A close-run thing: winning the American revolution

The success of American revolutionaries in wresting independence from Great Britain today carries an aura of inevitability. Nothing could be further from the historical truth. In fact, on several occasions early in the conflict the Continental Army came within hours of total defeat on the battlefield. The eventual outcome of the revolution was, to borrow a Britishism, a close-run thing.

It requires a leap of imagination for 21st century Americans to understand how desperate the situation on the ground was for the revolutionaries in the first years of the insurrection. The Continental Army survived three very close calls—at Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Trenton—where the outcome hung in the balance. Only a combination of tactical mistakes by the King’s generals, General George Washington’s skill at extricating the Americans from tight spots, and a fair measure of luck kept the revolutionaries from suffering a military debacle that would have ended effective organized resistance to the Crown.

British mistakes at Bunker Hill

The British squandered an opportunity to inflict a devastating defeat on the American army at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. General Thomas Gage chose a frontal assault on the rebel forces occupying the Charlestown peninsula’s high ground. Gage ignored the advice of perhaps his most astute general, Henry Clinton, who argued for landing troops north of Bunker Hill, behind the main position of the rebels, and occupying Charleston Neck, the narrow isthmus between the Charles River and the Mystic River connecting Charlestown to the mainland. That move would have would cut off supplies to the entrenched colonials and closed off any avenue of escape. Gage was apparently more interested in avenging his losses at Lexington and Concord and in teaching the rebels a corrective lesson about British military might than in producing a swift, and relatively bloodless, surrender.

Clinton later wrote: “Mr. Gage thought himself so well informed that he would not take any opinions of others, particularly a man bred up in the German school, which that of America affects to despise…These people seem to have no idea of any other than a direct [attack].” (Clinton thought of himself as belonging to the “German school” because he had served under Prince Ferdinand of Prussia and the Duke of Brunswick.)


Instead of the bloody frontal assault chosen by British commander Thomas Gage, General Clinton argued for cutting off American forces by capturing Charlestown Neck, the isthmus north of Bunker Hill. (Source: earlyamerica.com.)

Rejecting Clinton’s counsel, Gage elected for an amphibious assault and ordered Major General William Howe to lead light infantry and marines against the entrenched Americans on Breed’s Hill. With thousands watching from the surrounding hills and roof-tops of Boston, the British marched uphill into withering fire from the Continental forces. Instead of quickly breaking the American line, it took three attempts and staggering losses before Howe’s troops could dislodge the Continentals.

Although they forced the rebels from the high ground, the British lost their chance to deal the rebellion a possibly fatal blow in its infancy. Further, American irregulars showed they were capable of standing up against Europe’s finest infantry. Clinton’s telling verdict on British success: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”

Washington’s Brooklyn escape

The second near-disastrous moment for the Americans came in August 1776. The Continental Army, now led by George Washington, had been routed in the Battle of Long Island. More than half of Washington’s army, and most of his general staff, retreated to fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, which left them trapped between British and Hessian troops and the East River. General Howe, now commanding the British forces, ignored the entreaties of Clinton and General John Vaughn for an all-out assault on the American line and instead settled on more methodical siege tactics.

Washington recognized the precariousness of the American position. A steady north wind kept Royal Navy warships from moving up the East River and sealing off his evacuation route to Manhattan, but there was no guarantee it would persist. Observing from aboard the frigate HMS Rainbow in New York Harbor, Captain George Collier wrote in his diary: “If we become masters of this body of rebels (which I think is inevitable), the war is at an end.”

In what proved to be a master stroke, Washington ordered the secret night-time evacuation of the American forces across the East River. A flotilla of boats ferried the soldiers to Manhattan, and a late summer fog helped mask the movement of the army. Even then, it was touch-and-go. British pickets arrived at the landing just as the last boats, with the American rearguard, including Washington, embarked for New York. “In the history of warfare, I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat,” Benjamin Tallmadge, then a major on Washington’s staff, later observed.

A frustrated Captain Collier blamed Howe for the escape of the rebels, sarcastically noting: “The having to deal with a generous, merciful forbearing enemy who would take no unfair advantages must have been highly satisfactory to General Washington…” The Americans also recognized that their last-minute salvation was due, in part, to Howe’s passivity. General Israel Putnam commented: “General Howe is either our friend or no general. He had our whole Army in his power…and yet suffered us to escape without the least interruption…Had he instantly followed up his victory, the consequence to the cause of liberty would have been dreadful.” Washington, also puzzled by Howe’s tactics, wrote: “There is something exceedingly mysterious in the conduct of the enemy.”

Some historians have conjectured that Howe, who had seen the carnage inflicted by Continental muskets and rifles at Bunker Hill first hand, was wary of mounting another frontal attack. Howe later defended his tactics, explaining that the American “lines must become ours at a very cheap rate by regular approaches” and “I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault.”

