Home > Blog > 4th of July In Perspective: The Role of The Continental Army

4th of July In Perspective: The Role of The Continental Army


“Why The Empire Handed It To Them On A Silver Platter” (as George Orwell might put it – ed)

(As a special treat for you folks, I’ve dusted off some academia to honour our American cousins and celebrate this sunny 4th of July. Enjoy.)

The military skills of the American revolutionaries are ones less of military strength or superiority and more of diplomatic intellect in maximising the potential of any armies in the field. That is to say, the importance of simply maintaining an army and using that army toward a diplomatic victory was not lost on commanders of the American rebels. The real victory of the General of the Continental army was in avoiding defeat and knowing when to use even minor victories to his advantage. George Washington’s contemporary Ben Franklin would, along with the Committee of Secret Correspondence, exploit the wider international system to America’s benefit1. American victory would in the fullness of time owe more to British failures of ideology and command, foreign intervention – especially in the form of French alliance – and the exploitation of international movements and imperial rivalries toward the American cause, than to genuine military success on the field of battle. However the military’ ability to survive would prove to be a vital element. The colonies were rather Britain’s to lose, more than the Americans to gain. In 1776 at the outbreak of the war, the colonists were divided between patriot rebels, loyalists and a largely neutral body of the populace. It is not at this stage a war between Americans and British. By the end of the war in 1783, the divisions between the colonists are far less important, they are now unreservedly American and this owes much more to the British military than it does to the American.

In October 1777 with the surrender of German mercenaries under British command at Saratoga, a rare victory for George Washington, the American Revolution moved dramatically from what was essentially a regional insurgency into something more closely resembling a world war. The victory of the colonists in October was hailed in France as practically a national triumph2. By December the USA and France would be allied against the British; a year later Spain and France signed a treaty of co-operation and in 1780 the British declared war on the Dutch who had been aiding her enemies. (Upon sacking the Dutch colony at St. Eustatius in 1780 Admiral Rodney seized some £2,000,000 worth of merchandise3). The theatre of conflict stretched from India, through Africa and the Mediterranean to the West Indies; even the North Sea felt the impact of the now global focus of the American War of Independence. This would not only strain imperial Britain’s finite resources, but it would dull the Empire’s focus on American independence, allowing the potential for independence to slip into the American people’s grasp.

From the outset of hostilities the British command had a strong belief in colonial loyalists. Reports of ‘friends of government’ in the southern colonies had reached Britain4; coupled with the belief that white colonials could not resist when the majority of their population was made up of slaves, British hopes in a swift locally supported victory were strong. The offer of Lord Dunmore to give freedom to all slaves fighting for the British against the colonies would alienate many loyalists within the southern colonies. The Franco-American alliance was also reportedly unpopular and creating new loyalists ‘by the day’5. A dislike for France and a veneration of England can be seen prior to the revolution; American revolutionary spirit was arguably linked to Britishness rather than any anti-English sentiment6.

General Howe was also seemingly becoming ‘increasingly obsessed’7 with facing and defeating Washington. This is understandable considering his failure to follow up swiftly at Long Island in 1776 and conceivably crush the fledgling Continental Army. So too the co-ordination, diminished by Howe’s wayward pursuit of Washington distracted the British from the swift and decisive victory they sought in the Americas. In fact the ‘vague…intermittent references to each other’8 describes the relations between the three commanders working against the continental army in America; proof of the lack of cohesion that was playing into the hands of American colonists seeking independence. The economic importance of America to a British state financially cowed by the seven years war was so intense they were willing to use force, and even more expenditure to subjugate the insurrection, this would unfortunately play into the hands of the patriots and their ideologues.

The mistakes of Howe contrast sharply with the leadership of George Washington. Washington succeeds in instilling discipline in the Continental Army, through his own experience as a soldier in the American-Indian wars and his reportedly incredible charisma. Washington is first among equals; he is not a distant monarch but a companion to the small community of the continental force. He understands how important it is to avoid capture or defeat, that the survival of the revolution is tied inexorably to the army of the revolution. These advantages over the divided British command, and their forces, are paramount to the role that American military intelligence, and pragmatism, will play. More important is the situation this dynamic finds in the British they are fighting as it develops through the course of the war.

The failure of the British command to realise they were fighting a new kind of war, far from the traditional European conflicts of great powers they were used to. The guerrilla tactics of colonials was unprecedented; mass propaganda and public insurgency were bed-fellows of the American colonial military. Even after the capture of the colonial capital at Philadelphia the Americans did not surrender, but counter attacked. Washington’s ability to retreat strategically would prove immensely useful in a war that was proving increasingly un-popular back in England. In January 1775 prior to the outbreak of hostilities, merchants from England (ironically enough from 13 centres of commerce) petitioned for ‘peaceful concessions to the colonists’9. The ideology of radicalism in America was beginning to find a new voice among English radicals. Thomas Paine, who had been involved in revolution in France, radicalism in England and now was enlisted in the American cause, whose pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ was mandatory reading for members of the Continental army is a prime example of the ideological link between Britain’s radical opposition and that of the American revolutionaries. America had won a new sort of independence from France in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, one linked to British victory. The progression of the American cause into one of independence from British rule proved, more than by arms, to be advanced by its ideology. Viewed as a ‘non-nurturant…fatherly authority’ from Britain10, the impact of The Stamp Act on editors, lawyers, merchants and their influence on colonial populations, would directly contribute to the radical idioms that would spark the revolt, the ‘growth of a revolutionary mentality’11. The anti-Catholic strain of English radicalism would allow for an easier migration of American feeling from Catholic France to Protestant England12.

