Book Review: 1781
by Robert L. Tonsetic
Casemate Publishers, 2011
Six years after shots were exchanged between American colonists and British soldiers at Concord and Lexington, the war of the American Revolution had become the one thing it was never supposed to be: a slogging match. The British had committed significant forces to quell the uprising in America, including some of the most battle-tested front line troops in the entire English army. And yet, as Horace Walpole commented, “America is once more not quite ready to be conquered.” Washington’s unexpected success at Trenton, the turning of the tide at Freeman’s Farm, the British debacle of King’s Mountain, and half a dozen other such encounters had gone a long way toward changing the initial impressions of the conflict, when General Howe had beaten Washington at Long Island, White Plains, and Fort Washington and looked ready to roll up the entire American resistance in time to make the next social season back in London.
By 1781, as retired US Army Colonel Robert Tonsetic makes clear in his lucid and fast-paced new book, that initial euphoria had worn off as American resistance stiffened. “The year 1781 was a critical one for the British,” Tonsetic writes:
If their southern strategy was to succeed, the rebels in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and the “real prize,” Virginia, had to be crushed. Lord North believed that victory over the American rebels was still possible, but only if Britain remained resolute in the coming months. If the southern strategy succeeded, Britain would, as a minimum, retain its four southern colonies. North was confident that he had the monarch’s full support in continuing the war.
North might have had the support of George III, but he also had squabbling generals. Sentiment between Lord Cornwallis and his superior General Clinton had gone downhill from civil dislike to public contempt, and this was only exacerbated by their radical differences in temperament, Clinton calm and calculating, Cornwallis impulsive and more than a little stupid. The two men were united in their goal of mobilizing supposedly widespread Loyalist support to wrest control of the South from the rebels, and in that they ran up against two equally dissimilar men equally united in opposing them. Soft-spoken, limping Nathaniel Greene was in charge of Patriot forces in the south, and burly old Brigadier General Daniel Morgan was a superbly gifted cavalry commander. Morgan’s forces were energetically loyal to him, and they were being hunted in the countryside by Cornwallis’ own cavalry bravo, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
Tonsetic claims that 1781 was the decisive year of the Revolution. It’s not a daring claim or a new one, and it pivots on three events: the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January in which Tarleton was thoroughly out-generaled by Morgan, suffered a complete defeat, and barely escaped capture, the Battle of Guilford Court House on 15 March in which Cornwallis so badly mauled his own forces in winning a technical victory against Greene that he could barely limp them into rest quarters at Yorktown, and the Siege of Yorktown itself in October, at the end of which Cornwallis surrendered his army to Washington and spent the rest of his life blaming Clinton for it all.
It’s explosively dramatic material, but Tonsetic never lets the drama carry him away. All through his account of his signal year, he’s forever ticking things off in lists, like someone accounting for every last piece of ordnance:
Strategically, Cornwallis focused on Greene’s southern Continental army as the American center-of-gravity for his campaign. At the same time, he underestimated the threats posed by American irregulars to his supply and communication lines as he marched deep into the interior of the Carolinas. Furthermore, he underestimated the operational mobility of Greene’s army and the American militias. Another failure in the British strategy was the failure to synchronize Cornwallis’s campaign with Arnold’s operations in Virginia. Conversely, Greene received both logistical support and reinforcements from Virginia throughout the campaign.
This is careful historical writing, very careful, and readers will be informed far more often than they’ll be delighted (one wishes the book’s copy editors had been equally careful – typos crop up frequently in the book, bibliography, and index)(for instance, we’re told that Tarleton was “hated by more Americans that any other British officer serving in the Carolinas”). But there’s a reassuring solidity to battlefield analyses made by a historian who’s seen actual battlefields. 1781 saw the effective end of large-scale British warring in America, but the principal strength of Tonsetic’s book is that he never takes the victory at Yorktown for granted as so many Revolution writers do; he never writes ‘backward’ from the surrender of Cornwallis, nor should he: Americans need periodic reminders that they could just as easily have lost.