The Founding of the American Republic: 11. The War for Independence

Dr. Carson shortly will join the faculty of Hillsdale College in Michigan as Chairman of the Department of History. He is a noted lecturer and author, his latest book entitled Throttling the Railroads.

It was one thing to declare independence; it was another to acquire it. It was one thing to rebel against British rule; it was another to bring off a successful revolution. It was one thing to make war; it was another to win it. It was one thing to deny the old authority; it was another to establish a new rule. The pledge which closes the Declaration was one to be taken seriously; those who signed it committed their "Lives," their "Fortunes," and their "sacred Honor." True, those who gathered around to sign the document engaged in some bravado. John Hancock scrawled his name large enough that the king could read it without his spectacles. When reproached with the fact that there were enough people by the same name in his state to assure him virtual anonymity, Charles Carroll from Maryland added "of Carrollton" to his signature, noting that there was only one man who would fit that description. But the task that lay ahead required endurance and tenacity to match the decisiveness just exercised.

The difficulties confronting the Patriots — for so those who favored independence have been most commonly called — were numerous and resistant to resolution. One such difficulty is frequently ignored by revolutionists, though failure to deal effectively with it thwarts the purposes for revolt; for the American colonists it was to see that the revolt against England did not turn into a revolt against all authority. The usual course of revolution is for a breakdown of authority to follow the repudiation of the old authority. When this happens, there ensues an often brutal contest for power, accompanied by the disintegration of society, bloodletting, and the development of well-nigh irreconcilable divisions among the people. Power is usually consolidated once again and order restored by an autocratic rule. The object for the original revolt, however noble, is commonly lost from sight as the yearning for order supersedes the quest for the good society.

The deepest source of the disintegrative impact of revolution no doubt lies in the human condition itself. What man is there who would not like a fresh start, who would not like to be free of his debts, who would not like to be relieved of the tangle of duties and obligations in which he finds himself, who would not relish the opportunity for starting over. Revolution appears to offer such an inviting prospect. As he made his way home from the First Continental Congress, John Adams encountered a man fired by emotions such as these. The man said: "Oh! Mr. Adams, what great things have you and your colleagues done for us! We can never be grateful enough to you. There are no courts of justice now in this province, and I hope there never will be another."1

John Adams understood that this was not a laudable opinion, and there were many others who intended to prevent the dissolution that would accompany the domination of events by men holding such opinions. The Americans were generally successful in avoiding many of the pitfalls of revolution. But, by the refusing to arouse the populace by holding forth visions of beatitude that would follow from their efforts, they also forfeited fanatical zeal in their followers. The American Patriots had quite limited means for achieving their limited ends.

Divided Opinion in America

A more obvious difficulty at the time was posed by the Loyalists —those who remained loyal to the king and to England. So long as the colonies retained their connection with Britain, most Americans joined in the opposition to British policies during the period of rising discontent. They sometimes differed over tactics and as to the correct theoretical position on the constitution. But once the decision for independence was made, some goodly number of people retained their loyalty to Britain. These threatened to turn the war into a domestic civil war as well as a war against Britain.

How many Loyalists there were was in doubt at the time and has remained so ever since. Those prosecuting the war in Britain wanted to believe that Americans in general retained their loyalty, especially that the sober and substantial inhabitants did. Hence, they were favorably disposed to exaggerated accounts of their numbers. Such a view made sense of the idea of subduing the "rebels," for after such a conquest Britain still might rule America if a substantial portion of the population was loyal. Moreover, British armies were continually being encouraged to come to this or that province on the grounds that Loyalists would turn out to support them in great number. The extent of loyalism has been revived as an important historical question in the twentieth century by those attempting to make a Marxist or class-struggle interpretation of American origins. These historians have resurrected what was once the British view for reasons quite different than those that would have interested King George III. On this class-struggle interpretation, men of wealth and position in America were usually Loyalists, and the thrust for revolt came from the lower classes.

