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17. The Logic of a Campaign (or, How in the World Did We Win?)

17. The Logic of a Campaign (or, How in the World Did We Win?)


Prof: So on Tuesday,
I talked about George Washington and some of the
reasons why he proved so invaluable during and after the
Revolution, and among other things I talked
about the ways in which he proved time and again that he
could be trusted with power. Well, today and on Tuesday
we’re going to be looking at Washington in power,
commanding the Continental Army, as we sketch out the chain
of events on the battlefield that ultimately resulted in
American military victory. Now in a sense,
today’s lecture and Tuesday’s lecture–
it’s sort of one big lecture that I’ve arbitrarily divided in
half because I can’t fit it all into one lecture.
So we’re going to get part of
the fighting today and part of the fighting on Tuesday,
and the dividing line will basically be however much I
finish talking about today, as today’s lecture and I’ll
pick up after that on Tuesday. As you will see–and I’ll come
to that in a few minutes– I have basically divided the
fighting of the Revolution into four phases–
and I’ll explain in just a little bit why four phases,
and what that means, and why they make sense,
and then I’ll sort of proceed through them as we unfold what’s
happening during the actual fighting of the war.
And during both of the
lectures–during today’s lecture and during Tuesday’s lecture–
I’m going to be looking at the unfolding events from two
vantage points, so I’m not just going to be
looking at how Americans view what’s happening.
I’m going to try to get at both
the British logic and the American logic as to why they’re
doing what they’re doing, why their strategy,
why their actions actually make sense,
because to really understand what’s happening and why what
ultimately did happen did happen,
you really do need to understand the logic of both
sides in this conflict. Now in a sense,
the underlying question of both of these two lectures is:
How did America win? That’s the real question.
How in the world did America
win? Even to people at the time,
this hardly seemed like the most probable outcome of this
conflict when it was undertaken. And what we’re going to be
seeing today and on Tuesday is that America’s victory,
in the end, was the result of a combination of factors.
I’m going to talk about a
number of them at the beginning of the lecture and then head off
into battles, now that we have sort of gotten
an understanding of some of the major complications and factors
really complicating things for the British more than anything
else– but I’ll start out here just by
listing some of the things I’m going to be talking about
briefly here at the outset of the lecture.
So a combination of factors
that helped decide the outcome of the war.
One of them is,
as we’ll see in just a moment: British logistical
disadvantages; British assumptions about the
logic of warfare– and, as we’ll see,
some of these assumptions did not really apply well to the
situation in North America; George Washington’s strategy
and the ways in which it sometimes differed from more
conventional Old World methods of fighting;
the different definitions of victory for the British and the
Americans, as again we’ll see in a few minutes.
It meant something very
different. The British had to accomplish
one thing for victory, the Americans had to accomplish
something different, and in the end what the British
had to accomplish was much more difficult than what the
Americans had to accomplish, and I’ll explain that
momentarily. So British logistical
disadvantages, British assumptions about the
logic of warfare, George Washington’s strategy,
and the different definitions of victory for the British and
the Americans are some of the factors that helped decide the
outcome of the war in favor of the Americans.
Now what I’m not going to go
into here– and I will go into it on
Tuesday–which is another major factor that helped the Americans
win the war– that’s the French.
That’s actually the French
joining the war on the side of the Americans.
That has a huge impact for a
whole bunch of reasons, as I’ll talk about next week.
I’m not going to go into
that–into detail now, but I will say that it’s hard
to imagine the Americans really winning the war without the
assistance of the French, and we’ll see that play out on
Tuesday. Now before we start talking
about the unfolding of the war, I do want to look for just a
few minutes on some of these challenges,
particularly that faced the British at the opening of the
fighting of the Revolution, and how circumstances in the
American Revolution were different than circumstances in
some of the previous wars that the British had fought.
And in a way this leads us to
the first of that chain of things I just mentioned a minute
ago: British logistical disadvantages.
In a sense, that’s what I’m
going to be talking about right now: the ways in which the war
in the American colonies presented some logistical
complications that the British hadn’t necessarily faced in this
same way and with this same combination of factors before.
For one thing–in a way the
most fundamental thing of all–was just the simple
question of supplies, the most basic logistical
concern of them all. Because, more commonly in the
past, when the British had fought
wars in distant territories, often their colonists had
provided supplies and even men to the British Army.
Well obviously,
now the colonists are the enemy, so that’s not going to be
happening in this particular war.
So instead of a ready stream of
local supplies and local forces, British supplies and men had to
be shipped over three thousand miles of ocean and then lugged
around to the entire Eastern seaboard trailing after the
British army in countryside that often was not really friendly to
lugging around vast amounts of supplies following an army.
