"The British Are Coming"

It is difficult to work up much interest in the American Revolution because the men wore powdered wigs and stockings, the guiding ideological opposition between monarchy and Republicanism is not salient today while slavery versus freedom and North versus South, issues from the Civil War, are still with us today, and because the Revolutionary War seems so episodic, Bunker Hill here and Washington crossing the Deleware there, and the surrender of two British armies, Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown, separated by four years. Wars should have the unities provided by the Second World War: retreat followed by advance, climaxing on D-Day, and victory after that. Well, Rick Atkinson has remedied these deficiencies and presented in “The British are Coming”, the first volume of his three volume history of the Revolutionary War, a compelling narrative of the first two years of the Revolutionary War that does justice to its various elements and though it does not present fresh interpretations, helps make that war comprehensible by making it dramatically whole.

Atkinson does justice to all the elements of warfare. He describes the effects of musketballs and cannon fire and swords on the bones and guts of combatants, many who go on to die agonizing deaths because of, obviously, the lack of antibiotics and painkillers. He gives a sense of how hard it was for the British to keep their armies in North America supplied with men, munitions and even food because the interior of the country was controlled by Rebels and so foodstuffs had to come across the Atlantic, sailing ships buffeted about by winds and seas, often arriving late, if at all.  He shows how the soldiery becomes demoralized and the looting and rape by the Bristish led to a New Jersey happy to welcome the Rebels back in, while the Rebel army, for its part, is plagued by drunkedness, hunger, cold, desertions and expired enlistments so that it is a wonder that Washington can keep an army in the field at all. Atkinson provides a picture of the military leadership. Washington only gradually grew into his role and relied a good deal on the counsel of his generals. The British generals were, like the American ones, of very uneven quality. Atkinson also provides a sense of the tactics used at this time in the history of warfare: turn an enemy’s flank; march so as to take up an advantageous position; have local even if temporary superiority in numbers. This is the kind of warfare that would continue through Napoleon in that battles are battles of maneuver meant to destroy an army rather than to conquer territory, and that would not come to an end until the Civil War, when fighting was to capture strategic rail lines. Moreover, as would continue to be the case until World War II, the advantage was to be on the tactical defensive so that fire could be coordinated and rained down on a charging enemy. That is what happened on Bunker Hill and it is what happened at the Second Battle of Trenton and at the Battle of Princeton. In these last two, Washington could concentrate his diminished army against relatively small and comparable numbers of the enemy, as that was supplemented by the extra concentrations of artillery supplied to him from General Knox, while at Long Island and White Plains, the British had amassed overwhelming force before which Washington could only retreat. The ebb and flow of battles makes sense in Atkinson’s telling.

The same is true of grand strategy. After the devastating losses at Bunker Hill, where there were a thousand British casualties, Howe was locked up in Boston and starving for provisions. Not being able to break out, he sailed off to Halifax, leaving the entire American coast in Rebel hands. The rebels were not just a few people who had seized the governments of the colonies from the Loyalists. Their sentiment was shared by the majority of their countrymen. And so, with all due deliberation, and so as not to take chances of another disastrous loss, Howe launched a full scale invasion of New York. His overwhelming force was successful and he did not intend to fritter away his strategic position by chasing Washington across the countryside. Meanwhile, another avenue to eventual victory had opened because the British had cleared Lake Champlain of Rebels so that a pincer movement, south from Canada while there was a move North from New York, could cut the colonies in two, which might seem more a symbolic act than anything else, but it was all that could be hoped for given the fact that, as Atkinson puts it, the countryside from Boston to Charleston was in Rebel hands and all the important waterways, such as the Delevare and Chesapeake Bay, were open for Rebel ships and their cargoes. 

What else could the British do? It was not that the war was not carefully planned in London. George II had books containing lists of where every one of his regiments were posted and where all of his ships were. The British were using half their fleet and half their army, even as France was clearly arming itself for another go round to avenge their defeat in the Seven Years War. The American War was recognized as the threat it was, even if politicians tried to believe that the hearts of the colonists weren’t in it and that the Rebel armies were commanded by ignorant farmers, when the truth of the matter was that the colonists thought themselves as good Englishmen and therefore entitled to the liberties of Englishmen, and that their leaders had organized a European style army, not an Indian army, and that the rhetoric in favor of independence by Jefferson and Paine had an eloquence that no Englishman could answer. This was already a people and not just a colony or set of colonies and that the British did not sufficiently appreciate.

How the invasion from Canada would go is, obviously, well known, but I want to read its retelling in Atkinson’s words in his second volume so that I can recapture the sense of amazement at Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. The highest drama of the current volume is also where it is expected: Washington’ crossing the Delaware and winning not one but two battles in central New Jersey which drove Howe back to having only a small corner of New Jersey. That those victories enabled the rebellion to survive is not a fresh interpretation but Atkinson’s rendering of the events shows how hit and miss it was, Washington for the first time showing his military acumen, and fortune in the form of weather and sloppy German positioning aiding him in his quest. War favors with luck those who are well poised to make use of it, and yet luck it remains. Those are the imponderables of all history, though often not as well encapsulated as they are in warfare, and to this Atkinson does great justice. 

There are not too many military lessons to be learned or applied today from the early years of the Revolution except perhaps that an occupying power should not expect such a war to be short. It was only seemingly over quickly in the Iraq War. Moreover, it was sensible to think that the overwhelming power delivered over the Atlantic by the British should have done the job just as the overwhelming men and material delivered by the Americans to South Vietnam should have done the job there. But mostly contemporary war is, as the expression goes, asymmetrical, in that low cost explosive devices take out troop carrying vehicles and the occupying forces are pinned down by quickly disappearing insurgents. The Americans, for their part, fought stand up battles with the British when they could, and the British, far from thinking being fired upon from behind stone walls was uncouth, sent out flankers to protect their lines of march. It was just that there were too many stone walls and too many locals who adopted these tactics for the British to withstand them. 

Who knows what a future cyberwar will look like? The Revolutionary War was very much a war of its own time and place both technically and culturally. The Rebels did indeed, for example, feel motivated by their sense of liberty and equality even if that was not general on the European continent however much these sentiments had been foreshadowed by both the Enlightenment thinkers of the Eighteenth Century and the British Roundheads of the previous century. The idea runs deep but what Atkinson shows is that it bubbled up into individual action as an expression of deep conviction and not just in Nathan Hale. The Colonists were deeply involved in their cause, and would suffer significant setbacks and persevere in their dedication to the cause. So there is a political lesson that is still salient that is to be learned from the Revolutionary War: don’t go to war unless you really mean it. Both sides in the Revolutionary War had conviction even if that was hard for the British to believe. Both sides had it in the two world wars. Both sides had it in Korea. People willing to risk war are not likely to be pushovers. Lucky for the United States, we could retreat from Vietnam once we found that to be the case there, even as the British found they could retreat from the Revolutionary War and go on to develop a Second British Empire in the Nineteenth Century. In the present instance, Iran would not be a pushover, so better not to try. War is a last resort, not a first, second or third one. That is the lesson of a hard headed realpolitik rather than Liberal softheartedness.