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When Great Britain brought its land and naval forces to the American shores to enforce its rule there, before and after the American's declaration of independence, Great Britain's motives seem clear: if it allowed dissent by the Americans, other colonists elsewhere might be emboldened to consider breaking ties with the King. However, in dedicating troops and ships to the Americas, Britain left gaps in its imperial defenses that other nations and their navies could take advantage. Ultimately numerous challengers to British naval supremacy used the American distraction to pile on with their own attacks on British ships and assets, essentially becoming a world war, continuing even after the War of 1812. Is there any record that this risk was evaluated?
It was a former Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, who understood the cost and warned in Parliament:
"I know that the conquest of English America is an impossibility. You cannot, I venture to say it, you CANNOT conquer America… You may swell every expense, and every effort, still more extravagantly; pile and accumulate every assistance you can buy or borrow; traffic and barter with every little pitiful German Prince, that sells and sends his subjects to the shambles of a foreign country; your efforts are for ever vain… devoting [the colonists] and their possessions to the rapacity of hireling cruelty! If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms, never! never! never!… "
Pitt also understood how bitterly the Americans (and later the Vietnamese) would fight.
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter - all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!"
Lesser men failed to believe him, and paid the price.
Put another way, the risk was (fairly) "evaluated" by Pitt and not understood by others.
I think this question could serve as the basis for a significant paper. Working within the terse confines of H:SE, I'd argue no. (Research to support this answer would be very time consuming, so I'll offer a low quality opinion rather than a real answer.)
Britain's government didn't have a department of colonial affairs. Britain hadn't had an empire for very long and didn't have the bureaucracy to conduct the kind of risk analysis you're asking about. In order to evaluate the risk they would have to assemble information from the Admiralty, the Army, a non-existent colonial bureaucracy, Colonial Governors, etc. That bureaucracy didn't exist. The British Empire is dated from the end of the Seven Years War, which was less than a generation in the past.
Britain would have had to have a policy. In the absence of a policy, Britain would have had to have a coherent set of assumptions about the relationship between the colonies and the government. That didn't exist. Parliament still hadn't worked out the notion of a loyal opposition, and the notion that two people could disagree and both be loyal was viewed with great suspicion.
Arguably Parliament fell twice due to issues related to how to manage the colonies. If you accept this argument, then it follows that colonial management was a "wicked problem" - the predicted outcome could vary significantly/discontinously depending on which assumptions you held, and there was no body of evidence against which to test assumptions. Personally I believe that Parliament's actions were motivated by questions about Parliamentary sovreignity and control, and that question about colonial affairs were secondary. If I'm right, that would mean that the risk analysis would be carried out on flawed assumptions.
Serious divisions within the British populace about what was right and wrong. This would require a lot of research, but I've read multiple histories that mentioned that there were significant stakeholders very sympathetic to the American cause. Pitt, Lord Cornwallis (the Naval officer, not the Army officer) and possibly much of the London middle class.
Remember that almost all the American revolutionaries did not intend revolution - Rebellion developed as the accidental result of gross missteps on both sides. Difficult to conduct a serious risk assessment about the consequences of revolution when all parties insist that the goal is not revolution, but merely a restoration of the rights of Englishmen.
All the above points are arguable, and none of them are directly provable from primary sources - I'd have to dig through secondary sources and opinions to build a case for each of the above points, and SE discourages that level of original research.
From the very beginning the revolt in America was closely connected with British-French wars. France supported the revolt, with explicit purpose to harm Britain, and of course this was very well known to everyone: major fighting happened between the British and French naval forces in American waters during this war. So most certainly British did understand the risks.
Britain's Vietnam - the US Revolt? - History
Ly dynasty of the Viets established in area called Dai Viet
capital Thang-long ("Emergent Dragon"), today "Hanoi"
Great Buddhist epoch:
• First university established
• Water puppets emerge as dramatic form
• Temple of Literature founded (1070)
• Chu Nom, a set of characters used to write Vietnamese, developed by the Vietnamese
• Le Loi and Nguyen Trai lead revolt against the Ming (1418-28)
• Independent dynasty established Confucian-style state with examinations
• attack on Champa
• Le Thanh-tong, king who implements changes
• Le family power declines
• Mac and Trinh families compete in north while Nguyen family competes from center and south
• Trinh and Nguyen claim to restore the Le
Nguyen lords (also extend Viet influence over Khmer to south)
Civil war between Trinh and Nguyen
Tale of Kieu (epic poem in Chu Nom, Vietnamese characters), written by Nguyen Du (1765-1820)
• established by Nguyen Anh, a southern prince, who fought and defeated the Tay Son to become the Gia-long Emperor moved the capital to Hue in the center of the country.
• the second Nguyen ruler adopts a Chinese bureaucratic model, with scholar-officials chosen by examinations in the Confucian classics.
• Hanoi is capital of French Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia
• Romanized script, "Quoc ngu," developed in the 17th century by missionaries to write Vietnamese language, is made official literacy rate increases
• established by Nguyen Anh, a southern prince, who fought and defeated the Tay Son to become the Gia-long Emperor moved the capital to Hue in the center of the country.
