Book review: Theaters of the American Revolution: Northern, Middle, Southern, Western, Naval by James Kirby Martin, Mark Edward Lender, Edward G. Lengel, Charles Neimeyer, Jim Piecuch and David Preston (Westholme Publishing, 2017)
The concept of a global war divided into distinct geographic theaters, each with its own unique characteristics is well established for modern wars but has not been employed to interpret the American Revolution. James Kirby Martin and David L. Preston close this gap with an edited edition of short essays from a 2016 Revolutionary War symposium held at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
Martin and Preston edit five papers by leading historians each describing a North American geographic territorial region labeled a theater. The definition of Revolutionary War theaters corresponds to one or more territorial military departments established by the Continental Congress to manage the war effort. Martin defines the Northern Theater as consisting of four departments: Northern (northern New York State), Eastern (New England), Canada, and the Hudson Highlands (Hudson River area north of New York City). The Middle, Southern and Western theaters conform to Congress’s Middle (Pennsylvania, New York City, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland), Southern (Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia) and Western (West of the Appalachians) departments. To these, the editors add a Naval Theater covering the activities of the Continental and State navies as well as privateers and the French and Spanish fleets.
Approximately forty pages long, each theater essay provides a whirlwind view of the region’s military activity with an emphasis on the cultural, geographic and climate implications on combat operations. The authors point out the different challenges and opportunities facing military commanders given the unique local conditions. In addition, the varying regional experiences of Rebels, Loyalists, fence sitters, African Americans and Native Americans are highlighted.
Northern Theater by James Kirby Martin
For the first two years of the war, large-scale military activities were concentrated in the Northern Theater culminating in the 1777 Rebel victory at Saratoga. Endemic throughout these first two years, combatants experienced supply shortages due to the limited transportation capabilities through vast wilderness areas of the Northern Theater. Given the harshness of the climate, disease and desertions plagued both sides. Martin concludes that the Northern Theater conflict represented a major turning point and sets the stage for eventual Rebel victory.
Although this view is not new and is widely accepted, Martin provides a unique perspective on the Northern Theater events. An expert on Benedict Arnold, Martin highlights Arnold’s contributions in seminal battles including Fort Ticonderoga, Quebec, Valcour Island and Saratoga. In fact, Arnold is mentioned on thirty-one of the thirty-nine pages of the essay. In the end, Martin concludes that historians tend to retroactively dismiss or lessen Arnold’s contributions during this first two years in the Northern Theater due to knowledge of his subsequent treason. Martin’s observations are well worth pondering by researchers to better understand their biases.
Middle Theater by Edward G. Lengel and Mark Edward Lender
Like the Northern Theater, most of the major battles in the Middle Theater occurred in the first years of the Revolution. According to Lengel and Lender, what is different about the Middle Theater is the dominant impact of George Washington. It is very appropriate for two prominent George Washington scholars to tell this story. Lengel and Lender conclude that Washington won the Middle Theater by building a competent main Continental Army and by functioning as Commander in Chief over operations in other theaters. Washington’s skillful leadership in the Middle Theater was crucial as the largest battles with the most opportunities for victory or defeat occurred in this theater.
Presciently, Washington focused on building a professional army as the Middle Theater terrain favored a better-trained European Army. Although he won no important victories other than Trenton and Princeton, Washington fielded a proficient army that could stand its ground in contesting the areas around New York City. The extensive coast lines were another geographic attribute of the Middle Theater. The British Navy and its control of the waters made Rebel defense of New York City and Philadelphia impossible. Famously, Washington executed masterful retreats from both cities to save his army to fight another day.
Lengel and Lender point out the Middle Theater’s unique economic dependence on commerce that engendered the population to be more willing to trade with the British. As a result, Rebels’ support lacked resiliency and people switched allegiances as the fortunes of war changed. Another distinctive feature was the dearth of Native American influences on both war strategies and combat operations.
The authors conclude that conflict in the Middle Theater did not garner the “glamour” of Rebel victories in other theaters, but actually won the war by thwarting British attempts at knockout victories. By fielding a competent army, Washington pinned down the British in New York City while detaching sufficient troops to corner Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Southern Theater by Jim Piecuch
An expert on the Revolution in the South, Piecuch provides a concise description of the British Southern strategy. After 1780, the British planned to unite British troops with American Loyalists, Native Americans and African Americans to defeat the rebels and force the Southern colonies to re-join the British Empire. He argues that this strategy was initially successful, but squabbling among British commanders undermined the strategy, leading to the British troops shouldering most of the burden. As the war dragged on, the Rebels wore down the British regulars leading to the Patriot victory.
