Thursday, May 15, 2014

Barbara Tuchman explains why the British lost the American colonies

Plaque honoring Johannes de Graaff
I just finished historian Barbara Tuchman's final published book (she died in 1989), The First Salute. She gives the international perspective on the American Revolution, describing the background of Britain's conflicts with its European rivals in order to explain how and why Holland and France aided the colonies in their fight for independence.

The book's title refers to the event on November 16, 1776, when Johannes de Graaf, Dutch governor of the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, ordered a response to the U.S. Brig-of-War Andrew Doria as it entered the island's port. This was the first recognition of U.S. national vessel after the Declaration of Independence.

Tuchman offers great character sketches of a number of players, including De Graaff, British Admiral George Rodney, British General Henry Clinton, and George Washington. She conveys the incredible difficulties facing both sides in a compelling fashion -- and how those difficulties translated into the savagery that always accompanies wars, especially those in which it is hard to sort out friend and foe, civilian and soldier.

Here is her brilliant summation of all that contributed to Britain's defeat:

Here was the problem as an empire slid from under their feet: the problem of making do with faulty processes and broken parts, of misunderstood signals, of the useless rigidity of Fighting Instructions, of a scurvy-producing diet, of political quarrel among combat officers, of employing worn-out and withered naval commanders, of putting the protection of trade ahead of strategic operations, of poor and too often the false intelligence of enemy movements and intentions and, embracing all these, the problem of not knowing or caring to know the nature of the enemy and undertaking to suppress a major rebellion on the assumption that the rebels could be described, in the words of Lord Rawdon, a respected British officer, as "infatuated wretches." (excerpt from the final chapter, "Last Chance -- The Yorktown Campaign")
I was reminded of the old saw, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," as I read this book. But I supposed it is the disease of empire to overreach and underestimate, even when history teaches the same lesson over and over again.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781, by which over 7,000 British and Hessians became prisoners. Copy of lithograph by James Baillie, ca. 1845.
National Archives Identifier 532883

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