The sacrament of the American insurrection performed in the ‘hearts and minds of the patriots’ would hearten the passage from one state, that of the reign of a King, to the other, the rule of the people13. This strength within rebel ideology would be in stark contrast to British imperial forces dominated by internal divisions. British regulars consisting of English, Irish and Welshman, many of whom were press-ganged, conscripted or drawn from prison to fight. “Hessian” German mercenaries, in reality drawn from many German states, fighting for money, and not willing to die before they could spend it, were shipped to the American continent. Loyalist Native Americans, ‘savages’ in puritan eyes, used against the colonies would appal religious communities in the Americas, further driving a wedge between British subjects and their American counterparts. These combined to create a divided force whose aims were equally as splintered. When Washington surprised an ignorant British force at Saratoga it was not against foes that were ideologically opposed to American self-rule; but men whose desire to live and earn wages as soldiers of fortune had drawn them into the American Revolution.

Fighting alongside the British redcoats in the Seven Years War had reduced the spectre of the mighty redcoat to a mere model of influence for many of the militia of the American colonies. While the regulars of the British army had developed many skills for fighting irregular warfare from their militia companions, they still regarded them with a distain that would hamper the British ability to maintain cordiality and order with local loyalists. Again it was British racism toward Americans that would drive a wedge between the British government and its trans-Atlantic subjects, rather than military superiority of the rebels drawing them into independence. The French allies fighting the land war against Britain shared much in common with the Americans both finding reward in the burgeoning ideals that would lead to French revolution also. The official adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th of 1776 is a marked step toward ideological hegemony in the cause for independence. The declaration is designed as an international declaration, no longer an issue of mere taxation, the revolution is about self-governance, Republican sovereignty and opposition to bad government.

The French treaty would have consequences in terms of opposing the British on land, but the real impact would be felt on the high seas. The British ability to meet its naval commitments when France entered on the side of America would have dire consequences on their ability to maintain control of the colonies. Caught between fighting a defensive action in the English Channel, defending her interests against the Dutch in the West Indies and combating American and French ships in the Atlantic, the British navy was pushed to breaking point. While the American navy lacked military superiority, with the help of the French they were able to compete with the might of the Royal Navy. The victory at Yorktown would demonstrate the necessity for French naval help, but so too the failure of the Americans to take New York and Charlestown afterward. They could not hope to attack such heavily fortified naval positions without French assistance. The Royal Navy was also responsible for alienating local loyalist support, their actions in burning ports up and down the coast of the colonies, beginning in Falmouth in the October of 1775, in an effort to force the colonists into realising the economic cost of insurrection would merely prove to disaffect the colonials and inspire the patriots further.

Britain could conceivably have continued fighting even after the surrender at Yorktown; they would continue to wage war against France for another 32 years. With the threat of local and international strife in India, Africa, China, Canada and the West Indies there is a clear argument for disengagement after Yorktown. Seeing the Americans had a chance to run their own colonies while believing they would eventually again need British support seemed like a fair trade-off for some harmony on the eastern Atlantic sea-bard. The Franco-American alliance, without which the rebels could never have won the war, overshadows any American military superiority. Also, the ideology of the colonists, both public and martial is superior to that of the divided imperial armies of Britain. The leadership of pragmatic intelligent statesman such as Franklin and Washington is in stark contrast to the arrogant and often stubborn gentry in charge of the British forces. Their intelligent use of a force (in the form of the Continental Army) largely overshadowed by the martial potential of the British Empire would win them places in world history and make effective points of interest for American propagandists down the ages. American military superiority played only a minor point in the victory of the colonials in the American war of independence. Through a series of other factors they were able to use what military they could to amplify diplomatic and ideological factors to their benefit.

Ultimately the victory of the colonies in the American War of Independence owes most to the contribution of military ineptitude and ideological division among the British army and the Royal Navy. It is nearly impossible for a colonial master to use force of arms to regain control of territory so far from central government without using overwhelming force to institute martial law. This was an option open to the British but was not one they would consider against the American colonists. Even if it had been instituted it is likely this would only have further inspired ideological division between Pax Britannia and ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The American colonies were lost the moment Britain tried to win them back.

1 P. 233 ‘The War of Independence: The British Army in North America 1775-1783’ J. W. Fortescue, John Shy, Sir John Fortescue, London (1991)

2 Tindall & David 169

3 p.168 ‘Britain and the American Revolution’ ed. H. T. Dickinson, London (1998)

4 p.160 ‘Britain and the American Revolution’ ed. H. T. Dickinson, London (1998)

5 p.164 ‘Britain and the American Revolution’ ed. H. T. Dickinson, London (1998)

(Travels in the American Colonies, New York (1916) p.580)

6 p.229 ‘American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution’ Peter Shaw, Harvard (1981)

7 ibid

8 p.162 ‘Britain and the American Revolution’ ed. H. T. Dickinson, London (1998)

9 p.135 ‘Britain and the American Revolution’ ed. H. T. Dickinson, London (1998)

10 p.230 ‘American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution’ Peter Shaw, Harvard (1981)

11 p.228 American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution’ Peter Shaw, Harvard (1981)

12 ibid

13 p.231 ‘American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution’ Peter Shaw, Harvard (1981)

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