Why Britain Lost the War With the Colonies

The American Revolutionary War was of significance because its conclusion marked the beginning of a new country that would eventually become the greatest economic and military force in human history. The outcome was nothing less than miraculous given the overwhelming advantage of the British military, from the Expeditionary to the Parliament Forces, enjoyed at the outset of the war. Because of this, the war was of great historical significance from a military perspective. This discussion will briefly examine the causes that initiated Britain’s War with the Colonies but the focus is on the question that has fascinated historians for 250 years. How could a group of colonies spread out over a vast region with no central government or treasury and an army that was inadequately trained and equipped possibly defeat the British who were the most powerful military force at that time?

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Britain had ruled over the thirteen colonies in America for more than 200 years prior to the Revolution. By the beginning of the Revolution, the wars against France fought on both sides of the Atlantic had burdened Britain with the massive national debt. To ease the national debt, Parliament imposed taxes on the colonists believing it only fair that they bear part of the expenses incurred by the British military in protecting them from Indian attacks and French invasions. The Stamp Act taxed paper goods sent to the colonies. It was the first of these laws while, with the tea tax, was one of the most infamous of these laws. The colonists thought taxation without representation in the British government to be unjust and openly protested these laws which led to hostilities between British troops and the Massachusetts Minutemen in 1775. This and other conflicts with the ‘Red Coats’ led to colonists forming the Continental Congress which immediately created the Continental Army and in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence (The American Revolution, 2006).

The Americans, outmatched by more than three-to-one, were predictably defeated in the majority of battles that occurred during the war’s first year. However, the Americans’ fortune began to change following the victories at Saratoga and Germantown in 1777. These important first triumphs gave increased credibility to what had previously been widely considered as an unorganized, minor uprising certain to be vanquished by the mighty British army. By 1778, France had become convinced that Britain stood the chance of being defeated.

Wanting nothing more than this, America’s first formal alliance was with the French. Centuries-long enemy of Britain, France was recently defeated on American soil by the British (1763) and had been secretly funneling money, arms and clothing to the colonists from the beginning of the war in 1776. In 1778, the French had formally recognized the independence of the U.S. and signed a treaty that created a military and commercial alliance with the new country. Thereafter, “French support for the U.S. with arms, clothing, and money was open rather than clandestine, and (George) Washington’s great hope for French naval assistance off the American coast would soon be realized” (Encyclopedia, 2004). Spain and The Netherlands had also been sending secret shipments to aid in the Americans’ cause since the beginning of the Revolution and joined France in allying with America in 1778. Many historians suggest that without the help of the French, Spanish and Dutch, the new nation would have stood little chance of prevailing. The motives of the three countries were less to promote a new form of democracy than self-interest which centered on diluting Britain’s status as the world’s only superpower.

The open alliance between America and France allowed the French navy to become involved in the conflict, the importance of which to the ultimate British defeat cannot be overstated. At this time in history, the British ruled the seas as they had for hundreds of years.

The newly formed country did not have the capital to fund even a small navy and certainly could not build one mighty enough to seriously confront the Royal Navy. France’s navy was nearly as formidable as the British but, unlike their old enemy, the French commanders were more conservative in their tactics.

They also desperately desired to exact extreme revenge on the British for defeats suffered in earlier conflicts.

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Though the French Navy’s assistance was vital for an American victory, it fought a seemingly separate war against the British, one that served its own interests. At the beginning of its involvement, the French Navy did little to further the cause of the Revolution. For example, it refused to engage the British off the New York coast at Sandy Hook early in the conflict. Conversely, Cornwallis had counted on being protected and rescued by the British Navy as he marched his troops to Yorktown but the fleet wasn’t there to offer assistance courtesy of the French Navy. “The Battle of the Virginia Capes of September 5, 1781, had forced the British fleet away, leaving Cornwallis surrounded and stranded. French involvement proved decisive, with a naval victory in the Chesapeake leading to the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781” (Sage, 2007).

Britain utilized its dominant naval force to occupy cities located near the coast during the entirety of the war but could not successfully manage inland towns and settlements. Therefore, the British had little control over the majority of the American population and could do little to correct this. This geographical hindrance to the British worked in favor of the colonists who were more easily able to organize against their oppressors.