• the second Nguyen ruler adopts a Chinese bureaucratic model, with scholar-officials chosen by examinations in the Confucian classics.
• Hanoi is capital of French Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia
• Romanized script, &ldquoQuoc ngu,&rdquo developed in the 17th century by missionaries to write Vietnamese language, is made official literacy rate increases
• Phan Chu Trinh dies
• Phan Boi Chau on trial
• Student activism begins
Indochinese Communist Party formed by Ho Chi Minh to oppose colonial rule
Ho Chi Minh declares Vietnam independent
Establishes government in the north
• French defeated at Dien Bien Phu
• Ho Chi Minh takes control of the north
• Geneva conference
• Vietnam divided into North and South
• elections proposed for 1956 but never held.
• North Vietnam takes control of South Vietnam and establishes a unified country
• Name of Saigon changed to "Ho Chi Minh City," after Ho, who died before country united
The road to independence
The relaxation of tensions between the Americans and the British proved to be short-lived. In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which taxed lead, paint, paper, and tea imported into the colonies. These and other laws renewed discontent among the colonists. As tensions between the Americans and British grew, Britain reacted by sending troops into Boston and New York City.
The sight of British troops in the city streets aroused colonial anger. On March 5, 1770, Boston civilians taunted a group of troops. The troops fired on the civilians, killing three people and wounding eight others, two of whom died later. This incident, called the Boston Massacre, shocked Americans and unnerved the British government.
In 1770, Parliament repealed all provisions of the Townshend Acts with one exception--the tax on tea. Furious Americans vowed not to use tea and colonial merchants refused to sell it. On Dec. 16, 1773, a group of American colonists staged the Boston Tea Party to dramatize their opposition. Dressed as Indians, they boarded East India Company ships and threw their cargo of tea into Boston Harbor.
The Intolerable Acts.
Angered by the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed laws to punish the colonists early in 1774. Called the Intolerable Acts by the Americans, the laws included provisions that closed the port of Boston, gave increased power to the British governor of Massachusetts colony, and required the colonists to house and feed British soldiers.
The First Continental Congress.
The Intolerable Acts stirred colonial anger more than ever before. On Sept. 5, 1774, delegates from 12 colonies met in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The delegates called for an end to all trade with Britain until Parliament repealed the Intolerable Acts. King George insisted that the colonies either submit to British rule or be crushed.
The American Revolution begins.
On April 19, 1775, British troops tried to seize the military supplies of the Massachusetts militia. This action led to the start of the American Revolution. Colonial leaders met in the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775. The Congress faced the task of preparing the colonies for war. It organized the Continental Army, which colonists from all walks of life joined.
King George officially declared the colonies in rebellion on Aug. 23, 1775. Some people--called Loyalists--favoured submission to British rule, but a growing number supported the fight for independence.
The Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress officially declared independence and formed the United States of America by adopting the Declaration of Independence. It stated that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To protect those rights, men organized governments, and the governments derived their powers from the consent of the governed. But when a government ceased to preserve the rights, it was the duty of the people to change the government, or abolish it and form a new one.
Victory over a great empire.
The Americans were challenging the world's most powerful empire in the American Revolution. The war raged on through the 1770's. Then, on Oct. 19, 1781, the Americans won a decisive victory at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia. Thousands of British soldiers surrendered there. Within months, the British government decided to seek peace. Finally, on Sept. 3, 1783, the Americans and the British signed the Treaty of Paris of 1783, officially ending the American Revolution.
1858-1975 - Colonial Period, Independence, and War
After 900 years of independence and following a period of disunity and rebellion, the French colonial era began during the 1858&ndash83 period, when the French seized control of the nation, dividing it into three parts: the north (Tonkin), the center (Annam), and the south (Cochinchina). In 1861 France occupied Saigon, and by 1883 it had taken control of all of Vietnam as well as Laos and Cambodia. French colonial rule was, for the most part, politically repressive and economically exploitative. The Vietnamese, as they always had, reacted to foreign control with reluctant acquiescence and, when they could, with open resistance.
During nearly a century of French rule, which had begun in the latter part-of the nineteenth century, the varying pattern of French control gave further solidity to the country's cultural variation. Because the French rule was more direct and all-pervasive in the south than in the northern and central regions, the impact of French influence was correspondingly more pronounced in the south, resulting in a more culturally heterogenous society there. The French, much more thau the Chinese before them, remained alien to the people.
The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War II but allowed the French to remain and exert some influence. During World War II French rule was exercised by representatives of the Vichy regime at the sufferance of Japan until March 1945, when it was ended by a Japanese coup d'etat.
