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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Military Affairs

The Two Phases of the War.—The war which opened with the battle of Lexington, on April 19, 1775, and closed with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, passed through two distinct phases—the first lasting until the treaty of alliance with France, in 1778, and the second until the end of the struggle. During the first phase, the war was confined mainly to the North. The outstanding features of the contest were the evacuation of Boston by the British, the expulsion of American forces from New York and their retreat through New Jersey, the battle of Trenton, the seizure of Philadelphia by the British (September, 1777), the invasion of New York by Burgoyne and his capture at Saratoga in October, 1777, and the encampment of American forces at Valley Forge for the terrible winter of 1777-78.

The final phase of the war, opening with the treaty of alliance with France on February 6, 1778, was confined mainly to the Middle states, the West, and the South. In the first sphere of action the chief events were the withdrawal of the British from Philadelphia, the battle of Monmouth, and the inclosure of the British in New York by deploying American forces from Morristown, New Jersey, up to West Point. In the West, George Rogers Clark, by his famous march into the Illinois country, secured Kaskaskia and Vincennes and laid a firm grip on the country between the Ohio and the Great Lakes. In the South, the second period opened with successes for the British. They captured Savannah, conquered Georgia, and restored the royal governor. In 1780 they seized Charleston, administered a crushing defeat to the American forces under Gates at Camden, and overran South Carolina, though meeting reverses at Cowpens and King’s Mountain. Then came the closing scenes. Cornwallis began the last of his operations. He pursued General Greene far into North Carolina, clashed with him at Guilford Court House, retired to the coast, took charge of British forces engaged in plundering Virginia, and fortified Yorktown, where he was penned up by the French fleet from the sea and the combined French and American forces on land.

The Geographical Aspects of the War.—For the British the theater of the war offered many problems. From first to last it extended from Massachusetts to Georgia, a distance of almost a thousand miles. It was nearly three thousand miles from the main base of supplies and, though the British navy kept the channel open, transports were constantly falling prey to daring privateers and fleet American war vessels. The sea, on the other hand, offered an easy means of transportation between points along the coast and gave ready access to the American centers of wealth and population. Of this the British made good use. Though early forced to give up Boston, they seized New York and kept it until the end of the war; they took Philadelphia and retained it until threatened by the approach of the French fleet; and they captured and held both Savannah and Charleston. Wars, however, are seldom won by the conquest of cities.

Particularly was this true in the case of the Revolution. Only a small portion of the American people lived in towns. Countrymen back from the coast were in no way dependent upon them for a livelihood. They lived on the produce of the soil, not upon the profits of trade. This very fact gave strength to them in the contest. Whenever the British ventured far from the ports of entry, they encountered reverses. Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga because he was surrounded and cut off from his base of supplies. As soon as the British got away from Charleston, they were harassed and worried by the guerrilla warriors of Marion, Sumter, and Pickens. Cornwallis could technically defeat Greene at Guilford far in the interior; but he could not hold the inland region he had invaded. Sustained by their own labor, possessing the interior to which their armies could readily retreat, supplied mainly from native resources, the Americans could not be hemmed in, penned up, and destroyed at one fell blow.

The Sea Power.—The British made good use of their fleet in cutting off American trade, but control of the sea did not seriously affect the United States. As an agricultural country, the ruin of its commerce was not such a vital matter. All the materials for a comfortable though somewhat rude life were right at hand. It made little difference to a nation fighting for existence, if silks, fine linens, and chinaware were cut off. This was an evil to which submission was necessary.

Nor did the brilliant exploits of John Paul Jones and Captain John Barry materially change the situation. They demonstrated the skill of American seamen and their courage as fighting men. They raised the rates of British marine insurance, but they did not dethrone the mistress of the seas. Less spectacular, and more distinctive, were the deeds of the hundreds of privateers and minor captains who overhauled British supply ships and kept British merchantmen in constant anxiety. Not until the French fleet was thrown into the scale, were the British compelled to reckon seriously with the enemy on the sea and make plans based upon the possibilities of a maritime disaster.

Commanding Officers.—On the score of military leadership it is difficult to compare the contending forces in the revolutionary contest. There is no doubt that all the British commanders were men of experience in the art of warfare. Sir William Howe had served in America during the French War and was accounted an excellent officer, a strict disciplinarian, and a gallant gentleman. Nevertheless he loved ease, society, and good living, and his expulsion from Boston, his failure to overwhelm Washington by sallies from his comfortable bases at New York and Philadelphia, destroyed every shred of his military reputation. John Burgoyne, to whom was given the task of penetrating New York from Canada, had likewise seen service in the French War both in America and Europe. He had, however, a touch of the theatrical in his nature and after the collapse of his plans and the surrender of his army in 1777, he devoted his time mainly to light literature. Sir Henry Clinton, who directed the movement which ended in the capture of Charleston in 1780, had “learned his trade on the continent,” and was regarded as a man of discretion and understanding in military matters. Lord Cornwallis, whose achievements at Camden and Guilford were blotted out by his surrender at Yorktown, had seen service in the Seven Years’ War and had undoubted talents which he afterward displayed with great credit to himself in India. Though none of them, perhaps, were men of first-rate ability, they all had training and experience to guide them.