And as we’ll be seeing shortly,
two of the most significant battles of the war end up being
lost by the British in part because of problems with the
simple matter of supplies. So that’s one logistical
problem. A second logistical problem for
the British involved the huge expanse of land that constituted
the colonies. Basically, the battlefield of
this war is pretty extensive. It’s an enormous stretch of
land stretching from what would one day be Florida all the way
up to Canada and for a little while into Canada,
and from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi.
Unlike more traditional wars,
more conventional wars, wars of a sort that Britain
would have been more used to fighting,
there wasn’t one central target to attack that could turn the
tide of war. Now the British don’t
necessarily know this, and we’re going to see them
actually try to play out this strategy more than once during
the war, but in fact there was not one
central target that they could have grabbed and turned the tide
of war. Usually, a really good military
strategy was to capture a nation’s capital or the center
of government, and sometimes that really would
help push a war to its conclusion.
You capture the capital
symbolically and also as a source of power and leadership,
and sometimes that really does push a war to its conclusion.
But in the American
colonies–and then after 1776, states–there wasn’t any one
city that represented America’s center of government.
There was one–no one single
real American capital, no one core of American
strength, and so, as we’ll see shortly,
throughout the war the British struggled to determine which
major city’s capture might defeat the American cause and
bring victory to Britain. And obviously,
in the end, this is not a strategy that worked in the
American states. A third logistical problem had
less to do with America and more to do with Britain–
and that is that the British found it extremely difficult to
raise troops to fight this war. First of all,
just fighting in a faraway overseas war would not have been
popular in and of itself. Add to this the fact that there
were some potential soldiers who would not have been that
enthusiastic about attacking British colonists,
and you end up with a serious problem enlisting men and
raising a large enough force for this war.
As a result,
the British ended up hiring a large number of German mercenary
troops from a number of different independent German
states, and they end up getting lumped
under the heading “Hessian.”
That’s sort of how we know
them, as Hessians– and this practice in and of
itself enraged Americans all the more,
because it suggested to them that the British were hiring
what they would have considered to be foreign assassins to kill
their own colonists. Fourth–and related to
everything that I’ve just said, and as I said at the
outset–the British and the Americans had different
definitions of victory. For the British to win the war,
they had to stamp out a widespread rebellion unfolding
under a vast expanse of land. They had to destroy the
American cause to emerge victorious from this war.
The Americans did not have to
defeat the British to win the war.
They just had to keep fighting
long enough to exhaust British funding and supplies and energy.
So for the Americans,
the ultimate goal was just to keep fighting,
to keep the war going, to force the British to expend
as much money and as much manpower and as much energy as
possible. And, as we’ll see in today’s
lecture, Washington took full advantage
of this fact and fought the war with a strategy that maybe
wasn’t always really awe-inspiring for onlookers,
but was highly effective in exhausting the British forces.
And then finally,
fifth–a fifth logistical problem for the British actually
wasn’t so much about the American colonists or the
British as it was about the British long-time enemy,
the French. The British could not just turn
their back on the rest of the world to entirely dedicate all
of their time and efforts to this colonial revolt.
They had to keep their eye on
their long-time enemy, the French, particularly after
1778 when the French joined the war on the side of the American
colonists. As I said, I’ll talk about that
in more detail Tuesday. But once the French are in the
war, suddenly now,
the British, and in particular the British
Navy, have to really be worrying
about what the French are doing. What are they doing down there
in the West Indies, those French?
Do we need to send ships to the
West Indies and defend some of our properties there?
That really further complicates
things for the British, so they can’t just focus on
what’s going on in these North American colonies.
Okay.
So there we’re seeing a couple
of different logistical complications for the British:
supplies–problems with supplies;
the problem with figuring out where is the best place to stage
an attack; the problem of raising troops;
the fact that victory meant something different for the
British than it did for the Americans;
and then the complications introduced by the French.
In addition to all of these
logistical problems, there was the simple problem or
at least certainly, the unique challenges that
faced the British in staging a war fought by a citizen army.
The British army was an
impressive force but it more typically fought conventional
European wars, tended to be fought on open
plains and open country where lines of troops advanced on each
other until one line or the other weakened from casualties
and retreated. And that’s a war in which you
have men who are disciplined and trained to stay in rank and file
as this battle rages, until finally the tide turns
and one side or the other wins or loses.
This is not the way that the
American war unfolded, although it is worth saying–I
think a lot of Americans have this image in their head that
the Americans were these sort of guerrilla combat folk,
sort of running around, hiding behind trees,
and sort of befuddled British are marching in their bright-red
coats getting shot down in massive numbers.
And the fact of the matter is,
the British were not oblivious to the situation–
the military situation and they didn’t sort of march single file
and get mowed down by people hiding behind trees.
The fact is that the British
did, among other things, make pretty skillful use of
Native Americans in staging their own version of guerrilla
warfare. So they’re not sort of just
hanging on to Old World methods of fighting and ignoring what’s
going on here in the New World, but even so there were a lot of
challenges that they faced in fighting against a citizen army.
