Revolutionary War: First British Northern Offensive (1776)


Figure 1.--This is a romanticized depiction of the Sons of Liberty destroying the statue Statue of King George III in New York City. This was after the Declaration was read by George Washington to citizens and his troops (July 9, 1776). New York City would be first target of the massive expeditionary force duspached by the King to restablish royal control. The artist was Johannes Adam Simon Oertel whon painted it almost a century after the event (about 1859). He painted in Native Americans, women and children. Most eyewitness accounts describe only soldiers, sailors and a rougher element of civilians. The statue depicted King George III of England in ancient Roman clothing based on the Renaissance sculpture of a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and not the contemporary 18th clothing depicted in Ortel's painting.

King George III backed by Parliament ordered a massive army dispatched to quickly subdue the Colonists. The British offensive was launched to seize the key city of New York and destroy the rebel army (Summer 1776). As so often in the history of warfare, the great opportunity for victory was at the very beginning of a conflict against an unprepared opponent. This would have ended the rebellion in a few months. Having lost control in 1775, the first British offensive would be their best, and as it played out, their only real oportunity to regain control. The patriots were organizing politically, but did not yet have a trained, well-equipped army. It had an enthusiastic, but lightly armed militia led by inexperienced commanders without any foreign support. The British to smash the rebellion amassed a massive professional, well equipped army of 33,000 British troops and German mercinaries soldiers supported by 70 modern warships. And the Royal Navy gave the British the mobility that Washington lacked. The result was predictable. What the British failed to appreciate was the huge task they hd taken on and the physical dimensions of the territory it now needed to reconquer. Not did they fully appreciate that unlike Europe, seizing the main cities did not mean hey had won the War. And they also failed to apprciate the tenacity and capabilities of General George Washington.

Long Island and New York (August)

Washington when he took command of the Continental forces around Boston unherited a disorganized militia rabble. They were poorly organized miliamen with no military experience or training. He did his best to turn them into a real army, but this would take more time than he had. And his officers had little training themselves. Washington asigned General Charles Lee to prepare the defences of the city. Tbe battle for New York would prove to be the largest battle of the War. Neither side was able to ammass forces on the same scale for a single battle. And Washington in his defense of New York made serious mistakes. The American militiamen were thus unable to resist the British regulars led by General Howe who quickly smashed Washington's Army on Long Island (August). The Revolution came very close to ending there, 2 months after Congress declared war. Somehow Washington managed to extradite his shattered Army to the mainland. Here he suffered another defeat at White Plains (October). Washington was forced to abandon New York, the key American city. Skillfully executed withdrawls saved the nacent Continental Army.

New Jersey (November-December)

Washington and his shattered Continental Army fell back, managing to cross the Hudson into New Jersey (November). He left General Charles Lee (unrelared to the Lees of Virginia) in command of a force north of New York to protect New England. Howe seized Forts Washington and Lee making the defense of northern New Jersey impossible. Washington retreated south through New Jersey. Howe assigned none other than Lord Cornwallis, who would play a key role in the subsequent southern campaign, to pursued Washington and his beleagered army. Cornwallis proceeded to follow Washington south through New Jersey. As the British moved south, many colonists in New Jersey signed loyalty oaths to the Crown. Washington'a army shrank as he moved south due to enlistment periods ending, desertions, and plumeting morale. Washington's almost mythical stature ws not yet established and if he had been defeated in the field, General Charles Lee would have almost certainly become the commander of the Continental Army. Washingtom finlly managed to cross the Deleare River near Trenton (central New Jersey) into Pennstlvania and take the availble boats with him. This gave him a degree of safety and put him in a position to defend Philadelphia. Much of his Army that had no deserted had their enlistments about to expire. Washington as he moved south sent a series of orders to Lee to join him. Lee finally crossed the Hudson, but moved south at a slow pace. Washington as his army shrank, desperately needed Lee's force. Lee showded no real inclination to join him. Historians debate as to why. Lee left no explantion in his papers. It is likely that he had no desire to relinquish his independent command. It is at this time that Lee betrayed by Loyalists was seized by a raiding party including the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton (December 12). At the time Lee had a considerable military reputation and many thought his capture woyld essentially end the rebellion. Just the opposite proved to be the case. In is thought that Lee was considering an independent attack on a British outpost. Instead, comand of Lee's force fell to General John Sullivan, who himself had earlier been captured by the British. Sullivan immediately complied with Washington's orders and marched south in short order to join Washington's shrinking encampment across the Deleware from Trenton. [McBurne] Howe finally ordered his troops into winter quarters (December), believing that Wshington's army and the rebellion was eseentially defeated. He still hoped that the rebels would recant and come to their senses. He set up establishing a chain of outposts from New York to Burlington, New Jersey. Howe detached General Clinton with 6,000 men to occupy Newport, Rhode Island as a base for future operations against Boston and Connecticut. This weakend his force in New Jersey. As they moved south, the British had approached Philadelphia, another major American city. It was seen at the time as a kind of capital as the Continental Congress met there. With New York and Newport in British hands and Philadelphia endangered, not only were the major American cities falling to the British, but Washington's army desimated, it look to many as if the British had destroyed the Revolution. Washington at this point was in despair. [Fischer, Washington] Few armies were as close to defeat and survived as George Washington's Continentals in the Winter of 1776. Only Washington's steely determination and the arrival of Sullivan and his men saved the Army and thus the Revolution. Sullivan arrived with the remaining 2,000 men left from Lee's force (December 20). Without these men, the attack on Trenton would not have been possible.

