The Age of George III

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The War of American Independence

The two armies that fought the war in America were very different. The British army was a military fighting machine; the American army comprised irregular troops. There are maps to show the major points of the conflict:

The British "steamroller could have won, except for three events which tipped the scales on the Americans' favour (but see also Marshall Liu Bocheng's Taboos of War)

  1. Thomas Paine

    was an Englishman born in 1737 at Thetford in Norfolk. He came from a poor Quaker home but was sent to the local (Anglican) grammar school. He was not allowed to learn Latin because his father deemed it to be "Popish"; this prevented him from following a literary career. He worked variously as a stay-maker, exciseman and schoolmaster. Paine held extreme egalitarian ideas. His campaign for better pay for excisemen in London brought him into contact with Benjamin Franklin, who recommended Paine for employment in America when Paine was dismissed from the customs service for organising a strike. Paine went to America and initially supported reconciliation between the colonies and Britain. After Concord, he began to change his attitude.

    Paine gave the colonists their first advantage by bringing into the open the idea of independence: he dared to put in writing what some colonists were thinking. On 10 January 1776 Paine published Common Sense in Philadelphia. This was a complete philosophy of the American Revolution which appealed to the ordinary citizen and made independence a national concern. Paine used ordinary language and pursued a general theme of attacking the British monarchy and said that American democracy was pure whereas British 'democracy' was a corrupt front. It was not, therefore common sense for Britain, 3000 miles away, to rule America. America must stand as one country or fall as thirteen separate colonies

    Now! NOW! NOW! At this very moment! must these uncorrupt and democratic colonies throw off the trammels of an effete and vicious monarchy

    As a result of Paine's pamphlet

  1. British generals did not know America.

    Their maps were inaccurate and communications were difficult, especially for messengers in their bright red uniforms. Often the colonists knew of British plans before the British generals to whom the messages had been sent. The generals under-estimated the enemy and there was no good British general in America. In 1775 the Americans attacked Canada in an attempt to capture Quebec. They met with a great deal of opposition because the Roman Catholic French fought for Britain. This proved the value of the 1774 Quebec Act.

    In 1776 Lord Howe replaced Gage and defeated Washington at Brooklyn, took New Jersey and New York. Washington attacked and captured Trenton, New Jersey, from the Germans on Christmas Day 1776. Prospects still looked good for Britain, however. In 1777 Britain planned to defeat Washington by capturing all the colonies east of the Hudson River. Two armies were to meet up: Burgoyne was to move south from Canada and Howe was to move north from New York. Howe decided to attack Philadelphia first; he also defeated Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine. He claimed never to have received the order to march north. Burgoyne set off south and took Fort Ticonderoga they struggled through heavily wooded country, lost, with few supplies. In October 1777 Burgoyne's army was surrounded by General Gates and surrendered at Saratoga. With the benefit of hindsight (which is always 20:20 vision) this was the turning point of the war.

In February 1778 a treaty of alliance was signed between America and France which made the existing French help a formal involvement. France had been sending money and supplies secretly to the colonists since the beginning of the Revolution. The American victory at Saratoga convinced the French that the Americans now had a good chance of winning the war. French support for the United States with arms, clothing, and money was now open and Washington's great hope for French naval assistance off the American coast would soon be realised. A French fleet sailed for America in April 1778. France had been ejected from North America at the end of the Seven Years' War and was looking for revenge and possible recovery of territory.

In 1779 as part of the Family Compact, and also to obtain revenge on Britain, Spain declared war on Britain. In September 1779 the fleets and armies of France and Spain attacked the British fortress of Gibraltar. Great Britain could not afford, either strategically or economically, to lose its precious gateway to the Mediterranean. Because Gibraltar could be reinforced and supplied only by sea, its support became the most important responsibility of the British fleet. France and Spain not only sent arms, money and men to America, they also stirred up trouble in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and in India. Britain ended up fighting a global war with her resources stretched to the limit. Half the available British troops were kept in Canada to defend it; America because only one problem for the already over-committed army and navy which had to defend Britain's world-wide interests. So serious was the problem that John Paul Jones was able to attack Scarborough and the east coast of England with the intention of capturing ships from the Baltic going into Hull in September 1779.

