Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence

Robert Ranstadler - September 24, 2017

Next month will mark the 236th anniversary of an event which heralded the end of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). On October 19, 1781, a besieged Charles Cornwallis—Marquess, Earl, Lord, General and favorite son of Great Britain—was forced to surrender at Yorktown. So embarrassed was his lordship, he lacked the strength to face the victorious Continentals and French forces in person. Instead, the deflated commander sent a fellow general, with sword in hand, to meet Washington and Rochambeau in defeat. This much is commonly known about the Revolutionary War. Presented here, however, are ten lesser-known factors that precipitated the Crown’s defeat in North America.

The American Revolution was a Global Conflict

Great Britain’s wartime concerns stretched far beyond the shores of North America. In addition to facing colonial opposition, the embattled King George III also warred with France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Mysore during the late eighteenth century. France and England had antagonized one another for centuries. Spain, still yearning for strategic lands both at home and abroad, decided to ally with France. The Dutch Republic, meanwhile, resented England for the years of internecine conflict she offered during four Anglo-Dutch Wars. Moreover, economic and military commitments in India left British forces stretched precariously thin elsewhere in the world.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar.

France resisted England in the New World when the House of Bourbon formally entered an alliance with the Continentals in February 1778. Louis XVI faced very few challenges from other European countries, who saw Great Britain as a vast continental threat. The Franco-American Alliance culminated in a French military intervention at Yorktown, where they prevented the British Royal Navy from reinforcing a besieged Cornwallis. Redcoats were consequently forced to surrender to General George Washington, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, and a jubilant Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent. The French also harassed England in Canada, parts of the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic Ocean.

In the meantime, the Spanish, Dutch, and certain Indian factions actively opposed the British Crown. Charles III jointly declared war on Great Britain with France, fighting British forces in Florida, while simultaneously shipping war supplies to the colonies and attempting to retake Gibraltar. The Dutch Republic, although only a pale shadow of its former self, still offered George III resistance closer to home, which placed an additional draw on British military assets. A series of Anglo-Mysore Wars (1766-1799) also raged in India, where Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan battled for supremacy against the British East India Company and their Maratha allies.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Madras Army, East India Company.

Worldwide Economic Concerns

It’s generally accepted that the Revolutionary War was, in part, precipitated upon unwelcomed British taxation in North America. Colonial tax revenues provided the Crown with a valuable source of income. Parliament allocated these funds to expand and maintain Great Britain’s enormous Royal Navy, while simultaneously backing several state-sponsored foreign trade ventures, such as the British East India Company. Colonial America, however, was not Great Britain’s sole source of overseas revenue. The Crown’s interests, along with the watchful gaze of her sworn adversaries, included greater parts of the globe. From the early 1600s onward, the British mercantile economy gradually became dependent upon foreign trade.

The British moved swiftly in establishing a foreign trade monopoly by drafting and enforcing a series of Navigation Acts designed to regulate the movement and transfer of valuable commodities across the Atlantic. A product of mercantile policies, the Navigation Acts were designed to maximize state profits while depriving the Crown’s rivals of gold and silver.

The Molasses Act of 1733, for instance, forced colonists to purchase Caribbean sugar from British subsidiaries, economically undercutting the French West Indies. Other trade regulations were even more oppressive. The earlier Staple Act of 1663 required any colony-bound trade goods from Africa, Asia, or Europe to first pass through English ports.

During this Age of Mercantilism, British assets were spread across four major areas. The lucrative British West Indies relied on slaves to produce profitable Caribbean sugar, while the British East India Company, on the other side of the globe, accounted for half the world’s trade in fabrics, dyes, and tea. The Thirteen Colonies and maritime commerce of continental North America were only part of a larger economic system. Hence, the British were unwilling and unable to leverage 100% of their military and political assets in the suppression of an American rebellion. Nor was this lost on the Crown’s many adversaries, such as the French, who attacked British economic strongholds at will.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
The Colonial South (1779).

Direct Intervention of Spain

History textbooks are filled with many details concerning the success of the Franco-American Alliance during the Revolutionary War. Of lesser-known consequence, however, was the direct intervention of Spanish forces, especially during the waning years of the struggle. Some assume that Spain’s involvement in the conflict was limited to her joint declaration of war against Great Britain and the shipping of war materials to the colonies.

Popular history, however, occasionally overlooks the direct military involvement of Spaniards on both sides of the Atlantic, including engagements in Gibraltar, Minorca, Spanish Louisiana, sections of Northern Florida, parts of the American Midwest, and the Siege of Yorktown.