In the Southern Theater, the major geographic influences were the many rivers, swamps and open spaces. The ability to quickly and efficiently cross over rivers and to conduct cavalry maneuvers coordinated with infantry operations were two of the most important components of military operations in this theater.
Piecuch points out that one Continental Commander understood the region’s unique geographic features and one did not. He postulates that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln chose the wrong defensive strategy for Charleston and should he have defended the swamps south of the city versus fortifying Charleston Neck. On the other hand, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene better understood the geographic implications and masterfully used rivers to wear down the British, leading to their defeat at Yorktown and forced retreat to a few port enclaves in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Another difference in the Southern Theater is the large number of small unit clashes between Loyalists and Rebels. Early in the war, each side conducted raids to and from British controlled East Florida. In the Carolinas, the large number of rebel guerrilla fighters prevented the British from holding and controlling significant territories fifty or more miles from the coast. In the end, the British realized that the Southern Theater was not as friendly as imagined and British commanders could not implement the strategy of combining the might of regular troops with the Loyalists, Native Americans and freed slaves to defeat the Rebels.
Western Theater by Mark Edward Lender
The Western Theater is the most overlooked region in the American Revolution. Stretching north to south, west of the Appalachian Mountains, warfare consisted of many small-unit battles and skirmishes between irregular forces. As few British regulars or Continental Army soldiers were deployed in this region, Native Americans played their largest role and dominated the fighting. Aided by the British, Native Americans largely fought to keep the Rebels from invading their homelands.
Lender debunks the myth that George Rogers Clark won the Northwest Territories for the United States. At war’s end, there were no Rebel troops north of the Ohio River and Britain voluntarily gave up the Northwest Territories for both the lack of continuing economic value and as a bargaining chip in the peace negotiations.
He presents evidence that the war did not end with the Treaty of Paris, but was a strategic stalemate in the west with no victors or vanquished. The Rebels failed to capture the British fort at Detroit, and the British and their Native American allies failed to move the Rebels east of the Appalachians. After the Treaty of Paris, the war in the west continued for over ten years. In the Northwest Territories, final United States control occurred in 1798 when Britain abandoned its forts.
Naval Theater by Charles Neimeyer
Many Revolutionary War accounts focus on land battles and omit or downplay the substantial role of naval operations. Filling this gap, Neimeyer points out the significant impact on the war’s outcome of naval combat in coastal and inland waterways and the blue water ocean.
In 1775, the idea of a Continental Navy was controversial in the Continental Congress. Colonies already had nascent navies and did not want competition with a Continental force for limited ships, armaments and sailors. Eventually, the Continental Congress authorized the building of thirteen frigates. Less than successful, all frigates were either destroyed or captured.
Highlighting a lesser-known naval encounter, Niemeyer describes the war’s largest combined Rebel naval and army operation, the assault on a British fort and ships in Penobscot Bay. The Rebel attack was an abject failure with the British destroying the entire seven-ship rebel fleet. The Penobscot attack was the only Rebel fleet-size, seaborne assault and the largest Rebel naval defeat of the war.
While the Continental Navy provided few positive contributions, single commerce raiders such as John Paul Jones, hundreds of privateers, and the small-craft inland navies guarding the Delaware River and Lake Champlain provided greater impact. However, in the end, the French and Spanish navies made the largest difference through their offensive operations in the West Indies and pivotal impact at Yorktown.
Concisely and enjoyably written, these essays by eminent historians introduce a unique perspective applying a regional theater concept to the American Revolution. Pithily, the five essays convey each military theater’s distinctive geographical and cultural facets and their impact on the revolutionary conflict.
In keeping with the theater concept, the editors could have added a section on theaters outside of North America. A chapter on the impact of British, French, Dutch and Spanish fighting in Asia, Europe, Africa and the West Indies would have further supported the thesis of a “theater” as a way to describe global conflicts. Lastly, the book ends abruptly after the fifth essay. The addition of concluding remarks would provide clearer proof that unique theater characteristics are critical to interpreting the conflict and its outcome.
Even without these additions, I highly recommend this book to both causal readers interested in the Revolution as well as well-read scholars. The authors synthesize the critical aspects and activities in each region and provide valuable insights on the war strategies and outcomes.