History

Britain actually had an effective plan to put down the Americans in 1776

One of the biggest questions of the Revolutionary War is this: How did the British, with immense advantages in troops and ships, manage to lose the war?


When you look at the material state of affairs, the 13 colonies really didn't stand a chance. So, how did the British lose the war despite all of their advantages?

British troops marching in Concord. (Engraving by Amos Doolittle)

The reason was not a lack of strategy. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British assumed that the American uprising was a number of local rebellions. It wasn't until 1776 that they realized that they were dealing with a uniform rebellion across all 13 colonies. Granted, some states were more rebellious than others (Massachusetts being the most notable), but they had a big problem due to the sheer size of East Coast.

At the Battle of Long Island, the actions of the Delaware Regiment kept the American defeat from becoming a disaster. Fighting alongside the 1st Maryland Regiment, the soldiers from Delaware may well have prevented the capture of the majority of Washington's army — an event that might have ended the colonial rebellion. (Image courtesy of DoD)

So, they came up with a plan. They would first seize New York City to use as a forward base. Next, they'd move one force north while a second force, from Canada, moved south. The goal was to meet somewhere near Albany in 1777. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and, hopefully, strangle the rebellion.

This map shows one of the last battles of the British campaign to take New York City, the Battle of Fort Washington. (Wikimedia Commons graphic by Oneam)

This was not a bad strategy. The problem was, after coming up with the plan, they flubbed the execution. They seized New York and, in fact, George Washington had a close call trying to escape the British. But then, Washington, with a successful Christmas strike on Trenton and beating Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Princeton, drew the attention of General Howe. Instead of going north, Howe chased after Washington's army and the Continental Congress, completely discarding the strategy. There was no on-scene commander-in-chief to reign him in.

This 1777 mezzotint shows General William Howe, who would blow up the British strategy by chasing after Washington and the Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. (Image from Brown University Military History Collection)

The British force moving south from Canada was eventually defeated at the Battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender. Meanwhile, Howe managed to seize Philadelphia but didn't get the Continental Congress. Meanwhile, Washington's army battled well at the Battle of Germantown. The combination of defeats at Saratoga and Germantown doomed the British strategy. The French and Spanish, now convinced the colonists had a chance, joined in and forced Britain into a multi-front war.

Howe's decision to try to capture the Continental Congress and wipe out Washington's army caused the British strategy to fail with defeat at the Battle of Saratoga. (Wikimedia Commons graphic by Hoodinski)

Watch the video below to see a rundown of how British strategy evolved during the Revolutionary War.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)