Global distraction?


June 11, 2015
by Editors Also by this Author


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What impact did British involvement elsewhere in the world have on operations in North America? Explain.


As brilliantly told in Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America, in February 1781 Rodney sacked St. Eustatius, a Dutch-held Caribbean island that served as a major trading port for the shipment of arms and munitions to the American colonists. Rodney’s decisions after this point set in motion a chain of events that would lead to British General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.  Rodney’s decision to return to England to defend merited accusations against him for profiting from the sacking meant he, as perhaps the Royal Navy’s top fighting admiral, was not there to lead the British fleet against De Grasse, not to mention that he took some warships back with him to England.  Of course, de Grasse cut off Cornwallis and his troops’ access to supplies and an escape route at Yorktown.  Rodney chose to protect his captured goods from the conquest of St. Eustatius over protecting a British army. Others considered it an innocent miscalculation. Regardless, the outcome of the raid on St. Eustatius, according to O’Shaughnessy, remains the same: the loss of North America.

Christian M. McBurney


Once France (or more specifically, the French naval fleet) officially entered the war in 1778, Britain found itself having to prioritize her now world-wide threats. What started off as a show of force to drive the insolent American subjects to surrender had opened the door to Britain’s long-time enemy to attack British global economic interests.

In London, it was decided to abandon the fight in New England in lieu of a “Southern Strategy”. That focus, with the supposed help of southern Loyalists, was to retain by force the lucrative southern colonies and their cash crops. Britain also was forced to divert remaining portions of the army and navy to protect the British prize jewel – the Caribbean sugar islands. Additionally, Britain also had to reassign its navy from America to protect its commerce in India and Gibraltar… and then also keep some vessels near Britain for an expected French invasion.

John L. Smith, Jr.


British involvement in the Caribbean dramatically reshaped operations in North America as Andrew O’Shaughnessy explains in An Empire Divided: The American Revolution in the British Caribbean.

After 1778, the British diverted resources to the Caribbean, essentially giving up Philadelphia to try to save their islands. In three years, five thousand British troops were dead; these men might have fought in North America. Admiral George Rodney’s missteps led to the British defeat at Yorktown. In 1781, Rodney attacked and plundered Dutch St. Eustatius, a center for contraband and privateers. Rodney was so intent on ransacking the island and committing war crimes that he failed to intercept Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet sailing for the Chesapeake Bay. Rodney also failed to promptly send British reinforcements. As a result, the Royal Navy could not prevent General Cornwallis’ entrapment—and ultimate surrender—at Yorktown.

Daniel J. Tortora


The “global distraction” became one of the keys to American victory when France entered the war on America’s side. The British sent thousands of men to defend the West Indies, weakening their American army to do so. The islands were worth more than the contentious 13 mainland colonies. Sugar was the oil of the 18th Century and the Islands production of it was crucial to the imperial economy.

Thomas Fleming


Thanks to Saratoga and the subsequent intervention of French resources in the patriot cause, England found itself spread very thin worldwide as it tried to fend off foreign designs on its possessions (note that in North America alone, there were no less than twenty-seven separate garrisons that required provisioning).  This involved redistributing naval assets to protect interests in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the coast of Africa, and India where the French, Dutch, and Spanish all threatened.  Additionally, Irish unrest, the long term siege of Gibraltar, and pending invasion of England by the French and Spanish added heavily to their concerns and subsequent deployment of resources.  As a result, when Clinton needed reinforcements for New England in 1780 or the navy required transports to aid Cornwallis in the south, it was they who suffered as they tried to quell the never-ending depredations the rebels were inflicting on them in this war of a thousand cuts.

Gary Shattuck


The British government understood that maintaining its base at Gibraltar was crucial to remaining the most powerful naval power in the Atlantic, so it put a huge amount of resources into defending that outpost from Spain and France. The government also saw that its most lucrative colonies on the western side of that ocean were the Caribbean sugar islands, not the rebellious thirteen colonies on the mainland. Finally, at the same time that Britain was losing a big chunk of its North American empire, it was gaining the start of an Indian empire that would make it a world power for another century and a half. So the British military was spread very thin during the American War for Independence, for good reasons.

-J. L. Bell


February 1782 turned out to be the British low point in the American Revolution.  A dramatic global turnaround for the British started in the economically vital Caribbean region.  Over the four day period April 9 to 12, 1782, Admiral Sir George Rodney thoroughly defeated a French invasion fleet destined for Jamaica under the command of Admiral Francois-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, a small group of islands between Dominica and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.  Admiral de Grasse’s fleet was largely destroyed as a fighting force and he was taken captive.