On the sea, the Americans were severely outmatched but were not totally impotent. The Congress commissioned ships owned by private citizens, privateers, to execute attacks on British ships. By war’s end, approximately 600 enemy ships had been captured by privateers.

General George Washington understood the value of privateers. He personally commissioned many to impede British supply ships which deprived the Red Coats of ammunition and other armaments needed on the fields of battle. America also possessed a small but determined navy that destroyed or captured nearly 200 British vessels. “Between them, the navy and the privateers did quite a bit of harm to the British and good for their new nation” (Sage, 2007).

Logistics worked to the advantage of the Americans. The Continental Army had ready access to resources produced locally such as food and additional manpower but the British were operating more than 3,000 miles from home and on unfamiliar territory.

To their credit, the British troops were generally well-fed and equipped even to a greater extent than were the Americans. A logistical feat such as this was quite impressive, the likes of which would not be attempted again until the Normandy Invasion (D-Day). However, because of this great distance, effective communications suffered greatly and contributed significantly to the British defeat. British commanders in America took their orders from London which took about two months to arrive.

“By the time British generals in America received their orders from London, the military situation had usually changed” (Tokar, 1999).

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Logistic realities were amplified given the time in history the Revolutionary War took place. The 1944 Normandy invasion was a marvel of long-distance communications and coordination efforts but this logistic implementation pales a bit in comparison to the 1776 war, a greater triumph of logistic strategy given the time period it occurred. However, the British were not well prepared to fight a war when hostilities began in the colonies. Though this deficiency was quickly and efficiently corrected, the Americans had been given a head-start which ultimately impacted the outcome of the war.

Long-distance logistic difficulties at the beginning and ending periods of the war disrupted the cohesiveness of the British military and created strategic nightmares. By the time orders were received in America, the scenario on the battlefield had likely changed which gave a clear advantage to the Americans. These dynamics “forced the British Army to fight a guerilla war, the only kind of war that the upstart United States could hope to win” (Tokar, 1999).

Many colonists were, of course, British either by birth or heritage and a significant percentage remained loyal to the Crown.

Besides being burdened by far-off supply lines and fighting a ground war against guerilla tactics, the British had to placate the Loyalists who were indistinguishable from the enemy.

Ensuring Loyalist support was crucial for the British because the objective of fighting the far-off war was to retain the colonies. The more local support they had, the easier the task. If support in America vanished, the war would be lost without firing another shot and the British were very aware of this. The Loyalists had friends and relatives among the ranks of the rebels and objected to oppressive tactics for which the British were historically infamous. Having to keep an alliance with Loyalists came at a heavy price; the British were ‘handcuffed’ militarily speaking. “The need to retain Loyalist allegiance also meant that the British were unable to use the harsh methods of suppressing rebellion employed in Ireland and Scotland. Even with these limitations, many potentially neutral colonists were nonetheless driven into the ranks of the Revolutionaries because of the war” (Kruschandl, 2007).

The Loyalists vehemently objected when the British used Germans (Hessians) as mercenaries against Americans. British killing Americans was one thing but Germans killing Americans was another altogether. The British considered recruiting Native Americans and slaves to aid in the war effort fight but the Loyalists would likely have been angered to the point of defect. The disease also played a pivotal role in the former colonists’ victory. The smallpox outbreak that gripped much of America during the war killed more than 100,000, a large percentage of the population. The Continental Army did not suffer near the number of casualties as did the British due to this deadly disease. According to historian Joseph Ellis; “Washington’s decision to have his troops inoculated may have been the commander-in-chief’s most important strategic decision” (Kruschandl, 2007).

