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 Continental Fleet at Sea” by Newland Van Powell (c. 1974). paulinespiratesandprivateers.blogspot.com

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. watertown.k12.ma.us

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.

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