Roosevelt's policy regarding Indochina developed from his anticolonial notions. The French position in Indochina was untenable. The French had exploited the region and had done nothing to improve it. The French administration (Decoux) had cravenly caved in to Japanese demands in 1940 and 1941. He would do nothing to restore French rule. FDR envisioned a trusteeship status for Indochina, but this was always a vague notion, one quickly dropped for fear of irritating Churchill. Whatever plans about Indochina that Roosevelt held, they never included the Viet Minh (or any nationalist) aspirations for independence. At the very least, FDR would not help the French return. When the Japanese removed the French from power in March 1945, the American command in China refused to heed all the French pleas to help the retreating columns. For two weeks, the American command claimed that its local military resources were committed to ongoing operations. They also claimed that there was no guidance from Washington, much to the growing chagrin of the French. After FDR's death, American policy swung towards the French position, mostly out of a regard for France's role in postwar Europe.
After Japan's surrender, the French returned to a position which the events of the war years had made irretrievable. At the war&rsquos end in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh organization, declared Vietnam&rsquos independence in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution&rsquos Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946&ndash54) was underway.
In the First Indochina War, which broke out at the end of 1946 and ended nearly 8 years later in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu the French found themselves confronted by the skillful and determined Communist leadership under Ho Chi Minh. The Communists, exploiting popular opposition to the continuation of any form of foreign control, soon came to the forefront in the increasingly bitter struggle. Under a nationalist disguise within the Viet Minh - a Communist-led coaliton group - they attracted the active or passive support of most of the population.
French control ended on May 7, 1954, when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City).
With the achievement of independence and the partitioning of the country in 1954, Vietnam entered a new phase of conflict. The struggle was between the non-Communist government in the South, supported by the United States and its allies, and the Communist regime in the North, backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1958 the northern regime stepped up its efforts to subjugate the South through a well-organized campaign of subversion and terror. Eventually the United States, at South Vietnam's request, intervened to help the Saigon government repel armed aggression from the North.
Britain's Vietnam - the US Revolt? - History
The Caroline was an American steamship that had been aiding rebels in Canada. Canadian militia, on orders of the British, seized the Caroline in American waters. They set the ship on fire, and sent it hurling over the Niagra Falls. These actions strained US relations with Great Britian almost to the point of war
The war of 1812 and the subsequent negotiations between Great Britain and the United States resolved the disputes between the two countries. However, there were those in the United States who still coveted the lands of Canada. In Canada itself there were those who dreamed of independence from Great Britain. In 1837 a failed rebellion took place against British rule. Part of the rebellion centered in French speaking Quebec. In Ontario, many of the leaders of the rebellion were American immigrants to Canada. Their leader was Scottish Bron, William Mackenzie. The revolt was quickly put down. MacKenzie fled to Buffalo, where he convinced a number of Americans to join his cause. A group of MacKenzie's supporters then occupied an island on the Canadian side of the border, a mile above Niagara Falls.
On December 29, 1837 an American Steamboat, the Caroline, carried a group of reinforcements to the island. Fifty Canadian militia men crossed the river to the American side and attacked the Caroline. They drove off the American crew and destroyed the ship. The incident caused a period of tension between the United States and Great Britain. President Van Buren, however, was intent on maintaining good relations with the Great Britain. He sent General Winfield Scott to the area to maintain order and calm tensions. Scott had no troops at his disposal, since the U. S. Army was all tied up in the Seminole War. Skillfully, through the strength of his personality, Scott was able to calm tensions.
The Nightingale’s Lament: Poetry of Rebellion
Indian soldiers in the British Expeditionary Forces in France in 1914.
Sarojini Naidu was born in Hyderabad, India, in 1879. Her father, a prominent educator and political activist, and her mother, a poet, would both be important influences in her life. As a child Naidu learned to speak five languages, including English, and she attracted national attention when she entered the University of Madras at age 12. Around that time she began writing poems and plays, and at age 16 she went to England to study at King’s College in London and, later, at Girton College in Cambridge. She made a name for herself in the London literary scene as a protégée of Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, two influential poets and critics. Her first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905, and the second, The Bird of Time, in 1912. In 1914 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi make their way to the second Round Table Conference in London in 1931.
Years earlier, incensed by Britain’s religion-based partitioning of Bengal in 1905, Naidu had joined the Indian National Congress, and with each passing year she became more deeply involved in the Indian independence movement and in advocating for women’s rights in her homeland. (In 1925 she became the first Indian woman to serve as president of the Indian National Congress.) Naidu was drawn to Mahatma Gandhi’s Noncooperation Movement—the campaign of civil disobedience he waged against British rule in India—and in time became one of his closest associates. (She playfully called Gandhi “Mickey Mouse,” while he referred to her “the nightingale of India.”) In 1930 she accompanied Gandhi on the Salt March—an epic nonviolent protest against Britain’s control of salt production and distribution in India—and the following year accompanied him to London for the second Round Table Conference, a summit on India’s future. She was twice imprisoned for her anti-British activism in the early 1930s, and in 1942 she and Gandhi were jailed for 11 months.
After India achieved independence in 1947, Naidu became the first female governor of a state, the Upper Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), a post she held until her death from a heart attack in 1949. The anniversary of her death is commemorated as Women’s Day in India.