George Washington
George Washington

The Americans had a host in Washington himself. He had long been interested in military strategy and had tested his coolness under fire during the first clashes with the French nearly twenty years before. He had no doubts about the justice of his cause, such as plagued some of the British generals. He was a stern but reasonable disciplinarian. He was reserved and patient, little given to exaltation at success or depression at reverses. In the dark hour of the Revolution, “what held the patriot forces together?” asks Beveridge in his Life of John Marshall. Then he answers: “George Washington and he alone. Had he died or been seriously disabled, the Revolution would have ended.... Washington was the soul of the American cause. Washington was the government. Washington was the Revolution.” The weakness of Congress in furnishing men and supplies, the indolence of civilians, who lived at ease while the army starved, the intrigues of army officers against him such as the “Conway cabal,” the cowardice of Lee at Monmouth, even the treason of Benedict Arnold, while they stirred deep emotions in his breast and aroused him to make passionate pleas to his countrymen, did not shake his iron will or his firm determination to see the war through to the bitter end. The weight of Washington’s moral force was immeasurable.

Of the generals who served under him, none can really be said to have been experienced military men when the war opened. Benedict Arnold, the unhappy traitor but brave and daring soldier, was a druggist, book seller, and ship owner at New Haven when the news of Lexington called him to battle. Horatio Gates was looked upon as a “seasoned soldier” because he had entered the British army as a youth, had been wounded at Braddock’s memorable defeat, and had served with credit during the Seven Years’ War; but he was the most conspicuous failure of the Revolution. The triumph over Burgoyne was the work of other men; and his crushing defeat at Camden put an end to his military pretensions. Nathanael Greene was a Rhode Island farmer and smith without military experience who, when convinced that war was coming, read Cæsar’s Commentaries and took up the sword. Francis Marion was a shy and modest planter of South Carolina whose sole passage at arms had been a brief but desperate brush with the Indians ten or twelve years earlier. Daniel Morgan, one of the heroes of Cowpens, had been a teamster with Braddock’s army and had seen some fighting during the French and Indian War, but his military knowledge, from the point of view of a trained British officer, was negligible. John Sullivan was a successful lawyer at Durham, New Hampshire, and a major in the local militia when duty summoned him to lay down his briefs and take up the sword. Anthony Wayne was a Pennsylvania farmer and land surveyor who, on hearing the clash of arms, read a few books on war, raised a regiment, and offered himself for service. Such is the story of the chief American military leaders, and it is typical of them all. Some had seen fighting with the French and Indians, but none of them had seen warfare on a large scale with regular troops commanded according to the strategy evolved in European experience. Courage, native ability, quickness of mind, and knowledge of the country they had in abundance, and in battles such as were fought during the Revolution all those qualities counted heavily in the balance.

Foreign Officers in American Service.—To native genius was added military talent from beyond the seas. Baron Steuben, well schooled in the iron régime of Frederick the Great, came over from Prussia, joined Washington at Valley Forge, and day after day drilled and manœuvered the men, laughing and cursing as he turned raw countrymen into regular soldiers. From France came young Lafayette and the stern De Kalb, from Poland came Pulaski and Kosciusko;—all acquainted with the arts of war as waged in Europe and fitted for leadership as well as teaching. Lafayette came early, in 1776, in a ship of his own, accompanied by several officers of wide experience, and remained loyally throughout the war sharing the hardships of American army life. Pulaski fell at the siege of Savannah and De Kalb at Camden. Kosciusko survived the American war to defend in vain the independence of his native land. To these distinguished foreigners, who freely threw in their lot with American revolutionary fortunes, was due much of that spirit and discipline which fitted raw recruits and temperamental militiamen to cope with a military power of the first rank.

The Soldiers.—As far as the British soldiers were concerned their annals are short and simple. The regulars from the standing army who were sent over at the opening of the contest, the recruits drummed up by special efforts at home, and the thousands of Hessians bought outright by King George presented few problems of management to the British officers. These common soldiers were far away from home and enlisted for the war. Nearly all of them were well disciplined and many of them experienced in actual campaigns. The armies of King George fought bravely, as the records of Bunker Hill, Brandywine, and Monmouth demonstrate. Many a man and subordinate officer and, for that matter, some of the high officers expressed a reluctance at fighting against their own kin; but they obeyed orders.

The Americans, on the other hand, while they fought with grim determination, as men fighting for their homes, were lacking in discipline and in the experience of regular troops. When the war broke in upon them, there were no common preparations for it. There was no continental army; there were only local bands of militiamen, many of them experienced in fighting but few of them “regulars” in the military sense. Moreover they were volunteers serving for a short time, unaccustomed to severe discipline, and impatient at the restraints imposed on them by long and arduous campaigns. They were continually leaving the service just at the most critical moments. “The militia,” lamented Washington, “come in, you cannot tell how; go, you cannot tell where; consume your provisions; exhaust your stores; and leave you at last at a critical moment.”

