Even when the British did win victories against less wary and able rebel commanders, these proved ultimately unimpressive because of the resilience of the rebels’ military forces. For example, in New Jersey in November and December 1776, in Georgia in December 1778 and January 1779, and in South Carolina in May and June 1780, the British managed to defeat, drive off, disperse, or capture the enemy’s forces; they then detached troops to fortify and garrison posts to tie down the occupied territory. Yet in each case the battered rebels recovered remarkably quickly. In the North the unexpected blows that Washington’s dwindling, tattered band delivered at Trenton and Princeton compelled Howe to evacuate almost all of occupied New Jersey. In Georgia and South Carolina, despite shattering British victories at Savannah, Briar Creek, Charleston, and Camden, the rebels were able to keep putting regular and militia forces in the field to contest the reestablishment of royal authority in the backcountry. In such circumstances British commanders must have felt that they were engaged in a never-ending struggle to cut off the heads of a Hydra-like enemy.

As the war progressed, the rebels’ military forces gradually gained experience and discipline, despite the Continental Army’s continued dependence on short-service drafts. In part, this was the result of Washington’s deliberate strategy of exposing his regulars to small doses of combat in the petite guerre. As Major the Honorable Charles Stuart put it in 1777: “The rebel soldiers, from being accustomed to peril in their skirmishes, begin to have more confidence, and their officers seldom meet with our foraging parties, but they try every ruse to entrap them. And though they do not always succeed, yet the following our people as they return, and the wounding and killing many of our rearguards, gives them the notion of victory, and habituates them to the profession.” Colonel Allan MacLean was of the same mind: “The rebels have the whole winter gone upon a very prudent plan of constantly harassing our quarters with skirmishes and small parties, and always attacking our foraging parties. By this means they gradually accustom their men to look us in the face, and stand fire which they never have dared to attempt in the field. But this is a plan which we ought to avoid most earnestly, since it will certainly make soldiers of the Americans.”

The winter at Valley Forge in 1777–78 marked a major milestone in the tactical effectiveness of the Continental Army, largely due to the efforts of the rebels’ Prussian drillmaster, Major General Friedrich von Steuben. Despite a shaky start, Washington’s regulars performed better at Monmouth Courthouse than in most previous engagements, and the rebel coup against Stony Point the next year was particularly impressive. In January 1780 captive British ensign Thomas Hughes saw a battalion of Continentals marching southward who “had good clothing, were well armed and showed more of the military in their appearance than I ever conceived American troops had yet attained.” Months later Captain John Peebles made a similar observation on the surrendered rebel troops at Charleston: “They are a ragged, dirty-looking sort of people as usual, but [they have] more appearance of discipline than what we have seen formerly, and some of their officers [are] decent-looking men.”

During the southern campaigns, disciplined Continental Army corps like the 1st Maryland Regiment demonstrated their increasing ability to repulse British bayonet rushes. Hence the Hessian adjutant general in America expressed surprise at Clinton’s displeasure at the expense of Cornwallis’s hollow victory at Guilford Courthouse: “I myself do not see anything extraordinary in it, for since we made no effort to smother the rebellion at the beginning, when it could have been done at a small cost, the rebels couldn’t help but become soldiers.” After his capture at Yorktown, the sight of rebel troops at exercise particularly impressed captive Captain Johann Ewald: “Concerning the American army, one should not think that it can be compared to a motley crowd of farmers. The so-called Continental, or standing, regiments are under good discipline and drill in the English style as well as the English themselves. I have seen the Rhode Island Regiment march and perform several mountings of the guard which left nothing to criticize. The men were complete masters of their legs, carried their weapons well, held their heads straight, faced right without moving an eye, and wheeled so excellently without their officers having to shout much, that the regiment looked like it was dressed in line with a string.”

As the war dragged on, an increasing number of those who were drafted into the Continental Army or called out for militia service, or who offered themselves as paid substitutes for such men, were themselves veterans of previous campaigns. In short, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, by the end of the war, the best of the rebels’ regular corps were tactically every bit the equals of their British counterparts.

