Best counterpunch? What was the best or most effective return-action of the Revolution? A case where the Americans or British moved first, but the enemy reacted better. Explain.
Major General Nathanael Greene’s decision after he lost the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Lord Cornwallis invaded Virginia, convinced that if he smashed the Revolution in that state, the other states of the South would collapse. Greene decided to go in the opposite direction and invade South Carolina. While Cornwallis rampaged through Virginia, Greene destroyed one British outpost after another in the Tarheel state, forcing the British to retreat to Charleston. It was a daring gamble that paid off, thanks to General Washington and General Rochambeau’s descent to Virginia to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Possibly the best and most gallant return-action example might be during the Battle of Long Island. With the lines of Gen. Sullivan and Gen. Alexander collapsing and men running for the safety of Gowanus Creek, Gen. Alexander -Lord Sterling led about 250 of his Maryland regiment of raw recruits to hold off the advance of Cornwallis and the 71st Regiment of Highlanders. This bought precious time for many American soldiers to successfully escape. Sterling and his men went up against a hail of fire from British muskets and two field-pieces.
Sterling’s column was pushed back five times, and five times again, they advanced with Sterling leading the charge each time. Finally, on the sixth time and with Cornwallis reinforced, Sterling’s troops folded from overwhelming fire. The ones not killed were taken prisoner. But they had covered the retreat of troops who would be able to come back and fight again.
No matter what you call it, I like the story of Bunker Hill best. Planning to get control of Boston Harbor, the British planned to send troops to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding the city. The Red Coats were stunned to discover on the morning of June 17, 1775, that the American patriots had fortified Breeds Hill overnight. The highly-trained British soldiers suffered more than one thousand casualties and Americans learned that Britain was not invincible.
In terms of effectiveness and long-term disruption of the opponent’s strategy, I’d say the American invasion of Cherokee territory in 1776 following that nation’s attack on the southern frontier. British Indian superintendent John Stuart and his deputies had tried to restrain the militant faction of the Cherokees, but failed, and while the initial Cherokee attacks had some success, the counterattack by southern militia totally devastated the Cherokee nation. In addition, the American success intimidated the Creeks who hesitated to aid the British later. Thus the counterpunch by the militia of the four southernmost states cost the British much support from the southern Indian nations, which was to have been a key component of their southern operations.
Washington’s decision to attack at Trenton and then at Princeton saved the Continental Army from virtual dissolvent. After months of retreat and massive loss of men, supplies, territory, and Army morale, and with a majority of enlistments about to expire, he led his small and weak force in surprise attacks which benefited from sound intelligence that gave him the confidence to take the chances. At Trenton he had comprehensive knowledge of the Prussian’s positions, their commander’s mentality, and their physical and morale status, provided by the New Jersey militia, and I believe John Honeyman. He went on to attack Princeton with solid intelligence of the enemy there and a clever tactical deception plan to confuse the British.
Visualize a massive British formation enfilading your flanks and attacking from an unexpected direction. On August 27, 1776, this was the situation facing the newly constituted and inadequately trained Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island. The Patriot forces instantly cracked and turned to run to the safety of Brooklyn Heights. However, a Maryland regiment, now called the Immortal 400, stopped, formed into battle lines and charged directly in the teeth of the British assault against all odds. Most of the Marylanders were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice provided time for the rest of the Continental Army to make it safely into the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights. Their fortitude and courage allowed the nascent Continental Army to survive as a fighting force.
Various candidates, but in another close vote my choice would be Washington’s counterpunch sortie against Trenton on December 26, 1776. His army all but battered and beaten and also on the verge of extinction, Washington took a gamble that paid off in significant ways over time. Trenton meant much more than catching some 1,000 Hessians off guard and rolling back British outposts. General William Howe had failed to bag the fox on the verge of doing so in 1776, and he went after Washington with a score to settle in 1777. Not supporting John Burgoyne’s army dropping out of Canada, he defeated Washington’s Continentals at Brandywine and captured Philadelphia. So what had Howe really gained? Patriot forces in the North were thus able to concentrate on Burgoyne, the result being the “turning point” victory at Saratoga, which ultimately facilitated the formal alliance with France–a major factor in giving the Americans the wherewithal to win the Revolutionary War.
It may be overshadowed by the most intuitive answer to this question (read Trenton), but George Rogers Clark’s capture of Vincennes in February of 1779 was a remarkably audacious counterpunch. With his lines of communication gravely threatened by the British seizure of Vincennes, Clark could either passively await developments, or he could risk everything on a completely unexpected mid-winter trek across 200 miles flooded wilderness – and then fight a battle when he reached his goal. Characteristically, he opted for the latter, and succeeded beyond all expectations. It was a staggering physical accomplishment; Clark’s men operated in mud, deep water, and frigid temperatures for over two weeks. Even the captured Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton acknowledged the stunning nature of the feat. “The difficulties and dangers of Colonel Clark’s march from the Illinois,” he wrote, “were such as required great courage to encounter, and great perseverance to overcome.”
It looks like the obvious response to this would be Washington’s march to Virginia as a response to Cornwallis’s invasion of Virginia and occupation of Yorktown. However, taking this question down to a smaller level and giving into my usual affection for all things south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I like the response of the partisan forces at King’s Mountain. Cornwallis sent Major Ferguson to chase the Overmountain Men back to Watauga and possibly cut-off Elijah Clarke’s retreat from Augusta. In turn, Shelby and the others responded by raising a force from across the back country and turning the table around. They now chased Ferguson whose call for reinforcements was too late leading to a resounding defeat for the British and a complete reversal of fortunes in the southern campaigns.
In the spring of 1776, the British army had been pushed out of Boston and failed to take Charleston. Though the Crown was holding onto Canada, that success seemed peripheral. The Royal Navy ruled the sea but had no friendly port between Halifax and the Caribbean. And then the British military roared back into New York with the strongest invasion force yet assembled. Under the Howe brothers, the British took that city and held it as a base for the rest of the war. They nearly wiped out the Continental Army. Their new position a limited conflict that had lasted a little over a year to grow into a wide-ranging, eight-year struggle.
I have it on good authority that General Sir William Howe, when he heard that the Hessian garrison at Trenton had been defeated, was so angry that he punched the counter.