“British Strategy During the American Revolutionary War”


Naval War College

JPME Assignment

Strategy & Policy, Module 2

June 30, 2003

“Could the British have formulated a more successful strategy to achieve the policy objective of continuing to dominate the thirteen North American colonies? Did the British use of seapower reflect more of a Mahanian or Corbettian theory of naval/maritime power?”


The above question implies that the British could have won the American Revolutionary War through a policy of continued colonial domination, the principal reason for which the colonies revolted in the first place. The question belies a complex state of affairs which London failed to comprehend in 1775, but which George Washington understood and was able to exploit to maximum advantage. The British could indeed have formulated a more successful strategy of North American colonial repression, but such policy would have been counterproductive and serve only to aggravate and intensify anti-monarchical sentiment in the New World. A more apposite question might be, “Why did the British fail to prevent the secession of the thirteen colonies, and what would it have taken to retain their association with the British Empire?”

Multi-Faceted Failure

Britain’s loss of the thirteen colonies was the result of ill-conceived and poorly contrived policies, themselves resulting from a misunderstanding of the nature and intensity of American grievances, as well as a failure not only to provide specific guidance to British military leaders in North America, but to formulate any sort of sound strategy at all. In the areas of leadership, ground tactics, communications, morale, and naval employment, Britain’s shortcomings would impact her war success. Believing it was up against a simple unruly mob, London miscalculated the extent to which Americans were willing to risk their lives for a “glorious cause”.

Out of Touch

Parliament misjudged the inherent passion in the colonies’ demand for equal representation, and its struggle to exert its haughty influence served only to arouse America’s anti-Parliamentary sentiment, exacerbate an ever-worsening situation, and harden American hearts toward an overbearing English Ministry and crown perceived as ever more tyrannical. Sadly, while General Gage submitted an on-scene recommendation to suspend the Intolerable Acts, pretentious personalities prevailed from afar; King George III’s yes-men in London insisted that “Parliament would not–could not–concede.” General Burgoyne’s repressive manner also proved counterproductive, fanning a flame of freedom which burned only brighter as Washington’s confidence swelled and Royalist doubts mounted. Britain underestimated colonial dissatisfaction and Patriot willingness to resort to force to preserve esteemed liberties. London remained rigid in its demands and did not regard war only as an option of last resort; the Cabinet repeatedly stoked an overseas fire which only a Patriot victory could douse. America’s makeshift soldiers proved more inspired than their conscripted Redcoat competitors, and Washington impelled his men to seize not only the earthen high ground, but the moral high ground as well, which they earnestly and solemnly did.

Static Tactics

The once-mighty Redcoats were unable to adapt to the asymmetric warfare tactics adopted by George Washington’s forces. Ever the improviser, Washington encouraged and employed the Fabian tactics executed so well by Nathaniel Greene and the militiamen of his “irregular” armies and the back-country bandits who perpetually harassed the British professional army. The British maintained their conservative columnar formations–unaware at first of the need to adapt traditional tactics to counter a nascent American insurgency before it depleted a British ground force which London sometimes seemed reluctant to augment. Not only did British commanders lack explicit guidance derived from an overarching strategy, but what disjointed directives they did receive were often unenforceable or infeasible. Gage, Burgoyne, Clinton, and Howe all dragged their feet at times along with their dragoons, and their dilatory propensities inhibited their capitalizing on several opportunities. By the time Washington espoused his war of posts strategy, the British were compelled to diffuse their concentrated forces, further exposing them to Washington’s “attrition by strategic defensive” campaign which eventually enabled his Continental Army and state militias to assume the offensive. The Eastern Seaboard’s vast geography was relatively unknown territory for the British. Its expanse facilitated hit-and-run tactics, made it difficult for the British to pin down American forces, and was virtually devoid of any centers of gravity. When the British became so frustrated by skirmish warfare and an inability to directly engage the Americans, Cornwallis led his Loyalists on a fast-paced effort to confront Nathaniel Greene that depleted Cornwallis’s supplies, enervated his men, and led them into unknown territory with increasingly inhospitable inhabitants.

Bungled Communications

Even if British commanders in the New World or Parliament in the United Kingdom had crafted a comprehensive scheme of operations, it is not likely that the two entities would share a congruent vision of the plan. Howe often oscillated in his decision making, while Lord Germain, the American Secretary in London, neither coordinated his decisions nor apprised Howe of his initiatives. The three-thousand mile expanse of Atlantic Ocean notwithstanding, England simply did not devote sufficient attention to the colonial crisis to ensure a synchronized politico-military effort, let alone one backed by popular opinion.


