What Strategy Could Either Side Have Used to Win the War in 1776?

"Battle of Bunker Hill" by Howard Pyle, from Scribner's Magazine, 1898.

Open warfare began in America in 1775, and the colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. We asked our contributors to speculate on this critical time during the conflict:

“What strategy could either side have used to win the war in 1776?”

Eric Sterner
The British might have shaken things up with a political strategy designed to split radical, pro-independence Americans from the moderate, pro-accommodation colonials. An honest offer to develop some new relationship with the colonies that addressed significant colonial concerns might have preempted the Declaration of Independence or given Americans a political face-saving maneuver to give up after Washington’s defeats around New York. I don’t see too many alternatives for the Americans given the implacable resistance of the British to compromise by 1776. Wearing the British out politically was the only option.

John L. Smith Jr.
Six months into 1775, the American Congress could’ve set the groundwork for a decisive check-mate victory in 1776. By recognizing the strategic importance of Canada and the Quebec Province, followed by actively directing, assisting and funding a coordinated incursion, it could’ve knocked Britain off guard by successfully invading the Ministerial province while the British army was cooped up in Boston. Assisted by the already-present rebellious habitants, generals Schuyler and Montgomery, along with Col. Benedict Arnold could’ve been relieved of their endless logistical, political and diplomatic demands – to be able to concentrate on a military victory over the entire Quebec Province – which they almost accomplished anyway! No one spoke for Canada in Congress. So the offensive was relegated to a half-hearted after-thought by some delegates, after Congress returned from summer recess.

David D. Kindy
Negotiation. If the British had been open to addressing the colonies’ grievances, they could have avoided war altogether and retained rights to a territory with a huge wealth of natural resources. By securing a permanent bond with its American colonies, England would have developed into an overwhelming economic power and become the greatest enduring empire the world has ever known. The implications of that are staggering. As Barbara Tuchman pointed out in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, if Great Britain retained complete control of its possessions in North America, Germany would never have chanced invading Belgium and France in 1914, thus avoiding World War I and, ergo, World War II.

Robert Dunkerly
Time was not on the British side. I think the key to their success, no matter the details, was to crush the rebellion early. If it lasted long enough, several things would (and did) happen: The American cause would gain a sense of legitimacy if it could hold out against a powerful enemy. This would make foreign nations eager to assist. The longer it lasted, the more experienced the fledgling Continental army would become. It would gain a measure of combat experience and self-confidence, and the military’s infrastructure could improve. Conversely, the British public would grow weary of the war and its cost would rise.

Don Glickstein
The only British strategy that might had a possibility of working would have been a guns-and-roses plan: Annihilate the rebel army, declare amnesty, give the colonies Parliamentary representation, permit free trade without duties, and repeal the Proclamation of 1763 so as to open the West. Each one of those issues represented must-have concessions by colonial special-interest groups. Without all the concessions, Britain was doomed to play whack-a-mole. The concessions were never going to happen. Suppressing insurgencies is extraordinarily difficult, as nations continue to find out to this day.

James Kirby Martin
The American rebels didn’t really have a strategy in 1776, despite Washington’s desire to be aggressive, except to hang on and hope for the best. The British did have a strategy: Cut off the head of the rebellion, New England, from the rest of the colonies. But they failed to execute this strategy because of uncoordinated, timid generalship in the field. So credit the Americans with the stops at Valcour Island and Trenton, the key blows against British strategy in 1776. The patriot cause thus survived and could fight on in 1777 and beyond.

Conner Runyan
The one strategy in 1776, by either side that might have made a difference later in the war, especially the South, would have been to enter into formal treaties with the French, Spanish and Dutch to either enter the American War more forcefully on the side of the patriots or to allow the British to bring to bear the full might of the world’s most powerful army and navy. This strategy would have been more realistic for the British, who had more bargaining chips, in that Britain might have offered concessions upon winning, perhaps ceding much of Canada, Georgia and South Carolina to France, giving up claims to East and West Florida to Spain, and allowing the Dutch more unrestricted trade routes.

