An American 20 dollar bill dated prior to the Declaration of Independence
An American 20 dollar bill dated prior to the Declaration of Independence

The War of American Independence was opened by the skirmish of Lexington on April 18, 1775. General Gage sent a party of soldiers to seize and destroy, military stores which were being collected at Concord, eighteen miles from Boston. The immediate purpose was accomplished more or less success­fully, but the troops were attacked on the march by the Massachusetts militia, and had sufficiently the worse in the encounter to encourage the colonials in the conviction that the volunteers could hold their own against the regulars.

Capture of Ticonderoga 
Also it was felt that matters had now been fairly brought to the arbitrament of the sword. The Massachu­setts men began to muster in force, Gage's Regiments were for the time shut up in Boston, and a party of insurgents under Ethan Allen captured the fort of Ticonderoga. Before the end of May two thousand men were added to the British force in Boston; and, on the other hand, the Congress at Phila­delphia, which was now accepted as the common directing authority of the colonists, took measures for raising a force of fifteen thousand men, and nominated as commander-in-chief George Washington, a highly respected landowner of Virginia, who had served with credit as a young man in Braddock's day, and whose force of character had won for him the confidence of Congress.

The Battle of Bunker Hill
Then on June 17th occurred the first important engagement An American column occupied a height called Breed's Hill (not the neighbour­ing Bunker Hill itself) to the north of Boston, from which they could command the British quarters. A strong British column only succeeded in driving them out after being twice repulsed and at the cost of heavy tosses. The battle of Bunker Hill or Bunker's Hill was in actual fact a British victory; but it was won so hardly and in such circumstances as to be a real moral victory for the colonials; because on a much larger scale than at Lexington, they had faced the regulars and inflicted punishment much more severe than they had suffered.

The colonials were tolerably unanimous in their determination to fight, but they were without military discipline, without established organisation, badly supplied with stores, and very short of money. The British, on the other hand, had complete command of the sea, officers of experience, regular troops, and abundant resources. But they remained consistently inert, apparently under the conviction that the resistance of the Americans would perish of sheer inanition. General Sir William Howe took the place of Gage as commander of the forces; his brother Admiral Lord Howe was in command of the fleet. But the fleet was not allowed to do anything, and General Howe preferred to do nothing. His army was con­centrated in Boston, while Washington's was concentrated outside. Else­where, the governors of the southern colonies had to take, refuge in British ships, which were unassailable, though in the circumstances useless for purposes of offence. Washington spent the winter in a long effort to organise and instil discipline into an army which was only held together at all with the utmost difficulty.

Active operations were restricted to an attempt on the part of the Americans to attach Canada to the rebellion. The first force of invaders led by Montgomery was on the whole favourably received by the French, and Montreal was captured. But the most persistent defect of the American armies immediately made itself felt. The. men only enlisted for short terms, and the moment their time was up they went off home, much after the fashion of their Saxon ancestors a thousand years before. Meanwhile Benedict Arnold had been despatched against Quebec, where he arrived in December with a body of troops ragged, barefoot, half-starved. When the remnant from Montreal joined them the whole body barely numbered a thousand. Such a force had no possible chance of capturing Quebec. An attempt to storm the place was repulsed with heavy loss and Montgomery himself was killed. For some three months the besiegers hung on with a somewhat fantastic heroism which refused to recognise impossibilities. The wavering attitude of the French Canadians turned into one of hostility to the Americans, the siege was at last raised in March, and thenceforward Canadian loyalty to the Crown was never in doubt.

On the other hand, in the same month, March, General Howe made up his mind that Boston was a bad military centre for his purposes, so he put his troops on board ship and sailed for Halifax, which became his headquarters for the time. Such was the ignominious position twelve months after the outbreak of the war. The British, with complete command of the sea, with nothing to check the supply of reinforcements, with no foreign complications on hand to distract them, had retired from their one real foothold in the thirteen colonies in the face of an untrained army which was short of guns and ammunition, and was only preserved from dissolving by the invincible patience and firmness of its great chief; a chief who was himself the object of the perpetual attacks of jealousy, at the same time that the conditions in which he was placed forced upon him a rigour of conduct which inevitably made him unpopular, while they prohibited the active offensive by which popularity might have been won.

