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They lost, but not the way we think.
on 8 July 2013
It is often difficult to find books on the AWI from a British perspective. As you would expect for a history that is now largely unknown in the UK, not taught in schools and barely appreciated by the majority of the population. It is often difficult to find anything outside the norm of American historical studies, that for all their relevance to American history see the conflict in isolation rather than the context of the European and world conflict that the British government had to consider it from. Andrew O'shaughnessy a British academic in Virginia (beautiful place if you ever get the chance to visit), has written a potted biography of the ten most important British protagonists; politicians, soldiers and naval officers. It gives a view of their actions that does not disguise the in-fighting, destructive politicing and sometimes vainglorious adventurism that characterised this war, but neither does it denigrate them as people or their military exploits, both successful and disastrous.
The key American figures are little more than ciphers in this narrative and although the context of the seven years war which was so formative, is alluded to it is not covered in any detail. Nevertheless this a brilliant piece of historical research and writing. The battles in parliament often being from my pespective more riveting than those on the battlefield. The petty and professional jealousies between Cornwallis and Clinton, Carleton and Burgoyne, the Howe Brothers and the quite extraordinary Admiral Rodney, make for an education in late 18th century politics, military fortitude and chaos that nowadays would be regarded as close to professional anarchy. The British may have won most of the engagements, but their misunderstanding of the narrowness of loyalist political support and the rising popularity of nascent American nationalism led to frustration, disgust and an anxiety to be rid the whole adventure. Once the French entered the war (whatever Americans may think, they were acting on their own behalf, rather than with any great sympathy for independence) and subsequently the Spanish and with support from Dutch finance, there was simply no way that Britain could sustain and win such a war. They could win battles but not hold territory. American military resistance although fluctuating to the point of almost total disappearance sustained enough depth, purpose and potency to win victories beyond what was expected of them.
These portraits humanise the protagonists , show their agonies of choice, personal and political doubts and compromises and their perosonalities, some sympathetic, others especially Rodney quite loathesome.
In the end this was a war incapable of being won with the resources available and if the rest of Britain's then empire was to be preserved. And do you know what, this was a good war to lose. The thought of an occupation force in America brutalised and brutalising would have been even more vicious and soul destroying than any of the vagaries of the war itself.