Book Review: The strategy of victory by Thomas Fleming.

 

“solid and entertaining military history of the strategic side of the American Revolution,”

* Hardcover: 304 pages
* Publisher: Da Capo Press (26 Oct. 2017)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0306824965
* https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strategy-Victory-Washington-American-Revolution/dp/0306824965

In 1776 the Americans believed they had the keys to victory. Militias, entrenchments and the craven slave-soldiers of King George. Essentially they had bought their own propaganda, which lauded the ‘few’ brave minutemen and volunteers at Lexington and Concord and the redoubt at Breed’s Hill. George Washington believed it too, although he envisioned doing better than what had been done and accurately assessing the useless nature of militia as field troops, in essence he had no better plan. Although Washington was disgusted by his militiamen, he fell for the propoganda of ‘Bunker Hill’, put them behind a parapet, or hide their legs as one officer put it and all would be well. Everyone was in for a rude shock. For while the British by and large would believe the myth that every Rebel was a crack shot and would refuse to meet a bayonet charge, they had learned their lesson about earthworks and usually refused to tackle them head on from 1775 onwards. This of course meant that the Americans had not learned the lessons they aught from the actions around Boston, (that Regular troops can take an unholy pounding but they’ll always rally.) Washington learned in 1776 that the war as congress and all the armchair generals in Boston, like Adams and Reid, was unwinnable. He took what victories came his way and he dissapeared into the winter fastness of New Jersey.

Right off I found this book to be well written with vivid prose and a natural storyteller’s gait, though simplistic I thought in its assessment of the opposing sides tactics in most of the battles, there was excellent coverage of the almost entirley ignored battle of Springfield (Which I have read only a sentence about in all the other books on the war I’ve ever read). Only the French are really examined as allies, the Spanish effort isn’t talked about very much. The strategy of victory emerges as a reliance on a professional fighting force, officered by similarly professional or at least dedicated officers, and a strategy that placed the survival of the army above tactical victory. None of these things are particularly groundbreaking observations, nevertheless Washington’s brilliance can be seen through it. Washington never let on that he had a grand plan, certainly his first grand plan unravelled quite fast, rather his guiding influence was there, to be observed in deed rather than by word, he did settle on a course but it was a subtle one. He wasn’t a perfect commander, he was a strange mix of fluidity and stubbornness, management was his strength. As much as anything, probably through accident rather than design, something in Washington’s erratic brilliance allowed the enemy to overreach themselves and thus create the opportunity for victory.

Ultimately, as the author admits at the end, the book is about the troubled formation of the United States Army. It’s not really about Washington himself, and his strategy is incidental rather than at the forefront. As much time is spent examining the actions of Morgan, Greene and Wayne as Washington. A great focus is the relationship between Congress and the Army, which speaks to the reality that the regular army in America has been a despised institution since its creation. He sharply observes that the culture shock the late 20th and early 21st century army has experienced as they meet a world in which the glow of ww2 has faded, leaving the professional soldier torn between being scrutinised with a much more critical eye. George Washington won the American Revolution becasue he believed in the regulars. The strategy of victory is revealed to be built upon Washington’s fight to keep a regular army going.

A thought that occurred to me when I read this book was how most people believe the British won all the battles. The truth is however that most of the battles were in fact indecisive, or merely tactically successful for the British, which strategically left them as losses for the British. It’s true, America sustained some terrible reverses in the field, so many that at times it seemed as if the Commander in Chief was asking for it.Washington’s strategy was a wasteful one, or so it appeared. For a string of what conventional military thought would call tactical defeats and status quo results, many men had to die and suffer. Though the author is somewhat harsh to Washington in the opening pages, where he says that the General lost more battles than he won. In fact he came out about even, it is common knowledge that the Virginian was no tactical mastermind, his genius lay in strategy and organisation. The author does the General the credit of comparing him with Roman general, Fabian, but doesn’t take it too far, nor should he, for Washington was something of a dupe at times and would have crossed swords with a Hannibal had he been given the opportunity.

There’s allot of talk about the regular army. This serves to oppose the legend of the militia, which Americans are very fond of and which the author tries at length to deconstruct. The one military facet that was both America’s blessing and its curse was its large pool of armed, part time militiamen. This factor contributed as much to near defeat as much as victory. It was important for another reason that a regular army oppose the British. Especially at the beginning. For the state to exist both domestically and internationally, without anarchy, the Americans had to establish organs of state, and be seen to be able to fight in a “fair and civilised” manner, using no backcountry tricks. One of the organs that every self respecting European state had established was that which was the most mistrusted of liberty’s enemies, a regular army. Keeping up appearances would allow America to govern as a respectable state after the war. However attaching an armed body that ostensibly was at the beck and call of the state, or could be manipulated by a popular general, flew in the face of the ideals for which the Revolution had been fought. This in part explains America’s obsession with the legend of the militia and indeed the romance of the citizen volunteer.

