The Lies and Realities of the American Revolution - The Cost of Freedom

Many of us believe we understand the Revolutionary War. It's a defining event that has shaped the United States and continues to shape our identity. Stories of the Declaration of Independence, the Midnight Ride, and the trials of Valley Forge are deeply ingrained in our national consciousness. For many, these tales of rebellion against tyranny provide their first brush with history.

Yet, our understanding of the events is often not entirely accurate. The Revolutionary War is perhaps the most mythologized event in American history, with widely held beliefs that are contradicted by historical facts. Let's revisit some of these enduring myths to gain a more nuanced understanding.

I. Britain Was Completely Unaware of the Impending Conflict

It's often thought that the British government, under Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North, acted impulsively without understanding the depth of the challenge posed by the American Revolution. In reality, the British cabinet, a body of nearly twenty ministers, began considering the use of military force as early as January 1774, following the news of the Boston Tea Party.

Despite common beliefs, Lord North's government didn't impulsively react to these events. Instead, they had lengthy discussions throughout early 1774 about whether punitive measures would result in war and if they could win such a war.

By March 1774, they had decided on punitive actions that stopped short of a formal declaration of war. In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts in America) and applied them solely to Massachusetts. The British cabinet trusted the advice of Gen. Thomas Gage, who believed the colonists would back down if confronted with force.

However, this strategy turned out to be a significant miscalculation. Following the introduction of the Coercive Acts, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in September 1774 and voted to boycott British goods until taxes and the Coercive Acts were repealed. Upon hearing this in December, the British government went through another round of deliberations.

Despite some skepticism, the overall consensus in the British government was that the colonists would not pose a significant challenge in a potential war. They were confident in their military superiority and hoped that the colonists' resistance would collapse after a few defeats. In the end, they decided on war.

II. The Fight was Fueled by Universal American Patriotism

The phrase "spirit of '76" has always symbolized the colonists' fervor for independence. It implies that every able-bodied man took part in the Revolutionary War out of deep-seated patriotism.

Indeed, the initial response to the war was overwhelming. When news of the British Army's advancement towards Concord spread on April 19, 1775, thousands of militiamen from various towns hurried to join the fight. This led the British to believe that every American man had taken up arms.

However, as the realities of war became apparent, the initial enthusiasm began to dwindle. Many men chose the safety of their homes over the battlefield. As the war progressed, the American states had to resort to financial incentives, shorter enlistments, and eventually even conscription to muster enough men.

Moreover, beginning in 1778, African-Americans were enlisted in the Northern states, a practice initially forbidden by Congress. In the end, around 5,000 African-Americans served in the Continental Army, contributing significantly to America's ultimate victory.

Longer enlistments also led to a shift in the demographic of the army. Initially, soldiers represented a cross-section of the free male population, but as the war continued, the majority were young, single, poor, and often propertyless. Some states, like Pennsylvania, had a significant proportion of soldiers who were impoverished recent immigrants. While patriotism was a factor, the promise of financial reward provided an unprecedented opportunity for upward mobility for many of these men. For a large part of the war, the middle-class American population was underrepresented in the Continental Army, although many did serve in militias.

III. The Conditions of the Continental Soldiers Varied Significantly

Stories of Continental Army soldiers trudging through the snow barefoot, leaving trails of blood in their wake, or suffering from hunger in a land of abundance are all too real. For instance, consider the experiences of Private Martin from Connecticut. While he was stationed with the Eighth Connecticut Continental Regiment in the fall of 1776, Martin often survived on little more than a handful of chestnuts and occasionally, a piece of roasted sheep's head, leftovers from a meal enjoyed by his "gentleman officers." Ebenezer Wild, a soldier from Massachusetts who braved the brutal winter at Valley Forge in 1777-78, remembered enduring many days on a diet of "a leg of nothing." Many soldiers resorted to eating fire cakes, a mixture of flour and water baked over coals, as reported by Dr. Albigence Waldo, a surgeon in the Continental Army. Waldo noted one soldier lamenting that his "glutted Gutts are turned to Pasteboard" due to this diet. The Army’s supply system was frequently unreliable, leading to instances of extreme want and misery.