In the poem that follows, which was originally published in 1916 in the Westminster Gazette, an influential London newspaper, Naidu pays tribute to Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Britain in World War I. In all, some 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought on the Western Front as well as in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli more than 75,000 of them died.
Is there aught you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of Victory?
When the terror and tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Poetry | The Nightingale’s Lament
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American History Review: How the Colonists Beat Britain’s Best Generals
At Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, a British force charged General Greene's Americans three times, eventually forcing the Continentals to retreat. The heavy casualties the Redcoats absorbed made it a Pyrrhic victory. (Center for Military History)
By John Ferling
October 3, 2020
How an ‘ill-armed peasantry’ crushed Clinton, Cornwallis, and a raft of professional soldiers
Great Britain has “conquered the two Carolinas in Charleston,” Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British army in North America, giddily remarked the moment that city fell to the king’s troops in May 1780. Clinton had reason to exult. He had just scored Britain’s greatest triumph in a six-year-old rebellion, capturing an important American city and taking more than 5,000 prisoners. His victory, Clinton believed, assured that Britain would emerge from this war again in control of several of its southern colonies. T he British government had reconsidered its strategy following General John Burgoyne’s surrender of his army at Saratoga in October 1777. That calamity had sparked a debate within Whitehall over whether to continue the war and, if so, how to wage it. During the intervening three years Britain had failed to crush the rebels in the northern colonies, and now France was entering the war as an ally of the insurrectionists.
Deliberating for weeks in the wake of Saratoga, British officialdom reached several crucial decisions. The empire would remain at war, but with a new approach. Formulated principally by Lord George Germain, secretary of state for America, what came to be known as the “southern strategy” posited that large numbers of southerners were eager “to return to their allegiance” to the Crown. The strategy assumed some would enlist in provincial regiments to be incorporated in the British army, while
General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga spelled the end of the British strategy to separate New England from the other colonies. Painting by Joshua Reynolds. (Peter Newark American Pictures/Bridgeman Images)
others would serve in Loyalist militias. Germain spoke of reclaiming Georgia, South Carolina, and possibly North Carolina. Success would leave Great Britain with an extensive American empire that included Canada, all territory west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, everything south of Virginia—including Florida—and several Caribbean colonies. However the war might end, the subsequent ten or 11 united states, so encircled, would be fatally weak.
To pursue this goal, Britain not only changed commanders—Clinton replaced General William Howe in May 1778—but Germain, anticipating the French threat, ordered 8,000 men redeployed to other theaters. Clinton’s army would be 40 percent smaller than the force which had campaigned in America a year earlier, but his superiors expected him to keep holding New York and Newport, Rhode Island, to bring General Washington to battle, and to launch the southern strategy. “My fate is hard,” Clinton sighed on reading his orders.
Clinton was 48, softly handsome, and of average height. The son of an aristocrat and royal governor of New York, he had spent half of his youth in Manhattan before entering the army at 15. He had fought in two wars before the War of Independence, displaying legendary courage under fire and suffering a serious wound in an engagement in Germany in 1762. He exhibited an almost scholarly interest in the art of war, reading deeply on the subject and even traveling to observe hostilities between Russia and the Turks. Clinton wed at 37, but the marriage ended after five years when his wife, 26, perished delivering their fifth child. That same year, 1772, Clinton achieved the rank of major general. In early 1775 he was deployed to America. By the time he arrived, war had erupted between Britain and its American colonists, and before long Clinton was in the thick of the fighting, adding to his reputation for bravery and earning repute as a masterful strategist.
Clinton once bizarrely described himself as “a shy bitch.” He had close friends, but was introverted, liking nothing better than to withdraw to read, practice his beloved violin, or study nature. He disliked confrontation and appears to have felt most comfortable with younger officers unlikely to take issue with him. A devotee of exercise, he rode regularly and enjoyed spurring his mount to a gallop to leap fences. Homesick and aching to see his children, Clinton after 1778 knew all too well the loneliness of commanding an army at war.
Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of British forces during the American Revolution, believed his 1780 takeover of Charleston, South Carolina, would be the end of the rebellion. (The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photos)
Much of Clinton’s first two years in command involved real or potential French and American threats to British garrisons at Manhattan and Newport. Late in 1778 he initiated the southern strategy by capturing Savannah, Georgia. In 1780, at last able to apply the new strategy in earnest, he personally led 8,700 men to take Charleston. The undertaking was, he said, “the most important hour Britain ever knew.” Accompanying him to Charleston was his second in command, Charles, Earl Cornwallis.
Cornwallis, 41, was the most aristocratic British general in America, not jumped up but born into the nobility. He had studied at Eton and Cambridge, as well as at a military academy on the Continent. He entered the army at 18 and, like Clinton, served gallantly in the Seven Years’ War. Cornwallis arrived in America a year later than Clinton, and repeatedly saw action in 1776 and 1777. The eve of the Charleston campaign found him freshly returned to America, having attended to his dying wife. A bold and fearless leader given to aggressive action, he was known for personally leading assaults that he ordered.
