Empire of Liberty: The World At War

Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.
The twin victories at Brandywine and Hartford provided the Americans with more than just a simple morale boost. When news of the victories reached Europe, the rumor mills in royal courts from Madrid to Munich began to spin. It was no secret that several powers on the continent desired to knock the British down a peg or two. After all, the British Empire had grown from backwater to global power due to victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, War of the Jenkins Ear and then the French and Indian War[1]. A loss by the colonial Americans would surely result in the solidification of London’s power over North America from the Caribbean to the Arctic Circle for generations. Considering that France’s overseas empire had been hobbled by its loss in the previous war, and that Spain had been fighting to regain prior imperial glory since 1714, both empires were keen to curtail British power and perhaps recapture lost possessions.

 

Initially there was much hesitation among royal courts to intervene on behalf of the rebels. The idea was that any intervention would legitimize independence movements in their own colonies and give Britain and the other European powers precedent for supporting those movements. Sticking it to the British was important but far more important was the retention of imperial power in all states across Europe. The formal declaration of independence by the Americans gave the European states the loophole necessary to justify intervention. The fact that the United States had brilliant diplomatic relations, headed by Benjamin Franklin’s exploits in Paris, only furthered their cause. However, courts in Paris and Madrid were weary to spend already depleted treasuries on a cause with no hope. Devastating British counterattacks throughout 1777 gave the European pause as it seemed the continental armies were one devastating loss away from failure across the board. Commodore Brigg’s victory in the Caribbean was most impressive but it would be nothing more than a meaningless delay tactic if his land based counterparts couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. The American cause seemed likely to fizzle out in 1778, or perhaps 1779 at the latest, until the revolutionaries scored much-needed victories at the Brandywine and in Hartford.

 

Throughout the winter of 1777 discussion between kings, officials and ambassadors ramped up on the American issue. Rumors swirled that there was an imminent peace revolt about to occur in Parliament. The American victories were not devastating to the British but they ensured the war would drag out at least another year, perhaps several more. Admiral Rodney’s inability to quickly recapture the Caribbean meant that thousands of powerful British families were suddenly bankrupt by the loss of two years of sugar profits. The prospect of permanently losing those properties, or even losing five years of revenue, was too much for many powerful men. For many it was now better to take a humiliating reconciliation with the Americans than permanently lose the immense revenues and strategic value of North America and the Caribbean. More than anything, the potential for reconciliation finally began turning the gears on the continent towards direct intervention. To their credit the fears of reconciliation were justified. After word of the loss of Hartford returned to London, Parliament accepted all of the original colonial peace terms including the repeal of the tax of tea and the agreement that no taxes would be imposed on the colonies without their consent. A formal commission was created to negotiate directly with the Continental Congress and given wide latitude regarding the agreements they could make to suspend hostilities. There was even vague rumor of secret negotiations to create a quasi-independent Commonwealth of America with its own parliament and affiliation with the Crown but these grandiose plans remained nothing more than rumor.

 

Since the start of the war, the European powers had been indirectly aiding the rebels with weapons and munitions. Countless European officers spurred on by promises of glory and land journeyed across the Atlantic to volunteer among the inexperienced revolutionaries. It was in January of 1778 that Paris made the first move and began working with American diplomats to create a formal alliance treaty. This treaty allowed for open invitations for other nations to join, largely directly at Spain but also the other European states, and was concluded in February. The terms were formally relayed to the British in March who then immediately recalled their ambassador and declared war on France on March 10, 1778. Spain, sensing an immediate opportunity to take British Central American outposts and the Floridas, joined the fray with their own set of treaties in July of 1778. Naturally the Spanish crown wanted to wait until the annual treasure fleet had arrived safely back from South America before beginning hostilities.

 

Throughout the winter and spring of 1778, the Continental Congress weighed its options but it quickly became clear that full independence was the prevailing goal of all parties. British reconciliation policies were rejected and alliances with France and Spain fully accepted. King George vowed an indefinite scorched Earth campaign against the colonies but understood that a massive reorganization of imperial military priorities was in order. Throughout the summer of 1778 British forces in North America shuffled about to prepare for the new world war. Howe abandoned Philadelphia in favor of New York, a decision based on the need to maintain New York’s port under British control in order to maintain the links to Quebec and into the North American interior. The imminent invasion of North Carolina was called off to dig in further south in South Carolina and Georgia while positioning for potential Spanish incursions into the Floridas. Plans were drawn up to withdraw British forces from the interior and Quebec down to New York in the event French forces reinforced American positions along the St. Lawrence and made holding Canada untenable. Naval forces were pulled away from blockade duties and focused on European and Indian waters as well as the reconquest of the Caribbean.

 

The re-positioning and withdraw of forces across North America made for a quiet 1778 campaign season. American forces took a much-needed rest after two years of losses and a season of sudden and unexpected victories. The recapture of Philadelphia was an event with considerable fanfare on May 19 but the Continental Army did not linger long to watch the Congress return from its exile in Frederick. It immediately pursued retreating British forces across New Jersey, raiding and harrying them along the way until Washington occupied Newark while the British, protected by the big guns of the Royal Navy, dug in on Manhattan. To the east, Arnold brought his force of New Englanders to White Plains, encircling the British. Stuck in New York, General Howe was further dismayed to see ten ships from his Royal Navy contingent sail south towards the Caribbean on June 28. His dismay turned into despair on July 11 when a French fleet under Admiral Charles Hector d’Estaing appeared on the horizon and engaged the remaining Royal ships. The Battle of Sandy Hook proved to be as pivotal a naval battle as the earlier Battle of the Windward Passage. The French victory scattered or sunk the Royal Navy guardians and left Howe stranded. With Arnold to the north, Washington to the west and d’Estaing bearing his guns down on the city, Howe surrender New York without a fight on July 13, 1778.

 

———-Author’s Notes———-

[1]: The War of the Spanish Succession was fought from 1702-1715 with France and Spain fighting a coalition of European nations seeking to prevent the unification of the two thrones. Britain succeeded in maintaining its colonial possessions against the previously stronger Spanish and French empires while also gaining strategic footholds in the Mediterranean Sea, including Gibraltar which it retains today in our timeline. The War of Jenkins Ear was fought from 1739 to 1748 and melded into the larger War of the Austrian Succession. It was fought between Spain and Britain, mainly over Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico colonial possessions. The war began, and got its name from, the separation of an ear from Capt. Robert Jenkins, a British merchant,  following the boarding of his vessel by Spanish coast guards. The results of that war were negligible in terms of land swapped but it cemented both empires in their respective spheres while also helping to establish an “American” identity among colonial troops that saw their first action outside of the colonies. Lastly, the French and Indian War was part of the larger Seven Years War between Britain, Prussi and Portugal against France, Spain, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire which resulted in the loss of much of New France to Britain (Canada) and Spain (Louisiana), much island swapping in the Caribbean, and the establishment of Britain as the dominant power in India.

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