Again and again Washington begged Congress to provide for an army of regulars enlisted for the war, thoroughly trained and paid according to some definite plan. At last he was able to overcome, in part at least, the chronic fear of civilians in Congress and to wring from that reluctant body an agreement to grant half pay to all officers and a bonus to all privates who served until the end of the war. Even this scheme, which Washington regarded as far short of justice to the soldiers, did not produce quick results. It was near the close of the conflict before he had an army of well-disciplined veterans capable of meeting British regulars on equal terms.

Though there were times when militiamen and frontiersmen did valiant and effective work, it is due to historical accuracy to deny the time-honored tradition that a few minutemen overwhelmed more numerous forces of regulars in a seven years’ war for independence. They did nothing of the sort. For the victories of Bennington, Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown there were the defeats of Bunker Hill, Long Island, White Plains, Germantown, and Camden. Not once did an army of militiamen overcome an equal number of British regulars in an open trial by battle. “To bring men to be well acquainted with the duties of a soldier,” wrote Washington, “requires time.... To expect the same service from raw and undisciplined recruits as from veteran soldiers is to expect what never did and perhaps never will happen.”

How the War Was Won.—Then how did the American army win the war? For one thing there were delays and blunders on the part of the British generals who, in 1775 and 1776, dallied in Boston and New York with large bodies of regular troops when they might have been dealing paralyzing blows at the scattered bands that constituted the American army. “Nothing but the supineness or folly of the enemy could have saved us,” solemnly averred Washington in 1780. Still it is fair to say that this apparent supineness was not all due to the British generals. The ministers behind them believed that a large part of the colonists were loyal and that compromise would be promoted by inaction rather than by a war vigorously prosecuted. Victory by masterly inactivity was obviously better than conquest, and the slighter the wounds the quicker the healing. Later in the conflict when the seasoned forces of France were thrown into the scale, the Americans themselves had learned many things about the practical conduct of campaigns. All along, the British were embarrassed by the problem of supplies. Their troops could not forage with the skill of militiamen, as they were in unfamiliar territory. The long oversea voyages were uncertain at best and doubly so when the warships of France joined the American privateers in preying on supply boats.

The British were in fact battered and worn down by a guerrilla war and outdone on two important occasions by superior forces—at Saratoga and Yorktown. Stern facts convinced them finally that an immense army, which could be raised only by a supreme effort, would be necessary to subdue the colonies if that hazardous enterprise could be accomplished at all. They learned also that America would then be alienated, fretful, and the scene of endless uprisings calling for an army of occupation. That was a price which staggered even Lord North and George III. Moreover, there were forces of opposition at home with which they had to reckon.

Women and the War.—At no time were the women of America indifferent to the struggle for independence. When it was confined to the realm of opinion they did their part in creating public sentiment. Mrs. Elizabeth Timothee, for example, founded in Charleston, in 1773, a newspaper to espouse the cause of the province. Far to the north the sister of James Otis, Mrs. Mercy Warren, early begged her countrymen to rest their case upon their natural rights, and in influential circles she urged the leaders to stand fast by their principles. While John Adams was tossing about with uncertainty at the Continental Congress, his wife was writing letters to him declaring her faith in “independency.”

When the war came down upon the country, women helped in every field. In sustaining public sentiment they were active. Mrs. Warren with a tireless pen combatted loyalist propaganda in many a drama and satire. Almost every revolutionary leader had a wife or daughter who rendered service in the “second line of defense.” Mrs. Washington managed the plantation while the General was at the front and went north to face the rigors of the awful winter at Valley Forge—an inspiration to her husband and his men. The daughter of Benjamin Franklin, Mrs. Sarah Bache, while her father was pleading the American cause in France, set the women of Pennsylvania to work sewing and collecting supplies. Even near the firing line women were to be found, aiding the wounded, hauling powder to the front, and carrying dispatches at the peril of their lives.

In the economic sphere, the work of women was invaluable. They harvested crops without enjoying the picturesque title of “farmerettes” and they canned and preserved for the wounded and the prisoners of war. Of their labor in spinning and weaving it is recorded: “Immediately on being cut off from the use of English manufactures, the women engaged within their own families in manufacturing various kinds of cloth for domestic use. They thus kept their households decently clad and the surplus of their labors they sold to such as chose to buy rather than make for themselves. In this way the female part of families by their industry and strict economy frequently supported the whole domestic circle, evincing the strength of their attachment and the value of their service.”

For their war work, women were commended by high authorities on more than one occasion. They were given medals and public testimonials even as in our own day. Washington thanked them for their labors and paid tribute to them for the inspiration and material aid which they had given to the cause of independence.

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