the impossible task of subduing the colonies (cont.)-- 7/19/16

Today's selection -- from The War for America by Piers Mackesy. In the American Revolution, the British were reluctant to engage in total war against the Americans since the object was to restore them to "union and harmony with the mother-country":

"For Britain the object [in the American Revolution] was the overthrow of the revolutionary government. Yet this British object was, paradoxically, not an unlimited one of simple conquest. Her ultimate desire was the political one of restoring union and harmony between the colonies and the mother-country. Force was adopted with reluctance, and throughout the struggle the attempt to seek a solution by political means was never abandoned, though at times it was temporarily shelved while the army attempted to crack the shell of American obstinacy.

"Thus a war of unlimited destruction was ruled out. There were limits to what conscience and policy would allow. Clinton would not countenance the murder of the enemy Commander-in-Chief. Nor could the country be ravaged as Marlborough had ravaged Bavaria. The systematic burning of towns was an expedient sometimes considered but never adopted. Occasion­ally a coastal town was burned, but always with some sense of shame and usually with a military purpose such as the destruction of stores or privateers. When General Tryon burned New Haven and Fairfield in 1779, he thought it necessary to make the following apologia to his chief.

I should be very sorry if the destruction of these two villages would be thought less reconcilable with humanity than with the love of my country, my duty to my King, and the law of arms, to which America has been led to make the awful appeal.

The usurpers have professedly placed their hopes of severing the Empire, in avoid­ing decisive actions, upon the waste of the British treasures, and the escape of their own property during the protraction of the war.

Their power is supported by the general dread of their tyranny, and the arts prac­tised to inspire a credulous multitude with a presumptuous confidence in our for­bearance.

"The British army's attitude to the struggle was ambivalent. They were professionals doing a duty, but they could not easily forget that they were fighting against men of their own race. 'Here pity interposes', wrote General Phillips, 'and we cannot forget that when we strike we wound a brother.' Even the King, whose heart was hardened against the rebels, never forgot that they were his subjects. Thus his reaction to Howe's successes at New York in 1776: 'Notes of triumph would not have been proper when the successes are against subjects not a foreign foe.' And in 1777 on a foreigner's proposal to raise a force on a peculiar system: ' ... very diverting, a Corps raised on the avowed plan of plunder seems to be curious, when intended to serve against the Colonies'.

"It was not easy to determine the limits of such a policy, and the difficulty can be seen in the diary of a humane and intelligent staff officer. When the rebels in Fort Washington rejected Howe's summons, was he right to re­strain the troops from carrying the inner fort by assault? The Hessians, irritated by their losses, would have inflicted dreadful carnage in the crowded enclosure; and without overstepping the laws of war a lesson could have been inflicted which might have made it impossible for Congress ever to raise another army. On the whole Major Mackenzie thought that Howe was right 'to treat our enemies as if they might one day become our friends'. Yet it was hard to stomach the sight of uniformed rebel officers walking the streets of New York on parole, disgusting the loyalists and inviting sabotage. In the last stages of the struggle, when he considered the possibility of pursuing Washington on his march from New York to Yorktown, Macken­zie was to suggest that on moving into the Jerseys Clinton should issue a proclamation that men taken in arms without uniforms should not be treated as soldiers; for he believed that a severe example on the first party of militia would clear the line of march. That this had never been done is a remarkable illustration of the moderate temper with which the rebellion was fought."


Piers Mackesy


The War for America, 1775-1783


Bison Books


Copyright 1964 by Piers MacKesy


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