The British were very perplexed by the American Revolution. The idea of a colony rebelling wasn’t necessarily uncommon, but the amount of sheer effort that the so-called patriots within the colonies astonished the British military officers. The so-called Americans hadn’t ever shown this sort of spirit, courage, or conduct when they had fought for the British Empire. The Americans, even when they had a loyalist majority, never fought with the same fierceness and passion against the Indian tribes or French regiments.
But now, as he pushed Thomas Gage aside, William Howe saw North America rather clearly: as a threat. Not just any threat, however; William Howe saw the colonies as a rage-induced organization of militias who were banding together against the misdeeds of the British government.
William Howe had one personal question for the colonials: how long could they keep it going?
While the Empire was in fact busy on different fronts around the world, Howe believed that if the British redcoats stayed firm and strong, the rebellion could be easily crushed within a matter of months. Gage’s strategies had only led to rising tensions and costly victories, and Howe hoped to reverse the last few decades of problematic relationships between the motherland and the Thirteen Colonies.
At this point in history, there were around 48,000 men – all diced up into separate garrisons across the vast British Empire – dedicating their lives to the British army. When the American Revolution was deemed a threat, the government brought that number up to over 100,000. The change couldn’t help too much, however; they were forcefully spread out across the empire to different fronts.
It should be recognized that the British Empire, had it not been distracted by so many different fronts across the globe, should have won the American Revolution. They were better trained, better disciplined, better equipped, and better in terms of strategy. But, spread out far and thin, the advantages they had at the beginning melted to the American’s increasing moral and knowledge of the battlefields.
The Continental Army, led by George Washington, understood the disadvantages it had against the mighty Brits. In fact, the Continental Army began copying the Brits. The American militias styled themselves similarly to the British military system: with troopers, private, light infantries, grenadiers, line officers, general officers, and captains. We’ll talk more about the army Washington commanded in the next post of this series – Washington’s Perspective.
The British were well-equipped. They used .75 caliber muskets, oftentimes referred to as the Brown Bess, which weighed around nine pounds. The differences between muskets and rifles are outstanding, especially in the 1700s. Muskets were less accurate than rifles, but they were much easier to reload. This was exactly why the British army loved the Brown Bess. While other armies may have had more effective weaponry, they would be easily shot down while trying to reload.
In ideal conditions, these early Brown Bess muskets could be fired four times in a single minute. But the Brown Bess did have some terrible flaws to it as well. It was somewhat heavy, required some maintenance, and was incredibly loud as it fired. The Brown Bess musket also produced a blanket of smoke when fired, making vision and accuracy even more difficult.
As one might expect, the accuracy issue was the largest problem for British soldiers. The muskets were so bad in accuracy that only twenty percent of men in a single battalion could actually hit a target one hundred feet in size less than seventy yards away.
How did the British combat the accuracy problems? With the BAYONET – an 18-inch-long steel spike attached to every musket. The bayonet served two major purposes: intimidate the other side, and pierce anyone who gets too close.
One major difference Britain and America had in terms of military was that Britain had no educational facility for officers within the army. Unwanted and unknown sons within elite families usually purchased their way into officership. More than 2/3 of the British officers within the army were nitwits with rich parents, if you want to put it that way. While the redcoats were trained much better than the Americans, their officials usually had little to no strategy to put that training to good use.
This method of purchasing power was very logical to the British government. 1/6 of the British officers were related by blood to the king, so the King didn’t have to worry about usurpers or uprisings from his military. Plus, most of the British army were middle and lower classmen – so it seemed “fit” to have men from the wealthier, established “ruling class” in officer positions.
William Howe was better than his predecessor in almost every way. He knew how to rage war, knew the British structure forwards and backwards, and questioned the colonial mindset. He ordered for better training and reequipped forces, bringing in more light infantry to combat in the American terrain.
He looked at the patriot’s Continental Army to see exactly what he was up against. He saw loosely-fitted, horrendously untrained, but motivated men.
But then he saw George Washington, the commander of the military. Standing at six-feet-two-inches tall, Washington impressed every man he met. He owned land on the Potomac River and had quite a bit of knowledge of the surrounding area. Washington had wanted, at one point in his life, a commission in the British Army. However, he lacked the money for purchasing a position. It was at this point that Washington realized that the British didn’t really care for the colonists, and that they scoffed at anyone who lacked funds.
William Howe set his sights on attacking Boston to destroy the very few guns that the Continental Army had record of. However, the government decided that it was time to vacate Boston, and they relocated to New York City. The Royal Navy was more comfortable near New York than with Boston, and tension within the Massachusetts Bay was heating up too much for the government to handle. Had Howe gotten his way, the Continental Army would have become even less-equipped than they already were.
In December 1775, Montgomery’s invasion of Quebec City failed horrendously, collapsing and fleeing back towards patriot safe havens. Washington, irked, had just gone through Moore’s Creek and Ft. Sullivan.
Of course, we all should know the story of George Washington crossing through Trenton, New Jersey after being sent running from Long Island by Howe’s men. While the hessian soldiers celebrated Christmas, Washington crossed the Delaware and began playing catch up with Howe, who was heading towards the Chesapeake Bay.
Howe made sure that Washington was out maneuvered; and he doubled back towards Philadelphia, occupying the city and forcing the Continental Congress to flee. The Battles of Brandywine and Germantown forced Washington to retreat to Valley Forge, where his men suffered through the harsh winter before bouncing back to an unforeseen success story.
Howe had wanted peace negotiations with Washington and the Continental Congress. He realized that the Empire was too spread out for this to matter anymore, and hoped to bring Washington and his men down to talk about peace treaties. Perhaps less taxation, perhaps representation in Parliament. But it was far too late. The patriots had changed their mind about diplomatic relations long ago. The British had lost their chance.
The Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two founding fathers who despised one another, to speak with William Howe. They made the patriot case, loud and clear: independence must be part of the peace treaty, and that is non-negotiable.
All in all, it wasn’t Howe’s fault that the British Empire was unable to come to terms with the American colonies during this diplomatic expenditure. The British government had refused to think of proper and fair diplomatic relations, and the British army was way too overextended to win any battles at this point.
To the Americans, this diplomatic appeal made the British appear weak. They pushed for alliances yet again. They fought harder than ever, and after winning the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, the French government decided that the patriots had proven their worth. France became involved, signing a treaty that claimed they were protecting American sovereignty. Twenty thousand soldiers and officers were sent to America’s front while over 130,000 stayed in Continental Europe to fight against the British.
And thus, Howe realized everything was going wrong. His battle techniques, though better than Gage’s, were not strong enough to fight off a new and large wave of French soldiers. His diplomatic reasoning had come too late, and the government was too stubborn to agree to colonial terms. Howe, in a rage, resigned in protest. He would be replaced by Henry Clinton.
And Henry Clinton realized something very quickly: the war was turning to Washington’s favor.