Sunday, November 8, 2020

ARP174 Britain and France go to War

The winter of 1777-1778 was a difficult turning point for the ministry in London. Circumstances required a radical change in the conduct of the war.

Burgoyne’s Surrender

News of General Burgoyne’s surrender shocked officials, who never seriously considered such a possibility.  Many had figured the worst case would have been for Burgoyne’s army to retreat back to Fort Ticonderoga for another try the following year.

Lord North
(from Wikimedia)
Even before word of the surrender reached London, officials were skeptical of an easy way out of the American quagmire.  In August, Prime Minister Lord North wrote to one of his undersecretaries of state that, “it has been for many months been clear to me that if we cannot reduce the Colonies by force now employed under Howe and Clinton and Burgoyne, we cannot send and support a force capable to reduce them.”  

The British army in America in 1777 was larger than the entire British Army around the world had been before the war began.  Normally Britain kept between 12,000 and 15,000 soldiers in Ireland in order to discourage revolts there.  Because of the war in America, they had reduced the garrisons to around 3000.  In 1776, after one of two regiments in Jamaica sailed for New York to support General Howe, officials had to put down a planned slave insurrection that got its motivation from the reduction in military on the island.

Much of the British empire remained in peaceful obedience because subjects believed that defiance would not lead to victory, but only to a brutal suppression.  With Britain removing so many soldiers from other outposts around the world to support the suppression of the American rebellion, Britain was putting its other colonies at risk.

Howe’s calls for more soldiers for America would only make the situation even more precarious in other parts of the empire.  Britain had already sent the largest transatlantic military force ever deployed up until that time to America in 1776.  The point of that was to shock and awe the colonists into submission.  More than a year later, the Americans seemed neither shocked nor awed.  Their armies continued to defy authority and their claim for independence did not seem to falter. 

King George III
(from Wikimedia)

North, and others, believed that if they could not crush the American rebellion with that large force sent in 1776, then Britain could not crush the rebellion at all.  In another letter preparing for the King's speech to Parliament to be presented in the fall of 1777, Lord North wrote “How shall we mention America? Shall we be very stout? Or shall we take advantage of the flourishing state of our affairs to get out of this d--d war, and hold a moderate language?”  In other words, even before the loss at Saratoga, North was seriously debating the idea of an exit strategy.

If there was one stalwart leader in London who was not looking for a way to resolve the war other than victory, it was King George III.  On November 20, 1777, the King made his speech to the new session of Parliament.  The sole focus of his speech was the rebellion in America and the need to restore peace, order, and loyalty to his American colonies.

When rumors of Burgoyne’s surrender reached London a week or so later, and were confirmed by early December, the landscape of the war changed dramatically.  This was the first time in history an entire British army had surrendered and been taken prisoner.  It made very clear that crushing the American rebellion was not inevitable, that the plans to do so had failed thus far, and that there were no good plans for turning things around.

It was in early December that Lord North sent Paul Wentworth to Paris to talk to the American commissioners about a negotiated peace, something I pointed out last week.  The Commissioners only used those discussions to get France to move along its negotiating a treaty of alliance with the US.

Howe’s Resignation

About the same time that London was getting word of Burgoyne’s surrender, it also received General Howe’s resignation letter.  Back in mid-October, even before he received word of Burgoyne’s surrender, General William Howe wrote to Lord George Germain in London to express his wish to resign his command and return to London.  Howe believed that Germain and other officials in London had refused to take his advice on strategy and that they refused to provide him with the soldiers he needed to carry out any effective operations.

Gen. William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
It is hard to say for certain if Howe genuinely wanted to resign, whether he was bluffing in hopes it would get the ministry to give him the reinforcements and command authority that he thought he needed to win, or more likely somewhere in between.  Howe said he did not think he could win without more reinforcements.  If he was not going to get them, he did not see a path to victory.  London could either supply the troops or pick a new leader who thought he could do better.

