"TITTER YE NOT"
What happened as a result of the Stamp Act?
The Americans licked
Who was the biggest jokester in George Washington's army?
"Well," snarled the tough old General Cornwallis to the bewildered soldier.
"I suppose after you get discharged from the
army, you'll just be waiting for me to die so you can come and piss on my grave."
"Not me, General!" the soldier replied. "Once I get out of the army, I'm never going to stand in line again!"
Did you hear the one about the Liberty Bell?
Yeah, it cracked me up too!
1776 US STATES ORGANIC TEE SHIRT
The American War of Independence:
The Rebels and the Redcoats
Richard Holmes reviews the course of the American Revolutionary
War, and discusses whether American independence was
inevitable from the moment that the first shots were fired.
The War of Independence plays such an important part in
American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone
to exaggeration and over simplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it - the fact that it
was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world
war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) - are often forgotten.
In one sense it was always a war between cousins, and the long and tangled history of the
' special relationship ' between Britain and America, as well as the notion of the unbreakable
connections between both, bear witness to a link that at one time was very close indeed.
The war often known in Europe as the Seven Years War was known in North America as the
French and Indian War. It involved several countries, with France and Britain on opposing sides, and North America was one of its many theatres of operations. It was ended by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, by which the French ceded territory to Britain in North America and elsewhere. In addition to this success, James Wolfe's victory at Quebec had helped secure Canada for the British Crown, and the 13 British colonies further south seemed safe from any threat that might once have been posed by the French and their Native American allies. Britain and her American colonies at this time seemed very close, both culturally and politically - and it
is remarkable how this rosy picture changed so quickly.
In part the deterioration of relations between Britain and her American colonies - which eventually led to the War of Independence - stemmed from a logical British attempt to make the colonies contribute more to the cost of their own defence. It was also partly the result of the desire of some successful merchants in the colonies to break free of controls imposed by the pro-British elite, and from British political miscalculations that saw foreign policy oscillate between harshness and surrender. Another factor was the work of radical politicians and propagandists - such as Sam Adams and Paul Revere - who envisaged a break with Britain when many of their countrymen still hoped that it might be avoided.
The descent into armed conflict between patriot (anti-British) and loyalist (pro-
British) sympathisers was gradual. Events like the Boston 'Massacre' of 1770,
when British troops fired on a mob that had attacked a British sentry outside
Boston's State House, and the Boston ' tea-party ' of 1773, when British-taxed
tea was thrown into the harbour, marked the downward steps. Less obvious
was the take - over of the colonial militias - which had initially been formed to
provide local defence against the French and the Native Americans - by officers
in sympathy the the American patriots/rebels, rather than by those in sympathy
with pro-British loyalists/Tories.
As all these elements of conflict came into play, the British commander in chief
in North America was Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. He had long
experience of the American continent, and had a beautiful and intelligent
American wife, but he was under pressure from London to lance what seemed
to be a painful boil.
In April 1775 Gage sent a small force to seize patriot militia weapons and
gunpowder at Concord, not far from Boston, but his soldiers became involved
in a brief firefight on Lexington Green on their way there. This event was
reported far and wide, and the first shot fired there has ever since been
described as ' the shot heard round the world '. There was a bigger clash at Concord, and then a fighting retreat, in which the British force was roughly handled. The militias then closed in and blockaded the British in Boston. Although newly arrived British reinforcements, under General William Howe, who was soon to replace Gage, won a costly battle at Bunker Hill, outside Boston, they could not break the siege.
In mid-1775, patriot representatives of the 13 colonies of America, meeting in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress, appointed George Washington , a well-to-do Virginia landowner, as commander in chief of its military forces. Washington, who thought militias fundamentally unreliable, set about raising a regular force, the Continental Army, and as the initial skirmishes between the patriots
on the one hand and the British and their loyalist supporters on the other turned into a full-scale war, both sides were to use a
mixture of regular troops, militias and other irregulars. Washington's early fortunes were mixed. He forced the British to evacuate Boston by sea, when heavy guns taken from Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York State were hauled by patriot forces across a
winter landscape and emplaced so as to fire down onto the city. But a patriot attempt to invade Canada failed miserably.
Washington could also do nothing to deny the enormous advantage that
command of the sea conferred on the British. In the summer of 1776
General Howe, his army of 30,000 men carried in ships commanded by
his brother Richard, landed near New York and duly captured the city,
inflicting several sharp defeats on the patriots.
