Myths of the American Revolution- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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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

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(Continued from page 1)

Still, as debate continued, skeptics—especially within Britain’s army and navy—raised troubling questions. Could the Royal Navy blockade the 1,000-mile-long American coast? Couldn’t two million free colonists muster a force of 100,000 or so citizen-soldiers, nearly four times the size of Britain’s army in 1775? Might not an American army of this size replace its losses more easily than Britain? Was it possible to supply an army operating 3,000 miles from home? Could Britain subdue a rebellion across 13 colonies in an area some six times the size of England? Could the British Army operate deep in America’s interior, far from coastal supply bases? Would a protracted war bankrupt Britain? Would France and Spain, England’s age-old enemies, aid American rebels? Was Britain risking starting a broader war?

After the Continental Congress convened, King George III told his ministers that “blows must decide” whether the Americans “submit or triumph.”

North’s government agreed. To back down, the ministers believed, would be to lose the colonies. Confident of Britain’s overwhelming military superiority and hopeful that colonial resistance would collapse after one or two humiliating defeats, they chose war. The Earl of Dartmouth, who was the American Secretary, ordered General Gage to use “a vigorous Exertion of...Force” to crush the rebellion in Massachusetts. Resistance from the Bay Colony, Dartmouth added, “cannot be very formidable.”

II. Americans Of All Stripes Took Up Arms Out Of Patriotism

The term “spirit of ‘76” refers to the colonists’ patriotic zeal and has always seemed synonymous with the idea that every able-bodied male colonist resolutely served, and suffered, throughout the eight-year war.

To be sure, the initial rally to arms was impressive. When the British Army marched out of Boston on April 19, 1775, messengers on horseback, including Boston silversmith Paul Revere, fanned out across New England to raise the alarm. Summoned by the feverish pealing of church bells, militiamen from countless hamlets hurried toward Concord, Massachusetts, where the British regulars planned to destroy a rebel arsenal. Thousands of militiamen arrived in time to fight; 89 men from 23 towns in Massachusetts were killed or wounded on that first day of war, April 19, 1775. By the next morning, Massachusetts had 12 regiments in the field. Connecticut soon mobilized a force of 6,000, one-quarter of its military-age men. Within a week, 16,000 men from the four New England colonies formed a siege army outside British-occupied Boston. In June, the Continental Congress took over the New England army, creating a national force, the Continental Army. Thereafter, men throughout America took up arms. It seemed to the British regulars that every able-bodied American male had become a soldier.

But as the colonists discovered how difficult and dangerous military service could be, enthusiasm waned. Many men preferred to remain home, in the safety of what Gen. George Washington described as their “Chimney Corner.” Early in the war, Washington wrote that he despaired of “compleating the army by Voluntary Inlistments.” Mindful that volunteers had rushed to enlist when hostilities began, Washington predicted that “after the first emotions are over,” those who were willing to serve from a belief in the “goodness of the cause” would amount to little more than “a drop in the Ocean.” He was correct. As 1776 progressed, many colonies were compelled to entice soldiers with offers of cash bounties, clothing, blankets and extended furloughs or enlistments shorter than the one-year term of service established by Congress.

The following year, when Congress mandated that men who enlisted must sign on for three years or the duration of the conflict, whichever came first, offers of cash and land bounties became an absolute necessity. The states and the army also turned to slick-tongued recruiters to round up volunteers. General Washington had urged conscription, stating that “the Government must have recourse to coercive measures.” In April 1777, Congress recommended a draft to the states. By the end of 1778, most states were conscripting men when Congress’ voluntary enlistment quotas were not met.

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