For one thing,
a citizen army is just not going to be as predictable as a
professionally trained force. Sometimes the Continental Army
abided by predictable military conventions.
Sometimes they didn’t,
and we’ll hear a little bit of this today.
I’ve talked about it a little
bit before. The Continental Army–People
were always leaving the Continental Army when their term
was up, and new people came,
and so in a sense you kept having untrained people joining
the Continental Army again and again and again.
So it’s not even as though
necessarily, after a while these men were sort of all long-term
soldiers and knew what they were doing.
That was never entirely true.
So a citizen army is
unpredictable. Also, it’s not just an army
that the British are facing. Americans, generally speaking,
were prepared to fight if necessary, not just soldiers but
farmers. If the British attacked a
locality, the people there were prepared to defend themselves
and their land and their property.
We’ve already seen that just in
the talk that I gave about New Haven,
where you have Professor Daggett sort of riding out,
and the Yale students riding out to sort of fend off the
British. So in addition to whatever
actual organized army you have, you’ve just got local citizens
who are getting involved in whatever’s happening as events
and battles come into their own backyard.
So the British faced not only
an army but armed citizens as well.
A third challenging aspect of a
citizen army was yet again something that wasn’t
necessarily a common aspect of wars fought by the British Army
in the past, and that is–Americans are not
just fighting for defense of a realm or defense of a monarch.
Intellectually,
they were fighting for political liberties and
ultimately for independence, which would have felt like a
more inspiring cause to many people,
a personal cause that would have been something that people
had a personal connection with, and certainly gave Americans
some staying power and endurance during the war,
so that the cause, again, persisted.
We’ll see even today one or two
low points, at which point you would think
things might have just faded, and they don’t–and part of it
has to do with the personal implications and the personal
meaning of the war to the people who were fighting it in the
American states. Plus, personally,
many Americans were fighting for their own property and their
own land, right?–even more personal,
as I just mentioned a moment ago.
If there is an army advancing
on your town, that’s about as personal a war
as it can be, and again, it’s going to bring
people out in numbers and with a kind of determination and
enthusiasm that they might not have in a different kind of a
war. So having a citizen army–the
kind of citizen army– the kind of warfare that’s
going to be taking place in the colonies,
also all by itself presented some pretty interesting
challenges to the British Army. Okay.
So we’ve seen a host of
logistical challenges, some complications.
I’m going to throw into this
mix three bad assumptions on the part of the British that did not
help their cause. Okay.
Bad assumption number one:
they continued to underestimate the Americans.
They continued to underestimate
the persistence of the Americans,
the abilities of the Americans, the impact of whatever the
Americans were doing, and right alongside with that
they overestimated their popularity among American
Loyalists and the power that they had among American
Loyalists. Now, probably part of that
overestimating Loyalist support was born from reports of overly
optimistic royal officials and governors,
who reported back to London that–yes,
there’s plenty of Loyalists here, and they’re on hand to
defend the cause, and when things get underway
the Loyalists will rise up and be on our side.
And there were some
Loyalists–there were a good number of Loyalists who actually
did join and fight with the British.
Again, when I was talking about
the invasion of New Haven, we saw just here in the town of
New Haven how some people chose to help the British,
others–their neighbors–chose to fight against them.
So there were Loyalists who
chose at any given moment to join and support British troops,
as opposed to the Continental Army or American troops.
But even so,
discussion of really widespread Loyalist support was
exaggerated. And because of these sort of
rosier-than-they -should-have-been reports,
British officials in England, far from the American scene,
assumed that many colonies were basically Loyalist and all in
all you just needed a little bit of a shove and things would be
brought right. They assumed that probably,
there’s a small band of radicals that are making
trouble. You hear this again and again
and again when you read British commentary on what’s happening–
there’s a band of radicals who are poisoning the public mind,
but that there are also Loyalists who will rise up and
help the British cause, so it won’t take very much for
this to be pushed into some kind of a conclusion.
That’s certainly,
towards the beginning of the war, something that the British
assume. The British Army didn’t help
matters–as far as the Loyalists are concerned–with their
behavior in some of the colonies, particularly in the
South. The British Army looted farms,
trampled fields, paraded their superiority–and
so there were places in the South where the British Army was
a little Patriot-creating machine.
You had people who might have
been Loyalist-leaning, but they did not like the way
that they were treated by the British Army,
and so, pulled back from supporting the British when they
might have started out leaning in that direction.
Okay.
So we have underestimating
Americans, overestimating support of the Loyalists.
The third bad assumption at the
outset of the war is that the British Navy would accomplish
most of the damage and largely win the war,
because Britain did have this colossal,
impressive navy. It was–Really,
what Britain was famous for militarily was its navy,
but England hadn’t fought a long, sustained land campaign
for quite some time, and when it had fought long
land campaigns in the past, often they had been fought with
allies who supplied land power to complement Britain’s naval
forces. So as we’re about to see,
all of these bad assumptions joined with all of those
logistical things that I mentioned at the outset of the
lecture, all of these together are not
helping the British as the war unfolds,
and they all play a role in the outcome of the war.