Washington, fearing that his cause would inevitably collapse as short-
term enlistment into the Continental Army expired, launched a risky
attack on the little town of Trenton, held by a brigade of Hessians
(German troops in British service) on Boxing Day 1776. He won this
battle, and although the victory was small in tactical terms, it had a
wider strategic impact, showing that the patriots were still in the fight.
In 1777 Howe took Philadelphia for the British, and had rather the
better of fighting in the central theatre of war. But an ill-judged British
attempt to invade from Canada, thrusting down the Hudson Valley
towards New York and cutting off the rebellious New England, went
badly wrong, and Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender with his entire army at Saratoga in October. Defeat at Saratoga was not necessarily a military cataclysm for the British, but it encouraged the French, anxious to obtain revenge for the humiliations of the Seven Years War, to go beyond the covert support they had offered the patriots thus far, and join the war. Spain and Holland were to follow suit, and in 1780 a wider League of Armed Neutrality was formed, to resist British attempts to stop and search merchant shipping. The American war was now a world war, which meant that British resources could no longer be concentrated on North America alone.
Saratoga did not improve Washington's position instantly, however, and his army spent a miserable winter at Valley Forge. But in the spring of 1777 Howe's replacement, General Sir Henry Clinton, withdrew from Philadelphia (American Continentals fought creditably when they took on his rearguard at Monmouth), retaining New York as his base in the central theatre, and switching his main effort elsewhere.
There had already been fighting in the south. The British had failed in an attack on Charleston, although from Savannah they had repulsed a powerful French force, sent by sea from the West Indies. In spring 1780, Clinton reopened the campaign in the south, moving by sea to take Charleston in the biggest British victory of the war. He then returned to New York and left Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis in charge.
In August Major General Horatio Gates, patriot
victor of Saratoga, was roundly defeated by
Cornwallis at Camden. British regulars now
had an impressive combination of discipline
and tactical skill, which made them formidable
adversaries even in the difficult country of the
south. But their loyalist allies fared less well.
That September Major Patrick Ferguson, with
a well-organised loyalist force was routed at
King's Mountain, and in January the following
year the dashing and controversial Lieutenant
Colonel Banastre Tarleton ('Bloody Ban' to his
enemies) was badly beaten by the
unconventional Daniel Morgan at Cowpens.
Cornwallis, although his army was now in
tatters, was still a doughty adversary. In March
1781 he won a magnificent victory over
Nathanael Greene, Gates's successor, at
Guilford Courthouse. But like so many British
victories it was won at disproportionate cost,
and Cornwallis could not mint strategic
currency from tactical success. Exhausted, he
fell back towards the coast, and eventually established himself at Yorktown, to the south of the Chesapeake Bay, where he hoped to be supplied or, if the worst came to the worst, to be evacuated, by sea.
In the New York area there had been no developments of real military significance. However, the ambitious Major General Benedict Arnold, one of the patriot heroes of Saratoga, had become embittered, and entered into secret negotiations with Clinton to betray
the fort at West Point on the Hudson. The scheme failed at the last moment and Arnold escaped to enter British service:
Major John André, Clinton's adjutant-general, was captured in civilian clothes carrying letters to Arnold, and Washington had him hanged. Washington was badly rattled by the Arnold affair, and he still faced unrest amongst his tired soldiers. And although a substantial French force under the Comte de Rochambeau had landed in Rhode Island, it was hard to see how the war could be won.
In the spring of 1781 the picture changed at a stroke. Admiral de Grasse, commanding the French fleet in the West Indies, made a bold attempt to secure control of the sea off the Chesapeake Bay. Immediately Washington heard what was afoot, he moved south with the bulk of his army and Rochambeau's Frenchmen. The British could not prevent de Grasse from entering the Chesapeake Bay, and when they brought him to battle in early September the result was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the French.
They still controlled the bay, and Cornwallis was still trapped in Yorktown.
Another French squadron brought in heavy guns from Rhode Island, and the
French and Americans mounted a formal siege against the outnumbered and
ill-provisioned Cornwallis. Although Clinton and the admirals mounted a relief
expedition, it arrived too late:
Cornwallis had surrendered. When the British
prime minister, Lord North, so firmly associated with Britain's war effort, heard
the news, he staggered as if shot and cried out:
Although the war was not formally ended until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 , it
was clear after Yorktown that the British, with their world-wide preoccupations,
no longer had any realistic chance of winning. There had, however, been some
moments that might have led to victory.