This victory was strategically important in tipping the balance of power in the economically critical Caribbean to the British.  Further the naval triumph was especially satisfying to the British Navy as revenge for Admiral de Grasse’s victory in the Chesapeake that sealed Lord Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown.

This victory allowed the British to conclude the American Revolution with retaining its most valuable West Indies possessions while only giving up the less valuable 13 colonies, Florida and Minorca.

Gene Procknow


The British West Indian islands and the fear of losing these valued territories once France formally entered the war in support of the American rebels in 1778.  No longer could the British concentrate their military resources solely on the Americans.  They began to disperse their forces to other locations, including their West Indian island holdings, to protect these valuable sugar producing entities from being overrun and captured by French naval forces.  Further, France toyed with an invasion of England itself.  No longer were the British just attempting to put down a rebellion; rather they now had to engage in a spreading world war.  Their focus now dispersed, the British failed in their southern campaigns after 1778, even with loyalist assistance, all of which set the stage for the combined Franco-American victory at Yorktown and the beginning of the end of British attempts to put down the rebellion.

-James Kirby Martin


Britain was spread so dangerously thin across the globe that it could not devote the resources it needed to suppress the rebellion here. Frightened by a French-Spanish armada that cruised the English Channel, military commanders kept almost 64,000 men in South Britain, plus more than 4,000 on the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey. Meanwhile, over 7,000 were besieged in Gibraltar and Minorca in the Mediterranean, and these could only be supplied by naval forces breaking through the enemy’s blockade. Although Yorktown was a terrible defeat, it was the fall of Minorca months later that struck the final blow to North’s ministry. By then, British leaders realized that only a withdrawal from America could save the empire. Peace came just in time. A French fleet had arrived in India to support the local rebellion there, but with hostilities officially terminated, French commanders were obliged to call off their assault. (Required reading for the global perspective: Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783.)

Ray Raphael


  • Certainly the global nature of the war after 1778 was a major contributor to Britain’s problems in North America, but their complete inability to prioritize in their strategic decision-making in America at least suggests that with more men the same problems would have remained (unless they were able to simply pour in such enormous amounts of manpower that they could just smother the rebellion, which would have been doubtful for other reasons). Consider for example the modern day example of the Surge in Iraq. Unfortunately this label suggests all the US did was add additional forces, and that is how it is mostly referred to now, several years later. Of far greater importance, however, was establishing some kind of strategic coherence in Iraq.

    I think John Shy best described British strategic ineptness, referring to Germain: “Germain…tended to shift priorities, almost from one month’s letter to the next, even from paragraph to paragraph. Nothing was more important than the West Indies, he wrote, but he also thought the war might be ended if attacks on the American coastline cut off rebel trade. The evacuation of New York was unthinkable, of course, and no chance should be missed to destroy Washington; holding major seaports was a key to British strategy, Germain thought, yet the Loyalists were another key, and Clinton should send expeditions out to encourage them. And, finally, there was the South, which more than once, when he felt that Clinton was too concerned with luring Washington into battle or reinforcing Canada, Germain would describe as an object of ‘vast’ importance, vast being one of his favorite words.” (A People Numerous and Armed, 203)

    O’Shaughnessy has ably defended Germain, noting that he was acting under a number of constraints, from the Cabinet, from the weakness of his own position, from the inability of the various services to communicate, etc. That is all true, so it is wrong to only blame Germain. There was indeed an attitude pervasive throughout the government and military leadership of issuing long, sometimes contradictory orders, and then claiming that none of them were orders and the recipient should do whatever he thought best. Clinton rightly noted that coming from Germain this essentially amounted to “heads you win, tails I lose” since if he followed orders and won, he was only acting according to orders. If he followed orders and lost, he would be accused of too slavishly following orders rather than adapting to conditions on the ground. If he disobeyed orders and lost, well, he was disobeying orders which would rarely be to his benefit. Nevertheless, Clinton used this same passive aggressive approach, as did other officers in the colonies.