Clinton sailed for South Carolina hoping the foe would defend Charleston rather than retreat into the backcountry. He got his wish. Following a month-long siege, the American army capitulated, a calamity nearly on par with the British debacle at Saratoga. The victory provoked celebrations throughout England. For a time, Clinton was thought to be the most popular man in the country.
Assigning Cornwallis to pacify interior South Carolina, Clinton left his subordinate with 6,753 troops, a number expected to grow as Loyalists rallied to arms. At the outset, things could hardly have gone better. Large numbers of Loyalists did agree to serve, the British army established outposts dotting the backcountry, and in August at Camden, South Carolina, north of Charleston, Cornwallis scored a sensational victory over an American army under General Horatio Gates. An ebullient Cornwallis notified Clinton that there was “an end to all resistance in South Carolina.” Clinton, equally buoyant and confident, reported to London that there was “little resource for domestic insurrection.”
The jubilation was premature. Bands of rebels soon formed under Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and other partisan leaders. These units plundered Loyalist properties, attacked royal militias, and on occasion harried isolated elements of Cornwallis’s army. Before summer ended, Cornwallis informed Clinton that “[a]ffairs . . . do not look so peaceful as they did.” Indeed, parts of the backcountry were “in an absolute state of rebellion.” The best chance of suppressing the lowcountry insurgency, Cornwallis concluded, was to lead his army into North Carolina, there to recruit Loyalists, destroy the tattered remnants of Gates’s army, and above all else close routes through which supplies from the northern states were flowing to rebel forces in Georgia and South Carolina.
Disaster followed. Within 30 days of entering North Carolina, a division of Cornwallis’s army was trapped at King’s Mountain. Nearly 1,000 men were lost—according to Clinton, the defeat was Cornwallis’s Trenton, in the mode of Washington’s Christmas 1776 victory over the Hessians.
In December, General Nathanael Greene arrived in North Carolina and took command of the 2,600-man American army in the South. Greene was not optimistic. “I think the American cause is at deaths door,” he told a friend, and perhaps because of those apparently dire prospects he pursued a risky strategy, dividing his army in the face of a superior adversary. Greene sent General Daniel Morgan with 600 men—Continental regulars and militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina—into western North Carolina. Greene took the remaining 2,000 men into eastern South Carolina. He reasoned that, should Cornwallis pursue him, Morgan would find Britain’s backcountry posts easy targets. If Cornwallis pursued Morgan, Greene planned to move against weakly defended posts above Charleston.
Charles, Earl Cornwallis, rallied Loyalists and defeated the Continentals at Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780. (Painting by John Singleton Copley)
Cornwallis did come after Morgan, again taking his army into North Carolina. A division of 1,200 men under Colonel Banastre Tarleton crossed to the west shore of the Broad River in search of Morgan. The main force under Cornwallis stayed on the east bank. Cornwallis was hoping to intercept Greene if he hurried to Morgan’s rescue or to cut off Morgan if he retreated east to reunite with Greene. It was a propitious but doomed plan. Morgan whipped Tarleton in a January 1781 clash at Cowpens in northwestern South Carolina, then outran Cornwallis and linked up with Greene and the main army near Salisbury. Cornwallis refused to give in. His stripped-down army pursued Greene in a grueling two-week, 100-mile chase that only ended when the Americans crossed the Dan River into safety in Virginia.
Both commanders still longed for a fight. Once Virginia militiamen joined him, Greene returned to North Carolina. Cornwallis came after him. The clash came on March 15 at Guilford Courthouse, a savage and bloody brawl with profound implications. At day’s end, Cornwallis controlled the battlefield—at brutal cost. His losses since January had exceeded 1,600, a quarter of those who had marched into North Carolina seventy-five days earlier.
Long before learning of Guilford Courthouse, Clinton—shaken by news of partisan activities and Cornwallis’s previous setbacks—had begun formulating and implementing a new southern strategy. In December, he committed to Virginia an army of 1,800 men under his new general, Benedict Arnold (“Chasing Benedict Arnold,” October 2017). Arnold’s force was to raid at will, destroy rebel magazines, close supply routes, recruit Loyalists, and establish a fortified base on the Chesapeake. Arnold’s presence, Clinton hoped, would compel Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to keep his militia at home and out of the Carolinas.
When Washington countered the Arnold gambit by sending the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia with an army of roughly equal size, Clinton in March sent General William Phillips with 2,000 men to take command of Arnold’s force. Upon receiving reinforcements from England, Clinton sent more troops to Phillips the army in Virginia eventually totaled 6,000. Phillips was to carry on Arnold’s tactics with, Clinton hoped, an additional gain. Greene, he anticipated, would feel duty bound to link up with Lafayette and so abandon the Carolinas.
Clinton had always made clear to Cornwallis that he was to pacify South Carolina. Cornwallis had leave to “recover North Carolina,” but only in a manner “consistent with the security” of the region. Clinton had never wavered from his initial orders, and the fulcrum of his strategy in 1781 was that Phillips’s large army in Virginia would be facilitating Cornwallis’s suppression of the insurgency in South Carolina and Georgia.