The Spanish harassed British shipping across the North Atlantic Ocean by capturing or sinking supply vessels bound for North America. In the Mediterranean, they additionally challenged Great Britain at two strategic locations. The first was the small Balearic Island of Minorca, just off the eastern coast of Spain. A Franco-Spanish coalition gained permanent control of the island on January 5, 1782. Further to the west, the Spanish also faced the British during the Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779-83). Considered one of the largest continuous actions of the entire war, the siege lasted over three years, placing a tremendous strain on King George III’s forces.

Across the Atlantic, Charles III opposed the British Crown during several pivotal engagements. In the Caribbean, the Spanish foiled the British at Cuba, West Florida, and Belize. A string of effective naval blockades and grinding sieges frustrated Great Britain at almost every turn. British forces additionally tasted defeat further inland, where Count Bernardo de Gálve captured several key forts along the winding Mississippi River. History Professor William Collins, in writing for the National Park Service, even cites lesser-known instances where battles raged as far north as Fort St. Joseph. The old fort once stood in what is modern-day Niles, Michigan!

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Whigs v Tories (1789) Universal History Archive (copyright Quint Lox Limited).

Internal Political Divides

It’s obvious that British and colonial politicians didn’t see eye to eye. After all, revolutions are antithetical to the status quo, with conflicting political factions often clamoring for change amid threats of secession or war. What many Americentric historical accounts tend to gloss over, however, is the internal condition of British politics during the Revolutionary Period, which was in a virtual state of upheaval. In addition to squabbling over the course and nature of the conflict in North America, Parliament argued incessantly about many other pressing issues. The American dilemma was, in all reality, just another point of debate in London, where partisan tempers had been simmering since the seventeenth century.

Great Britain’s two opposing factions during the Colonial Period were the Tories and the Whigs. Although neither held official party status by the time of the American Revolution, hereditary patrons of each group maneuvered against one another over the course of the conflict. Each traditionally held opposing views of the other, particularly over the issues of succession, constitutional authority, socioeconomic mandates, and religious tolerance. The Glorious Revolution (1688-89) had an enormous impact on British society and contributed to an expanding divide between the two groups. Divisive partisanship and deep factionalism plagued the British government by the time King George III ascended the throne, in 1760.

Lord Frederick North, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1770-82, was largely a Tory sympathizer, and historically credited with England’s political mishandling of the American War of Independence. He resigned from office, in 1782, following Cornwallis’s embarrassing surrender at Yorktown the previous year. Whig opposition cited his punitive strategy towards the colonies as misguided and ineffective. Pundits also claimed that his partisan agenda blinded him to the fact that British forces lacked popular colonial support during the Southern Campaign.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, who opposed Tory sentiments for years, was appointed North’s successor and promptly recognized the Continentals’ call independence, reliving the Crown of its American Colonies and a costly, mismanaged war.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton

Friction Within the British Ranks

Many historical accounts of the American Revolution, at least through the lens of United States history, tend to focus on domestic achievements in their battle for independence. Nevertheless, detrimental factors on the other side of the war additionally contributed to victory in the colonies. Chaotic British partisanship and political turmoil at home, for instance, led to military friction and discontent abroad. One of the most talked about topics among many historians is the rivalry between General Sir Henry Clinton, then Commander-In-Chief of the British Army in North America, and his subordinate, the aforementioned General Charles Cornwallis.

In 1881, the American journalist Sydney Howard Gay penned an article, titled “Why Cornwallis Was at Yorktown,” which chronicled some of the drama that unfolded at the highest levels of British political-military relations during the American Revolution. Gay’s investigation picks up at the height of the Southern Campaign, when Prime Minister Lord Frederick North and the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord George Germain, ordained it necessary to march south on the Carolinas. Cornwallis, who was generally regarded as a masterful tactician, had the Prime Minister’s ear and was placed in charge of the campaign, while his immediate superior, General Clinton, remained behind in New York.

Disaster loomed on the horizon. North and Germain overestimated loyalist support in the South, while Cornwallis and Clinton butted heads over strategic goals. Earl Cornwallis once wrote to the Prime Minister that Clinton was, in the words of Gay, “anxious to cover up his own stupidity.” Most historians assert that Clinton hesitated in reinforcing Yorktown because of Washington’s brilliant feint near New York while marching south to Virginia.

Others, however, feel that Clinton delayed aid to Cornwallis out of pure spite. Unbeknownst to Clinton, however, a nearby French fleet blockaded the Chesapeake during this critical delay, which resulted in defeat at Yorktown and the consequent collapse of the Southern Campaign.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
The London Chronicle (May 16, 1758). Poor Mans Books

British Apathy/Bad Press

Amid political tensions, strategic dissent, and internal military strife stood the British press. With no shortage of stories to cover, several London media outlets reported on many of the disheartening developments taking place at both home and abroad. Hard-hitting stories produced a unique sort of reciprocating discontent among politicians, military leaders, and the general public.