Alex Colvin
I’m not sure there was much Washington could have done. He knew he was, essentially, out manned and out gunned, and so his employment of the Fabian Strategy in the Northern Campaign was pretty much his only option. His letters reveal his frustration with the lack of discipline among the soldiery which was compounded by the quick waning of the rage militaire leaving Washington to struggle with both recruitment and desertion among his Continental Army. (He had essentially no navy, unless one counts the Letters of Marque being issued by a desperate Congress to any seaman with a skiff.) It was France that provided much of the arms (hand-me-down flintlocks from their own previous wars) and sea power, firstly in secret and then openly after Saratoga. Congress was reluctant to spend much, leading to massive desertions, and even insurrections. Even the folks who stayed home seemed at times indifferent to what the fighting was about – few, for example, contributed goods or provisions to compensate for Congress’s stinginess. Washington knew, when the British landed on Long Island, he was not in a position to meet the highly-trained and well-equipped Regulars backed by the globe’s strongest sea power, face-to face on the battlefield. But somehow he managed to engage the British in a kind of exhaustive chase which ultimately lured them into a trap, years later, at Yorktown. Some historians refer to his strategy as genius.

Will Monk
The rebels could not genuinely have won the war in 1776. The British, however, could have pursued Washington’s army across New Jersey more aggressively so they could not cross the Delaware, or used the opening provided by Washington’s escape from Cornwallis (at Princeton) in the first week of January, 1777, to simply continue to Philadelphia unopposed.

Tom Shachtman
General Howe landed on Staten Island in early July 1776 and then spent several weeks maneuvering against Washington on Long Island before the climactic battle there. Washington was only narrowly able to escape with his troops into Manhattan and thence to Westchester. Howe had enough superiority of forces to have separated some and positioned them to prevent this escape route. Had he done so, he might well have bagged Washington and his entire army, ending the war right then and there.

John Knight
By late 1776 the war was already lost for Britain, at least militarily. Her armies had successfully fought several major battles and numerous smaller skirmishes and were on their way to capturing the Continental capital in Philadelphia. But it was all irrelevant. This was a political war that could not be “won” on the battlefield. Many British politicians realized this at the time. Unfortunately, George III and his Prime Minister Lord North did not. Had the British put as much imagination and effort into a political solution to the war as they did in keeping it going militarily for eight years, they might just have found a “winning” compromise. Perhaps a forerunner of the semi-independent Dominion status that was granted to Canada in 1867? It worked surprisingly well in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and those countries form the bedrock of the “Commonwealth” today. It may just have been acceptable to Congress prior to July 4th.

John Concannon
Quite simply, had the British heavily reinforced Boston and the surrounding hills with enough defense, the rebels could not have driven them out and all would’ve been lost.

Robert Fanelli
Neither side was capable of winning in 1776. Both were intransigent in their demands, willing to venture and lose substantial resources to attain their goals. Because the political will to fight was strong, military defeat of either side was unlikely to end the war that year. Losses at Boston had only strengthened British commitment. No match for their enemy in the field, Americans were unlikely to achieve decisive victory at Brooklyn or White Plains. Annihilating Washington’s force would only lead to recruitment of a new army or extended guerilla warfare. The Hudson strategy was no answer for the British. The impact of “severing” New England from the other colonies was doubtful, while maintaining a 300 mile cordon would expose them to defeat in detail – witness the events in New Jersey at the end of 1776. Even after Britain’s loss of a second army at Yorktown, bloodshed continued for two years before peace prevailed.

Gary Shattuck
The British had already lost America’s first civil war by 1776 and there was no way they could put the genie back in the bottle. Momentum had been building steadily since the 1765 Stamp Act Crisis, and, while they might have delayed the war in some fashion or been able to obtain the periodic military success after Lexington and Concord, its ultimate loss was inevitable. The overriding issue concerned the equality of position for each side, with the British refusing to cede the high ground and recognize their rebelling colonists as equals on the national stage, affording them recognition as peers. They would never be able to regain a majority of the colonists’ hearts and minds hell-bent on separation after 1765. The war was simply putting a period to that failure.