General Daniel Morgan was credited with the Americans’ brilliant cavalry victory over Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina, January 17, 1781. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The South was only one thread in the knot Clinton was attempting to unsnarl. A French army of some 4,000 men under Comte de Rochambeau had landed in New England in July 1780 a large French naval squadron under Comte de Grasse was expected late in the summer of 1781. Foreseeing a Franco-American campaign to retake New York, Clinton planned to recall most of Phillips’s army to New York during the summer, leaving around 2,000 men in the Old Dominion—sufficient, he thought, to parry Lafayette’s small force and the “ill armed peasantry” in the rebel militia. With a garrison of roughly 16,000 in Manhattan, Clinton felt, he could prevail, provided the Royal Navy maintained its supremacy. If his strategy succeeded, by year’s end New York would have repulsed an Allied attack and Cornwallis would have crushed the lowcountry rebellion.
Clinton saw out 1780 thinking 1781 was likely the war’s final year, as the rebellion “was at its last gasp.” America’s economy had collapsed. Morale among troops and civilians was waning. Credible rumors had it that if the Allies failed to score a decisive victory in ’81 France would drop out of the fray. Clinton doubted the rebels could persevere beyond a year and believed they could not continue without French assistance. He seems to have been picturing a negotiated peace in 1782, a settlement that would restore Georgia and South Carolina, and conceivably North Carolina, to the Empire. Everything hinged on an Allied defeat at New York and victory for Cornwallis in South Carolina.
In April, Clinton learned that Cornwallis’s army, battered at Guilford Courthouse, was in Wilmington, North Carolina, for reconditioning. Clinton immediately wrote his subordinate reiterating that Cornwallis’s “presence in [South] Carolina” was imperative. By the time that communique arrived, Cornwallis’s army was marching not south but north, to Virginia.
For weeks Cornwallis had been wrestling with his next move. He vowed that should Greene enter South Carolina, he would “run all hazards” to find and destroy him. As time passed, Cornwallis waffled. “I am quite tired of marching about the country in quest of adventures,” he declared, an expression of relent. The offensive-oriented Cornwallis abhorred the thought of returning to South Carolina to assume a defensive crouch and await Greene’s attack. Something else was gnawing at Cornwallis. He longed to restore a reputation tarnished by defeat at King’s Mountain and Cowpens and by his Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse. He saw little hope of achieving that end by chasing Greene around South Carolina.
Cornwallis, like Clinton—and Washington—thought 1781 was to be the conflict’s decisive year. Cornwallis saw little to achieve in South Carolina that would assure a glorious end to this war for Great Britain. Learning that Phillips was in Virginia with a large army, Cornwallis made up his mind to take his 1,435 men there and assume command of Phillips’s force. On the eve of his departure, he urged Clinton to abandon New York and bring most of his troops to Virginia. The insurgency in South Carolina could not be crushed, he claimed, until “Virginia is in a manner subdued.”
By the time Cornwallis set off, he knew that Greene had entered South Carolina. Although he told Germain that the British troops in South Carolina were capable of defending what Britain possessed, Cornwallis, in his more candid moments, acknowledged that the “worst of consequences” was bound to happen. He was prescient. Within weeks Greene had captured nearly every British installation outside of Charleston. Bastions “were daily dropping into the enemy’s hands,” was how a distraught Clinton put it.
Clinton never considered bringing his army to Virginia. He was not about to abandon New York and he knew that he lacked the resources to conquer Virginia. He believed his strategy offered the best chance for suppressing the rebellion in South Carolina before year’s end, but upon hearing that Cornwallis had gone to Virginia, he knew in an instant that his subordinate had taken a wrecking ball to his intricate construct.
General Nathanael Greene’s tactics at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse cost the British 25 percent of their forces. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Although Clinton expected “implicit obedience” from his officers, he did not order Cornwallis to return to South Carolina. Clinton had recently received several letters in which Germain lavished praise on Cornwallis’s “decisive” manner and “vigorous exertions.” Germain further stated that he and the king earnestly favored “pushing our conquests” in Virginia, adding that retaking all the southern colonies—including Virginia—“is to be considered as the chief and principal object” of Clinton’s army. In this context, Clinton dared not order Cornwallis back to South Carolina.
Reaching Virginia in mid-May, Cornwallis tried and failed to bring Lafayette to battle. Tarleton came up mostly empty-handed when he raided Charlottesville intent on capturing Virginia’s legislature and Governor Jefferson. The lone feather in Cornwallis’s cap was a foray against a supply depot west of Richmond.
Meanwhile, Clinton improvised. He conceived a surprise raid on Philadelphia, a principal rebel provision depot and the conduit through which the rebel supply chain ran from ew England down to the Carolinas. His plan was for Cornwallis to bring 3,000 men from Virginia and rendezvous with 3,000 troops and a naval task force sent from New York. With Washington’s army an estimated 10 days away, Clinton believed a lightning raid would sow widespread destruction, further erode American morale, and obliterate precious rebel stores “before they could be put into motion against me” in the coming Allied campaign for New York. The action might have changed the course of the war, but in June Cornwallis—whether from sincere doubt of the sally’s prospects or from stubborn commitment to conquering Virginia—responded negatively. Again, Clinton chose not to overrule his subordinate.