Growing apathy and disapproval of the war in North America, for example, prompted reporters to cover political and strategic mistakes that, in turn, fueled even more antiwar sentiments. Partisan journalists, often competing for the next big headline, supported their political patrons by running hit pieces that exacerbated an already volatile situation.

Solomon M. Lutnick, was one of the first academics to seriously investigate the impact of British journalism on the outcome of the war. In his 1964 article, “The Defeat at Yorktown,” he shares an interesting episode where several British papers elevated General Cornwallis to celebrity status in the eyes of eighteenth-century Londoners. Period newspapers painted the general as the Crown’s last, great hope for victory in the colonies by embellishing many of his exploits during the closing years of the war. Such media campaigns had the unintended consequence of alienating Cornwallis from his political and military superiors, who were quick to lay blame on the Earl after Yorktown.

In the end, it was the Morning Herald that reported the gradual decline and downfall of British forces near the close of the war. Despite the paper’s fierce loyalty to the incumbent First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, the writing was on the wall. In November of 1871, the paper reported that just over 2,000 French troops landed in Virginia. A week later, Herald reporters raised the number to nearly 3,000. The pro-Tory periodical finally capitulated by releasing word that a French blockade had cut off Cornwallis and his men at Yorktown, who were forced to surrender, which presaged the end of the war.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Rebels taking aim at Tarleton’s Raiders.

Oppression Diminished Support and Fueled Rebellion in the South

Tensions were already high when British policy-makers decided to turn their strategic attention south, during the latter half of the Revolutionary War. Casualties sustained in the Northern theater of the conflict, around places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, tried tempers on both sides of the struggle but paled in comparison to the violence wrought during the Southern Campaign. By the time the British moved to invade Savannah, in 1778, colonial militias were prepared to fight to the death. Great Britain’s inhumane treatment of captured soldiers and colonial non-combatants sent a clear message to Southerners, who were prepared to meet violence with violence.

One of the most infamous figures to engage in what would likely be considered war crimes by today’s standards was the cavalry commander, Sir Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton. Popularized in Mel Gibson’s 2000 movie, The Patriot, Tarleton gained an ominous reputation among rebel troops as an officer who provided no quarter to captured soldiers.

His unit, dubbed “Tarleton’s Raiders,” consisted of British dragoons, American loyalists, and mixed infantry—all of whom rode roughshod across the South. They participated in over a dozen major engagements, with the most notable action taking place at the Battle of Waxhaws (1780, South Carolina), where Tarleton allegedly ordered the slaughter of a detachment of surrendering rebels.

Stories like what occurred at Waxhaws fueled American resentment. As the war grinded onward, such tales instilled hatred in many Southern militias, regardless of their validity or accuracy. While The Patriot clearly portrays Tarleton as a bloody butcher, for instance, there’s some historical debate about his true motivations and actions. Moreover, many Southern militia commanders were despised by their British counterparts. Rebels frequently employed guerrilla tactics against regular soldiers that, in the eyes of British officers, were war crimes in themselves. Regardless, some patriot forces charged into battle screaming, “Tarleton’s quarter,” a war cry indicating that no mercy would be given to Redcoats who likewise gave none.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Southern militiamen in the Revolutionary War. Timetoast

Partisan/Irregular Warfare

The means and ways to wage war have evolved over centuries of human conflict. During the Revolutionary War, armies typically engaged in linear warfare, where soldiers formed a line of battle and stood side by side while delivering massive volleys of musket fire. Noted military strategy author William Lind refers to this as the “first generation” of warfare, which took hold during the seventeenth century. After countless years of internecine conflicts in Europe, the major powers signed the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Besides bringing the bloody Thirty Years’ War to a close, the treaty aimed to eliminate unregulated factional conflict.

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and imagine thousands of well-armed Redcoats and Hessian mercenaries piling off boats into New York and Boston. All the Crown’s crack troops, along with their soldiers for hire, were highly-trained, well-armed, and intimately familiar with the deadliest aspects of linear warfare. On the open field of battle, with muskets and cannons blazing, the British Army was an almost unstoppable juggernaut. The Colonial Army occasionally held its own in battle and frequently inflicted grave casualties on the British. Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long for key Northern cities to fall at the outset of the war.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
Francis Marion and his men.

