BOOK REVIEW: American Revolutionary War in the South: Further Reflections from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers. Vol. 2 by Ian Tolworth Saberton (Surrey: Grosvenor House Publishing Co., 2022)
Building upon expertise gained by editing Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis’s 1780 and 1781 official papers from the southern theater of the Revolutionary War, Ian Saberton recently published a second volume of fourteen short essays describing various aspects of Cornwallis’s 1780-1 southern campaign. Over the past three years, Journal of the American Revolution (JAR) initially published the chapters online, which range from three to thirty-two pages. Saberton’s current book is a follow-on from his first volume, published in 2019, which contained eight essays and was the subject of a JAR book review by Patrick Hannum.
Refreshingly, Saberton writes from the British commander’s point of view, emphasizing strategic initiative, military operations, and offensive campaigns. Saberton’s first essay, “The Decision that lost Britain the War: An Enigma Now Revealed,” is, by far, the most controversial and well worth a re-reading. Saberton argues that Cornwallis was “a dynamic officer best suited to offensive action.” Furthermore, Saberton identifies Cornwallis as “temperamentally ill at ease with defensive warfare” and “sickened by the murderous barbarity” of the southern war. For these reasons, Cornwallis made the “absurd” decision to invade Virginia, which “cost Britain the southern colonies and lost it the entire war.” JAR readers will benefit from reviewing Saberton’s arguments and the counterarguments proffered by other historians. For example, several historians believe that the British lost the war before commencing its southern campaign and that Cornwallis faced no good choices when he decided to move into Virginia.
Saberton describes the details of Cornwallis’s southern campaign in the succeeding nine essays. He starts with a chapter, “Britain’s Last Roll of the Dice Begins – the Charlestown Campaign of 1780,” and ends with a chapter on the siege of Yorktown. In these nine chapters, he offers pithy, pointed observations on British and American officers. For example, readers learn that Gen. Henry Clinton was “shy and diffident, and did not mingle easily,” Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot was a “flawed officer past his prime,” Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara was a “larger than life character with immense charisma and charm,” and Lord Francis Rawdon was “a discriminating officer of outstanding military ability.”
Similarly, Saberton assesses the uneven performance of Rebel officers. He views Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln as “not the sharpest tool in the box,” charges Rebel militia leader Thomas Sumter as supercilious with a ruthless streak leading to “cold-blooded murder on a grand scale,” and rates Andrew Pickens as the “best in the rebel service.” Most controversially, Saberton holds that Gen. George Washington was “lucky” to have won the Battle of Yorktown, and assesses that events outside of Washington’s control led to the British surrender, including Cornwallis’s “absurd” decision to march in Virginia, his decision to fortify an undefendable location, and the failure of the British Navy to provide adequate, interoperable support.
Saberton’s final five chapters highlight certain aspects of the southern conflict and offer concise bios of the notable but lesser-known participants. The British cipher chapter describing the use of codes in the 1780-81 southern campaign is the most interesting. Saberton explains how the British encrypted messages to keep them secret if rebels intercepted them. Notably, he decoded a letter from British Col. Francis Lord Rawdon to Lt. Col. John W. T. Watson for the first time, illustrating how the British successfully used ciphers. Saberton asserts that the Rebels could not break the British codes.
The well-organized fourteen chapters contain footnotes rather than endnotes, and bibliographies, facilitating readability and minimizing page turning. However, researchers will be disappointed with the lack of an overall volume index. Additionally, readers would have benefited from an introductory essay linking the fourteen chapters and providing a cross-reference to Saberton’s first volume. Nevertheless, readers attracted to the printed annual volumes of the Journal of the American Revolution will be interested in Saberton’s second collection of southern campaign essays.
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Ian Tolworth Saberton, American Revolutionary War in the South: Further Reflections from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers. Vol. 2 (Surrey: Grosvenor House Publishing Co., 2022.), 3.