This interpretation is not substantiated by the facts. A modern historian describes the social status of the Loyalists in this way: "Some came from quasi-aristocratic families, like the Fenwicks of South Carolina, and others were the humblest folk. They were rich, like Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, and they were poor; they were large landowners, and they were middling and small men of property; they stood behind counters, and they possessed hands unwrinkled by trade or toil…. Truth to tell, the Loyalists were of every station and every occupation."2 He goes on to point out that Anglican clergymen and other officials dependent upon Britain for appointment or livelihood were likely to remain loyal. He also notes that some men of conspicuous wealth were among the Loyalists,3 a point that is offset by the fact that there were prosperous men among the Patriots as well.

Textbook lore has it that the population was divided in this fashion: one-third Patriots, one-third Loyalists, and one-third neutrals. About the only thing to commend this estimate is that it is a formula easily remembered by undergraduates for test purposes. Since no census was ever taken to determine the number of Loyalists and Patriots, most evidence of numbers is indirect. The most critical of such evidence indicates that the Patriots generally preponderated over the Loyalists. Loyalists were able to achieve military successes only in conjunction with British armies. They could not even hold territory gained by the British. Once the main army moved on, Patriot militia usually swarmed over the Loyalists. The following estimate of Loyalist strength may be very near the mark: "In New England they may have been scarcely a tenth of the population; in the South a quarter or a third; but in the Middle colonies including New York perhaps nearly a half."4

There were, then, Loyalists in considerable number in America after the Declaration of Independence. They did not, however, succeed in turning the conflict into a full-fledged civil war. They were a threat to internal security; they offered encouragement to Britain to continue the war; they hampered the mustering of the resources of the states; and they attempted to undermine the war effort. It is not surprising, then, that the Patriots dealt with them ferociously when they encountered them in battle or that they were subject to persecution when they were discovered.

Wartime Problems

The leaders of the revolt had difficulty enough without civil war. They had to lead by way of makeshift governments during most of the war. The colonial governments were no more, once independence was declared. Indeed, they had already been replaced with provincial congresses or legislatures before that event in most states. They subsisted for some time without formal constitutions, and their exercise of authority smacked of extra-legality, to put the best face on it. Though the states were faced with the crisis of prosecuting a war, they were under the necessity of moving carefully in order to carry as many people with them as possible. The states were hardly united, and their war effort was plagued by the fact that each state tended to go its own way. The only union government which existed from 1775 into 1781 was that provided by the Second Continental Congress. It had no constitution, nor any authority except that which derived from the states. It was not a government in the usual sense of the word, though it attempted to perform the diplomatic and military functions of one. 

The most perplexing difficulties, however, were military and financial. To confront the most powerful navy in the world, the states had only a few ships that could be called warships; most of the damage they were able to do against the British was done by privateers which depended upon speed rather than armor. The armies should be called occasional rather than regular or standing. True, Congress authorized a Continental Army, made requisitions on the states for men and supplies, appointed generals, and undertook the direction of campaigns. There was a Continental Army from the time of its formation until the end of the war; but at times — usually in winter — it dwindled to the point that it more nearly resembled a party than an army. When some region was threatened, the army could be fleshed out with numerous increments of militia. The British did not usually conduct winter campaigns, so that an occasional army was nearly enough — for defensive purposes.

The Continental forces, during most of the war, however, were not sufficient to go on the offensive. The army frequently lacked most of the things which make an army: discipline, effective officers for smaller units, uniforms, blankets, tents, firewood, food, adequate shot and powder, sufficient muskets or rifles and bayonets, and continuity. The initial enlistments were for one year only: only long enough, as Washington observed, for them to absorb some training and come under discipline before their officers had to begin to treat them with great deference in the hope that they would re-enlist. The militia were undependable and unpredictable in combat in the open field; they were of greatest use when they outnumbered the enemy.

Financing was so ineptly managed and the consequences were so important both to the conduct of the war and the founding of the Republic that it will receive treatment in a separate chapter.

Advantages of the Patriots

It is appropriate to focus attention on the difficulties confronting the Americans in the War for Independence. It enables us to see highlighted the sacrifices, bravery, and tenacity of those who did persevere to victory. But it is appropriate also to note that the Patriots had advantages as well as difficulties. Americans were fighting, usually, on their own soil. They had the potentiality of supplying many of their wants at home. They did not have to conquer Britain, only to drive her forces from the states. They had much greater prospects of gaining friends among European nations than did Britain, for Britain’s successes in the Seven Year’s War had been at the expense of other major powers. The American Patriots had a cause, too, which much outranked that of their enemy. They were fighting for liberty and independence; the best that the British could do was appeal to monarchy, empire, and tradition, and their case for tradition was flawed by the innovations which had provoked colonial resistance.