Yet, there were also times when the soldiers were well-provided for. During the winter of 1779, the army received such an abundance of clothing from France that Washington had to find storage for the surplus.

The condition of the soldiers often depended on their postings, which ranged from upper New York to lower Georgia. For example, while the Boston siege army was well-equipped in 1776, the American soldiers participating in the unsuccessful invasion of Quebec from Fort Ticonderoga in New York experienced near-starvation. While one in seven soldiers at Valley Forge were dying from hunger and disease, Private Martin, stationed a few miles away in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, was part of patrols that foraged daily for army provisions. According to Martin, they had "very good provisions all winter," and he had a comfortable room.

IV. The Militia Played a Critical Role

The British militia system, which required all able-bodied men aged 16 to 60 to bear arms, was adopted by the first settlers of the nation. During the Revolutionary War, approximately 100,000 men served in the Continental Army, and it's estimated that twice as many served as militiamen. These militiamen primarily defended the home front, acted as a local law enforcement body, and occasionally engaged in enemy surveillance. When summoned for active duty, a militia company would generally be mobilized for up to 90 days.

The perception of the militia's efficacy was mixed after the war. General Washington contributed significantly to this perception, expressing skepticism about depending on the militia, likening it to "resting on a broken staff."

Most militiamen were older and less trained than Continental soldiers. Washington was particularly critical of their performance in the battles on Long Island and in Manhattan in 1776. However, it is crucial to remember their notable contributions, such as their commendable bravery at Bunker Hill and the Concord Road in 1775, and their significant presence in the Battle of Trenton in 1776 and the Saratoga campaign of 1777. Earl Cornwallis, a British general, acknowledged the impact of the militia, saying that their killing and wounding of British officers and soldiers was proof of their significance.

V. The Revolutionary War’s Turning Point Is Not Singular

Many historians consider the surrender of British Gen. John Burgoyne and nearly 5,895 men to the American forces outside Saratoga, New York, on October 17, 1777, as a significant turning point in the Revolutionary War. The defeat led France to form a military alliance with the United States, bolstering the American cause significantly. Despite the significance of this event, it's important to remember that prolonged wars often cannot be defined by a single pivotal moment.

Several other key instances shaped the course of the war. These include the early victories at Concord Road and Bunker Hill in 1775, which disproved the notion that American soldiers couldn't withstand the British regulars. Washington’s successful campaigns at Trenton and Princeton in late December 1776 and early January 1777 revived the hopes of victory after significant losses in New York earlier in the year.

Another turning point was Congress's decision to transform the Continental Army into a standing army by abandoning one-year enlistments. This change led to better-trained, more disciplined, and more experienced soldiers despite initial resistance due to fears of potential dictatorial powers.

The final significant turning point came from the Southern Strategy implemented by the British in 1778, aimed at retaking the Southern colonies. After initial success, the British faced fierce resistance from American partisan bands. This resistance eventually culminated in the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, marking the end of major fighting in the Revolutionary War. Despite these multiple turning points, the war's course was determined by numerous events and strategies that unfolded over years, rather than a single decisive moment.

VI. Understanding Washington's Strategy and Tactical Prowess

In the aftermath of George Washington's demise in 1799, numerous tributes were paid, one of which was from Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College. He maintained that Washington's military brilliance lay in his "meticulous planning" and a keen "eye for opportunities." This view was widespread and has been sustained by many historians over time.

However, Washington was not without his strategic missteps. In fact, no one was more acutely aware of his own limitations than the man himself. As he embarked on the New York campaign in 1776, Washington candidly expressed his "lack of large-scale operational experience" and his "limited and contracted understanding of military matters" to Congress.

The first major test for the Continental Army came in August 1776 on Long Island, and it resulted in a devastating defeat due, in part, to Washington's failure to properly assess the situation and over-extend his defense considering the size of his army. Washington's somewhat sluggish decision-making resulted in the losses of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island and Fort Lee in New Jersey in November, resulting in a loss of over a quarter of the army's soldiers and essential military supplies. Instead of accepting blame, Washington attributed the defeat to his "lack of confidence in the troops."