Secretary of State Lord Germain had already made clear that he was not going to raise more armies in any substantial numbers beyond those sent in 1776.  With the loss of an army of over 8000 in the Saratoga campaign, the British Army would have an even smaller force to work with going forward.

By this time most of Parliament was laying the blame for this debacle on Germain.  He was the man responsible for authorizing the Burgoyne campaign, and for making sure that Burgoyne received the necessary support to complete his mission, including making sure that General Howe’s army would work with Burgoyne as originally planned.  Germain had allowed General Howe to sail off in his attempt to capture Philadelphia.  While the Philadelphia campaign was successful, it also meant that Howe was unavailable to assist Burgoyne.  Many officials in London believed this support could have prevented Burgoyne’s surrender.

Howe’s letter of resignation made it easier to try to make him the fall guy for this whole mess.  Germain insisted that General Howe had failed to support Burgoyne as planned and that Howe should take responsibility for his decision to sail off for Philadelphia.  Officials also laid blame on General Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, for the navy’s failure to control the coast and deal with smugglers and privateers that supported the rebellion.  They argued the admiral spent too much time helping his brother in support of the army.  By early January, the ministry also had a request from Admiral Howe, that he be relieved of his command in North America.

Lord George Germain
(from Wikimedia)
Lord Germain, who never really liked the Howes, was all for replacing them.  In early January, he was pushing for Sir Jeffrey Amherst to take command.  The sixty year old general had brought victory in America in the French and Indian War.  He was highly respected and was a higher ranking general than Howe.  In fact, Amherst had been Germain’s preference before the ministry selected William Howe.  The reason Amherst did not get the job in 1776 was that he did not want it.  Amherst did not want to put down the rebellion in 1776, and he certainly did not want to get handed this mess in 1778.  It is hard though, to say no if the King requests that you take the command.  Therefore, Amherst had to make clear to the Ministry that he was not on board with their plan.  Amherst insisted that he would need an army of at least 75,000 in America, more than double the current troop levels.  Without that, Amherst believed there was no chance of success.  Since the Ministry was not willing to build and deploy such a large army to America, they ended up passing on Amherst.

Even if Germain wanted them gone, the Howe brothers had many powerful and influential supporters in London.  The King was not ready to accept Howe’s resignation and lay the blame there.  The King also did not want to get rid of Lord Germain, or Lord North, both of whom were implementing the policies he wanted.  The King did not think he had any alternatives who would prosecute the war more forcefully.  As a result, the ministry made no personnel changes as they argued through January 1778 about what they should do next.

By the end of January, it was clear that either Lord Germain or General Howe had to take the blame for the mess in America.  The King told Lord North to decide which of them should go.  North opted to keep Germain.  This decision, as expected, created a political firestorm.  The Chancellor, Lord Bathurst, threatened to resign in protest.  Bathurst was a childhood friend of the Howe brothers, and was possibly even a distant relation.  He clearly was in the Howe camp and was not ready to accept North’s decision to remove them.

To keep the Cabinet from falling apart, the King ordered Germain to write a letter to Howe which was vague in its purpose.  Germain’s letter said that Howe was to come back to London for consultations, but that the King remained confident that General Howe could win the war, and instructed him to prepare a series of attacks on New England ports for the coming year.

In the meantime, since all the military commanders seemed to think that winning would require more soldiers than the government could afford to produce, the ministry began looking at other strategies that would not require holding large swaths of land in America.  Before they had approved the 1776 shock and awe campaign led by the Howe Brothers, many had pushed for a more naval centric operation where the British Navy would maintain a blockade of the continent, performing only coastal raids.  The hope was that the misery of no trade would eventually result in popular opposition in American to the patriot cause and lead to a negotiated peace.  The ministry was again considering this approach.

As January turned into February and the Ministry waited to see if France would actually sign a treaty with the US and go to war with Britain, the King even suggested that they abandon New York and Philadelphia.  They would retain garrisons only in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and the Floridas. From there, they would simply maintain a naval blockade with no army presence within the rebellious colonies.

