Book Review of Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach

Donald Stoker, Kenneth J. Hagan, and Michael T. McMaster, editors. Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach. Cass Military Studies series. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2010. ISBN 978-0-415-36734-9. Notes. Tables. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvii, 244. $145.00 (hardcover).

Strategy in the American War of IndependenceThe international aspect of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) has traditionally been downplayed by American historians.  Important exceptions would be Samuel Flagg Bemis’ The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1957)  and Jonathan R. Dull’s A Diplomatic History of the Revolution (1985).  In Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach, an international group of experts contribute essays that show the global and multilateral angles of the conflict from a strategic perspective.  The authors demonstrate that the American struggle for independence “was inescapably enmeshed in the military and diplomatic affairs of the rest of the world” (p.xvii).  The American War of Independence was a very complex global conflict.

Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)American strategy was slow to develop.  In their essay, Dr Donald Stoker and Dr Michael W. Jones, both Professors of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Monterey, California, examine American colonial military strategy.  They show that the leaders of the Continental Army employed a Fabian strategy in military operations, supplemented by the waging of partisan warfare.  American leadership “understood that success in the American Revolution depended on preserving the Patriot center of gravity, the army — in the north and in the south — and demonstrating success through incremental victories that in turn fed the colonials’ ability to preserve their army” (p.30).  This strategy allowed the Patriots to make effective use of their limited resources and build British frustration and disillusionment with the conflict.  Dr Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, adds to the discussion of colonial military strategy by illustrating the beginnings of American naval strategy.  As such, Hagan points out that the American colonies at first lacked a strategy against Britain.  But, slowly the colonies developed a naval strategy to consist of commerce-raiding, coastal defense, a reliance on frigates instead of ships-of-the-line to engage like British ships, avoidance of battle on the high seas, and the projection, albeit limited, of naval power on distant shores.

Battle of Yorktown (1781)There are three essays that explore British strategy in the American conflict.  Dr Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter in England, addresses British military strategy.  Black stresses that Britain had the clear political goal of pacifying the American rebellion, and getting the Americans to return their loyalty to the crown (p.58).  He notes that Britain treated the Americans with leniency compared to the military suppression of the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland and northern England in 1715-1716 and 1745-1746.  The task of militarily reconquering America was too great.  British leaders realized that they would need to negotiate a settlement with the Patriots to get their return to British rule.  However, the declaration of independence (1776) proved to be a stumbling block.  Moreover, the Patriot success at the battle of Saratoga (1777), with the resulting Franco-American alliance, made it virtually impossible for Britain to achieve its political goal.  In the end, Britain, according to Black, failed to develop and implement a strategy that could achieve this political objective.

Battle of the Saints (1782)In the second essay concerning Britain, Dr John Reeve, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explores British naval strategy.  Reeve states that “Britain was generally without the naval strategic initiative for most of the war due to lack of resources” (p.76).  Even so, Britain had amphibious successes at New York (1776), Philadelphia (1777), Savannah (1778), and Charleston (1780).  The Franco-American alliance (1778), followed by Spain declaring war against Britain (1779), the creation of the League of Armed Neutrality (1780),  and the start of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) made the American War of Independence a global conflict.  The British Royal Navy had to develop a strategy to deal with American, French, Spanish, and Dutch warships in Europe, North America, the West Indies, and the Indian Ocean.  The overstretched British fleet was on the defensive.  It also had troubles obtaining naval stores from the Baltic Region.  As such, Britain even stopped patrolling the Mediterranean.  By 1780, Britain’s naval strategy focused on the defense of the British Isles and trade.  Reeve stresses that British naval operations steadily improved during the conflict.  By early 1782 Britain had a fleet comparable to the size of the Bourbon Powers of France and Spain.  This fleet achieved a major success at the Battle of the Saints (1782) in the West Indies, giving Britain considerable diplomatic leverage in the peace negotiations.

In the third essay about British policy, Dr Ricardo A. Herrera, Historian on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, provides a discussion of the role of Loyalists in British strategy.  At first, the British army mostly ignored the Loyalists in military efforts.  But Loyalists volunteered and ably served Britain.  After France joined the conflict and British resources were stretched thin, George III’s army placed more emphasis on recruiting and training Loyalists.  Herrera believes that the British waited too long to make good use of the Loyalists, and when they did, they expected too much from them (p.116).

Battle of Virginia Capes (1781)As for the Bourbon Powers, Dr James Pritchard, Professor Emeritus of History at Queen’s University at Kingston in Canada, assesses French strategy.  France sought a return to preeminence as the Great Power in Europe.  Louis XVI’s France also looked for revenge for the French defeat by Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).  France’s anti-British strategy led to involvement in the American War of Independence.  France initially concentrated on the West Indies.  But, in this struggle, France needed, sought, and gained Spanish involvement against Britain.  As such, French leaders had to support the Spanish objectives of attacking British-held Gibraltar and Minorca.  The Bourbon Powers also threatened to invade the British Isles.  Pritchard says that “French naval strategy took the form of an interlocking relationship between the center and periphery, between the European and American theaters” of operations (p.159).

