ struggle as a continuation of their own efforts to limit overweening royal power. Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons in 1775, one member of Parliament called the war “a butchery of his fellow subjects, to which his conscience forbad him to give his consent.”43 The antiwar ranks included prominent military men such as Vice Admiral Augustus Keppel and Lieutenant General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who made clear that they would not fight their “American brethren.”44 They had the support of most major newspapers, such as the Evening Post, which called the war “unnatural, unconstitutional, unnecessary, unjust, dangerous, hazardous, and unprofitable.”45

The rebels skillfully and shamelessly played on this sentiment. As early as 1772 the Boston radicals Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren had started a Committee of Correspondence to plead their case, an example that was emulated throughout the colonies.46 After every major event, the revolutionaries raced to get out their version of events. An American account of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, addressed to the “Inhabitants of Great Britain,” reached London two full weeks before the official dispatches.47 The Declaration of Independence, written out of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” was a supremely successful weapon in this propaganda struggle. It was reprinted verbatim in every major British newspaper.48 Just as effective was Thomas Paine’s best-selling pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which was widely read not only in America but also in Britain and France. Benjamin Franklin was another successful propagandist. His work in Paris starting in December 1776, which included numerous letters and essays inAffaires de l’Angleterre et de l’Amérique, a newspaper covertly financed by the French government, helped to win the rebels their most important foreign ally.49

The Tory prime minister, Lord North, tried to get out his side of the story through the official government mouthpiece, the London Gazette. He even gave secret subsidies to a popular scandal sheet, the Morning Post, thereby converting it from a critic to a supporter of the war effort.50 Initially the government line—that the revolutionaries had “been compelled to take up arms against their sovereign & country under false pretenses”51 and would soon be defeated—was accepted by many, perhaps most, in Britain and North America. But as the war dragged on, with few victories and many casualties, support sagged. The British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 caused a spike in opposition, with the London Gazetteer describing America as the “Grave of Englishmen” and writing that it would now be “national suicide” to continue the war. After Yorktown the cries of “enough of war,” “enough of slaughter” became deafening. “Everybody seems really sick of carrying on ye American war,” wrote one parliamentarian in late 1781.52

On February 28, 1782, Parliament voted by a narrow margin, 234 to 215, to discontinue offensive operations. After this stinging rebuke, Lord North had no choice but to resign. He was replaced by a Whig government led by Lord Rockingham, which was committed to peace even at the price of independence. The war finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

BESIDES HIGHLIGHTING THE newfound importance of the struggle for “hearts and minds,” the American success in winning independence from the world’s most powerful empire offers a number of other lessons about the nature of guerrilla warfare.

It demonstrates, first of all, the heavy toll of taking on a superpower. Revolutionary forces lost an estimated 25,674 dead, with disease being the biggest killer. (The British lost even more men—43,000 in all, including naval losses fighting the French, but many of the dead were German mercenaries.) Considering that the population of the thirteen colonies in 1776 was only 2.5 million people, this represents a loss of 1 percent of the entire population, making the Revolutionary War the second-costliest war in American history on a per capita basis, behind only the Civil War, in which 1.6 percent of the population perished.53 The American patriots, like most other successful insurgents, needed extraordinary willpower to prevail despite such heavy losses.

Even with all the willpower in the world, however, victory would not have been possible, at least not in the early 1780s, without French backing. The war’s second major lesson is the importance of such outside support. The turning point was the American victory at Saratoga, because it persuaded King Louis XVI to enter the conflict. His support made all the difference: first because French supplies did so much to bolster the Continental army (they accounted for 90 percent of all American gunpowder),54 then because the danger of French attacks on the British Isles and other parts of the empire prevented Britain from concentrating all of its forces in North America, and finally because a French fleet defeated the Royal Navy off the Virginia coast, thereby isolating the British field army at Yorktown.

Third, the outcome of the American war demonstrated the importance of partisans operating in close conjunction with a regular army. If the Americans had lacked an army, they might have been no more successful than the Irish rebels who rose up in 1798 and were put down by Cornwallis. As Nathanael Greene noted, “You may strike a hundred [partizan] strokes, and reap little benefit from them, unless you have a good army to take advantage of your success.”55 But without a guerrilla force to harry them, the British could have concentrated all their resources on crushing the Continental army, and the Americans might have been no more successful than the Scottish rebels who rose up in 1745. As it was, the Americans were able to land a one-two punch, with the irregulars weakening the army of occupation until a conventional force could administer the coup de grâce. This method of fighting—dubbed “hybrid warfare” by twenty-first-century strategists—has usually been the surest road to success for an insurgency.56

A fourth lesson is the need for counterinsurgents to have a suitable strategy and unity of command to execute it. The British suffered from terminal confusion as to ends and means, with cabinet officers in London and general officers in North America pushing competing, often incompatible, visions. Was the British goal to terrorize the Americans into restoring the status quo ante? Or was it to reach a liberal accommodation that would maintain only the most tenuous links between the metropolis and the colonies? Conciliatory officers such as Cornwallis issued lenient orders based on the latter assumption, but those orders were often ignored by hard-line subordinates such as Tarleton who operated under the former assumption. The result was a counterproductive muddle. British forces were harsh enough to alienate the Americans but not terrifying enough to bring them to heel.57

This failure was closely related to another: the inability or unwillingness to send enough troops to pacify 2.5 million Americans spread over more than twelve hundred miles of the Eastern Seaboard. The need for adequate resources to fight an insurgency constitutes the war’s fifth major lesson. Britain began the war with only 8,500 soldiers in North America, a figure that briefly swelled to 50,000 in 1778 before falling again to 30,000–35,000 for the remainder of the conflict.58 British commanders had only enough men to garrison a few enclaves along the coast (Savannah, Charleston, New York, Newport), where they could be resupplied by the Royal Navy. The vast interior was always beyond their grasp. They hoped that native allies would hem in the Americans, but the Indians got the worst of this savage struggle. Nor did enough Tories sign up for the struggle against their American compatriots. The British compounded their difficulties with questionable troop deployments—for instance, leaving 15,000 men in New York during the southern campaign. A U.S. Marine Corps officer who has studied the campaign suggests that New York could have been defended with a force a third the size, while the rest should have been sent to reinforce the 8,500 redcoats in the South.59

But none of these failings need have proven fatal if the British public had retained the desire to continue fighting, no matter the cost. The average American today probably thinks that the Vietnam War was the first time that a counterinsurgency was fatally undermined on the home front. A citizen of France would probably cite the Algerian War. But the American War of Independence long predated either conflict, and it was effectively decided not at Yorktown, as most historians would have it, but in Westminster. The battlefield success of George Washington’s soldiers was not irrelevant, but neither was it decisive. Public opinion in Britain was. This was a lesson that future generations of guerrillas could study and apply.

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