    Germain was also obsessed with diversionary raids in the Chesapeake while British forces were operating further South. In theory, these raids made at least some sense, as they were to weaken Patriot forces as some of them had to pull away from operations in the South to defend the new point of attack (or in the case of Virginia, prevent that state from sending reinforcements to the South), They were also to destroy supplies that the British were certain were the only thing sustaining Patriots and keeping them from submitting (This assumption would eventually contribute to the decision by Cornwallis, having recently abandoned the southern strategy, to move into Virginia)

    In practice, however, these diversionary raids almost never achieved their full purpose. While they may have reduced the number of reinforcements Virginia could send to the southern states, they proved largely unnecessary as the British army in the South showed it had no real idea of how to pacify the Patriots already operating in those provinces. At other times, when these diversions occurred in the Carolinas, the Patriots were able to divert some of their own forces to defend against those attacks with few negative consequences for their main force.

    For example, in early 1779, after the fall of Savannah, and the march led by Archibald Campbell to Augusta, Augustine Prevost, who commanded in Savannah, sent a force of several hundred infantry to attack Port Royal by sea. This was meant to pull away some of Benjamin Lincoln’s force across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Fortunately, Prevost and Campbell (like other British commanders to follow) demonstrated a poor understanding of the southern strategy and assumed all the Loyalists in Georgia would flock to Campbell at Augusta, leaving him able to move into SC even as the Georgia backcountry remained in chaos.

    The diversionary attack succeeded in pulling off some militia, led by William Moultrie, who successfully defended Port Royal. At the same time losing those men temporarily was no great loss to Lincoln, b/c Campbell and Prevost so fundamentally misapplied their own strategy. When he realized what a precarious position he was in, with Lincoln’s army across the river and Patriots operating in his rear preventing the Loyalists from assembling or moving to him, he withdrew to Savannah and the Port Royal attack was for naught. Seeing as how Prevost was able to spare those several hundred infantrymen, they would have been much better served marching with Campbell in assisting in organizing Loyalist support.

    Clinton continued sending men on these raids largely because Germain thought they were a great idea. When Cornwallis wisely rerouted Alexander Leslie from the Chesapeake to reinforce him in North Carolina in late 1780, Clinton just dispatched two more diversionary attacks, first under Benedict Arnold and later William Phillips. In theory both of these forces would have been better utilized reinforcing Cornwallis in the Carolinas as well, but since Cornwalllis had by then given up on the southern strategy, and had never really understood it in the first place, it’s questionable whether that would have mattered. It was, however, Phillips’ presence in Virginia that actually convinced Cornwallis to leave NC for Virginia. Therefore these diversions were not only did nothing to help the implementation of the southern strategy, but were incredibly counterproductive.

    In addition to the misallocation and mismanagement of the (admittedly limited) resources they did have at their disposal raising the question of whether anything would have been different if the British had more men to send to North America, I’m also somewhat unconvinced of the overarching importance of another element of the “global war” argument. Mackesy (along with many other historians) notes the difficulty and time lag hindering communication between London and the colonies. While I don’t doubt that the British would have benefitted from having a commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America, they nevertheless showed a total disregard for the importance of communication in and between the colonies themselves.

    Early in the war, the southern governors tried desperately to get some kind of support from Gage and Graves, but were often simply ignored. The same governors also showed little imagination in communicating amongst themselves to coordinate a response to the Patriot efforts to overthrow royal government in those provinces. They repeatedly sent their correspondence in the same manner, even after the Patriots had already intercepted the mail on at least one occasion. It was the attention the Patriots paid to disrupting British communications between colonies, between the southern colonies and the army in the North, and between the southern colonies and London that gave them a distinct advantage. The inability of the royal officials to adapt or show any real imagination in coordinating a strategy raises the question of whether the ocean or their own lack of creative thinking and ability to adapt was the bigger problem.

    1. Dan,

      Nice discussion regarding the many hurdles facing the British post-Saratoga. I love Shy, but would defer to O’Shaughnessy’s various assessments of Germain for a more sympathetic, and, to me anyway, reasonable, treatment; he was truly a tragic figure in a tragic drama. Your point concerning the need for a North American commander-in-chief is well taken, and was one that Howe and Burgoyne advocated when they sought the appointment of a viceroy in order to overcome the time and distance factors (Mackesy, 74). One can only wonder at what might have occurred had that taken place; of course, Amherst had removed himself from the equation, so who might that have been?

