My research project examines how successive British commanders understood the problem they faced during the American Revolution, the ways in which they responded, and why they ultimately failed. The five commanders on whom I focus—Thomas Gage, William Howe, John Burgoyne, Sir Henry Clinton, and Lord Cornwallis—each brought to the task wide experience and a strong record. Their careers reflected the growth of military professionalism in the British army from the mid-18th century, and they scored important successes against the Continental Army of the United States. Far from being incompetent or hidebound aristocrats unable to overcome antiquated assumptions, British commanders demonstrated impressive skill. As Andrew O’Shaughnessy has pointed out, the war’s outcome remained uncertain to the very end. The failure by the British commanders I study lay in their inability to translate operational success into political outcomes by dismantling the revolutionary government they fought. Survival meant success for the fledgling United States.
This research gave me a deeper understanding of how British insiders saw events in America as the war continued along with the civilian side of developing policy and strategy.
Along with its substantial contribution to historical scholarship on the American Revolution and the 18th century British Atlantic world, my project has contemporary relevance. Britain’s position in the American Revolution significantly resembles that of the United States today. Its army had significant experience with irregular warfare from the Seven Years’ War and Jacobite Rebellions, along with conventional operations against comparable opponents. But a small, professional army of long-serving regular soldiers proved a very fragile instrument of war. Possessing the most powerful navy of the age, Britain struggled to turn advantages in weapons, training, and capabilities into strategic success in America. With forces operating across the Atlantic at the end of an extended logistics chain, British policymakers had to balance the American crisis with global commitments and politics at home. Despite changes in technology and differences in context, these points capture problems the United States faces with overseas expeditionary warfare. They also point to the difficulty of coordinating policy and strategy to guide military operations effectively.
Research supported by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation enabled me to work extensively with British manuscript sources unavailable in the United States. Besides letters and reports by the main figures in my study, I saw a range of material, including private letters and diaries. This research gave me a deeper understanding of how British insiders saw events in America as the war continued along with the civilian side of developing policy and strategy. It pointed me toward the role that sea power, including water transport and navigation on lakes and rivers, played for both sides. Howe’s partnership with his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, who commanded naval forces, became an important part of my chapter on his tenure. Overall, the research gave me a fuller perspective of the British side that set each of my protagonists in context and showed the pressures they faced from superiors at home. Two of five chapters are drafted, along with a thematic introduction. Writing expanded the scope of my project, drawing it back into the 1760s to explain the conflict’s origins. I anticipate drafting the remaining chapters this year. Material from my research supported a chapter entitled “An End to Empire? British Strategy in the American Revolution and Making Peace” in Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution (Oklahoma: June 2018).
An End to Empire? British Strategy in the American Revolution and Making Peace in Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution (Oklahoma: June 2018).