The Corner

I Like the Sound of That, But . . .

Driving back from a meeting, I caught the beginning of a Diane Rehm interview with Les Gelb. He was talking about power and foreign policy, yada, yada, yada. And in the course of things he said something like the American revolutionaries defeated “the best army the British ever sent abroad” (quoting from memory). Now, I’m totally down with the idea that the founding fathers kicked butt and took names and all that, and they did. But is that something military historians would agree with? George Washington beat the best British army ever fielded? Really? Revolutionary War-era military history isn’t my strong suit (Cornerites gasp across the globe), but I always thought the Brits had some distractions elsewhere at the time.

Update: From a reader:

Jonah,

I think the historical consensus is the British army that was sent to suppress the rebellion in the colonies was just as good as any other they had, but the British General’s who led it did not have much heart in the fight. In particular General Howe, who chased Washington out of New York, was known to be sympathetic to the American cause. I’m sure his sympathy had to have influenced his leadership decisions. If anything it might explain why he failed to pursue Washington’s retreating army as aggressively as he could have.

The consensus is also that Washington was not the world’s greatest tactician. His strength lay in motivating suffering and poorly supplied troops. The British constantly underestimated the resolve and morale of the Americans because they thought the American troops lot was so miserable. If it hadn’t been for Washington, the British prediction that the American army would inevitably fall apart would probably have come true.

Bottom line is Washington deserves all the credit he’s received, but the British made a lot of mistakes too.

Update II: From another reader:

Jonah,

To say that the army the British sent against the American Revolutionaries was the “Best they ever fielded” shows a poor grasp of military history and the 18th century. To go wonkish, the qualitative status of 18th century armies would be determined mostly by the relative merits of the generals. Speaking broadly, training and equipment was fairly standardized across Europe, similar patterns of drill and maneuver, and the muskets of the day didn’t vary much in terms of reliability of accuracy. So what set armies apart was how well trained and led they were.

The British forces in America, to a man, weren’t much better or worse than say, the army that Wolfe captured Quebec with. Wolfe’s army was better because he was a better general that Henry Clinton or Johnny Burgoyne. It’s a truism that good generals make better armies, but its a more important variable in 18th century warfare. Cornwallis was a pretty good tactician, but he couldn’t figure out how to permanently subdue the Southern colonies or annihilate the colonial forces. So he wandered around for a while until he got to Yorktown where Washington and the French navy trapped him. It was Burgoyne’s operational blunders in the Saratoga campaign that gave the US the diplomatic leverage to pull France into the war, followed by Spain and the Netherlands. More than anything else, the naval threat posed by the Continental powers against British shipping and the home islands severely limitted their operations against the colonies (e.g. tying up the British navy and preventing a sizable relief expedition sailing to Cornwallis’ aid).

I don’t want to marginalize the kick-butt skills of the Americans because on paper the British should have been able to beat us. Even with blundering commanders, the British were superior in pitched battle. Washington’s great skill lay in simply keeping his army alive as a viable fighting force (and therefore, political threat) and hitting back whenever he could. But without a real political capital to defend, the Americans weren’t tied to a fixed location the same way Lee was tied to Richmond during the Civil War. The British even took Philadelphia (the nominal capital) but it really didn’t matter, since the political support for the Revolution lay at the provincial level. An important lesson in the dangers of big government!

Just off the top of my head, don’t you figure that the best British army ever fielded ought to be Wellington’s during the Napoleonic Wars? Anyone who can go toe to toe with Napoleon (not to mention while outnumbered) and come out on top is probably no slouch.

Thanks for the chance to flex the nerd muscles,

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