      Regarding your impressions concerning British purported “lack of creative thinking” or “ability to adapt,” I would offer this. At no time in British colonial history had they ever been faced with the myriad of challenges that broke out in 1775, and which became only more complicated after Saratoga. There was, of course, the initial strategy, which many historians believe was feasible, to split the rebelling New England colonies from the rest and then move on to some kind of “victory.” But after Saratoga this became a world war and was virtually unwinnable; a fact that George III was simply not going to accept.

      However, that did not stop the consideration of alternative strategies in an attempt to adapt to the new circumstances. Unfortunately, the southern strategy was a mess and any reliance that loyalists were going to save the day was wholly misplaced; see also, Mackesy, p. 252, regarding Germain’s plan to sway Crown-inclined colonists over to their side. Add the fact that there was an ongoing civil war taking place when they landed troops and it made the task all the more impossible.

      What the British seemed to lack the most was accurate intelligence of the true situation on the ground (i.e., extreme paucity, or capabilities, of loyalists) so that they could make accurate assessments and then respond accordingly; assuming, of course, they could first surmount their initial predispositions to think they already had the facts. The time and distance factors, together with reports from commanders that were not entirely accurate or consistent certainly made subsequent decisions all the more problematic.

      There were also the inherent structural deficiencies within the British civil and military components that made any hope of success increasingly difficult, but, based on the facts coming in, I am not convinced that there was a corresponding lack of creative thinking or adapting going on; in fact, I think there was a flurry of it! The problem was, as they say in the computer world, junk in, junk out, and if Germain and company had the wrong facts, then only wrong results could be expected.

      Interesting stuff, indeed!

      1. Hi Gary,

        Thanks for your reply. Most of our disagreement comes from different starting assumptions. Most historians since the first days after the war have made the claim that the southern strategy was inherently flawed because the British exaggerated the number of Loyalists. This claim was first made by Cornwallis himself after the Loyalists failed to show up as he expected. 19th and early 20th century historians of the war made this same claim at least in part because it supported the consensus history of the war, that Patriot support was so widespread and the cause so just that there simply were no loyalists. The outpouring of scholarship on the war in the 1960s and 70s (Shy, Higginbotham, Smith, Mackesy, etc) make these claims as well. This – as Shy later alluded to – was in large part influenced by Vietnam and the idea of ideological mobilization of the population as the key to victory in insurgency. Attempts to “win hearts and minds” were non-starters and Vietcong/North Vietnamese victory was all but inevitable.

        The problem is that Cornwallis’s own comments on the topic were incredibly self-serving and covered up the fact that he didn’t really understand the British strategy. He was not alone. He, like Campbell, Prevost, and others, assumed that Loyalists would simply flock to the British army wherever they were, fall in line, and be immediately effective in fighting the Patriots. He gave almost no consideration to the need to organize, train, equip and support the new Loyalist militias. He withdrew his regular forces from the front line along the NC border with SC, and was then surprised when those Loyalist units collapse.

        Only recently have historians started to focus on this area. The most notable example so far is Jim Piecuch’s Three Peoples, One King. Piecuch provides in exhausting detail the hundreds and thousands of Loyalists who showed up in Savannah, Augusta, Charleston, and the SC backcountry and the contributions they made. I would add that this was the turnout even though the British put almost no effort into recruiting, organization, and training.

        What Cornwallis didn’t understand is that the Patriots, from the earliest days of the war had emphasized a strategy not of targeting the British army directly, but of controlling the Loyalist population and preventing them from assembling, marching to British lines, or otherwise supporting the British. The British chased the Patriot main army through Georgia, into SC, into Charleston and into NC, and defeated that army no fewer than three times – all to no avail. James Wright, the royal governor of Georgia before 1775 and after 1779, wrote repeatedly to Germain, Cornwallis, and anyone else who would listen, that most of Georgia remained fully under Patriot control, no matter how many conventional victories the British army pulled off. He was one of the few who actually understood the strategy – most everyone else failed to understand that conventional victory did not bring control.