Late in June, mindful that the expected Allied campaign for New York was likely only weeks away, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to send 3,000 men and “a proportion of artillery” to New York. Cornwallis complied, sending the men and equipment to Portsmouth, Virginia, where transports waited. Loading for the voyage to New York was in progress when new orders arrived from Clinton canceling the “sailing of the expedition” to New York. Instead, Cornwallis’s army was to remain in Virginia and “maintain…a respectable defensive” installation on the York River, perhaps at Yorktown, a locale Phillips and the Admiralty thought serviceable for protecting British interests on Chesapeake Bay. Clinton had about-faced after receiving another letter from Germain. The secretary of state had expressed his “great mortification” at the removal of any troops from Virginia and iterated the king’s “unalterable” conviction that Virginia was be retaken.
Clinton was furious. Germain’s latest communique followed one written 60 days earlier in which he had ludicrously asserted that the enemy was so weak as to be unable to prevent “the speedy suppression of the rebellion.” Clinton knew better. He feared, too, that London’s meddling would deny him resources he needed to defend New York against a looming Allied onslaught. A dutiful soldier, he did as ordered. On August 1, Cornwallis’s army arrived in Yorktown.
When Washington learned that a French fleet had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and was keeping the British bottled in in Yorktown, he concocted a plan to make it appear the Continental Army was going to besiege the British in New York and instead marched south. After surrounding the British lines and inflicting a month-long artillery barrage, Washington accepted Cornwallis’s surrender. (Painting by Rembrandt Peale)
Britain’s fate in this war was now all but sealed. Since the spring, Allied leaders had been contemplating either an attack on New York or an assault on the British army in Virginia. Washington advocated retaking Manhattan while Rochambeau—seeming to doubt that the British in New York could be defeated—leaned toward assailing the enemy in the Old Dominion. Three weeks after Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, Washington and Rochambeau learned that Admiral de Grasse’s task force had sailed for the Chesapeake. In a flash, their armies began their descent toward Yorktown.
On assuming command in 1778, Clinton had lamented that he was doomed to fail, but his circumstance was not inevitable. An accomplished strategist, he had fashioned a solid plan for 1781 to bring off Britain’s original southern strategy. Had what he imagined been implemented, not only might the rebellion been crushed in South Carolina and Georgia, but by late summer Virginia would have been home to so tiny a British army that the Allies might have sought a decisive victory in New York rather than at Yorktown. Clinton’s plan perished on the horns of two fatal choices: Cornwallis’s disobedience in abandoning South Carolina and misguided intrusion by officials in faraway London. Against his better judgment, Clinton was obliged to leave a large army on Virginia’s peninsula. Unbeknown to him in late August 1781, the pivotal moment of this long war, the British army in Virginia was in the bulls-eye of a gathering and superior Allied force.
John Ferling taught for forty years, mostly at the University of West Georgia. His fifteenth book, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, is due out in May 2021. He lives near Atlanta.
(1) Felix Greene, Vietnam! Vietnam! (1966)
The mounting fury of the richest and most powerful country is today being directed against one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. The average income of the people of Vietnam is about $50 a year - what the average American earns in a single week. The war today is costing the United States three million dollars an hour. What could not the Vietnamese do for their country with what we spend in one day fighting them! It is costing the United States $400,000 to kill one guerrilla - enough to pay the annual income of 8,000 Vietnamese. The United States can burn and devastate it can annihilate the Vietnamese but it cannot conquer them.
(2) Jeff Needle was a Vietnam Veteran who protested against the war. When he returned to the United States he published and distributed a booklet called Please Read This.
A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive.
(3) John Kerry, a naval officer who was awarded several medals for his efforts in Vietnam became active in the 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War' organisation in the late 1960s. On 22nd April, 1971, Kerry gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in South-East Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day to day basis with a full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut-off ears, cutoff heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cutoff limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.
I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn't know it yet but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and trade in violence.
(4) Daniel Ellsberg, The Guardian (27th January, 2004)
I served three US presidents - Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon - who lied repeatedly and blatantly about our reasons for entering Vietnam, and the risks in our staying there. For the past year, I have found myself in the horrifying position of watching history repeat itself. I believe that George Bush and Tony Blair lied - and continue to lie - as blatantly about their reasons for entering Iraq and the prospects for the invasion and occupation as the presidents I served did about Vietnam.
By the time I released to the press in 1971 what became known as the Pentagon Papers - 7,000 pages of top-secret documents demonstrating that virtually everything four American presidents had told the public about our involvement in Vietnam was false - I had known that pattern as an insider for years, and I knew that a fifth president, Richard Nixon, was following in their footsteps. In the fall of 2002, I hoped that officials in Washington and London who knew that our countries were being lied into an illegal, bloody war and occupation would consider doing what I wish I had done in 1964 or 1965, years before I did, before the bombs started to fall: expose these lies, with documents.
