Military history


Postscript: Necessary Fictions

The ink on the Treaty of Paris (1783) was barely dry when Washington predicted that the true story of the improbable American victory would never get into the history books:

If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the pages of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and marks of fiction; for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled … by numbers infinitely less, composed of men oftentimes half starved, always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.1

Washington was calling attention to the persistence of the Continental Army—the embodiment of “The Cause” for eight long years—as the essential ingredient in the ultimate American triumph. As Henry Clinton had realized from the start but the Howe brothers had not, the strategic center of the rebellion was not a place—not New York, not Philadelphia, not the Hudson corridor—but the Continental Army itself.

Within this narrative framework, the New York campaign of 1776 loomed large, for this was the most vulnerable moment, when the Continental Army nearly ceased to exist. Indeed, a history of the war from the perspective that survival was the key to success featured the near-miraculous escape across the East River in August 1776 and the endurance of the Continental Army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, even more than the dramatic victories at Saratoga and Yorktown, as the decisive events.

Washington’s own cast of mind about the course of the conflict assumed a providential character based on recollections of the summer of ’76. For he realized, more than most, that the decision to defend New York had been a monumental blunder, rescued from catastrophe only by some combination of sheer luck and the inexplicable reticence of the Howes. This was what he meant when he described the American victory as “a standing miracle” that came about because of “a concatenation of causes, which in all probability at no time, or under any circumstances, will combine again.” Though Washington was not a deeply religious man, the early months of the war made him a believer in providence, which meant that on some occasions the gods took matters into their own hands.2

He was convinced throughout the remainder of the war that New York was the divinely ordained place where he would return to redeem his earlier mistakes and deliver the decisive blow that ended all pretensions of the British Empire in North America. He was obsessed with New York as the place where the climactic battle would occur, because New York was the place where “The Cause” had nearly died, so it stood to reason it should be the place where it would ultimately triumph. He was completely surprised when the fates, and the French fleet, chose an obscure location on the Tidewater peninsula instead.

His description of the Continental Army—“half starved, always in Rags, without pay”—was intended as a tribute to the long-suffering troops who had stayed the course. But it was also a caustic comment on a political pattern that had first congealed in the summer of ’76, and then only deepened and darkened over the ensuing years of the war: namely, that the Continental Army was kept on life support but was never provided the money and men Washington requested, even though the resources for a larger and better-equipped army were readily available.3

From the start, as we have seen, the respective states preferred to support the manpower needs of their own militias rather than meet the allocations recommended by the congress for the Continental Army, primarily because local and state allegiances outweighed any collective or national ethos. As the war dragged on, these centrifugal forces only accelerated, and each request for money and men was more deeply resented by the state legislatures. Nor was it merely a matter of state versus national loyalty. The very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army, which had the menacing look of a domestic leviathan that threatened the republican principles that the war was purportedly being fought to defend. In that sense, Washington’s interpretation of the American victory focused attention on the gritty and stubborn persistence of an institution that a majority of Americans regarded as somewhat embarrassing.

The urge to airbrush the Continental Army out of the patriotic picture became palpable when the matter of pensions came up in the wake of the Treaty of Paris. A promise had been made during the course of the war, chiefly for recruitment purposes, to include pensions of half pay for life for officers. As it became increasingly clear that this promise was not going to be kept because the states would refuse to raise the taxes to fund it, an alternative proposal called “commutation” was put forward, whereby retired officers would receive full pay for five years.4

The popular response to the commutation scheme, most especially in letters and editorials in the New England press, was overwhelmingly negative, verging on scatological. Veteran officers were described as indolent nobodies, flushed with their sense of significance, feeding at the public trough like “ravenous harpies with whetted beaks and piercing eyes.” If they were truly virtuous men, as they claimed, then virtue should suffice as their only reward. One retired Connecticut officer complained that reports of his pension made him a pariah among his neighbors: “I became obnoxious to the mass of people.… When I had any severe sickness they hoped I would die. One noisy man said he hoped I would die and they would take my skin for a drum head to drum other officers out of town.”5