British generals usually arrived in America with little direction, similar motivation, and–in their judgment–a paucity of troops with which to effectively prosecute a war along the entire eastern seaboard. Washington, on the other hand, though faced with a high desertion rate, high turnover rate, and dearth of supplies, had the support of the Continental Congress, as well as a “glorious cause” which to invoke. A respected soldier and able communicator, he imparted a sense of urgency to his troops, an understanding that although they lacked polished boots, adequate shelter, and munitions, they were the Revolution. The success or failure of their struggle would determine their and the nation’s fate: they could live as free men responsible for their new country’s freedom, or they would be persecuted as turncoats, tried as conspirators and insurgents, and likely indicted or executed. They had a personal, vested interest in their breakaway nation’s survival. Their policy, in essence, became the survival of the polis. They were a part of, and not apart from, the cause which was to become a new experiment in government. Washington had fortune on his side, in contrast to British generals who empathized with the colonists’ cause, and who could not bring themselves to see Americans–former Englishmen–as the “enemy”.

Innocuous Naval Effort

Britain not only underestimated American ground force effectiveness, it underrated her maritime strength as well, a costly error. Lord North’s abdicating control of Britain’s military to individual cabinet members resulted in personal squabbles, power shifts, policy oscillation, and little strategic guidance for the Royal Navy, which failed to exploit the potential firepower intrinsic to coordinated land/sea operations. Offshore, the Royal Navy’s maritime strategy was as disjointed as its ground war, as it failed to interdict American blockade runners, thereby allowing Yankee rebels easy access to European arms and munitions. Following the Battle of Saratoga, Britain was so occupied with the simultaneous conduct of expeditionary warfare and seaboard blockade that it lost the strategic initiative. Its ships were dispersed, operated on the defensive — almost in isolation, detached from any overarching guidance, and, as Mahan complained–for all intents and purposes, unprepared and insufficient in number to carry out a dual mission. After Spain and France joined the war, the British fleet was almost wholly concerned with a potential combined Franco-Spanish amphibious assault, as well as the competing priorities of Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean operations and obligations. The emphasis of naval combat operations shifted from the American colonies to France in an effort to protect Britain’s sugar-producing islands.

In light of the above, the British use of seapower reflected more of a Corbettian than a Mahanian doctrine of seapower employment, since Corbett stated that Limited War is ideal for maritime powers, the object being to isolate the object of attack while maintaining a homeland defense to counter retaliatory strikes. Irrespective of Royal Navy effectiveness versus American ships, Corbett believed seapower was limited in its potential, that it must be supplemented by land power to solidify and finalize any gains. Seapower alone would not conclude a war, only pave the way for more decisive amphibious invasions and ground operations. Britain’s lack of coordinated operations may have been as much a factor of colonial America’s absence of vital centers of gravity as the British Navy’s inability to conduct them. Had America had a sizeable fleet, Britain’s use of the Royal Navy may have morphed into a more Mahanian application of force on the high seas, with ships jockeying for position along sea lines of communication in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Indian Oceans.

The Variables

A more forward-looking and focused strategy may have enabled England to retain its colonies, it may be argued. While it is true that a more conciliatory stance may have warmed some American hearts and helped sustain Channel- to-Chesapeake ties, no love was lost between England and Spain or France, the latter two countries hovering for years near the bottom of their UK fondness quotients. Spain sought to reclaim Minorca and Gibraltar, while France desired to avenge its Canadian and West Indies footholds lost in the Seven Years War. Even if England had cautioned Spain and France against supporting a pernicious anti-monarchy movement–in their own self-interest–their avaricious thrones would have been unable to resist the opportunity to aid and abet any enemy of Buckingham Palace, a chance to facilitate the splintering of the British Empire. Had Parliament intensified its repression of the colonies and pursued a purposeful, strategic plan, the colonies may have simply accelerated their endeavors to draw Spain and France into the fray.

Some may also argue that if Britain had been more proactive in cultivating Loyalist sentiment in the American South, pro-British passion would overrule the minority conspiracy movement fomenting discord. It was not anti-British sentiment that drove the Patriot cause, though. Rather, it was the series of fundamentally unfair decrees emanating from Parliament, the Ministry, and the throne which incensed the American polis, and the deaf ears upon which their pleas for fair dealing fell which exasperated them. Yes, there were Loyalists who favored the maintenance of ties with Britain. In fact, those who favored independence were considered seditious “radicals”, bent on insurrection, and they comprised only one-third of the American populace, while Loyalists comprised another third, and the remaining third was undecided. Those whose uncertainties bound them to the crown, who felt vulnerable in the New World and therefore disposed to remain loyal, were also stung by the increasingly heavy-handed royal decrees of the 1770s. As such, they would have been increasingly susceptible to embracing the Patriot cause.

