Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown

Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown

by Stanley D. M. Carpenter

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In a world rife with conflict and tension, how does a great power prosecute an irregular war at a great distance within the context of a regional struggle, all within a global competitive environment? The question, so pertinent today, was confronted by the British nearly 250 years ago during the American War for Independence. And the answer, as this book makes plain, is: not the way the British, under Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, went about it in the American South in the years 1778–81. Southern Gambit presents a closely observed, comprehensive account of this failed strategy. Approaching the campaign from the British perspective, this book restores a critical but little-studied chapter to the narrative of the Revolutionary War—and in doing so, it adds detail and depth to our picture of Cornwallis, an outsize figure in the history of the British Empire.

Distinguished scholar of military strategy Stanley D. M. Carpenter outlines the British strategic and operational objectives, devoting particular attention to the strategy of employing Southern Loyalists to help defeat Patriot forces, reestablish royal authority, and tamp down resurgent Patriot activity. Focusing on Cornwallis’s operations in the Carolinas and Virginia leading to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Carpenter reveals the flaws in this approach, most notably a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the war in the South and of the Loyalists’ support. Compounding this was the strategic incoherence of seeking a conventional war against a brilliant, unconventional opponent, and doing so amidst a breakdown in the unity of command.

Ultimately, strategic incoherence, ineffective command and control, and a misreading of the situation contributed to the series of cascading failures of the British effort. Carpenter’s analysis of how and why this happened expands our understanding of British decision-making and operations in the Southern Campaign and their fateful consequences in the War for Independence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806163338
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/21/2019
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #65
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 332
Sales rank: 935,002
File size: 25 MB
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About the Author

Stanley D. M. Carpenter is Professor of Strategy and Policy and Naval War College Command Historian at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Military Leadership in the British Civil Wars, 1642–1651: “The Genius of This Age” and the editor of The English Civil War.

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To understand the context within which each member of the British strategic triad operated, one must comprehend the constitutional limitations and duties inherent in the military and naval system of the late eighteenth century. The period represented a transition from the medieval system of "household" troops, founded on personal obligation to a superior, to the Industrial Age mass-citizen armies based on concepts of nationalism, patriotism, and universal military service. Late-eighteenth-century British forces relied on long-service professional soldiers with long-term enlistments. Many found permanent employment in the armed forces, and thus a cadre of highly skilled, very professional, and competent officers, noncommissioned officers, and other ranks served their careers in the British Army and Royal Navy. As such, maintaining a large force structure entailed a significant and continuing financial investment. Additionally, monarchs were loath to suffer significant casualties that required replacement through expensive recruitment efforts. In wartime, monarchs typically hired foreign troops to fill the need of additional combat units. Ireland and the German states proved to be fertile ground for hired troops, who were generally of a high quality. In Britain, professional soldiers were typically despised by the public, reflecting a civic opposition to a standing army. Five decades of civil war had roiled England, Scotland, and Ireland, culminating in the 1689 settlement that ensured the supremacy of Parliament, particularly in military matters. Standing forces might allow an overarching monarchy the wherewithal to reestablish an absolutist system, which was not acceptable to the British nobility and gentry. As an outgrowth of this contextual dynamic, continuous pleadings for reinforcements by North American commanders came to naught — Britain simply did not have the military manpower. For General Cornwallis, as casualties and attrition ground down his forces, this limitation became especially critical. It greatly influenced his decision to abandon North Carolina after Guilford Court House and march into Virginia.

Efforts to stimulate recruitment created serious problems, both in resources and in domestic politics. Heavy recruitment of Irish Catholics caused turmoil in Scotland and England and contributed to the Gordon Riots in London during the summer of 1780 as anti-Catholicism ran high. Authorities debated arming irregular groups as the threat of Bourbon (combined French and Spanish) invasion or interference in Ireland rose after 1778. The Recruiting Act of 1779 allowed men to enlist for a more limited term as opposed to the traditionally long service obligation. These measures illustrate the desperate manpower imperative, especially as the war widened into a global struggle. The effect on Cornwallis and the resource constraints on the Southern Campaign cannot be ignored as a fundamental factor.