The antiveteran sentiment then coalesced around the creation of a fraternal organization of retired officers called the Society of the Cincinnati, which seemed to embody all the values ordinary Americans loathed. Henry Knox had been the main proponent for the preservation of the “band of brothers” who had suffered and sacrificed together to win American independence. But once it became known that membership in the society was hereditary on the male side of the family line, it was stigmatized as an aristocratic institution that threatened republican values. The widespread hostility to the Society of the Cincinnati stunned Washington, who regarded it as an abiding reminder of the countless personal sacrifices that had made American independence possible. But as it turned out, the crucial role of the Continental Army was just about the last thing most Americans wished to remember.6

FIRSTHAND MEMORIES HAD nearly evaporated by the time Joseph Plumb Martin got around to publishing his memoirs in 1830. Writing from his farm in Maine when he was seventy years old, Martin recalled his first experience of combat on Long Island andManhattan as a fifteen-year-old boy brimming over with patriotic confidence, wholly bereft of military experience, the poster child for an army of amateurs. His major theme echoed Washington’s emphasis on sheer persistence, his own and the Continental Army’s capacity to survive despite hardships that subsequent generations could not possibly comprehend and apparently preferred to forget.7

There was nothing glorious about the episodes in Martin’s account, which focused on the mundane, day-by-day challenges of staying alive that often took the form of finding food to eat. He made no effort to assess the larger strategic implications of the battles on Long Island and Manhattan, since his vantage point, like the shallow ditch at Kip’s Bay, hardly afforded a panoramic perspective. But in his own unassuming way, Martin provided what we might call a Tolstoyan view of war, meaning a recovery of the authentic emotional experience of an ordinary soldier. In the end, his message was simple but profound: both he and the Continental Army had been survivors, and that was how the war was won, or perhaps not lost.

By the time he wrote, the enforced amnesia about the essential role of the Continental Army had established itself as received wisdom, and what Martin called “the myth of the militia” had emerged in the folklore to explain the improbable American victory, which was allegedly won by “Minutemen” rather than regulars like Martin. As one of the few veterans of the Continental Army still alive, he felt a special obligation to challenge this misguided version of history:

It has been said by some … that the Revolutionary army was needless; that the Militia were competent for all that the crisis required.… But I still insist that they would not have answered the end so well as regular soldiers, who were there, and there obliged to be … and could not go away when we pleased without exposing ourselves to military punishment.8

Americans needed to believe that they had enjoyed an Immaculate Conception, that they had given birth to an independent American republic without resorting to a standing army of regular soldiers. Martin’s memoir was a poignant plea for the regulars like him who had been written out of the patriotic script because they did not fit the republican stereotype of the citizen-soldier. Washington had warned from the start that the story of America’s successful war for independence might have the look of fiction, but he had no way of knowing that the fictional version would portray the militia as the stars of the story.

EXPLAINING A DEFEAT is always a more difficult assignment than explaining a victory. But the publication of the Treaty of Paris created an impossible dilemma for Great Britain, since its terms revealed that the British Empire in North America was lost forever. All the blood and treasure—40,000 casualties and 50 million pounds—had been for nothing. As the improbability and totality of the defeat sank in, a collective silence settled like a cloud over the subject, as if it were an unwelcome guest at a dinner party that, if ignored, would eventually go away. John Adams, who had the misfortune to serve as America’s first minister to the Court of St. James’s in 1785, reported that members of the British court averted their eyes whenever he entered the room, since he was such a painful reminder of an unattractive reality they preferred to deny. Abigail claimed that vast sectors of the London press, influenced by the delusional stories of the loyalists-in-exile, were reporting that a majority of Americans were having second thoughts about independence, and that Benjamin Franklin, upon his return from Paris, had nearly been stoned to death by Philadelphia artisans angry with him for leading them astray.9

Denial was vastly preferable to a candid appraisal of the debacle, for that would have required the British government to face some extremely unpleasant facts that, taken together, undermined the core presumption on which the entire British imperial agenda rested. For the unattractive truth was that several British ministries, starting in 1763, had badly miscalculated the depth and range of American opposition to the extension of Parliament’s authority over the colonies. These ministries had arrogantly assumed that the imposition of British military power in 1774 would coerce the colonists into submission. They had consistently misread the level of resistance within the American population. And they had incorrectly presumed that the superiority of British arms would produce a quick end to the rebellion in 1776.

