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AskUs: What mistakes did the British make to lose the US War of Independence?

So one of our readers asked us this question the other day, What mistakes did the British make to lose the US War of Independence and could they have won it?

ANSWER

It is difficult to pin down specific mistakes (i.e. tactical moments of failure) that have a direct and irrefutable bearing on war, as the number of variables that lead up to and take place after said mistakes are innumerable. I will, therefore, not discuss military tactics, but instead highlight three broader elements that, taken together, sum up Britain’s biggest mistake during the war: consistent under-estimation of the gravity of the situation.

01. Continental Politics

American Revolutionary War

It is well-known that France became involved in the American War of Independence out of a desire to challenge British hegemony in the wake of the disastrous Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War in the US). What is less known is that Spain and Holland joined France in a coalition against Britain in order to weaken British power in the Caribbean and potentially extract Britain from Gibraltar. Meanwhile, Britain was also engaged (once again) in land warfare in India against both European and Indian armies. As such, it is more appropriate to view the American War of Independence as a continuation, and escalation, of hostilities started by the Seven Years’ War. As a result of this coalition, and opportunism in India, British military resources were required on multiple fronts simultaneously, thus the colonial engagement included a fraction of Britain’s actual military power.

02. Military Deployment

Military Deployment

I don’t want to get into specifics in terms of tactical thinking, however historians are in agreement over the fact that British command in the colonies overestimated the number of loyalists it could depend upon for supplies, manpower, and counter-revolutionary action. Furthermore, historians like Christopher Hibbert note that inter-officer rivalries and disputes over actions, authority, and hierarchy crippled logistical and tactical operations throughout the war. The former is a reflection of Britain’s detachment from colonial culture and sentiment throughout the 18th century (a significant problem in the lead-up to the war), whereas the latter represents a long-standing problem with the British officer corps, one that would become the focus of a series of military reforms during the nineteenth century. In short, British command in the colonies did not cooperate on the level required to manage a rebellion, especially in a region of the world as rural and geographically difficult to navigate as the colonies were in the late-eighteenth century.

03. Domestic Support

US War of Independence 2

Typically, the American War of Independence is viewed as a monolithic struggle between American ‘patriots’ and British ‘imperialists.’ The reality is far more nuanced. Support for the war in Britain was limited at first, and it became extremely unpopular over the course of the engagement. In fact, historian Stephen Conway asserts that the American War for Independence witnessed the first sustained and large-scale public criticism (at home in Britain) of the use of military force as an instrument of policy in western history. Whether or not this is true is up for debate, but the point remains that popular protests (and political fallout) surrounding the war were quite prevalent. In my opinion, this issue played the largest role in Britain’s failure to retain the colonies. Popular and political distaste for the war at home soured British morale, led to stalled and/or delayed logistical and tactical support for operations in the colonies, and – ultimately – made the the concept of independence a potential reality long before it was clear that the war was lost.

Your latter question, ‘could they have won it,’ is hypothetical, and is thus impossible to answer with any certainty. Sure, they ‘could’ have won it, had battles gone their way and public opinion remained positive. The better question, I believe, is ‘if they could have won it, would the outcome have been any different?’ On this, I would argue that evidence points to ‘no.’ Popular opinion of the war, particularly with regards to the colonial right to independence, was extremely strong. Furthermore, influential economists (like Adam Smith) and politicians firmly believed that an independent America was of greater financial and strategic benefit to Britain in the long-term. On a side note, the fact that Britain had this revolutionary experience in the Americas, yet continued to escalate colonial obligations in Asia (and later Africa) is a topic that drives a significant amount of imperial historiography.

For more on this, see:

  • Christopher Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels
  • Stephen Conway, American War of Independence and the British Isles
  • C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830
  • David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire
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