War with France

British spies reported on the treaty negotiations at Versailles.  London had numerous spies on the staff of the American negotiators, so London received reports of all progress almost as soon as it happened.  Lord North had complete copies of the secret treaties that France had signed with the US within days of their completion on February 6.  The only question for London was whether France would keep the treaties secret for an extended time, or announce them quickly.  

London thought the treaties might stay a secret for months, thus averting open war between Britain and France.  This would give London a short window to concentrate its forces in America on one final push to focus on suppressing the American rebellion.

Once France declared war, or publicly released word of the treaty, which would require Britain to declare war, Britain would have redeploy much of its army and navy to protect other colonies and even prepare to defend against a French invasion of Britain itself.  Britain would no longer be fighting to win.  Rather, they would be fighting to limit the potential damage to their empire.

Earl of Sandwich
(from Wikimedia)
The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich had been pushing for a naval-centric war for some time.  And yes, he is the guy for whom we named the food between two pieces of bread.  Sandwich had been with the Admiralty for decades.  He saw how the navy had successfully controlled the Atlantic in the Seven Years War, making the British victory possible.  

In the Seven Years War, begun nearly two decades earlier, France had to focus much of its forces in Europe to fight with Prussia and the other German states.  In this war, France would be able to focus its much larger army on Britain alone.  France had also spent several years building a much larger navy, with warships prepared to contest Britain for colonies and to transport its armies wherever needed.  Britain would not only need much of its army to defend the mother country, but would also need to recall some of its fleet to protect the island against a potential French invasion.

On March 8, London issued orders to the commander in America that he should abandon offensive operations if he could not bring the Continental Army to an immediate decisive action.  Instead, war planners in London would have the navy would spend much of the 1778 fighting season attacking the New England coast.  In the fall, they would recapture Georgia, the Carolinas, and possibly Virginia, thus establishing royal control of the southern colonies, where they thought there was a much larger Tory population that would support the King’s troops.  This would allow the navy to focus its blockade on New England and starve out the inhabitants.

On March 13, less than a week after sending those orders to America, France publicly announced its treaty with America and informed King George III.  Four days later, on March 17, Britain declared war on France.

Clinton Named New Commander

By this time, the decision to replace the military commander in America was more than a month old.  In early February, Germain had dispatched a letter to General Howe accepting his offer to resign his command and recalling him to London.  At the same time, he sent a letter to General Henry Clinton in New York informing him that he would be the new commander of North America.

Sir Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
While Clinton’s reputation was still intact in London, following the disgrace of Generals Howe and Burgoyne, it was not like the Ministry didn’t have serious doubts about him.  In fact, at the time Germain had written to Clinton to inform him of his new command, no one in London was quite sure if Clinton might already be on a ship bound for London to try to resign his command once again.

Clinton had never gotten along with the Howe Brothers and always held the opinion that he could do better than them.  He had never held such a large independent command.  His last independent command resulted in the failure to capture Fort Sullivan in 1776.  That incident led to his ongoing dispute with Commodore, by this time Admiral, Peter Parker, who would eventually replace Admiral Howe as the North American Naval Commander.  

One reason there was reluctance to replace the Howe Brothers was that it would end the unprecedented cooperation between the army and navy. Even when several other admirals were proposed to replace Howe, officials knew that army-navy cooperation would not be the same. The relationship between Clinton and Parker virtually assured that the relationship between the two services would go back to a rather cold and antagonistic one.  

Although Clinton would finally have the independent command he had wanted, he would find himself with a much smaller army than General Howe oversaw.  Burgoyne’s army was dispersed in POW camps and therefore unavailable.  London would not replace it.  Further, many regiments of regulars would be needed in other parts of the empire to protect against the new French threat of attack.  In March, London ordered the transfer of 5000 regulars to the Leeward Islands (what we today call the eastern Caribbean).  Another 3000 would go to East Florida.  These forces would capture the French island of St. Lucia and protect Britain’s island colonies from French attack.  Lord Sandwich also recalled several dozen ships of the line to protect the waters around England.

