Monday, November 9, 2015

Did the British really try to win?

I have a lot to learn. Therefore, with due humility, I ask: how hard did the British try to win the American Revolutionary War?

It's a research topic that intrigues me. I'm using the question to guide my reading. I'm careful to remind myself, often, that I don't know the answer. 

I think I know enough to indicate the validity of the question. Britain had substantial economic engagement with the North American colonies in the latter part of the 18th century. The British West Indies—the Caribbean "sugar islands"—also were an important component of the British Atlantic colonial world. Britain had additional commitments in Florida, as well as military outposts, trading posts and other dependencies in Ireland, the Mediterranean, India, Africa, Central America, the Bahamas, the Bermudas, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Hudson's Bay. Britain was intensely engaged in diplomacy and threatening entanglements with France, Spain and other European powers. Britain was an economic power, not a military titan.

King George and the British government did not have unlimited military resources. Army and naval forces were allocated to the rebellious American colonies, just as they were to the West Indies and other areas of vital interest. French and Spanish forces continually threatened the British Caribbean islands, an economic bastion of the British monarchy. There were not enough British ships and troops to establish compelling military superiority in every arena of British interest.

British admirals could not prevent a localized French naval superiority in the Chesapeake Bay that forced Cornwallis to surrender his under-sized army to Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown in October, 1781.

Did the British government send enough troops and ships to North America to get the job done when the rebellion broke out? Was winning the war a pre-eminent priority for King George and his ministers? Doubtless the British wanted to win. How hard did they try?

I'm not looking for a simple answer. I'm interested, first, in understanding the meaningful frames of reference for considering the question.


Bowler, R. Arthur.  Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in American, 1775-1783. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778. 1916. Reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Duffy, Michael. Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War Against Revolutionary France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Triumphant Empire: The Empire Beyond the Storm, 1770-1776, vol. 13 of The British Empire Before The American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Seton-Watson, Robert William. Britain In Europe: 1789-1914, A Survey of Foreign Policy. 1937. Reprint, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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