On all counts, history had proven them wrong. The American colonists had provided them with multiple opportunities to alter their course, on several occasions offering glimpses of a reconfigured British Empire based on the principle of shared sovereignty and mutual consent. The British had rejected all such suggestions, on the constitutional ground that sovereignty was indivisible and must reside in one place, which was Parliament, but also for deeper psychological reasons rooted in the need to ensure control over their colonial subjects. This imperious conviction was, they believed, the nonnegotiable principle that defined an empire. It transcended political and constitutional niceties and came down to an entrenched sense of superiority that rendered their American cousins as inferior creatures. But the resulting war had demonstrated quite conclusively that the British could not control the outcome; their sense of superiority was an illusion. It is probably apocryphal, but it made historical sense that the defeated British army that marched out of Yorktown played “The World Turned Upside Down.”

An alternative narrative had begun to cushion the pain of defeat even before the full implications of that defeat were felt. In the spring of 1779, from late March to late June, the House of Commons put itself into committee-of-the-whole format in order to debate what it called “The Conduct of the American War.” This highly unusual inquiry had been requested by William Howe, recently recalled from America, now to be addressed as Sir William, the knighthood a reward for his services as commander of His Majesty’s troops in the American theater. But despite the honorific title, upon his return Howe had encountered widespread criticism of his conduct of the war in the London press, essentially accusing him of making military decisions almost designed to protract rather than end the rebellion. Howe used his status as a member of Parliament to request, in lieu of a trial or court-martial, a special session of the House of Commons to answer his critics and clear his name.10

In response to those critics who accused him of excessive caution throughout the New York campaign, Howe offered a blanket explanation: “The most essential duty I had to observe was not wanting to commit his Majesty’s troops where the object was inadequate. I knew fully well that any considerable loss sustained by the army could not speedily or easily be repaired.” Howe did not acknowledge that he and his brother had had aspirations as diplomats, and were hopeful of negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict. He took refuge, instead, in his judgment as an officer in the British Army who, in fact, had achieved his stated objective of capturing the city and port of New York with a minimum of British casualties.11

His most ardent critics had focused their fire on his failure to follow up his victory on Long Island by attacking the fleeing American troops on Brooklyn Heights, which might very well have resulted in the surrender of the entire Continental Army. Howe acknowledged that the blood of his troops had been up and that, if allowed, they could have taken the forts on Brooklyn Heights. But he insisted that such a victory would have come at the cost of massive British casualties, which he judged to be unnecessary. He had no way of knowing that Washington would find a way to evacuate his defeated army across the East River, a quite miraculous extraction that defied all the conventional tactics of modern warfare. His critics, he implied, were second-guessing a battlefield decision that had been made for sound tactical reasons in the crucible of the moment—that is, without the benefit of their hindsight wisdom.12

Thus far Howe’s defense rested on his narrow definition of the accusations made against him, justifying his tactical caution in several actions on Long Island and Manhattan on strictly military grounds that civilians and politicians lacked the competence to criticize. But the argument expanded exponentially when several British officers were called to testify on Howe’s behalf. They confirmed his claim that his decision to delay a frontal assault on the forts on Brooklyn Heights had been tactically correct, indeed that such an attack would have been “an act of desperate rashness.” But then they went on to describe the larger strategic dilemma that Howe had faced:

That the force sent to America was at no time equal to the subjugations of the country—That this proceeded from the general enmity and hostility of the people, who were almost unanimous in their aversion to the government of Great Britain; and also from the nature of the country, which was most difficult and impracticable with respect to military operations than could possibly be conceived…, which rendered it impossible for the army to carry on its operations at any distance from the fleet.13

