Sunday, June 30, 2013

The War That Created Freedom

To understand the American Revolution, one must begin much earlier than the actual start of hostilities in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord. The French and Indian War - the North American analogue to the Seven Years' War - was the immediate context. That war, ending in 1763, began as a spat between Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria-Theresa of Austria. France was drawn in as an Austrian ally, and England entered the conflict as a Prussian ally. Tension already existed in North America between the British colonies and the French colonies, as both wanted the area around the Ohio River Valley. The English won, but only after losing several disastrous campaigns early in the war. The victory was expensive in terms of money and lives.

After the war, the English were determined to milk every bit of money it could get from its colonies to recoup the costs of the war. The colonists living in North America, however, were now confident in their own military skills, and resented have to pay for the alleged protection of the British army. The colonists could defend themselves, and the English soldiers stationed in the colonies not only failed to contribute to any meaningful defense of those colonies, but rather created problems among the colonists, because the English soldiers were badly behaved. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write:

Britain's triumph in the Great War for Empire contained the seeds of the American Revolution. England emerged from the war with an expanded empire and a staggering national debt, much of it resulting from the struggle in North America. Britain wanted to administer its new empire with maximum efficiency, which in part meant enforcing the Navigation Acts, a series of laws designed to regulate colonial trade for the mother country's benefit. Americans had consistently violated them through smuggling and bribery. Strict enforcement would help alleviate England's financial distress but would crimp the colonial economy.

Tired of abusive regulation from Parliament, tired of confiscatory taxes from the Crown, and tired of harassment from British regulars stationed in North America, the colonists, confident in the skills of their militiamen, were ready to take action, but understood that their forces were numerically smaller, less well equipped, and less well trained than the English redcoats. The training would be gained when Washington appointed a German, the Prussian Baron and General von Steuben, to educate his men in up-to-date tactics and techniques. The numerical and financial deficits would never be totally addressed: the American army remained chronically short of men, money, and equipment throughout the war. This required that Washington use strategies which fit his army's circumstances. He could not challenge the British to a head-on war of attrition. He could, however, exploit attrition of a different kind. Historian Russell Weigley writes:

The most familiar visual depiction of Washington as a general is probably Emanuel Leutze's version of him, wrapped in muffler against freezing December as he crosses the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776. Whatever documentary or esthetic misgivings the painting may occasion, its popularity is appropriate enough, for it suggests the essence of Washington's way of war, a strategy of attrition. The passage over the Delaware to raid the Hessian barracks at Trenton was the most successful single example of his chief stock in trade of active war, the erosion of the enemy's strength by means of hit-and-run strikes against his outposts.

Not the type of attrition which appeared in the WWI, WWII, or the American Civil War - Washington's strategy of attrition was a harassment strategy, almost a guerilla strategy. His numerically smaller force, underfunded, could continually surprise the British with raids and attacks on their posts, while avoiding as much as possible direct engagement with the main forces on a battlefield. The English officers began the war overconfident, and the English soldiers were less motivated than their North American counterparts. By war's end, the English officers were disillusioned, and their men fought with less devotion than the Americans in Washington's Continental Army.