        Therefore, to argue (as Shy, Higginbotham, Mackesy, et al do) that the mobilization of ideological support among the population was the primary key to Patriot victory and made the outcome all but inevitable after a certain date is to only see insurgency through a single Communist/Cold War model. As more recent, post-Cold War violence has shown us, there are many other models of insurgency (for example, narco-insurgency in Mexico and formerly in other Latin American countries where the insurgents were satisfied with co-opting the government rather than overthrowing it, and were totally ambivalent to mobilizing support through ideology). The Patriots certainly used ideological mobilization to great success – no doubt about it. But what that conflict, the Communist-inspired insurgencies, and various other insurgencies (both democratic and not) since then have had in common was a need to deny the enemy the ability to leverage its own supporters within the population. The southern strategy failed not because it was inherently flawed, but because most of the British officers and politicians responsible for its implementation simply didn’t understand how to leverage their own supporters in the colonies. This is not terribly surprising – it’s a long road from strategic planning to implementation. It’s like playing a game of telephone – by the time it gets to the front lines the strategy can be unrecognizable.It has happened more than once in our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

        This leads to another assumption where we differ. I don’t think calling the war in the South a civil war is all that analytically helpful, and can actually be counterproductive. Yes, there were two groups from the same polity engaged in violence against each other, so it fits a technical definition of civil war. But we might benefit by borrowing from political scientists who study civil wars for a living. James Fearon, for example, defines a civil war as “a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies.” In other words, the two sides fighting each other are fighting for the right to rule either in a part or a whole of the country. Using this definition, it’s less clear that the American Revolution (at least in the South) was a civil war. The Patriots were certainly fighting to seize and keep political control, but Loyalists for the most part were not. They were fighting so that someone else, a third party could continue its rule.

        The reason this matters is because if we’re working under the assumption that the Revolution was a civil war, it leads to conclusions about the use of violence in the war that I believe are mistaken. In the southern colonies, (which I know more about than the North), the Patriots knew the British needed Loyalists both early in the war to hold onto power and during the southern strategy to take back control of those provinces. The violence used by the Patriots against the Loyalists by and large had the very strategic purpose that I mentioned above – to control the Loyalist population and prevent the British from leveraging their support. They did not fight Loyalists because they were irreconcilable or because of some concept of impurity in the body politic, or any of the usual reasons you see in revolutions. Yes, there were exceptions, as there are in any war. But the Patriots in the South mostly followed through with a very deliberate strategy, and the Patriot leadership – made up mostly of the societal elite – worked hard to maintain centralized control of that strategy and prevent the equivalent of The Terror that would have been more likely if there was no leadership and the masses were acting at will.

        There were British officials who understood the rebel strategy and how the British needed to adapt to counter it. Early in the war, after the defeat of the Loyalists and Highlanders at Moore’s Creek Bridge, Josiah Martin, the royal governor of NC, noted that the fundamental flaw of the plan was to have the Loyalists and Highlanders march on their own to the coast through Patriot-controlled areas. He noted to Dartmouth that the Patriots simply controlled every pass between the coast and Cross Creek, where the Loyalists assembled, and were able to block all communication between him and the Loyalist leadership. During the entire march to the coast, the Patriots were able to a) use intimidation, propaganda, and targeted violence along the route so by the time the Loyalists got to Moore’s Creek Bridge they were a tiny fraction of what they started with and b) direct the movement of the Loyalist force to funnel them into areas along the route that gave the Patriots an operational and tactical advantage. Martin concluded to Dartmouth (although Germain had taken over by that time, unbeknownst to Martin) that any future operation involving the Loyalists simply could not rely on the Loyalists to travel over hundreds of miles through enemy-controlled territory to reach the British. The British would have to fight its way into the territory to collect and organize the Loyalists themselves. The British never did this during their southern campaign of 1779-1781.

        Furthermore, perhaps surprisingly, two junior officers who understood at least in part how to leverage Loyalist support were Patrick Ferguson and Banastre Tarleton. Ferguson understood that the Loyalist militias would require a good deal of training before they’d have a chance of being effective in the field, and would also require continued support from the regular army (or at least advisor/commanders like Ferguson) until they were ready to stand on their own. Tarleton understood the same concept, arguing that the Loyalists would need something closer to the training given provincial units. Again, this would take time, which would require continued support from the regular army, but this conflicted with Cornwallis’s belief that if you weren’t on both the strategic and tactical offensive you were losing. Now, of course, Ferguson and Tarleton were both preoccupied with chasing down and punishing Patriots, which got in the way of developing their ideas for leveraging Loyalist support (as did Ferguson’s death), and Tarleton made these comments in his memoir so there’s a bit of hindsight involved as well. Nevertheless, they understood that you could not push newly formed Loyalist units to the front, under leadership known more for their political allegiance and economic connections than their military acumen, withdraw all support from regular forces and expect them to be effective (or cohesive). Cornwallis instead found it surprising that these militia units collapsed, and called the Loyalists stupid, lazy, cowards, and traitors.