Okay.
Let’s now turn to the actual
war, to the actual battles. As I suggested at the outcome,
the opening of the lecture, I divided the war into four
phases. As we’ll see,
each of these phases is initiated by a sort of major
decision of strategy or policy on the part of the British.
Often it’s a strategy that’s
initiated by an assumption that makes perfect sense to the
British but that does not end up being necessarily a good
strategy, given the situation at the time.
And again and again as these
phases unfold, you’ll see the British make
what to them seems like a logical decision and then you’ll
see it not play out particularly well,
or certainly, not in the way that the British
really wanted this to play out. So let’s turn to the first
phase of the war– and we’ve already seen a little
bit of this first phase earlier on when I talked about Lexington
and Concord and Bunker Hill. This early phase of the war was
guided by the main assumption on the part of the British that all
the Americans needed was a little display of force,
a little bit of military coercion, and the war would come
to a quick close. So basically,
just sort of impress upon them the stupidity of what they are
doing. Right? ‘We are the British Army.
We will come in and remind them
what they are doing. They will be reminded that they
are behaving illogically, and one way or another,
this will end– maybe a little reconciliation,
a little friendly sort of gesture on our part toward the
colonists, and we can bring this whole
thing to a close.’ And Lexington and Concord are
part of that strategy, right?
Just a little display of force
and everything’s going to be settled.
Of course, the outcome is not
what they would expect; it’s just the opposite.
And the British movements,
the British troop movements, called forth an outpouring of
American enthusiasm and enlistments and alarm,
which was further bolstered by America’s victories–
or I guess you could call them sort of semi-victories.
I don’t know what to call
Bunker Hill. It’s sort of a victory but it
sort of isn’t– but certainly,
some Americans at the time– I suppose because they weren’t
crushed to death– would have seen Bunker Hill as
a victory. But–So the fact that things
were sort of persisting and they were standing up to the British
at Bunker Hill in June of 1775 and at Fort Ticonderoga in May
of 1775, that sort of helps to bolster
American spirits. Now, I have discussed a little
bit the Battle of Bunker Hill, and you might remember that
that’s the battle in which the British held the ground at the
end of the day but at the cost of so many men–
almost half of the men that were fighting there that day–
that their victory didn’t really seem to be much of a
victory at all– which is why you can sort of
call it a semi-victory on both sides.
And I mentioned on–in
Tuesday’s lecture that New York Times article that I
had stumbled across that morning about that bundle of letters
that were going to be sold at Sotheby’s–
that it had all of these letters between British generals
and diplomats who were in America writing to each other,
not back to London, but to each other about what
they were really thinking about what was unfolding.
And there’s a letter from
General John Burgoyne, British General John Burgoyne,
after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
He’s one of the leading
generals in the colonies at that point,
and he says in this letter to someone else in America,
that after that battle he believes that British military
prospects in America seem, to use his word,
“gloomy.” “Such a pittance of troops
as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to
protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and
insure disappointment… .Our victory has been bought by
an uncommon loss of officers, some of them irreparable,
and I fear the consequence will not answer the expectations that
will be raised in England.” Okay.
So there’s Burgoyne saying,
‘Okay. We won the Battle of Bunker
Hill. This just doesn’t look good to
me.’ He even says in that same
letter something along the lines of: ‘When I think back into my
history books and my sort of military history past,
I can’t seem to come up with a situation that quite looks like
this one. This is just weird.
I don’t know what’s happening
here, but it doesn’t look good to me.
It looks gloomy,
and our victory was actually pretty distressing,
and it’s not going to look particularly wonderful to people
in England when they see. It’s certainly not what they’re
going to be expecting from us at the outset of fighting here in
the colonies.’ So there’s Bunker Hill.
I’ve mentioned that before.
I don’t know if I mentioned
Fort Ticonderoga before. I’ll reiterate it here if I
have, and if not you’ll get it for the first time.
It was an important battle for
the American war effort as well as just for American morale.
Fort Ticonderoga is a strategic
fort in upstate New York that was held by the British,
and in May of 1775, American troops led by Ethan
Allen and Benedict Arnold– We’re going to have a lot of
Benedict Arnold today. You could see why he’s this big
hero, and thus why it was so shocking that he did what he did
ultimately and deserted. He’s a hero through all of
today’s lecture. Here he’s starting out his
heroic acts. At the Battle of Fort
Ticonderoga, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold are leading.
They actually surprise the
British garrison and they won control of the fort,
declaring their victory, as Ethan Allen put it very
dramatically: “In the name of the great
Jehovah and the Continental Congress I take Fort
Ticonderoga.” These guys know drama.