Much of the recruitment difficulty came also from opposition to the war itself. Many in the political nation viewed the struggle as an effort by the Crown and the parliamentary majority led by Frederick, Lord North to deny freeborn colonial Britons their inalienable rights under the constitution and traditional common law. While not actively supporting rebellion, many at least sympathized with the cause, a barrier to increased recruitment. Additionally, many men stood ready to enlist in various local volunteer corps to oppose the French and Spanish rather than the regular army, which might be used to subdue the rebellious colonists. The key difference lay in the extent of governmental control. Volunteer formations had little official oversight and thus could not be deployed to North America. The political opposition shared this attitude and, while ready, able, and willing to support the broader global war, resisted the effort against the Americans. Typical of this attitude, particularly among the opposition Whigs, is the statement of Member of Parliament Sir Charles Banbury in the debate over the 1779 bill: "the principle of the Bill ... was confessedly calculated to recruit our armies for the purpose of carrying on a ruinous, offensive war in America; a war which ... ought for every reason to be abandoned."

Recruitment difficulties had a direct influence on the Southern Campaign's conduct. Limits on reinforcements from Britain also stimulated the concept that underwrote the Loyalist strategy. Manpower shortages caused British authorities to rely heavily on both German contract troops and Loyalists willing to enlist in the Provincial regiments. Paul H. Smith has calculated that upward of 10,000 Loyalists took up the "king's shilling" in various Provincial military units during the period prior to the Southern Campaign and that a further 9,000 did so by the final end of hostilities.

"A Very Unstable Base": British Military Administration

The complex system of military administration, operating without a central organizing authority, proved disastrous for the British war effort in America. The modern departmental and cabinet governmental system had not yet fully developed its definitive roles and responsibilities. It should be noted that many officeholders serving the monarchy, cabinet, and the various departments of the state were highly skilled and very professional. There were also long-service professionals and administrators at all levels of government. But the modern civil-service system had not developed; personality drove the government more than other dynamics. In terms of war administration and management, the cabinet, made up of the king's principal ministers, established the national policy, however, it also influenced strategic and operational matters, including what operations or expeditions to conduct, their time frames, and assorted troop allocations. The various secretaries of state (Lord George Germain was secretary of state for the Americas, commonly referred to as the American secretary) actually executed the plans by issuing orders to the Treasury, Admiralty, Ordnance (artillery), and the officer serving as commander in chief (CinC) of the Army. Although these bureaucracies had responsibility for logistics, transportation, manpower, and unit movements, they had little responsibility for operational planning or execution. The monarch, as captain general, served as titular head of the army, but in reality he might delegate a CinC, who commanded the home forces (but not those overseas) and oversaw army administration. No CinC served during the early stages of the war until 1778, with the appointment of Jeffrey, Lord Amherst. A secretary at war, who did not sit in the cabinet but did hold a parliamentary seat, assisted the CinC in matters of military administration, particularly general resources and finance. Yet the secretary at war had dubious authority and an ill-defined mission. Nonetheless, he might exercise great influence depending on his personality and that of the CinC. During the Southern Campaign, Charles Jenkinson held the post and proved to be a competent, engaged, but constantly frustrated administrator.

Actual operational control of the forces came under the cabinet and the secretaries of state. Herein lies the first great determinant to British strategic incoherence. Given the limitations of the evolving governmental system in the eighteenth century, still largely personality driven and only taking on the modern form in the following century, managing a war on the operational as well as strategic level from 3,000 miles' distance proved difficult. A major complicating factor lay in that the American War evolved into an irregular and unconventional struggle ultimately beyond existing British military capabilities. To further compound the difficulties, the CinC had no significant input into strategic or operational determinations in America. Again, though a member of the cabinet and thus a player in determining strategy and operations, Amherst had no direct command role over forces in the colonies. Once the cabinet made strategic and operational decisions as transmitted through the appropriate secretary of state, orders and instructions flowed directly to the field commanders.

