Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence

Robert Ranstadler - September 24, 2017

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
The London Chronicle (May 16, 1758). Poor Mans Books

British Apathy/Bad Press

Amid political tensions, strategic dissent, and internal military strife stood the British press. With no shortage of stories to cover, several London media outlets reported on many of the disheartening developments taking place at both home and abroad. Hard-hitting stories produced a unique sort of reciprocating discontent among politicians, military leaders, and the general public.

Growing apathy and disapproval of the war in North America, for example, prompted reporters to cover political and strategic mistakes that, in turn, fueled even more antiwar sentiments. Partisan journalists, often competing for the next big headline, supported their political patrons by running hit pieces that exacerbated an already volatile situation.

Solomon M. Lutnick, was one of the first academics to seriously investigate the impact of British journalism on the outcome of the war. In his 1964 article, “The Defeat at Yorktown,” he shares an interesting episode where several British papers elevated General Cornwallis to celebrity status in the eyes of eighteenth-century Londoners. Period newspapers painted the general as the Crown’s last, great hope for victory in the colonies by embellishing many of his exploits during the closing years of the war. Such media campaigns had the unintended consequence of alienating Cornwallis from his political and military superiors, who were quick to lay blame on the Earl after Yorktown.

In the end, it was the Morning Herald that reported the gradual decline and downfall of British forces near the close of the war. Despite the paper’s fierce loyalty to the incumbent First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, the writing was on the wall. In November of 1871, the paper reported that just over 2,000 French troops landed in Virginia. A week later, Herald reporters raised the number to nearly 3,000. The pro-Tory periodical finally capitulated by releasing word that a French blockade had cut off Cornwallis and his men at Yorktown, who were forced to surrender, which presaged the end of the war.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Rebels taking aim at Tarleton’s Raiders.

Oppression Diminished Support and Fueled Rebellion in the South

Tensions were already high when British policy-makers decided to turn their strategic attention south, during the latter half of the Revolutionary War. Casualties sustained in the Northern theater of the conflict, around places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, tried tempers on both sides of the struggle but paled in comparison to the violence wrought during the Southern Campaign. By the time the British moved to invade Savannah, in 1778, colonial militias were prepared to fight to the death. Great Britain’s inhumane treatment of captured soldiers and colonial non-combatants sent a clear message to Southerners, who were prepared to meet violence with violence.

One of the most infamous figures to engage in what would likely be considered war crimes by today’s standards was the cavalry commander, Sir Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton. Popularized in Mel Gibson’s 2000 movie, The Patriot, Tarleton gained an ominous reputation among rebel troops as an officer who provided no quarter to captured soldiers.

His unit, dubbed “Tarleton’s Raiders,” consisted of British dragoons, American loyalists, and mixed infantry—all of whom rode roughshod across the South. They participated in over a dozen major engagements, with the most notable action taking place at the Battle of Waxhaws (1780, South Carolina), where Tarleton allegedly ordered the slaughter of a detachment of surrendering rebels.

Stories like what occurred at Waxhaws fueled American resentment. As the war grinded onward, such tales instilled hatred in many Southern militias, regardless of their validity or accuracy. While The Patriot clearly portrays Tarleton as a bloody butcher, for instance, there’s some historical debate about his true motivations and actions. Moreover, many Southern militia commanders were despised by their British counterparts. Rebels frequently employed guerrilla tactics against regular soldiers that, in the eyes of British officers, were war crimes in themselves. Regardless, some patriot forces charged into battle screaming, “Tarleton’s quarter,” a war cry indicating that no mercy would be given to Redcoats who likewise gave none.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Southern militiamen in the Revolutionary War. Timetoast

Partisan/Irregular Warfare

The means and ways to wage war have evolved over centuries of human conflict. During the Revolutionary War, armies typically engaged in linear warfare, where soldiers formed a line of battle and stood side by side while delivering massive volleys of musket fire. Noted military strategy author William Lind refers to this as the “first generation” of warfare, which took hold during the seventeenth century. After countless years of internecine conflicts in Europe, the major powers signed the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Besides bringing the bloody Thirty Years’ War to a close, the treaty aimed to eliminate unregulated factional conflict.

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and imagine thousands of well-armed Redcoats and Hessian mercenaries piling off boats into New York and Boston. All the Crown’s crack troops, along with their soldiers for hire, were highly-trained, well-armed, and intimately familiar with the deadliest aspects of linear warfare. On the open field of battle, with muskets and cannons blazing, the British Army was an almost unstoppable juggernaut. The Colonial Army occasionally held its own in battle and frequently inflicted grave casualties on the British. Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long for key Northern cities to fall at the outset of the war.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Francis Marion and his men.