        Finally, as I mentioned above, the one British official who understood what was going on better than anyone else was James Wright. He had learned from his experience before the war and in 1775-1776 when he had made plenty of his own mistakes, and now understood that the Patriot strategy was to largely ignore the British army and instead focus on controlling the Loyalist population. He argued that when he was recalled to service in 1779 he had been misled as to the state of British authority in GA, that he couldn’t hold elections to restore civil government in that province since either the Patriots would prevent anyone from showing up to vote or they themselves would end up winning the elections. He was livid when most of his military resources were diverted to the siege of Charleston, noting that it was crazy to continue pushing forward when you had no control overt the territory in your rear.

        He continually requested military support for Georgia, including posts in the backcountry and cavalry to allow the British to break the control the Patriots held over the population. He was ignored by Germain and belittled by Cornwallis, who eventually just stopped replying to his letters and told Nisbet Balfour, the commandant of Charleston to take over that correspondence. Cornwallis insisted that with the British post at Ninety Six there was no threat to Georgia, which is absurd because the post at Ninety Six could barely even secure the Ninety Six district. Cornwallis told Wright that because civil government had been reestablished in Georgia the province itself would have to pay for any security measures.

        Bottom line: The southern strategy was not inherently flawed. As Piecuch and a few others have shown, Loyalist turnout was actually decent and that was based on almost no effort from the British paid towards assembling and organizing the Loyalists. The problem was just that – that the British paid almost no attention to what would be required to leverage that support, to organize it efficiently, and to make it effective. The Patriots understood what their enemy’s strategy would be, and maintained a consistent strategy of their own to prevent the British from accessing the Loyalist population. The British, in turn, did not understand the Patriot strategy, and when their own strategy didn’t work, they assumed it was because the Loyalists didn’t exist. The southern strategy had a chance at moderate success, but its greatest chance was in 1779 with the invasion of Georgia. When they demonstrated that they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Patriot strategy, and moved into SC to continue conventional operations, they essentially ensured they would make the same mistakes in SC. This would make success all but impossible no matter how many times they destroyed the southern Continental Army.

        1. Btw, if it sounds like I was writing a dissertation there, it’s because it was, and I’m just now winding down from dissertation mode. So my apologies for the length. Hopefully I’ll be able to get it published as a book at some point.

  • Dan,

    I have no issue with the fact that there was a respectable showing of Loyalists, for indeed there was. The distinction I was aiming towards was that this war was simply unwinnable; my reference to “civil war” referred to the players in the south fighting among themselves, a contest into which the British unknowingly stepped and was not intended to mean the overall fight of Brit vs. colonist, which was indeed a revolution.

    Too much weighed against the British, they had essentially already lost the northern colonies and were hoping to win them back by succeeding in the south and using that as an example to coax northerner sympathizers back into the fold. Even if they had met with some success, the majority of northerners would never have caved in any meaningful way and the contest would have continued on.

    This was an ideological war based on irreconcilable legal points of law: in essence, where was the locus of power, in metropolitan London or the colonial assemblies? (See, Jack Greene’s work, including The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution). Too much time had passed allowing the colonies to gain the belief that as Englishmen they had the right to rule themselves through their legislatures, not far off London; after all, the English delayed for decades in advancing their authority post 1688, only doing so with the Stamp Act. The Americans might lose a battle here or there, but this legal distinction was never going to go away until a final separation came about simply because the Brits, strongly advocated by George III, were not about to concede their “right” to dictate laws to the colonies.

    So, from my perspective, as far as the Revolution per se goes, the southern campaign was a significant waste of time and energy and only delayed the inevitable, one made all the more real because of the stretched situation the British found themselves in this world war. The tragedy was in their failing to recognize this after 1777 and trying to cut their losses.

    1. Hi Gary,

      A couple thoughts: First, I would just suggest again that the Patriots were fighting the Loyalists specifically to prevent them from assisting the British. It was not a fight over who would rule at home, but because there was an internal threat from part of the population that was necessary for the enemy’s success. The British didn’t step into the fight so much as they were the cause of the fight.