The Royal Navy's system differed vastly from the army's. Rather than officials with ill-defined or dubious roles, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, a mix of political appointees and professional naval officers who sat on the Board of Admiralty, controlled all naval functions and decision making. The navy had evolved earlier into a modern institution; the Admiralty structure for command and control dated from the mid-seventeenth century. Led by the first lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, with operational command exercised by the senior admiral as first sea lord, the board exercised direct operational and administrative control; the subordinate Navy Board oversaw shipbuilding, supply, and transport. Although the general outline of operations was determined by the cabinet through orders from the secretary of state to the Board of Admiralty, unlike the army, the navy governed its own specific operations. Given this tight institutional control over ships and movements, cooperation with the military proved problematic. For example, the navy typically would hold ships in port for weeks or months, their cargos spoiling, to await sufficient convoy escorts. Since the Royal Navy had deteriorated from its strength in the Seven Years' War to a dangerously low preparedness level by 1775, the Navy Board only reluctantly released vessels from European, Channel, and Mediterranean duties for North American escort operations. Given the relative position of the Admiralty in determining employment of naval assets, there was little that the CinC, secretary at war, or even the secretary of state could do to force the issue. With the rise of the French threat by 1778, it became even more difficult to obtain convoy escorts to America. Clinton in New York summed up the difficulty in supplying his forces and in working with the Royal Navy to William Eden, one of the Carlisle peace commissioners of 1778: "I have no money, no provisions, nor indeed any account of the sailing of the Cork fleet, nor [an] admiral that I can have the least dependence on. In short, I have nothing left but the hope for better times and a little more attention!"

Given that Cornwallis operated deep in the hinterland from late summer 1780 to mid-spring 1781 before eventually arriving at Wilmington, North Carolina, the time delay of supplies from British docks to Charleston, South Carolina, followed by inland transportation under the constant threat of rebel attack, proved debilitating. By operating independently of his waterborne supply line, Cornwallis compounded an already difficult operational reality. Once he arrived in Tidewater Virginia, logistics improved until the French blockaded Chesapeake Bay and made starvation at Yorktown a key element in his decision to surrender. Cornwallis only fully appreciated the connection between seapower, maritime resupply, and the ability to operate inland much too late in the campaign. Further complicating the problem, given the difficulty in providing logistical support across the Atlantic, British forces in theater relied on local foraging for food and fodder. For Cornwallis, deep into the hinterland and cut off from seaborne supply through Charleston, foraging made his forces subject to ambush and interdiction by partisans and Patriot irregulars. The prominent logistics historian Arthur Bowler nicely summarizes this troublesome connection between the need to forage, the danger of irregular attack, and ultimately the relationship to the local population's loyalties; he also underscores the British misunderstanding of the nature of the war: "To obtain supplies it needed, the British army was forced throughout the war to engage in extensive forage operations. This allowed the often untrained rebel forces to fight the kind of battles for which they were best suited, and the brutality of these operations drove more and more Americans to the rebel side."

A study by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College captures the essence of the British logistical problem in America caused by distance and organization:

The organization of the British administrative system was complex and initially ill suited for sustaining a war so far from England. The decentralized, civilian-led bureaucracy that effectively maintained far-flung colonies during times of relative peace was not prepared to support its army in a hostile environment. The lack of integration between the warfighting strategy and logistical design ensured that the army would suffer from a lack of provisions and supplies. Interagency cooperation was nonexistent ... , which compounded the inefficient use of transportation and other valuable resources. Corruption and profiteering simply made matters worse. These inadequacies formed a very unstable base for the entire logistics framework that extended from London and Cork to British garrisons in the colonies.

Illustrative of the desperate supply situation is the commentary of Captain Robert Rotton in a letter to Lord Amherst: "Our army moulders away amazingly: many die by the sword, many by sickness, brought on by bad provisions. ... I wish [the] government would look after the contractors, for without we are supplied with wholesome necessaries of life, it cannot be expected we will long fight their battles."