Todd W. Braisted
Sir William Howe might have been more successful (whether the war would have been won is debatable) if he had launched a more coordinated attack against Washington’s troops in Bergen County and elsewhere in New Jersey at the time the force under Cornwallis landed above Fort Lee in November 1776. The thousands of troops sitting on transports at that moment, destined to occupy Newport, Rhode Island, might have been used much more effectively to have encircled the 2,500 or so troops under Nathanael Greene at Fort Lee, and others at Hackensack under Washington. Some of those troops might have been put on small craft and sailed up the Hackensack, cutting off the crossing at New Bridge as a retreat to the west. Others might have landed at Sneden’s Landing near Tappan and fanned out to the west, through Harrington Township, blocking an escape to the north. Still others might have sailed into the Raritan to cut off New Brunswick, or at the very least crossed over from Staten Island to Perth Amboy. Many more useful things might have been done with 6,000 troops to at least put severe pressure on Washington and Greene, rather than simply establishing a safe harbor in Newport.

Adam E. Zielinski
For the American patriots, if Washington had anticipated Howe’s route on Long Island, or had he gotten the Continental army entirely out of the greater Manhattan area afterwards, perhaps he could have regrouped in better shape than where he stood in reality that December 1776. I believe the Continental army would have drastically changed the war had they taken the stores at New Brunswick following Princeton in January 1777. As for the British, had their strategy been more aggressive, dropping a half-baked diplomatic solution, putting the egos of its commanders aside, and pursuing a rigorous campaign to destroy Washington and his army at all costs, they very likely would have been victorious.

Dennis Ness
The British: If the king and parliament had the resources to send 20,000 troops to the colonies at New York City, 10,000 troops could march to Boston to engage the continental army, 2,000 would stay in the city, with the remainder marching to Philadelphia to capture the congressional delegates. The Colonies: The king would simply agree to the terms of reconciliation proposed in the petition of the last Congress to the king and agree to the additional demands in Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation of July 21, 1775.

Matthew M. Montelione
If General Howe was more aggressive in his pursuit of Washington after the Crown’s decisive victory on Long Island, the war could have ended in summer 1776.

Benjamin L. Huggins
I believe the best strategy for the British to win the war in 1776 (or for that matter in any period of the war) was to destroy Gen. George Washington’s army. Their best chance to achieve that in 1776 was to have attacked the Continental army in its fortifications at Brooklyn on August 27-28 after the Battle of Long Island. By August 28, Washington had some 9,500 men behind the fortifications, separated from the rest of the army on Manhattan Island by the East River. If the British had captured those 9,500 men, they may have ended the war then and there, but British general Sir William Howe did not launch a full assault, preferring instead to begin a siege. Washington soon withdrew his army across the East River in a heavy fog. Such an opportunity never came again for the British. There was no strategy, in my view, that the Americans could have used to win the war in 1776.

C. E. Pippenger
The British could have easily won the American Revolution during the summer of 1776. If Governor Guy Carleton had not engaged in a shipbuilding duel with Benedict Arnold, the British could have sailed up Lake Champlain and captured Fort Ticonderoga and Albany before the campaign season was over. British control of the lake and Albany would have effectively cut off the New England colonies from the remainder. The American rebellion would have collapsed. Instead, Carlton insisted on having the biggest fleet including the three-masted warship, Inflexible. This delayed the British campaign until October. Even if Carlton captured Fort Ticonderoga he couldn’t have maintained British supply lines over the winter. So he withdrew to Canada after the Battle of Valcour Island. Benedict Arnold saved the American Revolution for the second time. As they say “The rest is history.”

Stuart Hatfield
The best strategy for the British to have won the war in 1776 would have been to actually follow up on their victories. Had General Howe been aggressive in his pursuit of the Americans, he could have utterly destroyed the army and most likely brought the war to a quick end. Instead, he allowed them to escape and catch their breath which allowed the war to continue. So Howe’s strategy itself was effective, it just needed to be more aggressive.

Joshua Shepherd
There are certainly some solid arguments to be made for how Britain could have broken the back of the rebellion and ended the war in 1776. But it’s simply inconceivable that the Patriot cause could have succeeded after little more than a year of war and shattered the British empire’s will to subdue the colonies. The Declaration of Independence further precluded any possibility of a negotiated settlement. Despite the staggering military might of the Unites States, the prospect of a short, “easy” war has more often than not proved a chimera in the nation’s history. That seems to have been the case from the outset.