The U.S.
suffered one wounded soldier.
The British had forty-eight men
captured, plus cannons,
mortars, musket flints, ammunition–and these kinds of
supplies were really invaluable for the American cause
generally, and specifically at this moment
they were really useful because the Americans take these
supplies, particularly these cannons,
that they win at Fort Ticonderoga and they lug them to
Boston. And they position them looking
down on the city of Boston, and not that long after,
the British evacuate Boston, right?–which is what they
would have wanted. So March of 1776,
the British say, ‘Okay.
We lost Ticonderoga and there’s
a cannon looking down on us. I think it’s time to leave
Boston.’ Now as long as I’m in upstate
New York, I’m going to mention some bad assumptions on the part
of Americans as well at this point.
There was always the feeling in
America– and particularly during the
very beginning of the war– that Canada was just waiting to
be liberated from England, right?–that Quebec is just
waiting to be the fourteenth state.
So after winning Ticonderoga,
part of the American army actually went north to attack
Quebec and free it, right?–this idea like,
‘free Canada!’ Canada doesn’t want to be freed.
[laughs]
It’s just these Americans that are like: ‘yeah,
they’re just waiting for us to come.’
So they stage this attack on
Quebec to free it. It’s–This–As you’ll see today
and Tuesday, this is pretty much a defensive war on the part of
the Americans. This is the one little moment
or one of very few little moments, that’s really just an
offensive invasion on the part of the Americans.
Once again, Benedict Arnold.
There he is,
being heroic during the attack. So was the young Aaron Burr who
fought in this battle and supposedly pulled the body of
his general, Richard Montgomery,
off of the battlefield under heavy fire–
and since I think Montgomery was a big person and Aaron Burr
was a very small person, I think this was a hard thing
to do, and he became sort of a hero
afterwards for being the guy who saved his general’s body under
heavy fire during battle. Ultimately, the Americans did
not liberate Canada. [laughs]
The Canadians just were not interested in joining the
American war effort, not even when a delegation from
the Continental Congress arrived in Canada,
led by Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate with the Canadians
about joining the revolt– so the Americans were serious
about this. The effort to free Canada ended
without effect, and ultimately,
during this war at least, the Americans abandoned the
idea about liberating Canada. And I say “during this war
at least” because during the War of 1812,
when once again we’re fighting the British,
the Americans are right back there: ‘free Canada!’
[laughs]
It’s like: ‘no number two. [laughs]
Go away,’ but they’re back; they’re persistent.
Now the main part of the
American army at this point in 1776, after the evacuation of
Boston by the British, is not in Canada.
After the British evacuated
Boston, Washington and the main body of
American troops went to New York City,
convinced that after evacuating Boston,
that’s likely to be where the British head,
to New York City, and sure enough that’s exactly
what the British do. Thomas Gage,
commander of the British forces,
had been recalled by this time and he’d been replaced by Sir
William Howe, who arrived in New York City in
July of 1776. Okay.
So here we see another British
assumption that does not play out the way in which clearly the
British hoped it would. I said a few minutes ago,
they assumed a little show of force,
a little show of reconciliation and this will end,
and we’ve seen a little show of force.
Here we see an attempt at
reconciliation, the idea being–maybe if we
sort of extend a hand in some way, this will end.
So newly installed General Howe
invited an American commission to hold a peace conference with
him on a boat in New York Harbor.
This ends up being known as the
Staten Island Peace Conference, and somehow this–I have no
issue with Staten Island, but I just don’t expect
that–all those words to go together,
the “Staten Island Peace Conference,”
[laughter] which is held September
11,1776. At the conference,
Howe tells the American commissioners–
Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (making a little
appearance), and South Carolinian Edward
Rutledge, all of them there from the
Continental Congress– that he would hate to be forced
to destroy his brothers, the Americans.
He’s wishing that there was
something they could do so that he can be spared the horror of
having to kill his brethren. At which point,
Franklin supposedly responded by saying, “We will try our
best to spare you the trouble.”
[laughs]
[laughter] Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.
Okay.
That conference did not
accomplish what the British wanted it to accomplish.
Nothing happens as a result of
the Staten Island Peace Conference.
Howe also wrote to George
Washington to see if he could get Washington to come to terms
with the British. Right?
Maybe if I just deal with him
personally, he’ll see that I’m being reasonable and work
towards ending this before it really begins.
Unfortunately,
this is the letter that I mentioned on Tuesday,
addressed to Mr.***Washington, that he did not want to accept
because it wasn’t addressed to General Washington–
the etcetera, etcetera letter–so basically,
Howe refuses to address Washington with his military
title and Washington refuses to accept the letter–
so this does not go well either. [laughs]
That’s just like: oops, oh, well.
That’s an attempt that just
stalls before it even gets under way.