The resilience of the Continental Army was central to Britain’s eventual failure in America. Eighteenth-century military convention dictated that the army that held the field at the end of an engagement had gained the victory. By this standard Crown troops won the great majority of the engagements of the American War. Yet while battles like Bunker Hill, Freeman’s Farm, Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, and Eutaw Springs were all unquestionably British tactical victories, they were simultaneously strategic reverses on three counts. First, they cut deeply into Britain’s limited military manpower. Second, they did not neutralize the rebels’ field armies. Third, they failed to convince colonial public opinion that Crown forces were invincible. For example, if Cornwallis had intended that a victory at Guilford Courthouse would prove the superiority of His Majesty’s arms and thereby rally the people of North Carolina to the royal cause, then the result impressed few. As the earl sadly reported, in the aftermath of the action, barely one hundred locals were willing to come out in arms in his support: “Many of the inhabitants rode into camp, shook me by the hand, said they were glad to see us and to hear that we had beat Greene, and then rode home again.”

Furthermore, as the war unfolded, the political dividend that Crown forces gained from clear operational or tactical successes against the rebels proved less and less potent. Probably the best example of this was Cornwallis’s triumph at Camden. In the first flush of his victory, the earl optimistically predicted, “The rebel forces being at present dispersed, the internal commotions and insurrections in the province will now subside.” But when (as Lord Rawdon put it) “the dispersion of that force did not extinguish the ferment which the hope of its support had raised,” Cornwallis rationalized the failure of his prediction by suggesting that “[t]he disaffection . . .  in the country east of [the] Santee [River] is so great that the account of our victory could not penetrate into it, any person daring to speak of it being threatened with instant death.” Rawdon’s assessment was more straightforward: “The approach of General Gates’s army unveiled to us a fund of disaffection in this province of which we could have formed no idea. . . . A numerous enemy now appears on the frontiers drawn from Nolachucki and other settlements beyond the mountains whose very names have been unknown to us.” Rawdon’s admission that the British had simply been oblivious to the scale, intensity, and persistence of popular hostility to royal authority in South Carolina was reminiscent of Burgoyne’s obvious alarm three years earlier, when he reported from New England that “[t]he great bulk of the country is undoubtedly with the Congress in principle and in zeal” and that New Hampshire, “a country unpeopled and almost unknown in the last war, now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race of the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.” In short, if British military successes impressed the undecided, they did not intimidate inveterate rebels, whose numbers and determination Crown commanders gradually came to realize they had drastically underestimated.

If British commanders ultimately did not reap the expected political fruits from their military successes, their armies’ unhappy interaction with the population at large certainly wrought massive political damage. Among the leading causes of this alienation were the unauthorized employment of “fire and sword” methods by some hard-line officers and the nefarious misdemeanors committed by the rank and file, including theft and rape. In some ways British soldiers proved excellent recruiting agents for the rebel cause.

Even if British military successes had encouraged the rebel leadership to sue for peace and the majority of the population to acquiesce in the restoration of royal government, it is far from clear that this would have signaled the end of the conflict. Instead, it is quite possible that the British would have found their authority still contested at a local level by inveterately hostile sections of the population (much as occurred over a century later during the guerrilla phase of the Second Boer War). The lawlessness that wracked the “no-man’s-land” around New York City for much of the conflict, and the bloody civil war that ravaged Georgia and the Carolinas when the strategic focus shifted to the South, were surely a foretaste of what must have happened had the British succeeded in defeating organized rebel resistance across the continent. It is difficult to see how Britain’s limited military resources could have successfully overcome such a state of universal anarchy.

While Crown forces won the great majority of the battlefield engagements of the American War, the fruits of these victories were too limited to decide the outcome. Certainly it was beyond the powers of the British to “destroy” rebel field armies on the battlefield. This was because rebel commanders generally succeeded either in evading battle under unfavorable conditions or in escaping the worst consequences of a defeat. They managed the latter feat because the British were generally incapable of mounting an effective pursuit to disrupt or interdict the flight of the vanquished from the battlefield. As Major General the Chevalier de Chastellux put it, “it is not in intersected countries, and without cavalry, that great battles are gained, which destroy or disperse armies.” As the struggle dragged on, and despite repeated reverses, the rebels’ military forces gradually gained in experience and discipline to the point that, by the end of the war, the Continental Army’s best corps were able to meet the King’s troops on the open field on more or less equal terms. This made British victories all the more difficult and costly. Additionally, the British appear simply to have overestimated the political worth of military success. While their Pyrrhic tactical victories predictably failed to convince many Americans that Congress was doomed to defeat, neither did great victories like Camden persuade inveterate rebels to abandon the cause. Had the rebel leadership given up the struggle, and had the mass of the population resigned themselves to the restoration of royal authority, it is likely that these incorrigibles would simply have made America ungovernable.


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