The anti-war movement
The war in the South dragged on with no end in sight. At the beginning of 1967, the Americans used B-52s to bomb NLF bases near Saigon in a vain effort to clear the area of guerrillas. By August, in a desperate effort to put more pressure on Hanoi, Johnson extended the bombing of the North to within 10 miles of the Chinese border. This was playing with fire. In vain Johnson argued that this was not aimed against China:
"First I would like to make it clear that these air strikes are not intended as any threat to communist China, and they do not in fact pose any threat to that country. We believe that Peking knows that the United States does not seek to widen the war in Vietnam."
The official optimism clashed at every step with the crude reality of the casualty lists and the never-ending conflict. As the savagery and futility of the war became clear, there was increasing dissent back home. The US forces were now taking heavy losses. The American casualty rate increased steadily every year. Jack Valenti, aide to President Johnson, recalls the situation:
"I would go in the president's bedroom, at 7 o'clock in the morning. Every morning, he'd be on the phone, with a 12-hour time difference, checking the casualties of the day before. 'Mr. President, er, we lost 18 men yesterday, Mr. President, we lost 160 men, we had 400 casualties' - morning after morning after morning."
In the end Johnson was utterly undermined by the rapid growth of the anti-war movement in America. One of the most important elements in the equation was the disproportionate number of poor working class and black kids among the casualties. As in every war, it is always the poorest, most oppressed and downtrodden layers of the population that provide most of the cannon fodder. Inside the USA there was a growing swell of discontent. The black Americans were tired of being second-class citizens. In the Southern States, the civil rights movement was engaged in a ferocious struggle against discrimination and racism, for equal rights. But the war in Vietnam highlighted in an extreme form the oppression of the blacks. The two issues became indissolubly linked. On April 15, 1967 black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said:
"This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed the promised dimensions of the domestic welfare programs, making the poor - white and Negro - bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home."
Napoleon explained long ago the vital importance of morale in war. No soldier likes to fight and put his life at risk when he feels that he is not backed by public opinion at home. The American soldiers in Vietnam increasingly felt the backlash of opposition in the USA. They began to feel that they were fighting an unjust and unwinnable war. Lt. Col. George Forrest, U.S. Army recalls:
"When you turned on AFN and you saw riots in the streets, and whatever, and guys were saying: ‘Wait a minute. Why am I fighting here when these guys at home are saying this is the wrong thing to do?'"
The growing opposition to the war even found expression in pop music. There was a very popular song around at that time by "Country Joe" McDonald that contained the words:
"Come on, mothers, throughout the land"And it's 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on, fathers, don't hesitate
Send your sons off before it's too late
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box!
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn.
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it's 5, 6, 7, open up the Pearly Gates
Yeah, there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!"
In April 17, 1965 the first major anti-war rally was held in Washington. By October of the same year anti-war protests are held in about 40 American cities. As is usually the case, the ferment began among the students, who always act as a sensitive barometer of moods in society. 25,000 people gathered in Washington, 20,000 in New York and 15,000 in Berkeley, California, to demonstrate against the war. In April 1967, 300,000 people demonstrated in New York On Oct. 21-23, 1967 50,000 people demonstrated against the war in Washington. The anti-war movement was now spreading fast. More than five million people are estimated to have been involved one way or the other.
A lesson learned
Surrender house, Yorktown © Some historians have suggested that the British army mismanaged the American War of Independence and that the war could have been won. On the contrary, the war was lost on its first day, owing not to 'inevitability' but to the nature of the conflict. The fundamental difference between the British and the rebellious Americans concerned political authority. Prior to the Stamp Act crisis British authority, rarely asserted, rested on ties of loyalty, affection and tradition, not force. In the wake of the Stamp Act, Parliament repeatedly asserted its sovereignty and was compelled by American resistance to back down. Each time that this occurred the foundation for British rule in America eroded a little bit more.
Prior to the Stamp Act crisis British authority, rarely asserted, rested on ties of loyalty, affection and tradition, not force.
When Parliament sought to re-establish its sovereignty by force it undermined the loyalty, affection and tradition upon which that authority had rested. Indeed, between one-fifth and one-third of the colonists remained loyal to the crown once the war broke out. Many of these, however, switched allegiances to the rebels when they experienced or learned of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the British army in America. Had the British managed to 'win' the military conflict they would have had to resort to a degree of force antithetical to their ultimate objective - the reestablishment of British authority in the colonies.
Had American independence not been inevitable then a political settlement would have been found between 1765 and 1775. It was not. In fairness to the imperial administrators and politicians who 'lost' the colonies, they were confronting an unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenge in seeking to govern the empire and balance the books in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War. They handled the issue of American taxation in a relatively clumsy manner, but they learned their lesson.
In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine argued that the colonies should declare themselves independent because 'there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island'. During the nineteenth century the island in question would come to rule a large portion of the world. Its leaders would never again attempt to impose direct taxes on its colonies.