Several land and sea battles were fought between June 1778 and October 1780 but Grenville's army and navy cut-backs of 1764 were beginning to bite. There were insufficient ships and sailors which then limited the number of men and the amount of supplies which could be taken to defend the empire and fight in America. Also, North faced growing opposition at home as well as domestic problems.

An intelligence service led by Benjamin Franklin, one of the American commissioners in Paris, kept the Americans informed of events in Great Britain and France. As a result of these reports, Washington was convinced that British public opinion definitely was turning against continuing the American war. He believed that one more British military disaster such as that at Saratoga would bring irresistible pressure on the king and his ministers to make peace and recognise American independence. Franklin had impressed the importance on the French ministry of this idea. Fortunately for the Americans, French ministers were eager to avenge the loss of their colonial empire to Britain. They had laboured to build the French navy to the highest level of efficiency in ships and in training for war.

The standard British strategic principle in a war with France was to maintain overwhelmingly superior fleets and to blockade the two principal French ports at Brest on the Atlantic and at Toulon on the Mediterranean. If a French fleet went to sea, it was pursued relentlessly. In 1781, however, the Royal Navy did not have enough ships of the line to blockade both French ports and supply the garrison at Gibraltar, which required continuous fighting to break through the allied fleets off that port. The escape of the French fleet from Toulon in 1778 was one result of British naval weakness. In 1781 Gibraltar was hard pressed. The admiralty had to leave Brest unguarded so 29 French ships of the line were able to sail from Brest on 22 March. Initially they were bound for the West Indies but had orders to be off the American coast in July and August.

Washington learned of the French fleet's departure on 22 May and with Rochambeau planned to attack Clinton in New York City. The New York offensive never materialised, however, because Clinton's forces were too strong, and the New England militia failed to come forward in sufficient numbers. On 14 August Washington received word that de Grasse was bringing the French fleet to Chesapeake Bay. He immediately decided to attack Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The troops of Washington and Rochambeau marched south, leaving a containing force to watch Clinton in New York. De Grasse's fleet arrived at the Chesapeake capes on August 30, drove off a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves, and established a tight blockade of Cornwallis's army. Some 16,000 American and French troops and Virginia militia, under Washington's command, laid siege to Yorktown. Cornwallis made several vain attempts to break through allied lines, but on 19 October 1781, he was obliged to surrender.

In 1780 "Their High Mightinesses", the States General of the United Provinces (Holland) declared war on Britain because the Royal Navy insisted on searching neutral ships. Britain promptly singled out Holland for a full-scale naval war. Later that year, first Prussia then the Holy Roman emperor joined the alliance; in July 1782 the Portuguese government followed suit. Finally, in February 1783, when preliminary peace treaties already had been signed by the former belligerents, the Kingdom of Naples swung (irrelevantly) into line.

Also in 1780 the British army under Clinton was in New York. He decided to help the Loyalists in the southern colonies and Cornwallis was sent to Charlestown, Carolina. He won two battles and then retired to Yorktown, Virginia, to await reinforcements. The French fleet blockaded the sea-route and Washington cut off the land approaches to the peninsula. The following year (1781) the Baltic states - Russia, Sweden and Denmark - formed the League of Armed Neutrality to prevent Britain from interfering with their trade to America and with other enemies of Britain. They also ceased trading with Britain which deprived Britain of naval supplies. In October 1781 Cornwallis surrendered with his entire army. The British troops surrendered their weapons as they marched out of Yorktown. Apocryphally, an American band played the tune "The World Turned Upside Down" as the British surrendered. Soon, Britain held only New York and the surrender at Yorktown was effectively the end of the conflict in North America.

  1. The skill and tenacity of George Washington

    Washington showed great determination in the face of enormous odds, a lack of co-operation from Congress and many defeats. He was a good organiser; persistent and well liked by his men. He held the American army together.

In March1782: Lord North finally was allowed to resign. Horace Walpoles' assessment of North was that

As a minister he had no foresight, no consistence, no firmness, no spirit. He miscarried all he undertook in America, was more improvident than unfortunate, less unfortunate than he deserved to be, though he preserved his good humour and neither felt for his country nor for himself.

After North's resignation, Rockingham became PM again. He formally acknowledged American independence and repealed the Declaratory Act. However, on 1July 1782: Rockingham died and Shelburne became PM. He conducted the peace negotiations.

The Treaty of Versailles ended the war

Samuel Adams summarised the war thus:

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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