Trenton (December 26, 1776)

The Battle of Trenton despite the relatively small number of men involved was the pivotal battle of the War and has to be seen as one of the principal battles in American history. (We would include New Orleans (1815), Antitem (1862), Meuse-Argon (1918), and D-Day (1944) on that list.) The British had a chance to sucessfully supress the rebellion before it really got started and the French were tempted to aid the Americans. Washingtin's Continentals had been defeated in battle after battle in New York and retraetthrough New Jersey. The fact that the Cintinental Army still existed, let alone was able to achieve a victory of any kind was nothing short of miraculous. Washington somehow managed to get his Army accross the Deleware River where he wassafe fra while just hours ahead of he persuing British. He had lost New York, Philadelphia was being abandoned and all of New Jersey. Most of his Army had been killed, wounded, captured by the British or deserted. The enlistments of much of his Army was due to expre. Rivals criticized his leadership, especially Gates. Some argue that the Conyinental cause was almost lost. This is probably overly bleak, but not by much. Howe with his army of 34,000 after a year of campaigning had only managed to seize New York City and northern New Jersey. The Continentals controlled all the other colonies. Hoew's problem was the more of the Colonies he conquered, the more of his huge army he would have to assign to garison duty reducing the size of his field army, reducing it to a size that the Coninental could fightba field battle. It also meant leaving small garrisons all over New Jersey that were vulnerable to Contnental attacks. In contrast to Europe where large armies fought in limited geographic areas, in the Colonies small armies fought over an enormous land area. After Washington succeeded in crossing the Deleware, some new recruits arrived. Tom Paine's 'The American Crisis' helped ralley sypport. While the militia could not stand in a conventional engagement with the professional British regulars professionals, militia men in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were causing considerable problems to the British Army, forcing them to garisson towns and protect supply lines. This had weakened Howe's army as he moved south through New Jersey pursuing Washington's retreating Army. Assuming that Washington's Army was essentially destroyed, a unit of Hessians led by a Col. Rall took up comfortable quarters in Trenton on the north shoreog the Deleware River and enjoyed a Christmas dinner. Col. Rall recklessly took almost no defensive meaures such as establishing picket posts. Legends of drukedness are probably overstated, but they certainly recklessly failed to protect his garrison. That night Washington recrossed the Deleware managing to get some of Col. Knox's artillery pieces across. He scored a stunning success against some of the most disciplined troops in Howe's army. Washington personally planned and led the assault. [Tucker] Alexader Hmilton and Nathanael Greene both played prominent roles. Henry Knox with the cannons led one division. Green led the other. Atories about Hessian drunkedness are exangerated. [Tucker] Washingtom was aided by Rall's underestimation of the Americans, a mistake that Germans would make even more disastorously in the 20th century. Rall would pay for his imcomptence with his life. The Lossberg regiment was effectively removed from the British order of battle.

The Forage War (1776-77)

Following his victory at Trenton and another successful action at Rinceton (January 3, 1777), Washington retired to his winter quarters at Morristown. That Winter the militias attacked small groups of British soldiers attempting to obtain fodder for their horses and other supplies. Here in small unit emgagements on their home ground, the militiamen were a match for the British. Lossess forced Howe to abandon much of New Jersey, concentrate their forces in the north. This meant that they had to abandon many loyalist supporters. Howe who was on the cusp of victory by the Spring had lost more than half of his command and found himself on the defensive. [Fischer, Washington] Back in London the King and his ministers were stonished tht the huge army dispached under Howe had faled and for the first time in Parliament doubt began to appear about the War. The Frenh took note, but till assumed the British would prevail.

Sources

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004), 564p.

McBurne, Christain M. Kidnappig the Enemy.

Tucker, PhilipThomas. George Washington's Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle that Decided the Fate of America (2014), 608p.







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Created: 8:31 PM 1/25/2013
Last updated: 1:44 AM 2/3/2015