Britain’s improbable loss resulted from their inobservance of all five rules to military success: Don’t underestimate one, the enemy; two, the enemy’s allies and don’t overestimate your own allies, overextend your lines of supply and or assure that the objectives of the war are clear (Moran, 1990). The colonists were generally thought of as little better than savages to British nobility which facilitated the widespread view that they could be herded like sheep. The words of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu articulated the prevailing opinion in Britain at that time. “Americans were raw, undisciplined and cowardly” (Aggressive King, 1976). British General Alured Clarke commented “that with a thousand British grenadiers he would undertake to go from one end of America to the other and geld all the males, partly by force and partly with a little coaxing,” as overheard and retold by Benjamin Franklin (cited by Labaree, 1966: 261). In addition, the British never appreciated the ‘minuteman’ concept, that an army of citizen-soldiers could be quickly mobilized, fight a battle, then just as quickly disband. Britain, with the mightiest armed force in the world at the time, unquestionably underestimated its enemy.

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The objective of the British was never clear, even to them, because they failed to understand the nature of the overall situation. The geographic size of America was a distinct advantage for the Patriots both physically and psychologically. Thomas Paine summed up the sentiment of many at that time when he said, “How ridiculous to suppose that a continent should belong to an island!” (Paine, 1776). The physical aspect was an even greater obstacle.

When the British took New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Boston had little impact on the war as the population was scattered over a very large, rural area. Conversely, if London were to be captured, the British would be defeated. The British would have had to occupy all major towns in the thirteen colonies to secure victory, a logistic impossibility. Washington, a credit to his genius, realized this fact. He knew that to win, all he need do was keep his army together. The British objective was never clear to its generals or soldiers because no objective was viable given the circumstances (Moran, 1990).

The British knew neither its or the enemy’s allies. The leadership of Britain assumed until the last battle that the Loyalists would ride up in mass opposition to the revolution. This, of course, did not happen. The British knew the American allies, France and Spain, very well but underestimated their eventual involvement in the conflict. For example, “in 1780 a combined Spanish and French fleet intercepted and captured sixty-one ships of a single (British) convoy. Three thousand soldiers, reinforcements for their hard-pressed North American army were lost” (Moran, 1990). With Britain’s two greatest rivals in the fight, the Revolution became a global war.

During this time, Spain and France attacked British forces wherever in the world they were located, such as India. This unanticipated situation prohibited Britain from deploying all military resources to the war in America (Moran, 1990).

The colonists had no industry, as mandated by British law, to create wealth, no centralized government, or a standing army. All qualified military officers were in the British army. Washington, the fledgling nation’s Commander-in-Chief, was a Colonel in the militia. Despite the numerous and seemingly insurmountable disadvantages, the Americans defeated the world’s most powerful military. Britain’s navy was infinitely superior. The nation possessed financial and organizational superiority as well.

Its military machine was the most feared since the Roman army 1400 years earlier. The Americans, by contrast, were plagued with shortages of supplies and its citizens had a general mistrust of government which extended to the forming of a standing army. This made creating and maintaining a national force all but impossible. However, distance proved to be a major drawback for the British as did the physical size and heavily wooded terrain of America. This advantage facilitated Americans’ momentous victory at Saratoga which coaxed France, Germany, and The Netherlands to enter the war against their collective enemy, Britain. Certainly, the British possessed enough military power to defeat the Americans on the field of battle but could not concurrently control the whole of the colonies because they had to disperse their manpower to other theaters of war to fight the Spanish and French. Though history gives the Minutemen, Sons of Liberty, Washington’s Army, and the Continental Congress the lions-share of the credit for America’s victory, the U.S. is a country largely because of Britain’s overconfidence and the alliances forged with France and Spain.

References

  1. “Aggressive King, Divided Nation.” Time Magazine. (1976).
  2. (The) American Revolution. Military.com. (2006).
  3. Encyclopedia: American Revolutionary War.” The History Channel. (2004). Web.
  4. Kruschandl, Nelson. “American War of Independence: 1775-1783.” Solar Navigator. (2007).
  5. Labaree, Leonard W. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Vol. IX: 1760 through 1761. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.
  6. Moran, Donald N. “All the King’s Horses & All the King’s Men.” Liberty Tree Newsletter. (1990).
  7. Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. (1776). US History.org.
  8. Sage, Henry J. “The American Revolution: 1778-1781” Sage History. (2007). Web.
  9. Tokar, John A. “Logistics and the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War.” (1999). Army Logistician.
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