Tuesday, November 23, 2004

And Now for Something Completely Different

To get my mind off the recent troubles, I’ve been reading David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing, a superb account of the crucial year in the American Revolution when it appeared that the military might of the highly professional British army would crush the colonists. The British decided that a maximum effort would shock and awe the traitors. The military leaders of the invasion were not barbarians. Indeed, general Howe was sure that his men would be welcomed with open arms once it became apparent that the Crown was appropriately conciliatory. True, the British were somewhat isolated diplomatically; but they could count on the stalwart support of Frederich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel, who supplied them with thousands of soldiers at reasonable rates and made up for the hostile neutrality of the French and the rest of the Europeans.

For several months things worked out as planned. Washington and the Americans, thoroughly overmatched on sea and land, were driven from Manhattan and then New Jersey. The English were in a false position, however. The 31, 625 troops that had landed on August 27, 1776 made up an enormous expeditionary force by 17th Century standards, but they were far too few to seize and occupy all the colonies. Worse, though military casualties were not high at first, mere attrition began to wear down the force; and Howe’s army could not be significantly augmented with fresh troops because George’s government was unwilling to raise taxes at home or institute a general draft. Inevitably, the overstretched occupying army resorted to more and more brutal means to subdue the rebellion; but the collateral damage of their efforts inspired more defiance—Fisher points out that the famous Christmas attack on Trenton was preceded and suggested by the success of earlier spontaneous attacks by irregular forces. Howe had hoped that he could count on the help of the local Loyalists to make up for the inadequacy of his strength. It turned out, however, that he could not even protect them from the insurgents. By the end of March 1777, the British were pretty much holed up in the safety of New York City, planning in the next year to seize the initiative by occupying Philadelphia, the sanctuary of the rebels. Back in London, the government-controlled papers explained how that would turn the tide…

No comments: