Saturday, February 20, 2010


The American Revolution is a remarkable conflict to study, for several reasons. It can be argued that the war should never have been fought; that the British Army should have won hands down; and that once won, the young United States should have failed as a political enterprise and rejoined the British Crown within it's first ten years.

But independence WAS declared, the war WAS fought and won by a handful of poorly trained and equipped amateurs up against the most professional army of the day, and the sentiments that led to the Revolution evolved into the most successful and enduring political philosophy ever devised; as expressed in the the Federalist and anti-Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address.

I have often wondered about what the American Revolution was like from the British point of view. Specifically; the point of view of the front-line British soldier, far from home fighting people who looked like him, spoke like him, for all intents and purposes WERE him, in a fantastic land that resembled Europe save for the vast, untamed wilderness.

How did THIS . . .

. . . ever defeat . . .

. . . . . . THIS?

Now, a remarkable set of letters have surfaced that shed light on the British point of view during the American War of Independence. The papers were the property of the Strachey family in Britain for about two centuries, later sold to the US newspaperman James Copley, who collected documents relating to American history.

According to the documents, the British military began to despair of victory almost as soon as the conflict began in 1775. A letter from Gen John Burgoyne, dated 25 June 1775 in Boston, gives an early assessment of how bad things looked:

"Our prospects are gloomy," he told an unidentified lord in a letter written after the first two battles of the campaign in Massachusetts – a humiliating defeat to a local band of militiamen followed by a victory but with heavy losses at Bunker Hill.

He describes the British position as "a crisis that my little reading in history cannot parallel," and predicts that the Crown would only be able to subdue the rebellion with the help of German or Russian allies.

"Such a pittance of troops as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and insure disappointment," he said.

The Burgoyne letter is part of the collection of papers and correspondence of Sir Henry Strachey, chief aide to the Howe brothers who led the British war effort. Strachey later held a similar role at the Paris peace negotiations.

In March 1777, Sir Henry writes that the American revolutionaries are much more "obstinate" than realized by the "short-sighted folks in England".

A sentiment evidenced by the Rattlesnake flag, the first American naval jack flown:

A note to my Commonwealth readers: Here at Blog STORMBRINGER we love Britain and all things British. The Revolution was a terrible conflict that caused much tragedy and suffering, but it produced what we have today and for that I am thankful. I am also truly thankful that America was a product of Britain, versus France or Spain, and I celebrate our two countries special relationship.

When I served alongside the British Army, the "sqaudees" of the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment (Berkshire and Wiltshire) explained to me that the red triangle on their beret flashes represented the white cap feathers their predecessors of the famed "Berks and Wilts" regiment dipped into Brandywine Creek, which flowed red with American blood following Washington's defeat there in September of 1777.

I told them two things: "Yeah, well who won in the long run?" and "Thank God we were YOUR colony, and not the French."


  1. Who won in the long run? Neither the Americans, nor the British, but the World. The Anglo-American relationship has helped shape much of the world and shed its blood to ensure that Freedom and Liberty are not just words uttered by a Politician but are real things that anybody has the right to.
    Sometimes, the "Special Relationship" appears one-sided or under threat but Ronald Reagan commented that when trouble comes Britain and the United States will stand together whilst many of the fair weather allies become conspicuous by their absence.
    M. J. Ney

  2. I only hope that the special relationship survives the current occupant of the White House. He seems to care as little for the UK as he does for us.

  3. The whole damn mess can fairly be laid at the door of the French Moonarchy- which by the way took far less notice of its citizens than King George's ministers took of American colonists.
    They started the seven years war (French Indian war in the hope of expanding their power particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the Americas. I guess that many of the American soldiers who fought in this were later in the "revolutionary" army. I doubt they were fully aware of the cost to Britain of this war- how could they be?
    At the end the French were out of America and Britain had large debts.
    The British next sought to repay theit debts, by reducing Naval expenditure and raising taxes. I doubt many Americans realised that whilst they were complaining about a tax rate that averaged to 6 pence per person, the average Briton was paying fifty times that. I've always wondered what would have happenned if the leaders of the revolution had been offered a seat in Parliament each- somehow I doubt if the introduction of representation would have convinced the Americans that the tax was needed- it being considerably more than they were used to paying.
    Meanwhile the French Monarch bankrupted his country to build a new fleet- which he used to prevent British reinforcements reaching the Americas. By the time the British fleet had been put back into order the war was over- but it did go on to sort out Louis' fleet shortly afterwards. And of course within a decade the longsuffering French finaly got rid of their monarch.
    I don't believe American war of independance was truly a revolution. In a revolution, like the french one the revolutionaries want a change in their lives- the Americans merely wanted to continue as they were used to.
    The upshot, IMHO-
    The Amercans were a great asset to Britain for as long as they felt loyal- and no longer. So there was no point in conquering them unless it could be done with loyal Americans, and sadly the United Empire Loyalists were not enough.
    In refitting the navy on the cheap the British discovered the use of copper bottoms on ships- enabling later victories over the French right through to Trafalgar.
    Infantry tactics developed in the revolutionary wars greatly enhanced the power of British troops during the Napoleonic wars, especially in the peninsular.
    All in all a good outcome- tyranny was kept out of America, we remained on the best possible terms with Americans (not perfect but what is?), Britain remained free, the cause of freedom was advanced in Europe.

  4. Pat, your command of the history of the events discussed impresses me quite a bit! I too am somewhat a student of history, and know enough of what you say to sit here quietly nodding my head. And a lot of what you write from the longterm results leaves me in the dust, so I cannot comment on that, other than to perhaps assume you are writing from the perspective of someone on the eastern side of the pond???....

    I am not in any way doubting your commentary, I only say this because what you write is not only not discussed in our high school history books on the Revolutionary War (yes, I am an American :-) ) but I have not read any of the longterm results that occurred on the British side of the pond. (And I think that I have read considerably more than the average Joe SixPack.)
    It is interesting to sit and think about how the world would have turned out differently if perhaps the Brits had given the colonies a fairer shake, either by giving them representation as you suggest, or by simply letting them foot their own bills....

    On the other hand, I would like to point out that we didn't really defeat the might of the British Empire singlehandedly in the truest sense. I seem to remember that a few other nations in Europe not only supported our efforts, but were generally involved with some high intensity friskiness that greatly distracted Britain from the pesky upstarts in the colonies... Were it not for them being at war with half the world at the time, we most certainly would not have prevailed. Same with the War of 1812 (not sure what you folks call it..)


    Mister Ed

  5. Mr. Ed,
    I just finished reading a book called "Britons: The Forging of a Nation," by Linda Colley, that discusses the impact of the American War of Independence on British culture. Among other things, it jumpstarted the abolitionist movement (because it allowed them to claim that they still had a better sense of liberty than those upstart colonists), and encouraged the aristocracy to start defining themselves as British Patriots instead of members of a transnational European elite. The book is about how and why the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish started thinking of themselves as being members of a single nation, and while the AWI was only part of that process, it sort of set the ball rolling in many ways.

    Grey Fox

  6. Thanks for the compliment, Mr. Ed. I did make one rather large omission- the production of the greatest constitution the world has yet seen. And yes, I am from the right hand side of the pond.
    Given the communications of the day I doubt if representation across the pond was then possible.