This testimony caught the immediate attention of two prominent critics of the war, Charles Fox and Edmund Burke, good Whigs who from the start had opposed the coercive policy of George III and his ministers that culminated in Germain’s decision to invadeNew York in the summer of 1776. Fox was particularly outspoken in defending Howe, who was being made a scapegoat, he claimed, in order to deflect criticism from the real culprits in the British government: “We have lost 25,000 men. We have spent upwards of 30 million [pounds] by this accursed American war. Who has been the cause of this miscarriage? Is that not the question? Who led us into this war?” Since blaming the king would have verged on treason and violated the unspoken code of conduct for debates in Parliament, Fox fixed his sight on a safer target. It was not Howe who was on trial but Germain. Burke chimed in with his expression of profuse thanks to Howe, an honorable officer, who had had the misfortune to be appointed commander in chief in a war that was both unnecessary and unwinnable.14

No one, including Howe, had anticipated this turn of events, and even those members of the House who harbored serious doubts about his management of His Majesty’s troops now called for an end to the deliberations, which had become a freewheeling critique of the British government. But Howe insisted on continuing the proceedings, arguing that nothing less than his reputation was at stake, and he did not yet feel fully vindicated. Fox, who was having a field day at the expense of Germain’s reputation, heartily concurred that, by all means, the debate should continue, for Sir William had become the agent for the emergence of truth in the House of Commons after years of obfuscation and denial.

Germain had said nothing up to this point, but he now felt obliged to respond to those criticizing his conduct of the war. He was at pains to express his abiding respect for Howe and his deep disapproval of the way Sir William’s reputation had been bandied about by “runners and whisperers, and coffee house politicians.” But he was also resolute in his conviction that he had provided the Howe brothers with overwhelming military superiority. He had no doubts or second thoughts about this: “The force sent out from this country was fully competent to the attainment of its objective, by the total reduction of the rebellion and the consequent recovery of the colonies.” Germain did not say it outright, but the clear implication of his remarks was that for whatever reason, the Howes had failed to accomplish their mission.15

He was especially distressed to hear Howe and other British officers misrepresent the level of popular support for the rebellion as “almost unanimous.” His own sources, mostly loyalists-in-exile, assured him that only between one-fourth and one-third of the colonists were committed rebels; the rest were either loyalists or neutrals. To document his case, Germain presented evidence that there were “more Americans regimented in our service than were to be found under the rebel commander in chief.” He also cited the recruitment problems afflicting the Continental Army, “which wanted 60,000 but had never been able to muster more than 20,000 in one army.”16

Howe requested the opportunity to contest Germain’s figures but was blocked when the House voted to end the proceedings on June 29. It is clear in retrospect that Germain’s estimate of loyalist sentiment was vastly inflated. We now know that approximately 20 percent of the American populace was loyalist, but the claim of Howe’s supporters that almost the entire American population embraced the rebellion was also an exaggeration.

From Howe’s point of view, the results of the inquiry were equivocal. On the one hand, his critics had been answered, and no one had suggested that he be stripped of his knighthood or receive any official reprimand. On the other hand, his conduct had become a political prize in a larger argument about the wisdom and winnability of the war. And his defenders had rallied behind him on the grounds that he had been given an impossible mission that no display of military competence could have overcome. For long-standing opponents of the war in Parliament, he was a victim. For supporters of an imperial agenda toward the American colonies, he was the convenient one-word answer to the awkward question: How could we possibly have lost the war?

WHAT WE MIGHT CALL the Howe interpretation of the British defeat never received official status. For that matter, the British government never saw fit to conduct an official inquiry into the reasons for the rather monumental debacle, preferring instead to draw a curtain of silence around the entire episode, treating it like a wound that would heal itself over time.