      As for the British making political concessions – they were ready to make massive concessions with the Carlisle Commission in 1778, including putting on the table “every privilege that is short of a total separation of interests.” If they had done that in 1775, maybe it would have worked. By 1778, particularly following Saratoga, the entry of the French into the war, and the withdrawal of forces from Philadelphia, they simply weren’t in any position to negotiate and offer concessions. They were losing, and they knew it – they just hoped (futilely, as it turned out) that the Patriots didn’t realize it. Also, after the fall of Charleston in 1780, as a condition of the paroles they issued, the British promised the people would be taxed only by their local representatives. Devolution of powers to the local assemblies had also been offered at other times. Whether they intended to follow through with this or not doesn’t really matter (though the Carlisle Commission suggests they were pretty desperate). What matters is that it was offered as a concession to attract support. The political situation was not going to return to the status quo ante, but military success (or lack thereof) was critical for determining negotiating position, or the difference between a version of Canada and total independence.

      (As an aside, there is a strand of argument in Revolutionary historiography now that perhaps the Revolution was a mistake, because after all Canada and the other dominions didn’t need to fight for independence in all but name. Of course, the problem with that argument is that the parameters by which the new dominions focused originated with the concessions offered by the Carlisle Commission – which they only offered because they were in such a precarious position in the war)

      There is a lot of debate in the historiography about the British failure to “win hearts and minds” or their failure to be punitive enough and, to paraphrase Franklin and Mary Wickwire, respond to terror with terror. Most historians take the first argument, though some offer the second (in addition to the Wickwires, Ian Saberton does as well in his section introductions in The Cornwallis Papers). The truth of the matter, however, is that both arguments miss the point as they give too much agency to the inhabitants and ignore the realities of the Patriot strategy of control. Consider for example, the following excerpt from a letter from Henry Laurens to his son John Laurens about the ways in which the Patriot leadership trapped people reluctant individuals into openly supporting the rebellion:

      ‘[M]y friend the Speaker who “could See nothing to Cry about” as he elegantly prosed it in January last now Sighs heaves, exclaims he is “Shocked” “tis shocking.” & Soforth, sits with anguish & indignation Strongly marked on his Visage. I gently retort did I not tell you it would come to this if once you Steped over the line? poor Man! yesterday he was much agitated by a proposition that the Congress Should exercise the powers vested in Governor & Council for regulating the Militia. “That I fear, Said he, would be taking the Government upon ourselves, taking the Reins into our own hands.” the Wily artful priest who first perhaps betrayed, now insulted him “O Sir you Should have thought of that long ago, tis too late now. If you are afraid of Treason & Rebellion I believe you will find some of our Acts in the last Congress were Overt Acts of Treason within the definition of the best Writers.”

      This is clever enough. Men venture in order to hold or procure popularity upon the brink, then go a Step within the Whirlpool of confusion. There, alarmed by the heat & convulsion of the Waters, they Stop Short & would endeavour to retreat & to reinstate themselves on Terra firma. No no say the deluders, here you must Stay & if you will not be active yourselves you must not now attempt to hinder our progress or by Jove we will drown you.”‘

      Compare that to the following, from modern counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen about the way the Taliban does the same thing in Afghanistan, and why offering political concessions or increasing governmental services might be insufficient to attract support – even from those otherwise inclined to support the government in Kabul.

      “The attractiveness of Taliban dispute resolution is the bait in a fish trap. When the Taliban court has reached a verdict, both parties to the dispute are obliged to sign, or make their mark, on a court record held by the local underground cell. This record allows enforceability, but it also puts those who sign it at the mercy of the Taliban. By recognizing the Taliban court’s authority to resolve disputes, our hypothetical elder has literally signed on to their broader agenda. The local Taliban have his name and signature on their court document, and at any time they can make a claim on his allegiance or blackmail him by threatening to expose his involvement to the authorities…At the same time, he has of course technically broken the law by turning to the Taliban to have his dispute resolved, and thus is further alienated from the police and the government. As long as the Taliban court’s judgment is fair and consistently enforced, he has no incentive to oppose them and every incentive to support them, regardless of his view of their ideology.

      […] In the meantime…we can note that even if the government improves its service delivery in this particular elder’s area, reduces corruption, does a better job of law enforcement, and creates a more consistent local presence in his area…this may not help. At this point, having availed himself of the Taliban justice system, the elder’s claim to a valuable disputed asset depends on the guerrillas’ authority, and that makes it extremely difficult for him to support the government or go against the insurgents, whatever his feelings about the state. The elder in this context is a fish in the trap: he’s locked into an incentive structure that is easy and attractive to get into, but hard and painful, if not impossible, to escape.”

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