It might be said the British had substantial difficulty in selecting effective theater commanders with regard to competency, dedication, and the politics of personality and position, especially considering that they were to be sent to a war three thousand miles away. While it is true that predicting combat proficiency is exceedingly difficult, it might be countered that George Washington faced similar struggles in standing up the Continental Army. Morale was low, funding had not been allocated, uniforms had to be procured, and most challenging of all: 10,000-plus men must be trained to defeat the strongest military power in the world. So, whereas Cornwallis had trouble replacing lost troops, Washington had trouble recruiting. Washington’s troops did have home field advantage, but the Redcoats had the advantage of seasoned soldiers in their ranks, disciplined combat veterans.

Some might argue that had the British pursued a strategy of seek-and-destroy versus the nascent Continental Army, it would have annihilated it and quashed all rebellion with it . This line of thought ignores the fact that Washington was completely cognizant of his vulnerabilities, and for that reason deliberately avoided head-on combat with the British unless under his terms, at a time of his choosing (e.g.., Trenton). As it was, the British finally fell victim to a war of posts which dispersed her forces and isolated increasingly depleted units. Furthermore, the British faced the same dilemma as Washington: any victory in a drawn-out battle might prove disastrous, inasmuch as munitions were scare, provisions were few, and personnel reinforcements were far between. The British were forced to husband their resources until the War in the South, at which point Washington’s doctrine of conventional-unconventional warfare had coalesced into a nettlesome, fairly effective strategy against the Redcoats. Lastly, as the American military was so amorphous, and the colonies were bereft of any military and economic centers of gravity, the British had no single-point-of-focus which to target. In that way, America’s weakness became a strength, and improved Continental David’s chances versus Island Goliath.


Throughout the course of the American Revolution, Britain’s problems grew as American intransigence increased in direct proportion to London’s repressive statutes. A patent lack of sound policy precluded the effective conduct of British combat operations. London was remiss in providing any sort of “grand strategy” as articulated by Paul Kennedy, wherein a government considers and coalesces the tri-fold phenomena of logistical feasibility, diplomatic support, and national morale as influenced by that culture’s moral foundations. Such want of strategy rendered British combat operations ineffective, sapped its officers’ morale and motivation, and dispirited an army which likely believed Thomas Paine was correct in stating that the monarchy had forfeited its legitimacy. Pride can be a positive or negative stimulus, and it fell to both sides to manipulate the emotion for better or worse. George Washington modified and revised his tactics like Sun Tzu’s water over rocks, instilling pride in his men as he imbued them with a sense of patriotism, honor, and self-worth rooted in the righteousness of their cause. Britain’s generals, on the other hand, never really believed in the merit of their orders. Perhaps it is unfair to hold them accountable for a war they never guaranteed they could win. London sealed its own fate by ignoring the voice of reason, by failing to recognize that by virtue of its over-extension and aversion to compromise, it had disenfranchised its colonial brethren. By trying to save face, Britain took it on the chin, obstinate in its insistence that colonial America succumb to its whims. Fear of losing an economically fertile land and strategically important bases only served to sever ties with the same, as grievances supplanted good will and acrimony unseated affection. Thus, it might be said that perhaps it was not that Britain did not understand the solution to the Revolution, but that it did not recognize the problems underlying and compelling it. Without a cogent plan, British forces were relegated to pursuing the opportunistic policy of occupying any area sympathetic to the Loyalist cause. Such undertaking did little to fortify the trust and confidence essential to motherland-colony relations, less to fertilize transoceanic trade, and served only to intensify the factionalism, friction, and fiction (London’s insistence that American unrest was the result of a partisan few) which had spawned the war. Had Britain realized that its repressive tactics only alienated Americans, and that the Patriots grew more determined with each military engagement, it might have softened its stance, relaxed its royal grip, and come to terms with a self-governing, semi-autonomous state in an expanded commonwealth. Americans were proud, hard working folk willing to share New World wealth with their motherland. London, however, proceeded to extinguish that fraternal affection and spirit of good will. Had Britain loosened the noose, amplified its own overseas market access, reduced taxes, and offered equal representation in London, trans-Atlantic trade would have burgeoned, providing Britain cheap access to raw materials unavailable in Europe, fortifying its economy, and better positioning the nation to confront Spain and France in the Caribbean, Atlantic, or Mediterranean. Or, Britain might have been able to concentrate on securing a peace with its European neighbors. It would have given its ailing economy some reprieve, and enabled it to maintain a staunch supporter and close relative in North America — perhaps flying a Union Jack with a bakers’ dozen stars, but a Jack nonetheless.

Written by Glenn Yeck | Comments Off on “British Strategy During the American Revolutionary War”