Myths of the American Revolution- page 5 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Britain's leaders made a miscalculation when they assumed that resistance from the colonies, as the Earl of Dartmouth predicted, could not be "very formidable." (Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)

Myths of the American Revolution

A noted historian debunks the conventional wisdom about America's War of Independence

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

Between August and November of 1776, Washington’s army was driven from Long Island, New York City proper and the rest of Manhattan Island, with some 5,000 men killed, wounded and captured. But at Trenton in late December 1776, Washington achieved a great victory, destroying a Hessian force of nearly 1,000 men; a week later, on January 3, he defeated a British force at Princeton, New Jersey. Washington’s stunning triumphs, which revived hopes of victory and permitted recruitment in 1777, were a second turning point.

A third turning point occurred when Congress abandoned one-year enlistments and transformed the Continental Army into a standing army, made up of regulars who volunteered—or were conscripted—for long-term service. A standing army was contrary to American tradition and was viewed as unacceptable by citizens who understood that history was filled with instances of generals who had used their armies to gain dictatorial powers. Among the critics was Massachusetts’ John Adams, then a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1775, he wrote that he feared a standing army would become an “armed monster” composed of the “meanest, idlest, most intemperate and worthless” men. By autumn, 1776, Adams had changed his view, remarking that unless the length of enlistment was extended, “our inevitable destruction will be the Consequence.” At last, Washington would get the army he had wanted from the outset; its soldiers would be better trained, better disciplined and more experienced than the men who had served in 1775-76.

The campaign that unfolded in the South during 1780 and 1781 was the final turning point of the conflict. After failing to crush the rebellion in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the British turned their attention in 1778 to the South, hoping to retake Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. At first the Southern Strategy, as the British termed the initiative, achieved spectacular results. Within 20 months, the redcoats had wiped out three American armies, retaken Savannah and Charleston, occupied a substantial portion of the South Carolina backcountry, and killed, wounded or captured 7,000 American soldiers, nearly equaling the British losses at Saratoga. Lord George Germain, Britain’s American Secretary after 1775, declared that the Southern victories augured a “speedy and happy termination of the American war.”

But the colonists were not broken. In mid-1780, organized partisan bands, composed largely of guerrilla fighters, struck from within South Carolina’s swamps and tangled forests to ambush redcoat supply trains and patrols. By summer’s end, the British high command acknowledged that South Carolina, a colony they had recently declared pacified, was “in an absolute state of rebellion.” Worse was yet to come. In October 1780, rebel militia and backcountry volunteers destroyed an army of more than 1,000 Loyalists at Kings Mountain in South Carolina. After that rout, Cornwallis found it nearly impossible to persuade Loyalists to join the cause.

In January 1781, Cornwallis marched an army of more than 4,000 men to North Carolina, hoping to cut supply routes that sustained partisans farther south. In battles at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse and in an exhausting pursuit of the Army under Gen. Nathanael Greene, Cornwallis lost some 1,700 men, nearly 40 percent of the troops under his command at the outset of the North Carolina campaign. In April 1781, despairing of crushing the insurgency in the Carolinas, he took his army into Virginia, where he hoped to sever supply routes linking the upper and lower South. It was a fateful decision, as it put Cornwallis on a course that would lead that autumn to disaster at Yorktown, where he was trapped and compelled to surrender more than 8,000 men on October 19, 1781. The next day, General Washington informed the Continental Army that “the glorious event” would send “general Joy [to] every breast” in America. Across the sea, Lord North reacted to the news as if he had “taken a ball in the breast,” reported the messenger who delivered the bad tidings. “O God,” the prime minister exclaimed, “it is all over.”

VI. General Washington Was A Brilliant Tactician And Strategist

Among the hundreds of eulogies delivered after the death of George Washington in 1799, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, averred that the general’s military greatness consisted principally in his “formation of extensive and masterly plans” and a “watchful seizure of every advantage.” It was the prevailing view and one that has been embraced by many historians.

In fact, Washington’s missteps revealed failings as a strategist. No one understood his limitations better than Washington himself who, on the eve of the New York campaign in 1776, confessed to Congress his “want of experience to move on a large scale” and his “limited and contracted knowledge . . . in Military Matters.”

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus