The Structure of Strategy in the American Revolution

This post originated with a comment from CooperEP’04.

Once armed colonists opposed the Crown, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The British were doomed to lose because its infrastructure to create, develop and carry out strategy was mishandled. The Rebels had two men, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who in themselves were the infrastructure to create strategy.

This post won’t discuss the respective strategies of the Crown and Rebels, except to illustrate the structure of strategy, which is defined as “the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal.”

The structure has four components: Leadership, communications, capabilities, and scalable resources. Each of these is critical to carrying out the strategy. The absence of any causes the strategy to collapse. Having these four does not mean you’ll get a good strategy, just a strategy.

Leadership is critical because it brings to it five attributes: the phenomena of The Leader, vision, unity of command, unity of effort, and subordinate leaders who’ve bought into the success of the strategy. Sir John Keegan gave us four essential archetypes of commanders. George Washington is an example of the Heroic Leader. The British had something Keegan didn’t consider: the Political Opportunist. Where George Washington, and many of his rivals and fellow generals learned from British generals Braddock, Wolfe, Monckton, and Cornwallis, the uncle of Washington’s opponent at Yorktown, the British put up George Germain, Lord Sackville as the overall leader of the British efforts in the Americas.

Lord North, Prime Minister under George III, had one motivating vision: to keep the king happy. They were much alike in outlook and temperament and in awareness of the lives of George’s subjects. Whenever a subject got out of line, the usual thing was to annihilate the criminal, suppress the countryside, raise taxes and then hold a ball. This history is why North miscalculated by imposing the Coercive Acts on the colonists. We called the Intolerable Acts, but North – a product of the nobility of his age – had no understanding why grinding a man under an iron heel would be considered intolerable.Peasants were never a threat, but North’s peers would and could get him fired or worse, made a back-bencher.

This supreme lack of awareness and North’s own political calculations to defeat his true enemy, the Whigs of Parliament, lead him to appoint George Germain, Lord Sackville as Washington’s opposite because Germain was loyal to Lord North and the Crown.

While American leaders were being developed into military leaders by competent generals, one of Sackville’s commands during the War of Austrian Succession and the 7 Years War was the 20th Regiment of Foot, which included a very young Captain Horatio Gates, before the latter headed to Canada for the French & Indian War theater. Lord Sackville nearly cost the British and German allies a major victory for refusing to order his cavalry to exploit the collapse of the French forces. As punishment resulting from court martial he himself demanded, Sackville was globally humiliated.

“The court found him guilty, and imposed one of the strangest and strongest verdicts ever rendered against a general officer. The court’s verdict not only upheld his discharge, but ruled that he was “…unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever”, then ordered that their verdict be read to and entered in the orderly book of every regiment in the Army. The king had his name struck from the Privy Council rolls.” [emphasis added]

Sackville was returned to the Privy Council, and continued to serve in a variety of political roles, but none with military responsibilities until he became Secretary of State for the Americas. At Sackville’s disposal were experienced and successful generals and the Admiralty. One of his planners was Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, who would soon be defeated by Sackville’s own former subordinate, General Horatio Gates. Sackville had a veteran, blooded military that was well equipped, disciplined, and lead by able leaders with all the required capabilities for prosecuting war.

As a vision, Sackville wanted the colonists returned to full control of the Crown, just as the peasants of the Midlands were controlled. Sackville could not achieve Unity of Command or of Effort due to the absence of his own presence. Sackville considered the battlefield of Parliament to be of more importance than the colonies. Given the reason that Sackville was sacked as a general was his inability to collaborate and coordinate and follow orders, he was personally incapable of coordinating the campaigns and aims needed to defeat Washington and undermine Franklin.

Sackville had very capable subordinate commanders in the Howes, Burgoyne, Cornwallis and others, but the Atlantic Ocean proved insurmountable to Communications, and with their leader in London attending to politics, these subordinates each contrived their own operational campaigns, begged/borrowed/stole the capabilities and resources to carry out these campaigns, and because there was no unifying Leader, Communications, effective application of capabilities and resources – not effective due to out and out competition – each British campaign failed in what it needed to do: capture or destroy George Washington’s army and keep the Europeans from seeing opportunity against the Crown.

Not Nathanel Greene. Not Horatio Gates. Not capturing ports. The Continental Congress had a huge personnel turnover annually and lacked any respect so capturing it was not worth the effort. Washington was the key and the British could not coalesce into a proper force to do that.

The structural problems baked into the British strategy allowed George Washington to overcome his own problems. Conduct of the war, and the development of strategy was left to Washington and the Board of War & Ordnance. Consisting initially of three members, the board was expanded to five members. Three of the five were shady. Horatio Gates, a frequent and public critic of Washington’s and served on the latter’s staff, wanted Washington’s job. Thomas Mifflin, the Quartermaster General rumored to have sold the food and supplies meant for Valley Forge to the highest bidder, would often offer to resign knowing the 2nd Continental Congress would always ignore it thus leaving him right where he wanted to be. Commissary General Joseph Trumbull was also accused of embezzlement, and though nominally an ally of Washington’s, his resignation was accepted. The only person on the board that was pro-Washington and pro-defeat of the British was the Anglophile Adjutant General Thomas Pickering. The Board of War & Ordnance were tasked with providing capabilities and resources to develop strategy. Their genuine failure lead to a strategy of surviving and growing support of the silent majority of colonists.

Washington developed strategy in response to the British: bottled up in ports, unable to hold the countryside without resorting to extreme violence against low-information colonists who would follow Crown and Congress with equal indifference. This freedom permitted Washington excellent communications.

With the continuing failure of the Board of War & Ordnance, Ben Franklin and his team of diplomats to France, Spain and Holland made up for the lack with capabilities and resources and the promise of mischief against the British interests in Europe, Africa and India.

With all of these in place, Washington and Franklin could then carry out the strategy of eliminating the British military, and press for victories in commerce and diplomacy, where the Brits could not employ their strengths to advantage. Thus, Yorktown. Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia became immaterial as the British Army and Navy forces sat idle while American goods found favorable markets in Europe and Africa; and British success in the previous centuries were rolled back.

The British were doomed to lose the Revolution from the outset. It did not have the vision, the ability to plan, communicate, resource to fit the need or the capability to coordinate and collaborate toward the highest goal of returning America to the Crown. Today America is very scientific and excessively structured. But does it have the vision, speak the same language, possess the scalable resources, or have commanders who have bought into the success of what passes for strategy?

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
This entry was posted in Great Britain and the Empire, History, Leadership, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Structure of Strategy in the American Revolution

  1. burkemblog says:

    This must be Revolutionary War Day on the Internet. Here is an article from today’s Slate about a new history of the American Revolution: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/09/alan_taylor_s_american_revolutions_reviewed.html.
    You may find some points of agreement as well as many of disagreement here.

    Like

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