Even the method of assembling and maintaining armies was more appropriate than is often appreciated. It is true, of course, that the army should have been better fed, clothed, shod, munitioned, and housed. A strong case can be made, too, that if Patriot commanders had had larger numbers of seasoned and disciplined troops they might well have won decisive victories long before they did. But it is quite possible that an army composed of men with long-term enlistments in resplendent uniforms, who were extensions of the wills of their officers and who had garnered a series of brilliant victories, would have endangered American liberty. Many thoughtful Americans feared just the sort of army wanted by any man confronted with the military tasks before him. Congress was loathe to encourage long enlistments. They feared a standing army, as might be expected of men of British descent. Americans were conscious not only of British history but of Roman history, and of the threat posed by successful generals. America did avoid the shoal of military dictatorship following the revolution, and a plausible reason why is that there was no army with which anyone inclined to such exploits could be confident of accomplishing them.

Outstanding Leadership

The Americans had another advantage, too; they had George Washington as commander-in-chief. Whether he was a great tactician or not is a question that can be left to military historians. But there should be no doubt that he had that peculiar combination of qualities of a man to whom others turn in difficult situations. He was dignified, tenacious, farsighted, disciplined, correct, and a gentleman. His personal bravery was of the sort that is called fearless among soldiers and sometimes foolhardy for a general. More than once he rallied his troops by exposing himself to enemy bullets. A lesser man than he would have committed and lost several armies, if he could have assembled that many. Washington was sorely tempted to risk his army to rescue and redeem his reputation. Yet he resisted this temptation time and again, believing that it was more important to keep an army in the field than hazard the American cause on the chance of gaining personal glory. He said after being driven from Long Island: "We should on all occasions avoid a general action, or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn."5 He persevered, persevered when beset by critics in Congress and the states, by the shortages and inadequacies of his army, by superior armies, by a war of attrition in the later years, and by mutiny of some of his forces. He had not only to direct his armies against enemy forces that frequently outnumbered his, were better equipped, better disciplined, and better supported but also to keep up a continual correspondence with Congress and with state officials to gain support and to get men and supplies. Small wonder that he often longed to return to Mt. Vernon and pursue his own affairs. Yet he persevered for more than eight years, from 1775 to 1783.

There were, of course, other generals and officers whose leadership and ability contributed to the American cause. Among them would be listed: Benedict Arnold (until his betrayal), Henry Knox, Anthony Wayne, Nathanael Greene, and Daniel Morgan. The Continental Army benefited much, too, from foreign volunteers, notably, Lafayette, De Kalb, and Von Steuben. And there were private soldiers, whose names do not adorn the pages of books, but who endured untold misery to remain with the Continental Army and provide the troops without which generals are of no account.

The British Forces

On paper, the British were so far superior to the Americans that no contest might have been expected. They had the most powerful navy in the world. They had an established government, the recognition of foreign powers, centralized taxation, established credit, a much larger population on which to draw, much greater productive capacity, and an existing and disciplined army, though it was small. They hired thousands of Germans to supplement their own forces. Moreover, Loyalists in America might support them.

But the task of the British was much more complex and difficult than that of the Americans. Armies had to be transported across 3,000 miles of ocean in unpredictable sailing ships. Not only that, but the army and navy had generally to be supplied from home, and this transport was frequently exposed to Patriot privateers along the thousands of miles of coast line of the American continent. Once their armies left the shelter of the supporting navies and moved inland, they were among a generally hostile population which rallied against them, as Generals Burgoyne and Cornwallis were to learn to their sorrow. They were always short of transport for inland maneuvers, and George Washington saw to it that very little fell into their hands. If America was divided at home, so were the British, though it did not tell much for the first couple of years.