All of this changed, however, when irregular militias entered the fray. The impact of partisan tactics was particularly felt in the South, where dense swamps and heavily forested highlands prevented the linear deployment of British forces. One of the best knows guerrilla fighters during this period was South Carolina’s Francis Marion, otherwise known as the “Swamp Fox” for his deadly cunning and ability to disappear into the shadows. The late, great military historian Jac Weller even went as far to note that, “The Southern patriot militia or partizan [sic] forces, acting alone or in combination with Continentals, were the salvation of the American cause.”

Marion and the Southern militias have long been the objects of American Revolutionary War scholars for decades, but infrequently covered in many textbooks. Of equal interest to military history, enthusiasts were the specific tactics of partisan warfighters, which eventually ushered out William Lind’s “first generation” of warfare. Weller notes, for instance, that Marion was a master of conducting ambushes on unsuspecting British columns in the South Carolina low country. He instructed sharpshooters, armed with accurate rifles, to cause chaos by targeting British officers from concealed positions. Militiamen armed with smoothbore muskets, meanwhile, loaded their weapons with improvised shot. Close quarter blasts from these weapons mutilated and horrified the Redcoats.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
“The Continental Fleet at Sea” by Newland Van Powell (c. 1974).

American Piracy

Naval combat was a fundamental aspect of the Revolutionary War. British ships ferried thousands of Redcoats to the shores of North America at the outset of the conflict, while a French fleet sealed Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown. Prior to this, the British Royal Navy was one of the most well-respected maritime forces in the world. But other European powers, such as the French and Spanish, constantly engaged the King’s ships on the high seas or in littoral actions near major colonial cities. The Continentals, on the other hand, were relative latecomers to the war, due to the logistical and financial challenges of standing up an entirely new navy.

An interim solution to this problem was the Continental Congress’s official sanctioning of privateers during the struggle for independence. According to the American Merchant Marine at War, the Thirteen Colonies, in lacking a sufficient number of wartime ships, “issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships… which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships.”

Thereafter, everyday merchants and tradesmen set out to disrupt enemy shipping and commerce. To put the significance of this policy in context, consider that the Continental Navy mustered only 64 warships, armed with about 1,200 guns, while the privateers, on the other hand, boasted over 1,500 ships and some 15,000 guns.

Many private sailors were virtually euphoric at the idea of facing the British Royal Navy that, for ages, had administered King George III’s punitive trade regulations at sea. Following the opening shots of the war, a Boston newspaper of the period (again according to the American Merchant Marine at War) boldly invited, “all those Jolly Fellows,” and promised, “a hearty Welcome by a Number of Brave Fellows there assembled, and treated with that excellent Liquor call’d [sic] GROG which is allow’d [sic] by all true Seamen, to be the LIQUOR OF LIFE.” By war’s end, these “jolly pirates” aided in the capture of almost 16,000 British prisoners!

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
French Map of Chesapeak Bay.

Sir Henry Clinton’s Mysterious Illness

Rounding out the list of lesser-known factors contributing to Great Britain’s loss of her American colonies is an odd tidbit of information, which involves returning our attention back to King George III’s supreme commander in North America, Sir Henry Clinton. As previously noted, political turbulence and personal animosity between Clinton and Cornwallis played a part in both men’s undoing and, quite possibly, the entirety of the Revolutionary War. What’s not as well-known, however, is that Sir Henry Clinton suffered from a mysterious, debilitating illness—one that still lacks a definitive diagnosis even today.

According to the Randolph Greenfield Adams article, “A View of Cornwallis’s Surrender at Yorktown,” Sir Henry Clinton suffered from random and uncontrollable bouts of complete blindness. Published in a 1931 edition of The American Historical Review, the article is a genuine piece of reputable academic work that, when combined with its author’s scholarly pedigree and prolific use of first-hand accounts, leaves little doubts to its validity. Adams observes that the blindness was a temporary ailment, but one that nevertheless compromised Clinton’s ability to successfully lead his forces to victory. Adams was an intense academic historian and stumbled upon his epiphany while examining some of Clinton’s personal correspondence.

Adams discovered that Clinton was utterly disgusted with the political conduct of the war and the favoritism afforded to Cornwallis. The latter was his junior but often praised by, and in direct contact with, the highest levels of Parliament. Cornwallis was credited with victories, while Clinton was blamed for defeats. Not surprisingly, during the summer of 1781, Clinton wrote, “I shall resign the command which I have held with disgust under the present Minister.”

Some speculate that Clinton’s tremendous duress triggered his bouts of blindness. Regardless, he isolated and alienated himself from his staff, which could explain why he was late in reinforcing Yorktown, thus heralding an end to the war.