To be critical I would like to point out that when speaking of the units of the British army it is more in keeping to refer to them by their regimental numbers rather than by names. As an example the author is as overfond of referring to the 4th (King’s Own) as the King’s Own as he is partial to reporting lurid tales on the evil of royal Bayonets and the death of young surrendering American farm – boys. This is another facet of propaganda which raised the effectiveness of bayonets in the hands of repressive and brutalised regulars as a symptom of oppression. Here I should point out that the book is not overly critical of the British in this instance, not comparatively anyway, you can see this in the coverage of Battle of Waxhaws which is always a ripe moment to dwell on Gibsonian levels of British cruelty. Instead it is refreshingly even handed, and doesn’t really correspond with the popular image of massacre, but of a small decisive battle. Though Tarleton is described as getting among the Americans before having his horse shot, which seems not to be the case. For the most part the author doesn’t create a mythic image for the British either, so to heighten Washington’s reputation. He remembers that the American army in all its forms was keeping up its end of the fight from the start all the way through to 1778. The British empire of 1775 is often overinflated to its 1878 power, and victory was only ever inevitable on paper. Though I will never know why author’s will insist on calling a bearskin cap a busby, there is allot of refreshing bi – partisanship in the book.

The author excellently puts the matter into perspective. Far from the British underestimating their opponents, the Americans were actually as much as fault in this respect as the professionals and it almost cost them the war. A General must be lucky, so Napoleon said, and Washington was, for the critical first 3 years of the war he faced an enemy in General Howe that had no desire for a decisive victory, but a mediating one that would put back the elements that had escaped Pandora’s box. Then there was Clinton, who did nothing but vacillate and restart the war in the south, and then there was Cornwallis, Clinton’s stocky war-god, who did too much for too little gain. But a lucky General is not always able to utilise that fortune, and Washington undoubtedly did.

The change of dynamics in the way the war progressed is interesting, ironically the more the Americans dug in and held to defences, the worse it became for them. For by obligingly gluing themselves to the ground, they allowed the British free movement to do practically any thing they liked with them. Defence became the antithesis of victory, not even Greene was able to win a defensive battle at Guilford with twice the numbers of Lord Cornwallis, who uncharacteristically went against good sense and obligingly hurled his small army at three defensive lines. Quite the reverse, by the end of the war the British tended to run out of options in the open field, faced as they were by fleeting glimpses of their quarries’ hind quarters, and increasingly planted themselves inside heavily fortified positions.

We notice that by 1778 the British had lost the war but not quite the fight. All hope of achieving the war aims of 1775, that being to restore royal sovereignty over the colonies to its pre 1750 state evaporated when the French recognised American independence and guaranteed its security by promising troops, ships and money to its defence. This also meant that the war would of course continue, but it was now a different war. Thereafter any British victory that might have succeeded in garnering sufficient political and military gains to force a treaty, which would have to be stunning enough to break both France and America not to mention Spain and indeed Holland. Achieving a treaty that would only ever bring negotiations of compromise rather than abject surrender. The reason the war dragged on was because the ministry in Britain remained strong enough to refuse the idea of anything but an unconditional surrender, based on a now irrelevant appreciation of the political situation in America, in the hopes of some phantom success without any practical plan, until Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

The crux of the book seems to be that by 1778 Washington had resolved on a long term strategy, based on wearing down the British. What could have been achieved by a more forensic examination of Washington’s generalship, not only tactically and strategically but his logistic and organisational capabilities, his philosophy etc, is sacrificed for a linear narrative of the war itself from which we can glean Washington was indeed something of a modern Fabius. A man who stumbled as he tried to meet the British on even terms but from 1778 to Yorktown he barely missed a step in a masterful series of campaigns.

Following Washington and his generals through the war the obstacles they encountered loom large. Washington himself was faced not only with an often hostile Congress and enemy action, but with rogue generals wishing to take command. At first He was a southerner in a mostly Yankee army, the United States was united only politically after all. There was no shortage of men wishing to oust him. Most worryingly these men often subscribed to the militia – centric “Bunker Hillism” of the early years. It is no startling realisation that Washington saw the continental army as the heart of the Revolution. The two pillars of American liberty was an independent Congress and a live army. The greatest blow to the cause would be to lose one or both and that meant, after 1778 not offering a general engagement unless the likelihood of success was undeniable.

In sum this is an solid and entertaining military history of the strategic side of the American Revolution,

Josh.

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