Others have speculated that as a Whig sympathetic to the colonial cause, Howe hoped to see the dispute between the colonists and Great Britain settled peacefully rather than on the battlefield. Charles Stedman, a British officer, attributed Howe’s cautious New York campaign to “the reluctance of the commander in chief to shed the blood of a people so nearly allied.” Howe had been given the authority, along with his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, to extend pardons to the colonial leaders if they abandoned their rebellion, an offer swiftly refused. (Connecticut’s Jonathan Trumbull, the only incumbent colonial governor to support independence, tartly observed that “[n]o doubt we all need a pardon from Heaven for our manifold sins and transgressions; but the American who needs the pardon of his Britannic Majesty is yet to be found.”)

george washington, 1776

Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, composed during the summer of 1776. (Source: georgewashingtonwired.org.)

Whatever Howe’s reasons, after the near-disaster at Brooklyn Washington realized that he could not risk set-piece battles between his raw troops and seasoned British and Hessian veterans. His message to Congress days after the evacuation outlined the Fabian tactics he would successfully employ for the remainder of the conflict. “On our side the war should be defensive,” he wrote. “We should on all occasions avoid a general action, and never be drawn into a necessity to put anything to risk.”

Trenton: Washington eludes a trap

The third decisive moment came shortly after Washington’s stirring victory over the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776 had revived the flagging revolutionary cause. The Continental Army had quickly returned to Pennsylvania, but days later Washington re-crossed the Delaware to begin a campaign against the British outposts in New Jersey.

British forces led by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis marched from Princeton to confront him in Trenton on January 2, 1777. After a series of skirmishes (the Second Battle of Trenton), by late in the afternoon the Americans had moved to positions along the Assunpink Creek, with the British to their north and the Delaware River to their west. Ice on the river blocked any escape by boat, so a Brooklyn-like evacuation would not be possible.

“The damned rebels are cornered at last,” Cornwallis told an officer on his staff. His quartermaster, William Erskine, urged a twilight attack: “If Washington is the general I take him to be, he will not be found there in the morning.” But Cornwallis decided to wait; it was growing dark, his men were tired from a long march on muddy roads, and initial assaults had met stiff resistance. He could see that the Continental lines extended three miles along the Assunpink and that if he turned the left flank of the Americans to the east, he could close the trap, pinning the insurgents with the Delaware at their backs. Legend has it that Cornwallis boasted: “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.”


Washington escaped the trap at Trenton by secretly sending American forces around the left flank of the British in the middle of the night and then moving north up the back roads across Quaker Bridge to Princeton. (Source: britishbattles.com.)

Washington saw the danger. While he had roughly the same number of troops as Cornwallis (roughly 5,000 men), he had little, if any, room to retreat. After a council of war, Washington decided on a bold move: surreptitiously maneuvering around the British left flank, in the middle of the night, and then falling upon the rearguard Cornwallis had left behind in Princeton. A small decoy force of Americans kept the campfires burning, while Washington’s troops began their march north. The daring plan worked. Colder weather froze the roads and the rebels were able to steal away without alerting the British. Cornwallis did not realize the “old fox” had side-stepped the trap until he heard the sound of cannons from the battle in Princeton in the morning.

Washington’s unexpected successes at Trenton and Princeton came at a crucial juncture in the war. They kept American hopes alive until a pivotal victory at Saratoga over Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne in the fall of 1777 encouraged the French to enter the conflict on the side of the colonists. Washington’s reputation as a general soared both at home and abroad; English politician and man-of-letters Horace Walpole wrote that “[h]is march through our lines is acknowledged to have been a prodigy of generalship” and compared the American commander to the Roman generals Fabius and Camillus.

Victory against the odds

Like many who have been through a near-death experience, America’s revolutionaries tried to make sense out of what had happened to them. It’s no surprise that many of the Founders saw a providential hand at work in their miraculous deliverance from the jaws of defeat.

How else to explain the success of their “rabble in arms” against the mightiest army and navy of the 18th century? Or the strange weather—wind, rainstorms, and fog—that allowed Washington and his men to escape across the East River? Or the sudden freeze that made the back roads from Trenton to Princeton passable for the Continental army? Or the numerous times that Washington avoided capture or death on the battlefield?

Washington wrote years after the war: “The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude toward the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf.” Benjamin Franklin abandoned his Enlightenment skepticism when reflecting on the triumph of the revolutionary cause. “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor,” he told fellow delegates at the Federal Convention of 1787. “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.”

Yet it’s not necessary to believe in predestination, or in divine intervention, to marvel at the perseverance of the American revolutionaries and their sacrifices to achieve victory against very long odds. What makes their triumph even more remarkable is what so nearly came to pass—and didn’t—in those decisive early “what if” moments.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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