The inefficiency shown by the British administration was almost without a parallel except during the first months of the Seven Years' War. The government had entered on a battle with the colonists for which the only possible justification was an iron resolve to conquer unmistakably and decisively. Right or wrong, such a programme would have been intelligible, and there should have been no sort of difficulty in destroying open resistance in the field. But no effort was made at conquest, apparently on the assumption that conquest would come of itself. The actual effect was to stiffen in the Americans the conviction that the British might be beaten and the determination to beat them.

Declaration of Independence, 1776
Month by month the idea of separation took firmer root; the men who had begun with a conscientious desire to be content with a return to the old system were learning to believe that the old system had become impossible and that complete separation must be their goal. The new feeling at last found decisive expression in the Declaration of Independence issued by the Continental Congress, on July 4th, 1776. Eighteen months earlier Congress had indignantly repudiated the charge that independence was desired; now the claim for independence was uncompromisingly asserted. As before, New York was the one state which declined to go with the rest. The Declaration, with its accompanying resolutions in favour of seeking foreign alliances, at once and finally put reconciliation out of the question.

It was correctly anticipated that the British would return to the attack and would make New York their objective. Thither therefore Washington had removed his force after the British evacuation of Boston. At the close of June Lord Howe returned with a fleet and occupied Staten Island. Some little time elapsed before the resumption of active hostilities; it was occupied in fruitless efforts to arrive at a basis of negotiation, and in proclamations on the one side offering free pardon to all who should come in and on the other offering grants of land to the German mercenaries serving with the British force if they would enroll themselves as American citizens. The re­newal of fighting at the end of August soon brought New York completely into the hands of the British, and by the end of November Washington was forced to fall back across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Sir Guy Carleton descended from Canada and occupied Crown Point near Ticonderoga, while another detachment from New York was threatening the New England States. But Howe was satisfied with what he had accomplished and relapsed into his normal inaction.

Congress, on the other hand, did something to strengthen Washington's hands by ordering the enlistment of the troops for the period of the war, instead of for the short terms which had kept the armies in a state of perpetually recurring dissolution. Moreover, it declined to listen to the chorus, of complaints which arose from officers who were jealous of Washington and dissatisfied with their own appointments, or which were born of a general tendency to depreciate a commander who was admirably fulfilling the most thankless of all tasks, that of preserving in being an army which was quite unfit to adopt the vigorous offensive which was expected of it. Congress retained its confidence in Washington, and answered the complaints by enlarging his authority. Washington himself found his opportunity that winter, crossed the Delaware on the ice, cut up the British outpost at Trenton, and cleared the western part of New Jersey, in which he remained established. In the north Carleton was unable to make further progress and his command was transferred to Burgoyne.

Valley Forge
No active movements were set on foot until the next midsummer. The campaign was designed with the object of cutting off the New England States. Burgoyne was to descend with the Northern force along the line of the Hudson River, while a column marched from New York to effect a junction. Washington's army would then be completely cut off from the Northern States, while the British would be able to sweep down upon him in irresistible force. It should have been Howe's business to despatch a strong column to join hands with Burgoyne, keeping at New York a sufficient body to hold Washington himself in check. But instead of carrying out this plan he directed his energies to the capture of Philadelphia, to which he appears to have attached an extravagant importance. There­fore, when Clinton ought to have been marching to join Burgoyne, he was detained at New York, whence Howe had carried off the bulk of the troops by sea to the Chesapeake to turn Washington's position and fall upon Philadelphia. Howe succeeded in his object. He was met by Washington at Brandywine Creek, defeated him, occupied Philadelphia, and again beat him at German's Town. The American commander had to fall back to Valley Forge, where for a long time his position remained exceedingly precarious.

Battle of Saratoga
But Howe's move upon Philadelphia ruined the plan of the Northern campaign. Clinton could not move to join Burgoyne; and the Northern American army under Gates, reinforced by troops spared at great risk by Washington, soon outnumbered Burgoyne's force and manoeuvred him into a position at Saratoga, where he found himself with no alternative to the surrender of his whole army. Clinton, who had made a struggle to push up to his assistance, was obliged to return to New York. The North, instead of being secured by the British, was entirely lost to them, and was in the hands of the victorious Americans, a matter of more decisive import than the occupation of Philadelphia or the difficult situation of George Washington's army at Valley Forge.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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