With his much smaller army, Clinton received orders to end offensive operations and consolidate his forces for a potential southern campaign to begin at the end of the year.  Further London instructed him to abandon Philadelphia and consolidate his army back in New York City.  There were even contingencies to abandon New York and move to Halifax if needed.

Peace Plan

The war with France also made officials more realistic about a negotiated peace with America.  Sending agent Paul Wentworth to France to meet with the American representatives had gone nowhere.  In fact, it probably helped to move along US negotiations with France.

Admiral Richard Howe
(from Wikimedia)
Despite that failure, Lord North still believed that some accommodation would be possible in America and that coming to terms was necessary so that Britain could focus on its new war with France.  As early as December 1777, soon after word of Saratoga arrived in London, Lord North had pushed for a new Peace Commission and for new laws that would convince Americans that they would get all the reforms that they had originally wanted.

The King objected to this policy.  He believed that peace talks would only divide politicians in London and strengthen the opposition.  At the same time, it would fail because the colonies were not willing, at this point, to accept anything less than independence by this time.  Also, the Elector of Bavaria had just died.  It was quite possible that France would have to go to war with Prussia and Austria over the selection of his successor.  With the King opposed, Lord North tabled discussion of a peace commission until February. 

When intelligence made clear that France was about to sign the treaty with the US, North once again resurrected the idea of a negotiated peace.  He got the King to accept the idea of making reforms that might lead a political compromise with America.  North pushed through Parliament laws that repealed the tax on tea, that repealed the Massachusetts Government Act, and which declared that Parliament would forever forego authority to tax the colonies, except for external customs duties.  Parliament also approved the formation of a Peace Commission.

Unlike the Howe Brothers Peace Commission which had no authority to offer anything other than pardons, this new peace commission put everything on the table, except complete independence.  Commissioners could offer protection of colonial charters, repeal of all objectionable taxes, guarantee of no peacetime standing armies in the colonies, restoration of trade, essentially everything the First Continental Congress had requested in its petition, and more.  Further, the commission could negotiate directly with the Second Continental Congress as if it were a legal entity.  

In April, the Commission, headed by the Earl of Carlisle, left for America. Their negotiations will be the topic of a future episode.

Next week, we return to Valley Forge as a Prussian officer named von Steuben brings professional training to the Continental Army.

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Next Episode 175 Von Steuben at Valley Forge 

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Further Reading


A Biography of Lord North:

Einhorn, Nathan R. “THE RECEPTION OF THE BRITISH PEACE OFFER OF 1778.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 1949, pp. 191–214. JSTOR,

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. “‘If Others Will Not Be Active, I Must Drive’: George III and the American Revolution.” Early American Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1–46. JSTOR,

Rabb, Reginald E. “The Role of William Eden in the British Peace Commission of 1778.” The Historian, vol. 20, no. 2, 1958, pp. 153–178. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

(Anonymous) “Gentleman, for many years a resident in America” A letter to Lord George Germaine, giving an account of the origin of the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies, London: Printed for T. Whieldon and Waller, 1778. 

Lyman, Theodore The Diplomacy of the United States: being an account of the foreign relations of the country, from the first treaty with France, in 1778, to the present time, Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1828.

Lucas, Reginald Lord North, second earl of Guilford, 1732-1792, Vol. 1, London: A.L. Humphreys, 1913. 

Lyman, Theodore The Diplomacy of the United States: being an account of the foreign relations of the country, from the first treaty with France, in 1778, to the present time, Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1828. 

Trevelyan Sir George Otto The American Revolution Vol 4, London: Longman’s Green & Co. 1922 (original 1907). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brown, Gerald Saxon The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1963

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers & the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1974 (book recommendation of the week).

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Yale Univ. Press, 2013

Schiff, Stacy A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Henry Holt & Co. 2005.

Valentine, Alan Lord George Germain, Clarendon, 1962

Valentine, Alan Lord North, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Wilcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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