By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
In the work of historical interpretation, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a positive encounter with our visitors. Fielding inquiries about the events and personalities of 1777 make for lively discussion; it’s always a lot more fun than many of the bureaucratic (but necessary) chores.
Occasionally, we get a question (the visitor is invariably from the United States) that usually runs something like “Why was the Battle of Saratoga fought in 1777? I thought the Revolutionary War ended on July 4th 1776 when we declared independence.”
The question would doubtlessly trigger vigorous reaction from various talk-show pundits about how “American History is no longer taught in our schools”, and it does cause some rangers to grind their teeth (Guilty as charged…). However, it’s not that the visitor hasn’t been taught, nor are they trying to play with the interpreter’s head, it’s usually that they haven’t been studying the subject too much since their days in high school.
Careful consideration shows another strand to the visitor’s question and it is often the result of how the Revolutionary War has been taught in schools. Simply stated, the War for Independence is rarely depicted as the protracted struggle that it was.
Even the fact that the war lasted from 1775 to 1783 is not always noted in history texts. Those books make it seem that the war ended with the victory at Yorktown in 1781. Admittedly, those last two years lacked major military operations in North America, but there was still plenty of misery to go around.
So why would anyone think that the Revolutionary War was a quick and easy sort of conflict?
Part of the answer lies in how we as Americans have regarded ourselves. There persists a Great Myth, sometimes still parroted in history books that the American troops during that war were all backwoodsmen, every one of them was a rugged individualist (armed with “Kentucky rifles”), who wouldn’t (and couldn’t!) be brought to the discipline of an army and fought the British using tactics they’d learned from fighting the Native People along the frontier. Their opponents were stuck in the mire of European warfare which meant fancy uniforms, perfect, unthinking obedience, and a complete lack of adaptability to the “forests of North America”. As a nation we can portray ourselves as so much smarter than the blockheaded British, and a great deal of messy details can be happily overlooked.
Even without addressing each point of the Great Myth, there is a question that rears its head: if the British were so easy to beat, then why did it take us 8 years to get rid of them? The messy detail that people care to ignore is that the British weren’t easy to beat.
Much maligned in American popular imagination, the British were a very formidable and dangerous enemy during the War for Independence. It’s arguable that it was the most desperate conflict in our history. Britain at the start of the war had an organized, professional army, world-class navy, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, immense financial resources and for all its faults an organized functioning government.
We, on the other hand, had “none of the above”.
It doesn’t take much to figure out that the odds were stacked against our survival as an independent country; indeed it would appear to be a safe and wise course of action to bet on a British triumph. And yet, here we are, the United States of America, 237 years young.
So how did the United States survive the none-too-gentle attentions of Great Britain? Various answers have been offered ranging from the unverifiable “Divine Intervention” to such mundane things as supply headaches. Certainly, the French Alliance and assistance from Spain, the United Provinces, with a healthy dose of anti-British sentiment among more neutral European powers kept our cause afloat, but ultimately the United States had to come up with some victories, which proved to be a tall order.
During the war, our military, while game, had a steep learning curve and the lessons were often very costly (Brooklyn, Valcour Island, Brandywine, Paoli, Camden et passim come to mind). That we took our lumps from the British should come as no surprise as we were simultaneously creating our armed forces while fighting a hot war. Added to that, our resources to fight the war were extremely limited; popular support ebbed and flowed. Considering all this, only the most starry-eyed optimists would have much confidence of ultimate American victory.
But where the United States had many military disadvantages, there was one major advantage over the British: we knew what we wanted out of the conflict and chose a course to achieve it. Once the daunting hurdle of declaring independence was overcome, the United States would resist by any and all means until the British left. Whether they left due to military defeat or simply getting too tired, it was all the same to us. That we were not skilled or strong enough to force the British to make grave errors that would lead to their decisive defeat necessarily meant a long conflict.
Britain, by comparison seems to lack coherency in their war policy. Yes, George III had declared that “blows must decide”, but seems that the British really didn’t put their heart in the effort to crush the colonies. The Jacobite Scots and the Irish had learned painful lessons about taking on the might of Britain, so why wouldn’t the British be all fired up to stomp on the American rebels with equal “vigour”?
The catch to it all was that the rebelling American colonists were not “outsiders”; the colonists were regarded as “fellow Englishmen”. Satirical prints of the day show the crux of the problem: Britain is depicted as a parent, and the colonies as wayward, naughty children.
Any parent who has dealt with the metamorphosis of a beloved child into a [shudder] teenager can attest to the frustration and conflict that accompany this phenomenon. If they are really and truly honest, they may even admit to being tempted to take a tire iron up the side of the head of their altered progeny. Fortunately for the survival of the species, no matter how sullen and rebellious the adolescent, parental instincts (and the awe of an angry law) stay the hand of even the most exasperated adult. Such was the problem that Britain faced.
The British happily portrayed themselves as The Good Guys, touting the nebulous and often unrealized “Rights of an Englishman” as proof. In picturing herself as such, Britain actually limited her room to maneuver. It’s one thing to clobber the “outsiders” (Scots and Irish) but quite another thing to do it to one’s own. Only the “repressive” French and Spanish would do such a thing and by self-definition such a course would be impossible and still remain English, that is, the Good Guys.
This is not to say that Britain didn’t come down hard on the inhabitants of the erstwhile colonies, there were more than a few instances of punitive actions throughout the conflict. Nonetheless, the British did feel more than a few twinges of conscience during the conduct of the war. Some of the military actually welcomed the entry of France despite the strains it put upon them. (At least the French were an enemy who could be hated with impunity.) That Britain regarded the colonies and mother country as bound by “ties of our common kindred” ultimately hindered them from snuffing out the American rebellion in one quick, vicious stroke. The war would go into “extra innings” all the way to 1783.
The war generated a great deal of hatred and hurt on both sides, but eventually the United States wished “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” which meant diplomatic ties with other countries, even with Great Britain in 1785. Although required to deal with the detested American rebel, John Adams now the Minister to the Court of St. James the “tyrant” King George III met the occasion with wishes for good relations that sound remarkably like a parent building rapprochement with a wayward child:
“I wish you Sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late Contest, but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the Duty which I owed to my People. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the Separation, but the Separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power. . . let the Circumstances of Language; Religion and Blood have their natural and full Effect.”