So there we have basically the
first phase of the war, this idea that a little push,
a little shove, a little display of force,
a little reconciliation, and things will end.
The second phase begins with a
switch in strategy on the part of the British,
a new strategy, but again, one that’s still
grounded in traditional assumptions about warfare.
And this new strategy is
accompanied by another assumption that does not play
out well. The little shove strategy
doesn’t work, so now basically we’ll up the
stakes–is what the British are thinking;
we’ll seize a major city. Basically, the British assumed
that if they seized New York, they would split the colonies
in half along the Hudson Valley and end the war.
To them, it seemed pretty
simple and easy to divide the colonies into two halves–
and particularly since at this point they still think that the
center of all the trouble is New England,
that there are these sort of crazy radical people in New
England, so if they can seize New York
and divide the colonies in half and isolate New England,
then maybe things will actually end quickly.
So that’s the strategy here as
we move into phase number two of the fighting.
So the British descended on New
York with an armada bearing 32,000 troops.
Okay.
That’s just awe-inspiring
numbers of men. Washington dug in on Brooklyn
Heights, hoping that the British would
attack him frontally and that there’d be another kind of
Bunker Hill sort of battle, but instead Howe carried out
some kind of a flanking maneuver which resulted in American
losses of nearly 1,500 men compared with British losses of
less than 400 men. However, at this point,
Howe made a mistake of a sort that he made repeatedly again
and again throughout the war. He’s so confident of victory
that he decides he won’t deliver the final death-blow until the
next day. Right?
‘Oh, we’ll let the night pass.
Tomorrow morning we’ll get up
and crush them.’ Okay.
Washington is the expert of
retreat. Overnight Washington removes
his troops under cover of darkness from Brooklyn Heights
and brings them into New York. And we’ll see–I think–even in
the course of today’s lecture, Howe does this again–that he
does well in a battle, he assumes that things are
going so swimmingly, that okay, tomorrow we’ll
finish things off, and Washington manages to make
a hasty retreat and things continue.
So Washington removes his
troops under cover of darkness to New York City,
and basically for the next two months there’s a series of minor
battles in New York. There’s one in Harlem Heights.
There’s one in White Plains.
Howe keeps trying to circle the
Continental Army and Washington keeps retreating one way or
another, pretty skillfully,
helped always in his retreating by the fact that Howe is so slow
to just advance and conquer. Ultimately, Washington fled
across New Jersey, over the Delaware River,
while Howe, who now is in possession of New
York, also seizes Newport,
Rhode Island, and establishes outposts in New
Jersey. So things are not looking
wonderful for the Americans at this point, and the British seem
to be doing quite well. But here we do see one of
Washington’s most characteristic war maneuvers,
because rather than just sort of standing there and engaging
with the British, he withdraws and he withdraws
and he withdraws again and again and again.
Throughout the entire war,
he continually maneuvered his army so that if the
circumstances didn’t seem overwhelmingly favorable for the
American army, he could just retreat to a more
secure spot. Now obviously the strategy of
retreat would not have been necessarily overwhelmingly
inspiring to Americans at the time.
It did not also necessarily
strike fear into the hearts of the British at first.
Washington’s the guy who
retreats. This had some people feeling a
little bit gloomy and not always hopeful.
He’s the army that disappears.
But now in 1776,
Washington uses this typical strategy.
He doesn’t want to get penned
into New York City. He retreats across New Jersey,
retreats across the Delaware, goes into Pennsylvania.
The British head after him as
far as Trenton, New Jersey, led by British
General Lord Cornwallis, and there they go into winter
quarters. And–Lord Cornwallis had
arrived in America in 1776, and he brought with him even
more British troops. And here we have yet another
letter from that collection I mentioned being sold at
Sotheby’s, and this one’s from an observer
who’s on a ship, a British ship in New York
Harbor, as he’s watching the Americans leave New York,
and he’s writing again to somebody else.
He’s a diplomat.
He’s writing to someone else in
the colonies and he says that he watched the colonists abandon
their homes, quote, “to follow the
standard of rebellion at the hazard of all they are worth,
rather than acknowledge George for their king.
The infatuation is inscrutable.
I have read somewhere,
and I begin to think it possible, that a whole country
as well as an individual may be struck with lunacy.”
He can’t believe what he’s
seeing. Right?
He’s watching Washington’s army
run, and he watches some colonists
basically follow, abandon what they own and
follow, as he puts it, rather than acknowledge George
for their King. He can’t quite believe what
he’s seeing. Now by this point–this is
December of 1776– Washington had roughly 3,000
men fit for duty in the army, a really sad point for
Washington and the army. It’s at this point that Thomas
Paine makes another appearance, comes to the fore again.
