It would be fair to say that America did not so much win the Revolutionary War as allow Britain to lose it. Facing an expensive conflict on a distant continent, the British wanted a short war that would not be yet another drain on national finances; however the tactics employed by Washington and other generals failed to create a situation where a decisive victory could be achieved by either side. As time dragged on and the Continental Army either survived major battles or avoided them, the British military commanders realised they faced a significant dilemma: exactly what were they in America to do? How were they expected to subjugate an entire nation, a large proportion of whom were against them? How could they defeat an army that would not fight on their terms? If they could not control cities politically, were they there to destroy them? The British had no clear military objectives and lacked inventive generals to come up with ideas and tactics.
Much historical debate hinges on Washington’s role as general: was he a great military commander or merely a trusty and stable leader? Given that he lost six out of the nine pitched battles he fought against the British, there appears to be some doubt about his tactical skills. One of his victories (Trenton, 1776) was merely the result of sneaking across a river at night and raiding the camp of some hung-over Hessian mercenaries at dawn; hardly the equal of Caesar or Napoleon. Still, Washington did what needed to be done; as one historian puts it, he only needed to be better than the generals he opposed. Perhaps his shortcomings as a general can be partly explained by the quality of his officers, which was rarely good enough to maintain discipline and coordinate full-scale battles. Although of great aggressive instinct, after the early defeats of 1775-76 Washington realised that the survival of the revolution was closely linked to the survival of the Continental Army. From that point his tactics centred around small scale battles, skirmishes and ambushes followed by retreat and regrouping; his force must stay intact so the European-style field battle, which risked the destruction and capture of the Continental Army, must be avoided. By 1779 his soldiers were possessed of greater combat experience and enough military discipline to fight European-style pitched battles; with French troops also on their way to America, Washington felt more comfortable in launching aggressive assaults.
“We are far from an anticipated peace because the bitterness of the rebels is too wide-spread, and in regions where we are masters, the rebellious spirit is still in them. The land is too large, and there are too many people. The more land we win, the weaker our army gets in the field. It would be best to come to an agreement with them.”
von Lossberg, Hessian general
The French involvement in the Revolutionary War was a significant factor in the American victory. This was not just because of the French infantry and artillery (although that was important enough) but also due to the tactical advantage offered by the French navy. The naval strength of the British had allowed them to maintain supplies, munitions and reinforcements wherever their ground forces went; so long as they remained relatively close to the coast, their supply line was intact. The Continental Army however relied on requisitioning and foraging, both of which was inconsistent in producing what they needed. The Americans did have their own Continental Navy but it was small and not equipped to do battle with England’s gun-ships; most American naval activity was concerned with privateering, or state-sanctioned piracy and seizure of British merchant ships (American privateers were very active around the British Isles, capturing an estimated 1,500 ships and 12,000 sailors by the end of the Revolutionary War). The most famous American naval victory of the war was John Paul Jones’ battle with British frigates in August 1779.
It is often said that the Continental Army’s encampment at Valley Forge was a turning point in the war, even though it involved the disastrous loss of up to 2,000 soldiers through cold, disease and malnutrition. Valley Forge came at a low period in the army’s fortunes: it followed a series of costly and embarrassing defeats, enlistments were plummeting, public criticisms of Washington and the army were common, support from Congress was pitiful and desertions were increasing. The encampment might have been costly in human terms but it did allow a breathing spell for the army and the chance for further training. A Prussian officer acting as an advisor to Washington, Baron von Steuben, gave the soldiers critical training in military tactics, manoeuvres and the use and firing of their weapons. Their improved performance was noted in the first significant battle following Valley Forge, the Battle of Monmouth. The Continental Army emerged from their Valley Forge ordeal both hardened and unified by the atrocious conditions they had to endure, and better skilled in warfare thanks to von Steuben’s training.
The arrival of French forces in 1779 was also coupled with deteriorating British morale and, back in London, a declining interest in prolonging the war. When a joint action involving American and French infantry and the French navy laid siege to British troops in Yorktown in 1781, forcing their commander Lord Cornwallis to surrender, the parliament had endured enough and initiated peace negotiations. The more level-headed MPs speculated that it was a war that England was never able to win, and they were perhaps correct: fighting on foreign soil to achieve political obedience was, in hindsight, an unachievable goal.