While there are numerous contributing factors to America’s success in achieving independence, the most critical factor can be attributed to the series of British mistakes throughout the conflict. Prior to the onset of the Revolutionary War, the British government faced serious challenges, both politically and fiscally. The conclusion of the French and Indian War coupled with the fighting in Europe, India and the West Indies, left Britain with considerable debt and with few to little allies. The British government saw America as a way to generate revenue in order to assist in its recovery efforts.
The fiscal stress in a post-war economy as well as various internal struggles with foreign policy, bureaucratic processes and growing concern amongst its citizens regarding the war set the stage which ultimately ended in America defeating what was the most powerful military in the world. The following paragraphs address specific reasons as to why the British failed to achieve and sustain a strategic advantage during the American Revolution.
From the onset of the war, the British failed to provide a cohesive and unified strategic vision for the dispute with America. The organizational structure and political system was not particularly efficient in decision making or policy establishment. Decision making was lengthy and critical information and strategic decisions were done independently and often in a dispersed manner. This process considerably added to the frustrations held by the American colonialists. In addition, the British military never had one sole leader to provide and oversee a clear strategic direction of the war effort (Professor Carpenter, NWC lecture).
There were often personality clashes between military commanders, heads of state and other influential roles not to mention the widespread corruption throughout all government entities which further complicated the situation. As a result of the French and Indian War, the British Army had also reduced the number of regiments. Both Naval and Army budgets were slashed resulting in less than half the forces than at the height of the previous war. The demands of maintaining a home guard as well as other critical areas such as Ireland and Gibraltar stretched forces and provided additional challenges (Professor Carpenter, NWC lecture).
In addition, recruiting was also a problem, particularly for British regiments stationed in America. “Throughout the war the government experienced great difficulty in obtaining sufficient men for the ranks. Again and again it was found impossible to complete the augmentation voted by parliament” (Recruiting of Army, Chapter 3). These internal conflicts and issues led to poor command and control and ineffective strategic leadership which lacked coherence and unity. Failure to Understand the True Nature of War
In order to adequately assess the British perspective of the American colonists, we must first explore the varying aspects of the environment. The British government struggled on how to sufficiently deal with the uprising in America. King George III, a great believer in preserving the British imperial interests, believed a British operation of brute force would force allegiance and submission. Although he himself didn’t have the authority, he played an active role in persuading Parliament into taking action by overtaking various key American cities. The British assumed this show of force would demolish motivation and compel the Americans to cooperate. This approach proved to be flawed. The British didn’t understand that the American complaints centered on theories of constitution, economic independence and religious concepts.
Supply Chain Management
In the case of the American Revolution, supply chain management will be approached from two different perspectives, the provisioning of troops as well as the overall communication strategy with regard to logistics and movement of resources. Both play a critical and equally important role in any campaign and during the American Revolution both proved to be a detriment to the British forces. From early on the British were confronted with serious challenges with providing provisions for troops operating in America. During the war, British provisioning strategy relied heavily on sustainment support to come from the homeland. The 3000-mile trip proved to a tactical hindrance in feeding the troops as well as resupplying with ammunition, blankets, shoes and armament. Often taking several months to arrive, the supplies arrived spoiled and unusable. Further amplifying the issue, the U.S. Continental Congress authorized “legal piracy” which attributed to the seizing of over 300 British ships during the war.
In addition to the resupply of troops, insufficient and ineffective use of transportation resources diminished British effectiveness on the battlefield. Due to poor planning and negligent communication between commanders, the various transport agencies utilized to resupply the British army struggled with prioritizing missions and did not effectively communicate with each other. In addition, independent decisions were made to keep units on-station to move troops vice sending back to resupply. Misaligned campaign plans and the lack of communication and collaboration among commanders resulted in a confused supply chain and complications for command and control. This ultimately slowed logistics support to troops and reduced British sustainment on the battlefield.
Failure to Maximize Sea Power
Mahan advocates a successful navy must adopt and utilize an offensive strategy. From the onset of the American Revolution, the British did well in meeting this requirement and until the French entered the war, the British displayed an overwhelming naval superiority over the Americans, largely due to the fact that the American colonists did not have any naval forces. In the end, however, the British failed in sustain naval superiority when France and Spain entered the war. Their inability can be attributed to several critical areas; failure to adequately reinvest in the replenishment of its fleet, failure to train and equip its service members, and failure to effectively leverage naval forces in key campaigns; Saratoga and Yorktown in particular. The 3000 mile supply chain, limited resources, piracy and lack of synergy among leadership and shipping agencies did not allow for the British fleet to organize themselves for sustainment purposes nor establish, enforce and maintain sea power.