Howe, probably hoping to reach a compromise settlement with Washington,
showed little killer instinct in his New York campaign. But in this sort of war the
British were in any case eventually likely to lose, unless they could strike the
patriots such a telling blow as to win the war at a stroke, and it is hard to see
how this could have been achieved. Conversely, the patriots had always been
likely to win, provided they struggled on and avoided outright defeat. It is
unlikely that George Washington would much like being compared with
General Vo Nguyen Giap who commanded the North Vietnamese army in the
Vietnam war. But both shared the same recognition that a militarily-superior
opponent with worldwide preoccupations can be beaten by an opponent who avoids outright defeat and remains in the field. It is an old truth, and 21st-century strategists, whatever their political differences, should be well aware of it.
What would the world be like today if there never was a United States of America?
What if America’s most patriotic holiday was not July 4, but December 25?
It could have been the day the British crown got its best Christmas gift ever. All it would have taken was a simple slip by a colonial rebel. His rifle, crashing to the frozen ground, discharges… the shot echoing clearly through the crisp, clear winter night. On the river banks, the alarm sounds. The Hessian garrison at Trenton rouses to its posts. Washington’s troops are trapped crossing the Delaware .
The British counterattack drives the rebel forces from their encampment at Valley Forge . George Washington is captured. The Continental Army evaporates. The rebellion is crushed. What would life be like today, in a world in which there never was a United States of America?
There are a multitude of quite plausible scenarios in which the colonials might have lost their war with the mighty British Empire. After all, Washington’s strategy was to win by not losing. The aim was to hold on until the British gave up or the French stepped in. That strategy frayed nerves repeatedly at the Continental Congress —from the retreat at Long Island to the near disaster at the Battle of Monmouth, to Benedict Arnold’s betrayal at West Point. Washington came too close to losing his army on more than one occasion.
If, in any of these instances the Continental Army had been destroyed—not just defeated—would anyone today be celebrating the signing of the American Declaration of Independence? The answer, most likely, is yes. But the path to independence would have been far bloodier—for both nations. Here is why. Oddly, American independence worked in Great Britain’s favor. In practical terms (and Canada aside) Washington’s triumph gave the crown one less continent to worry about in its decade long struggle with France for the mastery of Europe. With the American Revolution ended, the pushy colonials looked after themselves and stopped trying to snag Canada. Better yet, they were pretty good trading partners. All this was to the good for the crown, because the British could focus their energies on the looming life-and-death scrap with France.
Now, let’s replay the tape. Instead of America being a non-issue, the British win and are forced to treat the defeated colonists like a garrison state. Decades of endless guerilla warfare follow—draining the British treasury.
And, make no mistake—even if the French had not dropped a lot of cash helping out the colonial cause, Louis was probably headed for the guillotine sooner or later anyway—and then came the real threat:
In this situation, North America becomes a major theater of conflict in the Napoleonic wars, not just a sideshow. No longer a struggle between freedom and tyranny, it is a war for supremacy between two imperial powers. It’s the kind of war in which the blood really flows. Everywhere. And in the New World, the resulting brawl for supremacy would have made the French and Indian Wars look like peace talks.
When all the killing was done, America would still have been somebody’s
just another bloodied colony. And worse, the rest of the world might not have made out any better. Maybe, Napoleon would have never had his Waterloo.
Yet, sooner or later liberty would have triumphed. John Locke , Patrick
Henry and others had already lit the fire of freedom in the minds of men. The principles of natural law and natural rights had been articulated, succinctly and supremely in the Declaration. It was a document that could not be forgotten, even in (temporary) defeat. There is little likelihood that the flame
of freedom that it sparked and fanned could ever be fully extinguished.
Want proof? Well, the idea of liberty did survive Napoleon, and the American Civil War, and the Great War, and Hitler and more. Freedom is hard to kill. And, eventually, America would have had its 4th of July in one form or another.
But, I like this form:
a great nation that reaches from sea to shining sea; an exceptional nation that serves as an example to all of the world that sovereignty of the people is not just novel idea, it is the salvation of mankind .
With all its warts, with all its stumbles forward and all its backsliding, America still shines as a beautiful
and noble idea. I am glad General Washington won at Trenton, that he prevailed at Yorktown, and that Independence Day today stands for something that is worthy of our admiration.