William Anthony Hay: Redcoat Leaders Weren’t All Dolts

From The National Interest

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 480 pp., $37.50.

THE VICTORS in wars may write the history of those wars, as the cliché says, but history usually manages to delve into the perspectives, interests and exploits of the defeated as it pieces together, over time, a complete picture. A vast literature on the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War and both world wars includes such explorations of the defeated to explain how events unfolded and what factors drove them. But no similar body of literature has emerged to survey the British side of the American Revolution. British historians neglected a defeat that complicated the story of their country’s rise to imperial greatness, while Americans operated within the prejudices and assumptions of nineteenth-century patriotic writers. Later attempts to debunk their accounts rarely challenged the overarching—and overly deterministic—narrative of how the United States gained its independence.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy has set out to correct this oversight. He argues that the British perspective is “essential for making the war intelligible.” British actions, he notes, set the terms for American responses. Resistance to policy made in London drove the escalating tensions that led to open conflict in 1775. British military operations to recover authority over the rebellious colonies then determined how the Americans waged their war for independence. The conflict sprang from a larger dispute over the nature of sovereignty within the British-Atlantic world during the 1760s with origins reaching far beyond the thirteen mainland colonies. A struggle for American independence produced a global war after 1778. Clearly, British outlooks and actions shaped the conflict at every stage, so bringing them into the story provides a fuller understanding of a complex event.

Britain’s role in the American Revolution also connects with larger questions about policy and strategy. Partly a crisis of imperial overstretch, the war led to an almost-unprecedented projection of military power overseas. Neither Britain nor any other European power had deployed so large an army in the Americas. A larger proportion of the Royal Navy operated far beyond home waters than at any point in British naval history until the endgame of World War II. But in the 1770s, unlike 1945, Britain faced two naval rivals in Europe. The American resistance of regulars and partisans, along with limited local supplies, forced commanders to rely on logistical support from the British Isles; this involved voyages of three to four months. The military effort included conventional operations to regain territory and defeat the Continental army as well as counterinsurgency efforts to suppress resistance. Domestic politics and financial concerns, however, precluded full mobilization until the war had escalated beyond America.

O’Shaughnessy uses the intertwined stories of key decision makers to explain how Britain lost a war that, on paper, it should have won. The resulting collective biography deftly captures an era along with the men who directed the struggle that defined their time. The big players included George III, America’s last king; his prime minister, Lord North; three generals; two admirals; and the ministers directing military and naval affairs from London. Thus does the book capture the war from numerous standpoints, exploring multiple factors guiding decisions and the many constraints and obstacles faced by British leaders. O’Shaughnessy argues that the British government persisted in believing it would win partly because its army never suffered any series of linear defeats.

He also shatters entrenched stereotypes of British officials as incompetent and hidebound men whose failings sprang from an antiquated and inflexible aristocratic culture. Rather than hapless figures doomed to lose, they were, says O’Shaughnessy, “capable men who fought a closely contested war” and suffered afterward from comparison to opponents lionized as giants. Preoccupation with their failings masks the reality that the war’s outcome remained in doubt right up to Britain’s Yorktown defeat. It also diminishes the accomplishment of George Washington and other Americans in triumphing against tremendous odds. Greatness, after all, hardly lies in achieving the inevitable.

Read the full article on The National Interest