All of this changed, however, when irregular militias entered the fray. The impact of partisan tactics was particularly felt in the South, where dense swamps and heavily forested highlands prevented the linear deployment of British forces. One of the best knows guerrilla fighters during this period was South Carolina’s Francis Marion, otherwise known as the “Swamp Fox” for his deadly cunning and ability to disappear into the shadows. The late, great military historian Jac Weller even went as far to note that, “The Southern patriot militia or partizan [sic] forces, acting alone or in combination with Continentals, were the salvation of the American cause.”

Marion and the Southern militias have long been the objects of American Revolutionary War scholars for decades, but infrequently covered in many textbooks. Of equal interest to military history, enthusiasts were the specific tactics of partisan warfighters, which eventually ushered out William Lind’s “first generation” of warfare. Weller notes, for instance, that Marion was a master of conducting ambushes on unsuspecting British columns in the South Carolina low country. He instructed sharpshooters, armed with accurate rifles, to cause chaos by targeting British officers from concealed positions. Militiamen armed with smoothbore muskets, meanwhile, loaded their weapons with improvised shot. Close quarter blasts from these weapons mutilated and horrified the Redcoats.

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
“The Continental Fleet at Sea” by Newland Van Powell (c. 1974).

American Piracy

Naval combat was a fundamental aspect of the Revolutionary War. British ships ferried thousands of Redcoats to the shores of North America at the outset of the conflict, while a French fleet sealed Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown. Prior to this, the British Royal Navy was one of the most well-respected maritime forces in the world. But other European powers, such as the French and Spanish, constantly engaged the King’s ships on the high seas or in littoral actions near major colonial cities. The Continentals, on the other hand, were relative latecomers to the war, due to the logistical and financial challenges of standing up an entirely new navy.

An interim solution to this problem was the Continental Congress’s official sanctioning of privateers during the struggle for independence. According to the American Merchant Marine at War, the Thirteen Colonies, in lacking a sufficient number of wartime ships, “issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships… which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships.”

Thereafter, everyday merchants and tradesmen set out to disrupt enemy shipping and commerce. To put the significance of this policy in context, consider that the Continental Navy mustered only 64 warships, armed with about 1,200 guns, while the privateers, on the other hand, boasted over 1,500 ships and some 15,000 guns.

Many private sailors were virtually euphoric at the idea of facing the British Royal Navy that, for ages, had administered King George III’s punitive trade regulations at sea. Following the opening shots of the war, a Boston newspaper of the period (again according to the American Merchant Marine at War) boldly invited, “all those Jolly Fellows,” and promised, “a hearty Welcome by a Number of Brave Fellows there assembled, and treated with that excellent Liquor call’d [sic] GROG which is allow’d [sic] by all true Seamen, to be the LIQUOR OF LIFE.” By war’s end, these “jolly pirates” aided in the capture of almost 16,000 British prisoners!

Revolution Revisited: 10 Reasons Why Great Britain Lost the War for Independence
French Map of Chesapeak Bay.

Sir Henry Clinton’s Mysterious Illness

Rounding out the list of lesser-known factors contributing to Great Britain’s loss of her American colonies is an odd tidbit of information, which involves returning our attention back to King George III’s supreme commander in North America, Sir Henry Clinton. As previously noted, political turbulence and personal animosity between Clinton and Cornwallis played a part in both men’s undoing and, quite possibly, the entirety of the Revolutionary War. What’s not as well-known, however, is that Sir Henry Clinton suffered from a mysterious, debilitating illness—one that still lacks a definitive diagnosis even today.

According to the Randolph Greenfield Adams article, “A View of Cornwallis’s Surrender at Yorktown,” Sir Henry Clinton suffered from random and uncontrollable bouts of complete blindness. Published in a 1931 edition of The American Historical Review, the article is a genuine piece of reputable academic work that, when combined with its author’s scholarly pedigree and prolific use of first-hand accounts, leaves little doubts to its validity. Adams observes that the blindness was a temporary ailment, but one that nevertheless compromised Clinton’s ability to successfully lead his forces to victory. Adams was an intense academic historian and stumbled upon his epiphany while examining some of Clinton’s personal correspondence.

Adams discovered that Clinton was utterly disgusted with the political conduct of the war and the favoritism afforded to Cornwallis. The latter was his junior but often praised by, and in direct contact with, the highest levels of Parliament. Cornwallis was credited with victories, while Clinton was blamed for defeats. Not surprisingly, during the summer of 1781, Clinton wrote, “I shall resign the command which I have held with disgust under the present Minister.”

Some speculate that Clinton’s tremendous duress triggered his bouts of blindness. Regardless, he isolated and alienated himself from his staff, which could explain why he was late in reinforcing Yorktown, thus heralding an end to the war.