Daniel J. Tortora
British: Score a truly decisive and devastating victory – either at Brooklyn in August or Manhattan in September. Cut off all Americans’ avenues of retreat from New York City and damage American morale and diminish Washington’s small, inexperienced army. Americans: The Americans had limited resources and little chance of winning the war in 1776. They survived the year, gained experience, and surprised the British at year’s end. To gain momentum, they could focus on morale-building and taking the fight to the British through the Continental Navy or privateering, Indian attacks on the frontier, and securing foreign aid as fast as possible.

David M. Griffin
The British army under General Sir William Howe could have pressed the line of Brooklyn forts and fully secured the East River with his fleet after the defeat of the Americans at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. This would have fully trapped this major component of the American forces on Brooklyn Heights separated from Washington’s army that still remained on Manhattan Island. It would have been a risky frontal attack of the forts and as we know the British were already spooked from Bunker Hill; if they had succeeded, the British army would have had a much better chance of destroying Washington’s forces. I have often considered this the greatest tactical error of the British, one that could have easily won the war for them in 1776.

J. L. Bell
The answer depends on when in 1776 we’re talking about. Early in the year, Americans were just beginning to consider independence. There was still an opening for a compromise that both sides could see as victory. The colonies wanted the autonomy they had enjoyed before the 1760s while London wanted more colonial contributions to the Empire and some restatement of Parliament’s sovereignty. By mid-1776, however, the political situation had changed. Only a huge stroke of luck could have produced a quick victory: a disastrous storm wiping out the British fleet before it reached New York, or the capture of General Washington—and even that might not have been enough.

Geoff Smock
It is hard to imagine what the Continental Army could have done to win the war in 1776, aside from what they already did: avoid total annihilation in New York. Conversely, it is quite easy to imagine what the British could have done: annihilate Washington during one of the two opportunities presented. Howe was correct that the clock was ticking – he was just wrong that it was ticking on the Americans more than the British. The longer the war continued, the more difficult it became for Britain to sustain it, on the ground in America and politically at home.

Gregory J. W. Urwin
The British should have made an all-out effort to subdue the South at the war’s start, rather than trying to occupy the Lake Champlain, Lake George, and Hudson River Line to isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. With the Royal Navy in unchallenged control of Chesapeake Bay and the tidal rivers that fed into it, Virginia could have been neutralized. Liberating the South’s numerous white Loyalists would have spared them the three to five years of Whig persecution that made them such weak allies once the British finally adopted their Southern Strategy. With most of the South secured, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania would have been exposed and vulnerable.

Don N. Hagist
It depends on what we mean by “win” the war. The British certainly could have achieved a major military victory and put an end to open hostilities in 1776—but that would not have ended the rebellion. War would only break out again unless there was a diplomatic solution to the fundamental issues that began the discord in the 1760s; by 1776, things had gone too far for either side to simply assert its will on the other.

Rand Mirante
The British already had victory right in their grasp: all they needed to do was to have pre-positioned the Royal Navy in the East River to interdict any attempt by Washington and his men to flee Long Island. And it’s hard to for me to divine how the Americans could quickly be victorious in a war they would have to win by attrition and taking advantage of time and space. But getting an extra thousand men to Quebec might have resulted in a fourteenth state, at least for the time being, badly stretched British forces in North America, and given momentum to the “peace movement” in London.