British strategy was threefold: to isolate the continent from the rest of the world by blockade, to divide and conquer America, and to destroy Washington’s army. The policy of divide and conquer had many facets: rally the Loyalists to the cause, separate the regions from one another, capture the major seaports, and so on. Patriot strategy was, above all, to keep an army in the field, and, hopefully, to drive the British from the continent. The British aimed to keep down the atrocities so as not to turn more of the American population against them; in this they were frequently thwarted by armies which plundered and raped wherever they went. Washington’s armies were under strict orders not to plunder, but they did engage in confiscations to gain stores and supplies.

Hostilities broke out in Massachusetts, of course, in April of 1775, more than a year before the declaring of independence. For the remainder of the year and into the next, the bulk of the British forces were concentrated at Boston and environs. This force was under siege and cut off on land by Patriots.

The first major battle of the war took place June 17, 1775. It has gone down in history as the Battle of Bunker Hill, though, in fact, it was a battle over Breed’s Hill. The Americans, some 1,200 strong built a redoubt on Breed’s Hill, which the British attacked with 2,200 men against a slightly reinforced American force. The British took the hill, but at a cost of 1,000 casualties, two and a half times the losses by the Patriots. General Gage observed that he could ill afford another victory like that. Shortly afterward, Washington assumed command of the Patriot forces, and a stalemate ensued for the next several months.

Expedition Into Canada

The scene of action shifted elsewhere. For some time, Benedict Arnold, and others, had been promoting the idea of an expedition into Canada. It was hoped that such an undertaking would bring the Canadians in on the side of the states, would remove a haven from British forces who could from that vantage point launch an attack against the states, and would show to the British the determination of America. The plan was the more attractive because Canada was lightly defended. Congress was reluctant to authorize the expedition because there was still hope of reconciliation. Even so, permission was given for it finally.

Two armies were launched into Canada in late 1775. The main army which set out by way of Lake Champlain was initially under the command of General Philip Schuyler, but he fell ill and was replaced by the much more energetic Richard Montgomery. This army met with a series of successes by taking Forts Chambly and St. John’s, followed by Montreal. The way to Quebec, the historic key to dominance of Canada, now lay open.

Meanwhile, the second army under the command of Benedict Arnold was making its way toward Quebec by a more easterly route. Arnold set out up the Kennebec River through Maine along a route the difficulties of which were only hazily grasped at the start. Arnold and his men braved rapids, unsuspected waterfalls, long overland portages, and some of the most miserable weather ever recorded to reach their destination. "So great were the hardships that officers of the two rear divisions turned back with 350 men. But the rest plunged on through a forbidding wilderness, overcoming almost incredible obstacles. Some of them became lost; some died; all who could, struggled forward…. After a month of desperate effort, 600 scarecrows of men straggled into a camp on the headwaters of the Chaudieré."" This was in early November; they reached Quebec a few days later.

On December 2, 1775, Montgomery’s army joined forces with Arnold outside Quebec. Although they now had superiority in numbers over the British, they were unable to take advantage of it because Sir Guy Carleton chose to defend the city from behind its walls rather than come out into the open. An assault upon the city on December 31 failed. General Montgomery was able to get a small force within the walls, but he was killed, and Arnold’s men who were supposed to make a rendezvous with Montgomery’s were turned back after Arnold, who was wounded, relinquished the command. For several months, Americans continued to lay Quebec under siege, but to no avail. Superior British forces eventually arrived; though American reinforcements were also sent to Canada, they were driven out in 1776.

Washington vs. Howe

Early in the year of 1776, Washington succeeded in placing cannon on Dorchester Heights overlooking the British positions around Boston. Sir William Howe, now in command of the British army, judged his position to be too exposed, and in March the British abandoned Boston. Howe withdrew by sea to Halifax to await reinforcements. Meanwhile, Washington moved his army to New York in the expectation of a British attack there. It came in August. Howe drove Washington’s army from Long Island, from Manhattan, and then from White Plains. It then became a near rout as the British under the field command of Cornwallis followed Washington in a retreat through New Jersey. Washington managed to halt the British advance at the Delaware River in early December. He had gathered all the boats in the vicinity to transport his army across the river; once he had the boats on the other side, he kept them there.