Mahan maintains the two major strategies for a strong sea power is a powerful Navy and a wide reaching commerce (Mahan, Sea Power, p. 539). In order to adequately defeat the enemy, Britain needed to capitalize on the lack of naval power prior to France’s entrance into the war. By not taking appropriate steps to keep France out the war, the British effectively positioned themselves for failure. Mahan completely disagreed with how the British executed naval warfare after the French and Spanish entered the war. He believed that the British should have taken a more active approach in blockading European ports in order to bring the naval fight back to European soil.
Mahan stated: “…the whole fortune of the war should at the first have been staked on a concentration of the English fleet between Brest and Cadiz.” (Mahan, Sea Power, 415). It was his belief that this effort would have not only weakened the public support for the war but would also bring the forces of the American allies back to Europe to contest the blockades. In addition, the British naval forces would also benefit from the much shorter supply chain in the event that their naval assets required repair. British leadership once again failed to see the strategic connection between sea power and the unified strategic vision (Carpenter, NWC Lecture).
Identifying Centers of Gravity
“A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely” (On War, p.485). Correctly identifying the center of gravity or “the hub of all power and movement, [for] which everything depends” is ultimately the most critical part of defeating the enemy (On War, p. 596). Flawed identification can prove to be costly in terms of resources, time and effectiveness on the battlefield. The British strategy during 1777-78 was to isolate colonies and systematically destroy the enemy. In order to execute, the strategy involved identifying and targeting large conglomerates of rebels, in other words attacking American cities. The British perception was by capturing cities like New York and Philadelphia the rebel forces would view this overtaking and inevitably force submission to the colonialist.
The mistake in the British perception was identifying American cities as the centers of gravity. They failed to understand that the center of gravity was the Continental Army and the overwhelming public support for independence. This misunderstanding was demonstrated by British General Howe when he attempted to seize Philadelphia in order to lure General Washington to fight.
The problem was that he attempted this operation independently, diverging from the planned strategy of cutting off and controlling the waterways coming in from Canada. Howe failed to understand that the center of gravity for the American colonists did not lie within a city but more in popular support for independence. In addition, by not supporting the established planned, his actions ultimately contributed to the defeat in the Battle of Saratoga. This example not only exhibits how the British misunderstood the center of gravity but also shows the command and control issues the British had as well.
Lack of Diplomatic Process
Arguably the most significant factor in Britain’s demise was the failure to negotiate diplomatically from the onset of the conflict and routinely throughout. As the French and Indian War winded down, the British Empire was grand, very pompous and displayed signs of arrogance. This overconfidence contributed to why they didn’t show concern in addressing the needs of the American colonists more diplomatically. This allowed the colonist to shift their focus to complete independence and strengthen their resolve for a representative democracy. Had they better understood the American objections and drive, they could have taken a more proactive approach to amicably reach a consensus and the war may have been prevented.
The Americans, on the other, knew the importance of diplomatic relationships. This was demonstrated with the alliances they built with France, Spain and the Netherlands. These relationships proved to be a vital piece of their strategy. The British Army had several advantages over the colonial forces; size, training, experience, financial support, etc. Through the international relations that were forged, America reaped many benefits of financial support, ammunitions, manpower and most importantly naval support. These relationships proved to be a decisive factor in the American victory.
Overall the British demise during the American Revolution can be attributed to several key areas; lack of a unified strategy, limited to no command and control, lack of synchronization among troops, government organizational structure, untimely and unresponsive decision making and ineffective supply chain management. In addition, the adopted naval strategy failed to establish an effective naval strategy to overpower French and Spanish forces thereby increasing difficulties on the battlefield. By not clearly understanding the nature war and never really defining an overarching objective, British leadership repeatedly encountered logistic and tactical challenges were proved to be fatal for their success.
Carpenter, NWC lecture Red Team: Britain and the American War for Independence Clausewitz, C. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. Mahan, A. T. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Dover, 1987. “The Recruiting of the Army”. The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution, Chapter 3. http://americanrevolution.org/britisharmy3.html.