One exception to this policy of enforced amnesia was Henry Clinton, who saw fit to begin writing his own memoirs soon after returning from America in 1782. Clinton had inherited command of the British Army from Howe in 1778, so his primary motive was to justify his own decisions during the latter stages of the war, arguing that once the French entered the conflict, he faced insuperable obstacles and that the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown was not his fault. But in the early pages of his memoir, Clinton went back to the New York campaign and, after bowing to Howe’s status as commander in chief, proceeded to tell a story that insinuated that Howe had missed a golden opportunity to win the war at its very inception.17

Clinton described three occasions when Howe had rejected his advice. Claiming that he was motivated “by no other principle than to contribute my utmost toward the speedy extinction of the rebellion,” he had initially proposed an attack on the northern tip of Manhattan, which would have sealed the Continental Army on the New York archipelago without hope of escape. He had also argued for pursuing the Continentals at Brooklyn Heights, when they had still been reeling from the defeat on Gowanus Heights. And he had recommended an assault at King’s Bridge rather than Kip’s Bay, which would have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan. In each instance, Howe had rejected his advice, and although Clinton went out of his way to defend Howe’s authority as commander in chief, he nevertheless created the distinct impression that the Continental Army could have been destroyed several times over in the New York campaign, and if that had happened, the war might very well have ended then and there.18

Clinton’s memoirs probably reflected the critical appraisal of Howe’s decisions within certain segments of the officer corps of the British Army, but they had no impact on the ongoing if surreptitious debate about who to blame for the British defeat, because Clinton died before completing them, and they were not published until the middle of the twentieth century. It does seem clear, however, that Clinton went to his maker believing that the American war for independence might very well have ended differently if he, rather than Howe, had been in command in New York.

Clinton’s account was obviously self-serving, but it was reinforced by the first comprehensive history of the war from the British side, published in two volumes in 1794. Its author was Charles Stedman, a British staff officer throughout the war who wanted to strike an upbeat note despite the British defeat. “Although the issue of the war was unfortunate,” Stedman explained, “neither martial ardor was wanting, among our countrymen, nor patriotic zeal.” Stedman’s main argument was that the British Army had done its duty, fought bravely, and should not suffer criticisms or blame for the eventual outcome of the war.19

The only exception was William Howe. Stedman’s account of the New York campaign followed the same line as Clinton’s critique, describing Howe’s decisions on Long Island and Manhattan as “inexplicable.” Since Stedman had served on Richard Howe’s staff, he was surely aware that the military decisions of both Howe brothers were considerably influenced by their hopes for a peaceful reconciliation, but he did not mention that fact, preferring instead to characterize Howe’s decisions as “tactical blunders.” He was especially critical of Howe’s failure to pursue Washington’s depleted troops as they retreated through New Jersey in November 1776, citing that as the final and most opportune occasion to destroy the Continental Army.20

According to Stedman’s account, once that vulnerable moment passed, the likelihood of a British victory diminished for three reasons: first, Washington adopted a more defensive strategy, what was called “a war of posts,” that made decisive engagement highly improbable; second, the Continental Army got better with experience, especially in the development of a more professional officer corps; and third, the Franco-American treaty of 1778 threw money and men into the American side. Taken together, these developments made the war unwinnable for the British, despite heroic efforts by the army and navy.21

Stedman’s version of history provided an attractive story line for both the British government and the British Army, as it contradicted the claim of opposition leaders like Burke, Fox, and Pitt that the war had been, from the start, a misguided venture. But it had to be won quickly, with one smashing blow, which was precisely what Germain had proposed and orchestrated in the summer of 1776. When that effort failed, the British military had performed heroically in support of what had become a lost cause.

The beauty of this interpretation was that it sidestepped the question of whether the policies of the British ministry that had caused the war were sensible, which they clearly were not, and it located the source of the British failure in one discreet moment, the summer of 1776, and one British officer, William Howe, who missed the chance to destroy the Continental Army. This meant that fundamental questions about the core assumptions underlying Britain’s imperial agenda need not be raised. It assumed that if the Howes had acted more aggressively, the Continental Army would have ceased to exist, which is almost certainly correct, but also that the destruction of the Continental Army would have ended the war. While we can never know for sure, the balance of historical scholarship over the last forty years has made that a highly problematic assumption.22

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