Anyone who thinks the American Revolutionary War was a gentleman’s affair has been seriously misinformed. We are sometimes given the impression that genteel types in powdered wigs maneuvered this way and that, and at the end of the day, everything was neatly wrapped up as almost a foregone conclusion. This, however, was not the case, as D.H. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing makes very clear. War is war, and there is no way to sugar-coat its effects and costs.
Fischer reminds us just how desperate and uncertain “the cause” of the revolution was in the dark days of 1776. In some ways the war had started on a positive note. The early battles in Massachusetts had not been disasters for the rebels; they had held their own, even getting the better of the British Army now and then. But then things began to go sour. New York became an occupied city, as did most of the main transportation and urban hubs on the eastern seaboard. Washington’s army–scraggly and undisciplined in the best of times–began to melt away under the effects of disease, poor supplies, and collapsing morale. Washington was getting routed in one battle after another, yet somehow managed to keep some level of discipline and cohesion to his men. It looked as if present trends continued, the war would be as good as lost in another year’s time.
The posture and strategy of the British Army in the Revolutionary War has been a much-neglected subject in the United States, and Fischer does his readers a service by spending many fascinating pages on it. London was faced with a formidable problem: how to restore control over a vast area over three thousand miles away, and how to keep control once it was won. In the first place, manpower was a problem. The British Army was a highly disciplined and professional force, and at the height of the rebellion, about one-half of the entire British Army was engaged or garrisoned in the American colonies. But it was not enough. London knew from the start that it would have to rely on mercenaries; overtures were made to Russia and the German state of Hesse. Catherine the Great wanted nothing to do with sending Russian troops to the Americas, and politely declined. There was even talk of hiring Moroccan troops from the Barbary Coast, but these ideas came to nothing. In the end, it would be Hesse that would help fill the manpower needs of the British Empire.
Hesse, like many central German states, had a long tradition of military service. In the 1770s, soldiering was a highly respected profession in Hesse, and the British were offering generous payment terms. Discipline in the German military, however, was severe by modern standards. Corporal punishment meant nothing, and was doled out for even minor infractions. In the era before modern logistical and supply systems, militaries in Europe often relied on plunder and booty to sustain themselves in the field. This practice had been common in Germany during the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, and the tradition stayed alive and well during the American Revolutionary War.
In theory, plunder was supposed to be limited, and should have left something for the victimized civilians to live on; in practice, however, plunder could easily turn into pillage, and pillage into devastation. Readers of Fischer’s book may be surprised to know how often captured rebels were summarily executed during the rebellion; rapes, robberies, and other crimes associated with counter-insurgency warfare were also alarmingly prevalent. This was no gentleman’s war. The Hessians quickly developed a reputation for ruthlessness that did much to turn public sentiment in favor of the rebels, especially in New York and New Jersey. If you were a rebel or someone who supplied a rebel, you absolutely did not want to cross paths with a squad of Hessian jaegers.
But Washington still needed to win victories in the field. He could not rely on the mistakes of his enemies to win the war for him. Modern logic might assume that the best strategy for Washington would be to melt into the hills and pursue a purely guerrilla campaign. There were, in fact, some American generals who favored just this idea. But Washington thought that it would take too much time, and also believed that his army needed to be visible to the American people. The public, he reasoned, needed to see him moving around and doing things. The generals who opposed him–the Howe brothers and Cornwallis–were intelligent, competent, and sophisticated men. Cornwallis actually believed that a conciliatory policy should have been pursued with the Americans, but he of course kept these opinions to himself. But any neutral observer in 1776 would have concluded that the rebellion was either on its last legs, or was getting to that point very rapidly.
The electrifying publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis was a significant boost to rebel morale. Paine was a dyed-in-the-wool radical, and knew how to write propaganda. In modern terms, his little pamphlet “went viral” all over the colonies. Printers were encouraged to churn it for free and distribute it as widely as possible. It was read in camp, in homes, in taverns, and in city halls. And its message was unambiguous: keep fighting, stay strong, and remain optimistic. Words do matter, and in this case they mattered a great deal. But Washington knew he had to have something positive happen on the ground. He emerges in Fischer’s book as a truly great man, a leader who deserves every bit of the veneration that has been heaped on him over the centuries. He was emotional, and could weep without shame as he watched his men get mauled and bayoneted by Hessians, and he was not above making simple military mistakes that experience and prudence might have avoided. But he had a Stoic calm to his personality, and carried with him an aura of dogged determination. His physical bravery was extreme: he could walk the battlefield during a fight without flinching an eyebrow, calmly receiving messages and issuing orders.
When Washington heard that a force of Hessians was within his reach, he prepared to cross the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 and hit them in Trenton with everything he had. This was not an easy operation: the river was choked with ice, his men did not have proper boats, and supplies were running desperately low. And yet it succeeded. The Hessians were caught completely by surprise and put up little resistance; the rebels also captured a good deal of supplies. The operation showed a great deal of planning and operational competence, and signaled to the British that a long war lay ahead. This battle signaled the start of a month-long series of engagements in which the Americans outfought the British in the field. This, in the end, was what mattered.
The simple fact was that it was nearly impossible for the British to crush an insurgency spread over the entire eastern seaboard. They did not have the manpower, or the political will, to continue prosecuting the war indefinitely. One gets the impression, from reading the diaries and letters of the British officers of the time, that the Empire’s heart was just not in the fight after 1777. And once the intervention of the French became a reality later in the war, it made no sense for London to continue the fight. The colonies were just too big, and the manpower needs of an occupying army too extraordinary, for the rebellion to be suppressed.
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