Powering the War Machine

Given the cabinet and the war-making nature of British government in the late eighteenth century, the key to the effectiveness and efficiency of any military undertaking lay in the talent of the incumbent secretary of state. Historian Piers Mackesy's succinct description captures the essence of the role: "It was they who powered the war machine. They provided at once a Cabinet Secretariat and executive supervision. By their hands, the complex of supply and transport, military movement and naval preparation was drawn together and given life." Unfortunately for Cornwallis as he slogged through the swamps and dense forests of the Carolinas in pursuit of an elusive enemy, Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for the colonies and the official charged with the suppression of the rebellion, lacked the extraordinary capabilities required to achieve victory in an irregular, unconventional, and distant colonial war. Though noted for his administrative ability but not well liked, Germain lacked political support in Parliament, which might have overcome some obstacles. He often refused to cooperate, compromise, or accept expert advice. The secretary felt that he had no role in operational planning or even military strategy and thus typically left such things to the field commanders. Germain saw his role as limited to that of the appointment of commanders, allocation of resources, and organization of movement and supply. Yet he often suggested strategic and operational directions to field commanders, a habit that lacked the precision of definitive orders, further confusing and muddling strategic coherence. In March 1778 he instructed Clinton, "use your own discretion in planning as well as executing all operations which shall appear the most likely means of crushing the rebellion." A proper civil-military relationship requires that the political authority set the overall policy objectives; the military authority then determines strategy as ultimately approved by the civil leadership. Germain, though, having given such instructions to the CinC in North America, typically used hint, innuendo, and references to the king's opinion to inject his strategic and operational wishes, especially as the Southern Campaign unfolded. Clinton felt pressured to conduct operations that he felt neither necessary nor the best use of limited resources. Frustrated with Clinton, the secretary corresponded directly with Cornwallis in the field, further undermining the chain of command. Inevitably, strategic drift resulted, characterized by confused operations and incongruent strategic decisions.

To overcome this lack of direction from London, both Generals Howe and Burgoyne suggested the appointment of a "viceroy" to coordinate operations and military strategy. A common sentiment in London as the rebellion dragged on advocated "One Great Director"— a war leader like William Pitt in the previous conflict — who could direct the machinery of British military administration, strategy, and operations. Though Germain's role was to oversee the war effort, he failed to pull all entities together for the common purpose. Mackesy says of Germain: "For all his talents, he lacked the magic gift of ... the power to frighten and inspire." Moreover, he suffered from an intense sense of overoptimism. Germain's unrealistic expectations led to his undermanning forces in America while demanding results totally unachievable given the war's nature, context, and geography. This attitude created friction with the field commanders. Clinton constantly complained of the secretary's lack of support for troop needs coupled with his unachievable expectations. While the concepts for destroying the rebellion and returning the colonies to their allegiance in terms of aggressive, offensive operations had worked well in eventually destroying the domestic Jacobite rebellions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Germain never made the connection that the North American colonies were characterized by an entirely different nature and context, thus demanding different strategic thinking, not a heavy-handed police action. George III viewed the war through a similar prism. Therefore, commanders in the field were expected to suppress the rebellion through conventional, offensive military operations aimed at eliminating the ringleaders and the rebel means of resistance — the Continental Army and associated Patriot militia. The king's attitude and that of his American secretary left little room for strategic flexibility and subtlety.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Introduction. "Gain the Hearts and Subdue the Minds of America": British Strategic Leadership and the Southern Campaign,
1. "Without Which the Machine Must Fail": British Command and Control and the Southern Strategy,
2. "They Are Not Prepared for a Scene of War": The Southern Campaign Begins,
3. "Everywhere and Nowhere": Partisan Warfare in the Carolinas,
4. "Fatal Infatuation": Cornwallis Invades North Carolina,
5. "What Is Done, Cannot Now Be Altered": The Southern Campaign Draws to a Close,
Conclusion. "Peril and Delusion": The Judgment of History,
Appendix: Short Biographies,

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