Book Review: The Men Who Lost America
by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
Yale University Press, 2013
The stigma that attaches to losing, that unmistakable quasi-moral mark captured so sharply by the writers of the movie “Patton” (“I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed“), is starker in war than in virtually any other arena (except perhaps weddings, where the bride not only parades her bridesmaids’ social failure but showcases it by making those bridesmaids dress in ridiculous costumes), and the higher the stakes the worse the stigma.
Stakes don’t come much higher than the American Revolution, and the typical cross-grain American dislike of losing has always heaped an extra ration of scorn on the British generals who shipped to the colonies intent on subduing the nascent rebellion being spearheaded by Samuel Adams and the other patriots of Massachusetts. These generals – men like the brothers Howe (William the general, Lord Richard the admiral), Henry Clinton, “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne, and of course Lord Cornwallis – came to America with many accomplishments already behind them, but as gloriously-named historian Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy points out in his thumpingly good book The Men Who Lost America, they immediately found themselves confronting a world very different from what most of them had ever experienced:
Before the land reclamation projects of later years, Boston was located on a virtual island with just a narrow strip of road connecting the peninsula to the rest of the continent. Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton arrived to find the British army and its loyalist supporters besieged by thousands of revolutionary militiamen who had begun to encircle the city in the days following the skirmish at Lexington and Concord. Surrounded and outnumbered, the army was invested by what Burgoyne described as “a rabble in arms, who flushed with success and insolence, had advanced their sentries to pistol shot off our out-guards.” The naval ships in the harbor were exposed to rebel cannon fire. The troops, officers and inhabitants were still “Lost in a sort of stupefaction which the events of the 10 of April had occasioned.” They vented emotions ranging from censure to anger to despondency. Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton found the walls of their residences daubed night after night with mock royal proclamations threatening vengeance on the rebels. They were similarly ridiculed in messages of congratulations.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s study – printed in a beautiful, pleasingly oversized volume from Yale University Press – ranges over all aspects of the Revolutionary War on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s foremost a study of people, of personalities and quirks. Our author, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, has done an enormous amount of research in both English and American primary documents, and he presents his main characters with sympathy but unblinking scrutiny. As usual in such accounts, the character who would benefit from the most blinking, the preening, weak-kneed, oafish Burgoyne, and although our author is perceptive about the man’s progressive military thinking, he can’t avoid the innuendo of mockery that’s always hovered around this particular figure:
Burgoyne was predictably frustrated and impatient in Boston, where he was nicknamed “General Elbow Room” because he was reputed to have said, “Well, let us get in and we’ll soon find elbow-room.” Within three weeks of his arrival, Burgoyne was writing to LordNorth that his position left him powerless to enable him to contribute to the military situation in America. He requested to take a leave of absence to return to England before Christmas.
Fortunately, although Burgoyne takes up quite a bit of elbow-room in Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book, the real spotlight is reserved for the men who merit it: General Henry Clinton, who was in charge of the North American theater from 1778 to 1782 (“the most perceptive and the most cerebral of the general officers”) and Lord Charles Cornwallis (“committed in every way to the profession of soldiering”), whose surrender to George Washington at Yorktown dealt a fatal blow to British attempts to conquer the American rebellion. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy gives these two men the fairest, shrewdest, and most ebulliently readable treatment they’ve ever received – certainly fairer than the treatment they gave each other in the wake of the revolution. The rancor of defeat especially ate at the former commander-in-chief:
Clinton spent the rest of his life preoccupied by the events of the American Revolution. With only a two-month leave in England between 1775 and 1782, he had spent more time in America than any of the other British generals of the Revolutionary War. He believed that he had been made the scapegoat for the final defeat, and became embroiled in a public feud with Cornwallis.
Clinton and Cornwallis engaged in an acrimonious if engaging war of pamphlets that lasted two years and clearly preyed on Clinton’s mind; he sought advice from his friend Edward Gibbon on the matter, and he penned long tirades about Cornwallis, even, as our author relates, “an imaginary dialogue from a dream in which an abject Lord Cornwallis confessed his guilt for the British defeat at Yorktown.”
The Men Who Lost America is a delightfully myth-shattering book. Not only does it remind its American readers that most of these generals they so conclusively associate with bumbling, uncomprehending defeat were actually experienced professionals (for many of whom the whole American deployment was just one item on a long resume), but it also challenges the popular conception that the American rebels won the war from behind hedgerows and stone walls:
… the British defeat was not solely attributable to guerrilla warfare. The citizen militias could be liabilities for the revolutionary cause, being often difficult to mobilize and not dependable in battle, and the British light infantry and German Jaegers were well suited to combating the militias. Furthermore, some British officers had experience of earlier colonial warfare and adapted their tactics to conditions in America. Above all, in spite of the prevalence of la petite guerre, the major victories of the war were those in which the opposing army was captured and eliminated. George Washington recognized the importance of mastering conventional European tactics and the importance of a professional army. In its code of discipline and justice in the army, Congress even adopted the British Articles of War. The Americans prided themselves on beating the British at their own game and playing by the same rules.
In a summer season packed to the rafters with more or less pious accounts of the American Revolution from the American point of view, The Men Who Lost America comes as a welcome breath of new air, and it leaves readers wanting more of the same – particularly more of this new and renovated Lord Cornwallis, a sardonic, strong-willed, and altogether fascinating man (whose uncle Frederick was Archbishop of Canterbury and whose uncle Edward founded the picturesque little town of Halifax, Nova Scotia). It’s been thirty years since Cornwallis had a full-dress popular biography; surely it’s time for another? And surely the man to write it is – let’s say it together – Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.