In any case, Howe did not follow up his advantage. He went into winter quarters in New York City, leaving much of his army spread out over New Jersey. For the Continentals, it had been a year of defeats and withdrawals. On the heels of the Canadian losses had come the ousting of Washington’s army from New York. The British were now within a few miles from the capitol at Philadelphia. Washington had only the remnant of an army to oppose the military and naval might of Britain.

Howe could retire to the comforts of New York; he had victories enough to sustain him through the winter. No such pleasant option was open to Washington who was faced with the imminent dissolution of his army and, the way things were going, no prospects of another one. If the British would not attack, he must. Under the cover of darkness on Christmas night he crossed the Delaware with his army to attack the Hessian army at Trenton at daybreak. The Germans surrendered shortly after the attack began. A few days later, Washington engineered another victory at Princeton. From his base at Morristown, Washington continued to drive the British from their positions. The extent and impact of the continuation of this campaign is spelled out by Samuel Eliot Morison: "In a campaign lasting only three weeks, at a time of year when gentlemen were not supposed to fight, the military genius of America’s greatest gentleman, and the fortitude of some five thousand of his men, had undone everything Howe accomplished, recovered the Jersies, and saved the American cause."’

British Occupy Philadelphia

In 1777, the British launched their great offensive aimed at dividing America and destroying the Patriot ability to resist. At the beginning of the year, the massive force of British arms was centered in New York City. Another large army was in Canada. It was placed under the tactical command of General John Burgoyne. General Howe conceived initially of the grand strategy of attacking north from New York to make a junction with an attacking force from Canada. Such a victory along the line of Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson could have cut off New England from the rest of the states. However, Howe changed his mind, decided to attack Philadelphia instead, and put to sea with that destination in mind. He did leave behind an army, of sorts, under Sir Henry Clinton, but it was insufficient to perform both its tasks of occupation and conducting a major offensive campaign.

For a good portion of the summer, Howe’s destination was a mystery to Washington. The fleet was delayed first by an extended calm and then by contrary winds. Upon hearing that the fleet had been sighted to the south, Washington took the main body of his army to the vicinity of Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne to the mercy of the New England militia, as he said. Washington tried to block Howe’s advance with a smaller army at Brandywine Creek in early September, but was defeated and driven off. Howe moved on to the occupation of Philadelphia, which Congress had lately abandoned in haste. Washington’s attack early in October on the main British force at Germantown failed to dislodge it. He withdrew his army to Valley Forge after this defeat.

Burgoyne’s Surrender

Burgoyne had about 8,000 men at his disposal, including Loyalists and Indians. A detachment under Baron St. Leger was dispatched through the Mohawk valley from Oswego toward Albany. This detachment was dispersed by troops under Benedict Arnold. Burgoyne proceeded southward at a leisurely pace, one not entirely of his own choosing, since his path was frequently blocked by trees newly felled by Patriots. Meanwhile, militia began to assemble around a core of Continentals whose task was to stop Burgoyne. Eventually, so many militia had gathered to augment the Continentals under the command of General Horatio Gates that Burgoyne was outnumbered two to one. His supply route was cut by Patriots. Burgoyne’s hope of being relieved from New York City did not materialize; Clinton made only a foray up the river, stopping well short of Albany. Burgoyne was cut off, surrounded; he surrendered his army intact at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. Gates was credited with the victory, but men such as John Stark and Benedict Arnold led the aggressive actions which bottled up Burgoyne.

France Enters the War

Saratoga was the first great American victory. Trenton and Princeton had been important battles for keeping up morale, but they had been won at the expense of contingents of British forces. Burgoyne surrendered one of the major armies in America at Saratoga. There had been much sympathy among Frenchmen for the American cause from the beginning. America had sent emissaries even before declaring independence. By 1777, Congress had sent to France the best known American at the time and America’s premier diplomat, Benjamin Franklin. An alliance was drawn up between France and the states in February 1778, and shortly thereafter France was drawn into the war.