During the 1777 invasion of Pennsylvania by Gen. William Howe, Washington gambled with his entire army in a bid to protect Philadelphia. During the Battle of Brandywine, Washington was paralyzed by indecision. As intelligence poured in about the British's attempted flank attack, Washington hesitated. A British sergeant observed that with another hour of daylight, the Americans would have faced a complete rout.

Washington was also notably slow in understanding the significance of the war in the Southern states. He mainly deployed troops there under Congress's orders, and by that time, it was too late to prevent the surrender of Charleston in May 1780 and subsequent losses. Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, leading the French Army's Commander in America, Comte de Rochambeau, to despondently note the lack of urgency from Washington. Rochambeau was ultimately responsible for the decisive Virginia campaign, culminating in the siege of Yorktown in 1781, without Washington's knowledge.

Much of the strategic planning during the war was not public knowledge. Even Congress was not aware that it was the French, not Washington, who developed the strategy that led to America's victory. Thomas Paine, an American pamphleteer residing in France during Washington's presidency, revealed these facts. In a published "Letter to George Washington" in 1796, Paine labeled most of Washington's celebrated achievements as "deceitful," even accusing him of idleness post-1778. Paine asserted that Generals Horatio Gates and Greene were more responsible for America's victory than Washington.

There was a degree of truth in Paine's biting remarks, but they overlooked the fact that being a great military leader does not necessarily involve being an exceptional tactician or strategist. Washington's character, judgement, industrious nature, and his political and diplomatic abilities distinguished him from others. In the end, he was undoubtedly the right choice to command the Continental Army.

VII. Debunking the Myth that Britain Was Destined to Lose the War

After the Revolutionary War was lost, some British individuals proposed that the war was impossible to win. This argument served as a comfort to generals and admirals looking to defend their reputations, and for patriots who found the acceptance of defeat too bitter. The premise of inevitable failure was appealing: the outcome, they claimed, could not have been altered. Lord North was criticized, not for losing the war, but for dragging the nation into a battle that could not be won.

However, in truth, victory was within Britain's grasp. The 1776 battle for New York presented England with a golden opportunity for a resounding victory. At this time, the Americans had not yet allied with the French. Washington and his deputies were largely novices, and the Continental Army was green. On Long Island and in New York City, General William Howe had cornered much of the American Army and could have dealt a devastating blow. Even Washington conceded that a concerted attack from Howe would have forced the Continental Army into a dire situation. However, the overly cautious Howe was slow to act, allowing Washington a crucial escape.

Britain still had the potential for victory in 1777. The strategic plan that London developed involved Howe's significant forces, which included naval support, advancing up the Hudson River to join General Burgoyne, who was invading New York from Canada. This plan was intended to isolate New England from the other nine states. However, Howe abandoned this plan, fixated instead on capturing Philadelphia, the home of the Continental Congress. While he succeeded in taking Philadelphia, the impact was minimal. Meanwhile, Burgoyne was utterly defeated at Saratoga.

The general consensus among historians is that Britain had lost any hope of victory post-1777, but this notion is another myth surrounding the war. Two years into its Southern Strategy, Britain was on the brink of reclaiming vast territories within its former American empire. By the start of 1781, Washington had warned that his army was "exhausted," and public sentiment was discontent. Both Washington and John Adams predicted that without a decisive victory in 1781, the war's outcome would be determined at a European peace conference.

In most stalled wars, an armistice often sees the belligerents retain what they possess at the ceasefire. If the European peace conference had determined the outcome, Britain would likely have retained Canada, the trans-Appalachian West, parts of present-day Maine, New York City and Long Island, Georgia, and much of South Carolina, Florida, and several Caribbean islands. However, Cornwallis' shocking defeat at Yorktown in October cost Britain everything except Canada.

The Treaty of Paris, ratified on September 3, 1783, marked the American victory and acknowledged the existence of the United States. In his address to his soldiers at West Point, General Washington stated that they had achieved America's "independence and sovereignty." He spoke of the "expanded prospects of happiness" that the new nation faced and the "personal independence" that all free Americans could enjoy. Over time, it became evident that Washington had not been creating yet another myth about the war's outcome but had articulated the true potential of the emerging nation.
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