He writes a series of pamphlets
published under the title The Crisis, and the first
one appears in December of 1776, actually I think December
19,1776. By this point Paine had
actually joined the American army, so he’s in the army,
and he wrote these Crisis essays while he was in the
army. And Washington had them read to
the troops to boost their morale–
and as with Common Sense, these
Crisis essays include some of the most famous prose of
the revolutionary era. And I’ll just read the most
obvious ones, which some of you probably
already know: “These are the times that
try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the
sunshine patriot will, in this crisis,
shrink from the service of their country;
but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of
man and woman. Tyranny, like hell,
is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation
with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the
triumph.” He’s good at coming forward at
tough moments and then having these sort of inspiring words–
again, which is why Washington’s having them read to
the troops. Paine’s words were really
needed in December of 1776, because it’s a real low point
for Washington and the army. Failure literally seemed to be
just on the horizon. In less than three months,
the British had captured New York City;
they had captured part of New Jersey;
food supplies and pay in the American army were at an
all-time low; and, almost worst of all,
enlistments of soldiers in the Continental Army ended at the
end of the year. And so Washington,
there he is, and he knows that the people in
the Continental Army– their formal enlistments end at
the end of December, and they could all just walk
away and say, ‘Oops, my enlistment’s done,
thanks, Sir, nice fighting with you,
goodbye’– and Washington could literally
be left without an army. So he does one last desperate
measure literally to prevent the army from entirely disappearing.
He uses the only thing that’s
available to him at this moment–and that is his personal
influence. He makes a personal plea to the
army to please stay with him for just six more weeks as a
personal favor to him: ‘Please don’t leave.
Just–For me,
for your commander, just give me six more weeks and
then you can go. As a personal favor to me,
who you respect, give me just six more weeks.’
Most of the soldiers agreed,
and with that, Washington made one last
desperate attempt to attack the British at Trenton,
New Jersey. And Washington’s strategy is
good in this case. He basically waits until
Christmas, really banking on the element
of surprise, and then he launches a surprise
attack against an encampment of Hessians at Trenton–
and he wins the day with a loss of only four men and he gains
roughly 900 prisoners. This is great for Washington.
This is such a low moment,
and he really does get the element of surprise.
The Hessians are just sort of
stunned, and at first apparently think
that there’s a little sort of advance guard of Americans who
are attacking them, and they suddenly realize to
their horror– no, this would be the American
army; [laughs] we’re in trouble.
And they fight and there is a
battle–but again, they really lose the day.
The British,
learning of the attack, are somewhat distressed.
However, they think–they
assume at this point that they have the American army cornered
at Trenton, and thus they decide the next
day [laughs] they will attack the
Continental Army. Okay.
So once again they’re not good
at the element of surprise, the British.
They keep sort of taking their
time. Taking your time was not good
at this point of the war. It is not a strategy that is
working for the British. So sure enough,
Washington does what Washington does so well;
he retreats under cover of night, and in this case rather
than just retreating, he actually leaves campfires
burning in their camp so it looks as though the army is
still there. And then leaving what looks
like the encampment there, under complete darkness he
moves his troops away, directly into enemy lines in
Princeton, New Jersey, which he also
captured. Again, he did two unexpected
things. He manages to retreat–he
pretends as though he’s not retreating;
and then he moves his troops into enemy lines in Princeton
and captures it. Now during the battle,
supposedly there was a cannonball that was shot through
Nassau Hall, the big main hall of Princeton,
the College of New Jersey, and there’s a story that goes
along with that. There’s no actual evidence to
support the story, but I’ll offer it because
people tell it over and over and over and over again,
so clearly someone somewhere believes it,
and even though it might not be true,
I’ll give it to you anyway. The story is basically that
Alexander Hamilton is the guy who shot the cannon or had the
cannon shot that went through Nassau Hall at the College of
New Jersey, the theory behind that being,
he actually really wanted to go to the College of New Jersey.
He’s fighting.
He is fighting at the Battle of
Princeton–and he wants to go. That’s his first choice for a
college. ‘Where do I want to go?
Ah, the College of New Jersey.’
But he’s in such a hurry.
He wants to advance through the
program at Princeton as fast as he can.
So basically–‘I don’t want to
have to wait for everyone else. If I finish a course in a
month, then I want to move on to the next one.’
This is a little bit of a
radical proposal, and the people at Princeton,
at the College of New Jersey, say no, so he ends up going to
King’s College, to Columbia, instead.
He is fighting at the Battle of
Princeton. He is in command of a small
artillery group, which is firing cannon,
so the story is, he was rather pleased to see a
cannonball go firing into Nassau Hall,
since they had rejected him basically;
they didn’t take him for college.
One way or another,
Washington wins at Trenton; Washington wins at Princeton;
and then he settles into winter quarters at Morristown,
New Jersey, for the winter of 1776.
So basically in nine days in
the dead of winter– and really in the dead of
winter when gentlemen do not normally stage military
campaigns in a traditional war– the American army pushed the
British back sixty miles from their ultimate goal,
which was Philadelphia. And, as important,
the battles of Trenton and Princeton were vital to American
morale–to civilian morale and military morale alike.
