The War of American Independence Reconsidered
Only a staff composed of men of military genius, and backed by a decisive and imaginative government at Westminster, could have secured a victory in the American War of Independence. Eric Robson reflects on how men of considerable talent, and of much good-will, failed in an impossible task.
“Battles are so admirably fought after everything is over,” Major-General Robert Long wrote to his brother in December 1811, “and the science of afterthought is so overwhelming that there is no standing against it.” Afterthought, and judgment by modern standards, have strongly influenced the treatment accorded to the War of American Independence by the majority of historians: their attitude to the British conduct of the war can be summed up in the charge of incompetence, its problems rapidly dismissed. All the disadvantages from which the British commanders suffered, explains a recent account of England in the eighteenth century, “do not entirely account for the British disasters.”
What were these disadvantages? First, the terrain on which the war was fought confronted the British with a kind of warfare to which they were unaccustomed, and for which they were only partially trained. Just as the events leading up to the American Revolution reveal a British failure to grasp political realities, so in the military struggle that followed Britain showed a similar inability to adjust herself to strategical and tactical circumstances.