A world-class military tries to subdue a vast land (England versus the American rebels)

Portions of The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Andrew Roberts) are, unfortunately, timely.

The American rebellion surprised the experts:

One of the reasons why British politicians failed to comprehend that Americans would soon be agitating for nationhood was the paradoxical one, considering the propaganda of the independence movement twelve years later, that they were not being persecuted in any discernible way. ‘The colonists were the least oppressed of all peoples then on earth, politically, economically and nationally,’ noted Hans Kohn in his seminal book The Idea of Nationalism in 1944, written when half the world knew genuine oppression. ‘Politically the colonists were infinitely freer than any people on the European continent; they were even freer than Englishmen in Great Britain. The favourable conditions of frontier life had brought Milton’s and Locke’s teachings and English constitutional liberties to faster and fuller fruition in the colonies than in the mother country.’19 Royal governors and colonial assemblies generally ruled Americans with the lightest of touches, and the colonists certainly paid the lightest of taxes in the empire. The average American in 1770 paid a tiny fraction of what his British cousin paid in direct taxes, and crucially all of what he did pay stayed in America.

In the words of Edmund Burke’s biographer, ‘The general belief was that responsible people in the colonies accepted British sovereignty; that the disturbances in America were the work of a small minority of trouble-makers; and that American resistance would collapse if confronted with a show of force. If a war proved necessary, Britain would win it quickly and easily. Not until Appeasement in the 1930s did virtually the entire British establishment get something so important so badly wrong.

The British Army was tasked with domestic policing as well as wars with foreign nations because there was no permanent police force in England until 1829. The number of soldiers was miniscule by modern standards:

In 1775 there were only 48,000 men in the entire British Army, including the 8,000 already stationed in North America, which with its other global commitments would be nothing like enough to subdue the 2.5 million inhabitants of thirteen colonies that stretched over a thousand miles from north to south and several hundred miles inland.

In the summer of 1775, the British Army had 10,000 men already in America (mostly in or around Boston) and Canada, or sailing there; 7,700 in Gibraltar, Minorca and the West Indies; 7,000 in Ireland, which at half its normal peacetime establishment was dangerously low; and the remaining 23,000 in the United Kingdom, the minimum number for defence and domestic control, of whom 1,500 were unfit for duty.

The Cabinet continued to suffer under the delusion that the British Army and Royal Navy that had defeated France (with her population of more than twenty-five million) and Spain (nine million) only a decade earlier, and won a great empire in Canada and India, would, if necessary, similarly destroy the untrained and semi-organized militias of far fewer Americans. The crucial difference was of course that Britain had not needed to invade and occupy France or Spain in order to be victorious in 1763.

What were these professional soldiers up against?

As well as their proficiency with firearms, the Americans also had the advantage of numbers. According to Benjamin Franklin’s calculation in 1766, if a quarter of the remaining male population bore arms, and Loyalists, pacifists and seamen were deducted, about a quarter of a million Americans could theoretically fight against the Crown.

Supplying troops in the field wasn’t any easier then:

The logistical supply problem was immense too: because the local population tended to be hostile – with the American Loyalists providing far fewer troops than the British government had hoped for and expected – food had to be either foraged (that is, requisitioned, with all the local unpopularity that entailed) or bought (routinely at high margins), or else transported 3,000 miles over an ocean that was vulnerable to storms, colonial privateers and, later, enemy navies. Once the British armies penetrated inland, their lack of knowledge of the interior and the inescapable problems of reinforcement and supply both told against them heavily.

I recommend The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, but you might want to skim over some of the exhaustive/exhausting explanations of 18th century English politics (at least as complex as anything we have today and political disputes quite often resulted in violent clashes).

5 thoughts on “A world-class military tries to subdue a vast land (England versus the American rebels)

  1. Yes to much of the above and, of course, the Colonists has no shortage of creative and highly-skilled people running printing presses and doing very interesting and persuasive engravings portraying events in ways designed to motivate their fellows to the greatest extent possible. Some people might dismiss this book as “revisionist history” but I remember asking my father about the relative strength of the British and Colonial armies at the time and he told me (to my surprise) that the Americans had a lot more men – armed with their own guns in many, many cases. Now, they weren’t necessarily well-trained or drilled down to the last man, but that worked to their advantage in so many cases that Bill Cosby turned it into a joke on one of albums (IIRC “Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow”.) He contrasted the tactics thus (I’m paraphrasing):

    “OK, Your Team (Colonists): Get out there and wait and hide wearing whatever you’ve got.
    Shoot from behind the rocks and don’t wait until you can see the whites of their eyes.”

    “And Your Team (British): “Your team must wear Red, and march in a straight line!”

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    • By the way, those marching orders were a myth but were from the “Toss of the Coin” routine on the below album. I used to listen to it on our midrange Pioneer 100 watt per channel home stereo after school when I was six years old.


      “The first of those albums, released in 1963, was appropriately titled “Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow. Right!” and one of its most popular routines was called “Toss of the Coin.” In this parody of the pre-game football ritual, Cosby imagines what it would be like if wars were begun in the same manner. One such whimsical supposition has a British army officer meeting a Continental counterpart at “midfield” for a coin toss to determine the ground rules for the American Revolution.”


      Also featuring Cosby’s classic take on the Lord Almighty personally contacting Noah, who was famously sawing away in his rec. room: “Zzzzzzvvvvhuuuupaa….Zzzzzzvvvvvhhhhwwwwpaaaa” in his rec. room and telling him: “I Want You … To Build … An Ark!”

      The Lord:
      “Get some wood…”
      “Build it…”
      “40 Cubits…by 60 Cubits…by 80 Cubits…”

      “What’s a Cubit?”

      The Lord, Muttering:
      “Oh, let’s see, I used to know what a Cubit was….”

      I remember it pretty well after all this time…whenever anyone asked me who my favorite comedian was as a child, I always replied: “Bill Cosby! And Gallagher and his watermelons!”
      Sorry for the digression but there’s always been a lot of misinformation that makes its way into people minds!

  2. At the time of the American Revolution, the economic output of the American Colonies was greater than the aggregate economic output of the rest of the UK empire combined. The rebels had a home-court advantage, they weren’t at the end of a dangerous months-long supply line, and their officers were mostly former UK officers and therefore knew the UK playbook very well. Even so, they almost lost.

    This is not the way I learned it in history class in Toledo Ohio.

    • 13 colonies had greater economic output then entire UK? Sounds like a myth to me. It took nore then a century for US outgrow Britain economically and technologically.

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