As an Englishman said at the
time, “a few days ago these Americans had given up the cause
for lost. Their late successes have
turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again….
They have recovered from their
panic, and it will not be an easy matter to throw them in to
that confusion again.” So here ends the second phase
of the war, with the Eastern seaboard definitely not cut in
half, the Americans definitely not defeated.
The third phase of the war
begins in 1777. Largely, it consisted of the
British attempting to subdue the middle colonies,
once again proceeding under the assumption that if they get the
right city it will cause things to end.
In this case they think:
‘okay, we did New York; we’re heading for Philadelphia.
Yet another major city,
and the government’s in Philadelphia,
so maybe if we manage to get that city as well,
things will turn our way.’ That’s how things happen in a
conventional war: capture a key city,
things turn your way often–and again,
in America this is not a strategy that works well.
As Cornwallis put it at the
time, in the end he decides that the only way to really defeat
the Americans would be to catch George Washington,
or, as Cornwallis put it, “to bag the fox,”
right?– and so he’s on a traditional
fox hunt. You have to bag the fox and
then it will be over. I don’t know if Philadelphia’s
going to do it. But at any rate,
the British do head off for Philadelphia,
1777, the third phase of the war.
This is Howe’s plan,
and at first the British do well in Pennsylvania.
There are actually a couple of
clashes in Pennsylvania at Brandywine and at Germantown,
and both times, Continental Army units
crumbled, and Howe was ultimately able to
enter Philadelphia. And in these skirmishes,
one after another, nearly twenty percent of the
Continental troops were either killed,
wounded or captured, so the British are doing pretty
well at first. Not helping matters,
as far as American morale goes, is the fact that when Congress
hears that the British are headed for Philadelphia they run
in mass panic, like: ‘ah, [laughs]
[laughter] the British are coming.’–
which does not really make the Continental Army feel like they
have much faith in them to protect them.
Right?
They literally leave town.
There’s actually a really
amusing letter. I think by this point Alexander
Hamilton is an aide to George Washington and he sends a letter
to the Continental Congress basically saying:
‘Run! [laughter] They’re coming!’
So the Continental Army flees
to another city in Pennsylvania–so things are
looking good for the British in Pennsylvania.
However, further north
something else is happening to the wing of the British Army
that had been in Canada and now is headed south,
led by British General John Burgoyne in a battle at
Saratoga, New York, with Burgoyne’s
troops suffering from supply problems.
So here we have a battle where
supplies are a major problem. Burgoyne ends up,
at the Battle of Saratoga, surrendering almost 6,000 men
to American forces led by General Horatio Gates and aided
by Benedict Arnold, the man who appears to be
everywhere in this phase of the war.
For the Americans,
this feels like a real turning point.
It’s a stunning victory for the
Americans, really unexpected, and it’s just as stunning a
defeat for the British. And there’s actually a journal
entry by one of Burgoyne’s lieutenants describing the
events with the British commander,
with Burgoyne, and with the troops and the
surrender. He describes what he sees.
And he writes in his journal
“Gen. Burgoyne desired a meeting of
all the officers early that morning,
at which he entered into a detail of his manner of acting
since he had the honour of commanding the Army.”
So basically Burgoyne calls all
of his officers, and he’s trying to explain to
them how they ended up in the situation that they’re in,
how–what logic did he follow so that they’re where they are
now. And the lieutenant continues in
his diary, that Burgoyne was, quote, “too full to speak;
Heaven only could tell his feelings at this time….
About 10 o’clock,
we marched out, according to treaty,
marched out to surrender, with drums beating,
… but the drums seemed to have
lost their former inspiriting sounds” and seemed
“as if almost ashamed to be heard on such an occasion.
As to my own feelings,
I cannot express them. Tears (though unmanly) forced
their way, and if alone, I could have burst to give
myself vent. I never shall forget the
appearance of the American troops on our marching past
them; a dead silence universally
reigned through their numerous columns,
and even they seemed struck with our situation and dare
scarce lift up their eyes to view British Troops in such a
situation. I must say their decent
behavior during the time (to us so greatly fallen) merited the
utmost approbation and praise.”
So he’s actually describing
this shocking moment where the British can’t believe they’re
surrendering that number of men to the American forces,
and the Americans are so stunned that this is happening,
that they’re actually just silently watching it.
They can’t–No one can quite
believe what’s happening at Saratoga.
It’s a huge victory.
It has important consequences
that I’ll talk about more next Tuesday as we head into the last
phase of the war, which largely takes place in
the South, and see its repercussions and
its implications. Have a great weekend.
I think lurking somewhere is
that sheet of paper. I assume it made its way
somewhere. Whoever has that magical sheet
of paper–There it is. Okay.
Bring it up when you’re done.
Have a great weekend.


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