Not only did Saratoga bring France to the side of the American Patriots, but it showed to any of the British willing to learn the immensity of the task that lay before them. Contemporaries thought General Howe was much too cautious, even lazy and indifferent, if not a secret sympathizer with the Patriots. Historians of a later date have belabored him for unimaginative tactics. Yet Howe was the only commanding general who ever put Washington’s army to rout and administered successive defeats. But to those who would see, Burgoyne’s defeat showed what could well happen to any British general who committed his forces beyond naval support. Far from finding numerous Loyalists in the hinterland, Burgoyne found the countryside swarming with militia waiting to demonstrate the marksmanship of the backwoods. Nor would the continent succumb to the capture of this or that eastern port city, even if one was the capital. America had no central city; it was a land of farmers mainly who knew not the dependence, common in Europe, on a single city. There was no Rome to fall in America.

It is reasonable to conjecture that the American Patriots should have won the war in 1778. They now had an ally who could challenge the British fleet and overmatch the British army. The Americans had shown that they could defeat a British army. Britain was not in dire straits, but even the government was no longer so determined to win. Lord North got a bill through Parliament in February 1778 aimed at reconciliation with America. A peace commission was dispatched a little later which was authorized to offer Americans just about everything they had asked for short of independence. A command crisis developed in the British forces in 1778. Burgoyne returned home on parole and in disgrace. The Howe brothers resigned command of the army and navy in America. General Howe may have been cautious, but Henry Clinton, who replaced him, was inept. Surely, all it would have taken to drive the British from America would have been a decisive mustering of American strength.

The Winter at Valley Forge

This was not to be the case, however. Perhaps a better omen than Saratoga for the immediate future was Valley Forge. The war was to drag on for the better part of five more years, and the condition of the Continental army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778 tells us why, at least in part. One of Washington’s biographers has described conditions this way:

Thus, at the beginning of 1778, the Army was witnessing one of the strangest of races, a contest between the axes of the men building huts and the harsh wear-and-tear on the remaining garments of those who still had sufficient clothing to permit outdoor duty…. Although hospital huts were built early and in what was believed to be sufficient number, they soon were overcrowded with miserable men who died fast or, if they survived, received little attention. In spite of all exertion, it was the middle of January when the last of the troops were under roof. Even then they did not always have straw to take the chill from the earthen floor of their huts. Thousands had no bed covering.

Food, of course, was the absolute essential — and food, more than even clothing or blankets or straw, was lacking at Valley Forge…. "Fire cakes" frequently were all the half-naked men had to eat in their overcrowded, smoky huts. Early in the New Year most of the regiments had to be told the Commissary could issue no provisions because it had none, none whatsoever….

These were desperate hours. Washington continued to watch and to warn. "A prospect now opens," he said February 17, "of absolute want such as will make it impossible to keep the Army much longer from dissolution…."8

Indeed, the army did seem to be on the verge of dissolution. "In December 1777, for example, over two thousand men went home. Hundreds of officers tendered their resignations; on one day alone, fifty threw up their commissions."9 Nor are these resignations and desertions to be wondered at when the hardships of the army are contrasted with the relatively good life of civilians. It is generally believed that about the only people in America suffering privation were in the army. One historian says, "Civilians declined to forgot their pleasures merely because the army was in want; at a ball at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in January 1778, over one hundred ladies and gentlemen gathered in all their finery to enjoy a ‘cold collation with wine, punch, sweet cakes…, music, dancing, singing… which lasted until four o’clock in the morning."10 These revels were taking place only a short distance from Valley Forge.

The incongruities here account for the American impotence. The reason for their existence needs now to be explained. 

Next: The Scourge of Inflation.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1 Quoted in Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 663.

2 John R. Alden, The American Revolution (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1954), p. 85.

3 Ibid., p. 86.

4 Piers Mackesy, The War for America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 36.

5 Quoted in ibid., p. 91.

6 John R. Alden, A History of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), pp. 203-05.

7 Samuel E. Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 244.

8 Douglas S. Freeman, Washington, abridged by Richard Harwell (NewYork: Scribner’s, 1968), pp. 373-74.

9 John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1948), p. 225.

10 Ibid., p. 223.

 

***

Discipline

Call it high training, or culture, or discipline, or high breeding, or what you will, it is only the sense of what we owe to ourselves, and it is greater and greater according to our opportunities.

From an essay by WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER 

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}