Christian McBurney
The British could have won the war had William Howe focused on crushing Washington’s main army at any opportunity, as opposed to focusing on seizing New York, Newport and later Philadelphia. The best chance was following the Battle of Long Island, when the remnants of Washington’s disorganized and dispirited troops were holed up behind breastworks at Brooklyn Heights next to the East River. But Howe hesitated and the opportunity was lost. However, even if Howe had crushed Washington’s main army, it is not clear that the rebellion would have ended. Patriot forces might have recovered or they might have conducted a guerilla type of war for an extended period. I don’t believe the Patriot side could have won the war in 1776. Its armed forces were not yet sufficiently organized, trained or strong. What would win the war would be a demonstration (1) that the Patriot side could put into the field one or more major armies that would improve in terms of leadership of officers and training of soldiers over time, and (2) that the Patriot side had seized control of the state governments and had formed a Continental Congress that could operate for more than a brief period somewhat effectively, all thus showing that the Patriot side was able to resist British attempts to crush the rebellion in the long term. That was not possible to demonstrate in 1776. Either side could have “won” the war through a negotiated peace by compromise, but that end was not accomplished.

 

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4 Comments

  • Lest we forget there are ample sources which more than imply that the Howe brothers were more sympathetic to the colonial cause than not. General Howe did just enough to be seen as an effective officer, but not enough to win. He was dragging his heels on purpose.

  • The Continental Army could have done much better around New York if Lee had remained in command of it, and Washington had instead been sent to Charleston. Lee had developed the strategy and constructed the works around Manhattan to implement that strategy. Washington was demonstrably clueless when it came to implementing that strategy, and got his head handed to him at Brooklyn. He should never have reinforced the position on Long Island, except the fort there, that had to be held at all costs since it it commanded the East River, and thus was key to all the defenses around Manhattan. By reinforcing the position, and offering battle on the Gowanus Heights, he was in direct conflict with Lee’s intentions. The fort was substantial and it faced both land and sea, and could have been held if properly manned. Instead the Continental Army attempted to defend it from without its considerable works and was smashed. Historians make a big deal about the subsequent miraculous escape. Yes, it was miraculous, but this only served to cover up a huge blunder, which ultimately led to the loss of the Long Island and Manhattan. Better to have lost a large contingent defending that fort than the pointless loss of men later at Fort Washington.

  • Ed makes a strong point regarding Lee. I would add that after Harlem Heights Washington was foolishly inclined to stay on Manhattan, where he could have been devastated by Howe’s move in the direction of Westchester County. If I recall correctly, Lee is the one who forcefully persuaded him to evacuate Manhattan. Regarding the post, these are extremely thoughtful, and discordant, conclusions by a group of knowledgeable people. My reaction is that much of this depends on the definition of “winning”. From a strictly military standpoint I think that the British had much better prospects of achieving that than did the “Rebels”. But that would have been a technical “win” in the sense of one army defeating another on the battlefield. The British would have been left (in my opinion) with the unpalatable option of using thousands of troops to garrison posts throughout a vast territory located thousands of miles from the homeland, inhabited by a rebellious populace that was unlikely to forget how things changed when blood was shed at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. The cost of this would have been extremely distasteful for a country which had already imposed rebellion-stirring measures to help pay for the F&I War. History has shown us that as a general rule this sort of “victory” rarely works out in the long run for the “winner”. It also would have weakened Britain’s hand in dealing with France, Spain, et al in other realms. An intriguing possibility raised in the opinions above is the notion of granting the colonies “dominion”-type status similar to what Canada, Australia, and NZ received. The British, however, weren’t open to that until 1867 (at least in the case of Canada). I’m not sure that they would have been open to this in 1776 or, even if they were , that the “Rebels” would have had any interest with all that had happened.

  • As we still have not learned, “winning the war” means a lot more than just winning the initial military conflict.
    The British could have won the war simply by using their navy to blockade America. (Freedom of trade was actually what the war was about. As it was, though America won, it was in desperate economic circumstances for a number of years afterwards.)They could have supplied and held onto most of the coastal ports and avoided penetrating the interior.
    Many Americans were in lukewarm support of the war and Britain could have killed that support quickly by imposing severe economic hardship.
    If the Americans were dedicated enough, they could have carried out a scorched earth retreat into the interior and bankrupted the British government with endless guerrilla warfare, also forcing the British to supply their troops across the Atlantic or from the Caribbean.
    As other have noted, however, actually solving the problems that led to the rebellion would have met changing the prevailing attitude about colonies and making concessions that challenged the interests of powerful commercial interests in Britain. Without solving those there would have been an endless series of new rebellions. Kind of the situation of America in the Middle East!

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