Siege of GibraltarIn his essay, Dr Thomas E. Chávez, recently retired Executive Director of the National Hispanic Culture Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discusses Spanish strategy.  The policy of Carlos III’s Spain included secretly aiding the American Patriots while maintaining a “neutral” stance for the first few years of the conflict.  Louis XVI’s France needed Spanish involvement in the conflict.  The Spanish government made a hard bargain with France for active participation in the War of American Independence.  For an offensive alliance, Spain sought such things as French support for the reacquisition of Gibraltar and Minorca, the removal of the British from the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River, and the restoration of Mobile and Pensacola (p.167).  After France accepted the terms, Spain agreed to the Treaty of Aranjuez and declared war against Britain in 1779.  The Spanish navy gave the Bourbon Powers naval superiority over Britain.  Chávez states that Franco-Spanish involvement in the conflict created “a world war based on the Spanish idea that the two allies, along with the American rebels, had enough resources to stretch the British thin.  The British would have to decide what was more important to them: Central America, their West Indies trade, the 13 American colonies, Gibraltar, Minorca, India, or even, defense of the homeland” (p.169).  Spain attacked British interests in the Mediterranean, along the Mississippi River, Mobile, Pensacola, Central America, and the Bahamas.  Chávez goes on to say that “the totality of Spain’s actual involvement in fighting, continued financial support and diplomacy actually proved pivotal for the eventual victory” (p.169).

Ile_de_Saint_Eustache_en_1781Dr Victor Enthoven, Associate Professor in History at the Netherlands Defense Academy, examines Dutch maritime strategy.  The United Provinces sought to maintain neutrality to protect Dutch world-wide trade and shipping interests.  However, the British naval blockade of the American colonies reopened the dormant Anglo-Dutch controversy over the trading rights of neutral powers.  British interference with Dutch commerce and the possibility of the United Provinces joining the developing League of Armed Neutrality led to the outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1780.  The Dutch Republic, however, was ill-prepared for a naval war with Britain.  Enthoven states that the Dutch navy “was outnumbered as well as outgunned” (p.188).  Even so, the United Provinces was embroiled in a global naval war. The Dutch struggled to defend possessions in the Dutch West Indies and Guiana, West Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, India, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  In the course of the conflict the British took 324 Dutch vessels.  Enthoven argues that the Dutch Republic was clearly a second-rate power, and “must be counted among the largest losers of the American War of Independence” (p.195).

The League of Armed Neutrality is addressed by Dr Leos Müller, Associate Professor in History at Upsalla University in Sweden.  The League developed from Catherine II of Russia’s proclamation of armed neutrality in 1780.  What exactly was armed neutrality?  Müller writes: “Specifically, armed neutrality . . . concerned the neutrals’ rights to conduct trade and shipping under wartime conditions, without being ill-treated by belligerents, the British in particular” (p.202).  Russia, Denmark, and Sweden formed the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780.  Russia approached the Dutch Republic, the top neutral carrier, to join the League, but Scandinavian rivalry with the United Provinces and British reaction to such talks delayed any agreement before the outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.   Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies eventually joined the League of Armed Neutrality in 1781-1783.  Müller believes that Catherine II, having little economic interest in wartime shipping and trade, pushed the concept of armed neutrality to stress Russia’s independent status between the warring powers of Britain and France.  Within months Russia began returning to a traditional foreign policy, one aimed at interests in Southeast Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

This in an important work that brings together the research that shows the global context of the American War of Independence.  The study is a great addition to the growing literature reflecting the international aspect of the conflict.  Unfortunately, the hardback version of the book is rather expensive.  But a paperback edition (ISBN 978-0-415-69568-8) is available for $49.95.  Other studies that explore the international aspect that might interest the reader are Richard Middleton’s The War of American Independence, 1775-1783 (2012), Hamish M. Scott’s British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution (1990), Piers Mackesy’s The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964), Jonathan R. Dull’s The French Navy and American Independence: A Study in Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (1975), William C. Stinchcombe’s The American Revolution and the French Alliance (1969), Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt’s The Dutch Republic and American Independence (1982), and Isabel de Madariaga’s Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris’s Mission to St. Petersburg during the American Revolution (1962).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in American War of Independence (1775-1783), Anglo-French Wars, Book Reviews, British Foreign Policy, British Military History, British Naval History, Dutch Foreign Policy, Dutch Naval History, Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), French Foreign Policy, French Military History, French Naval History, Russian Foreign Policy, Spanish Foreign Affairs, Spanish Naval History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review of Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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