Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown by Stanley D.M. Carpenter (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)
In his recent book, Stanley Carpenter produced a thoughtful analysis of the British southern strategy during the American Revolution. A professor at the Naval War College, he evaluates enduring concepts and elements of warfare framed in contemporary language and operational-level warfighting concepts, to explain British military success and failure in the South between 1778 and 1781. The failed British strategy culminated with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, essentially ending large-scale military action in North America and resulting in the independence of the United States. Carpenter proposes the British southern strategy of clear-and-hold was sound, but the existing conditions in the operating environment made execution very difficult.
He identifies specific factors that ultimately led to the British failure in the South. Carpenter describes the lack of effective coordination of policy, strategy, and execution as “strategic incoherence.” The British southern strategy was risky because it rested upon a key planning assumption that proved false in execution. The entire plan rested upon the assumption that large numbers of Loyalists would rally to the King’s Standard and form militia units to hold the ground the British Army liberated from Patriot control. The story in the South is one of British tactical victories in conventional engagements followed by the inability of Loyalist militia, supported by regular British forces, to effectively counter more determined Patriot militia formations. The Southern Theater degenerated into a bloody civil war that necessitated an effective information campaign. The Patriots held the upper hand in the area of information warfare and effectively controlled the narrative in the countryside, countering British attempts to gain superiority in this critical area. The British were unable to win over the population and often performed in a way that drove the population to support the Patriot cause, fueling the irregular fight they were unable to win.
Carpenter also identifies key areas where the British failed, including unity of command, unity of effort and operational logistics. As the southern operations evolved, the British suffered from a lack of unity of command and effort between three key figures—George Gremain in London, Henry Clinton in New York, and Lord Cornwallis commanding in the South. The inability to harmonize actions between these three men jeopardized British success because of their differing approaches to the employment of military force to win in the South. Cornwallis’s decision to pursue and destroy Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army exceeded the ability of the British logistics system to support his force, far from the coast. Cornwallis’s tactical victory over Greene at Guilford Courthouse turned into a strategic defeat when he could not hold the ground, sustain his troops or support the Loyalist population.
Cornwallis’s move to Virginia reflects another prime example of Carpenter’s concept of “strategic incoherence.” This incoherence allowed the Franco-American allies to mass their resources, both ground and maritime, and capture 8,000 British troops at Yorktown. While King George advocated continuing the fight, the architects of the southern strategy finally admitted its failure; the British southern strategy culminated at Yorktown. Carpenter provides an analysis of the American Revolution in the South that serves individuals interested in the revolution and those who study the linkages between strategy and tactical execution, concepts described in contemporary joint, and service military doctrine as operational art.
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