Empire of Liberty: The Lion Is Humbled

Previous Chapter: The World at War

“Oh God! It’s all over!”

~ Lord Frederick North upon hearing about the capture of Savannah

Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.

The surrender of General Howe in New York and the alliance between the French, Spanish and the Americans forced a shift in British war policy. The Admiralty and Ministry of War made the decision as early as October of 1778 that the war could not be won north of the Carolinas. All efforts were refocused on defending the home islands, Gibraltar and British interests in the Mediterranean Sea, retaking as much of the Caribbean as possible, and defending the British East India Company. Throughout the fall and winter of 1778-1779 a massive reshuffling of the Royal Navy occurred across the Atlantic with the first warships bound for India rounding the Cape of Good Hope in the early summer of 1779. By April of 1779 most of the remaining British garrisons north of the North Carolina-South Carolina border were withdrawn further south. Those that remained were largely interior forts and trading posts used to operating in isolation.

Furthermore, the disasters in 1778 led to a political crisis. Lord North, the British Prime Minister, was ousted by a vote of no confidence in November of 1778. The failure of the North government and the Tories led to the appointment of the Marquess of Rockingham as the next Prime Minister and ushered in a government led by the Whigs who had generally been more in favor of peaceful settlement with the Americans. Rockingham quietly let it be known around London that the war would be refocused on the European adversaries and retaining as much of the Caribbean as possible. He also allowed important ministers to know that he would not allow a protracted war as the king desired but rather would evaluate the situation in 1780. If peace with the Americans, and the potential loss of the Caribbean, was necessary to defend the British Isles, Gibraltar and India then North America could be lost. Part of North’s logic was that if the new United States controlled the Caribbean sugar islands then at least that meant the French and Spanish would not possess them either. A post-war diplomatic solution would surely reestablish reliable trade routes as those islands’ economies were dependent on British trade and perhaps a few could be convinced to rejoin the empire if an independent United States proved shaky economically and militarily.

The war in North America slowed in 1779 as neither the Continentals or the British could gain a upper-hand. The reinforced British garrisons in Georgia and South Carolina meant that continental troops would be hard pressed to venture south from North Carolina. Conversely the lack of naval support meant that the British could not make an attempt on North Carolina or even Virginia. The real successes by the British against the Americans came in the Caribbean where Admiral Rodney redeemed his defeat at the Windward Passage by picking off Barbados and St. Vincent. The Admiral’s bold strategy had him secretly sail from St. Augustine, take his fleet into the Atlantic and swing down with the current to attack the weakest point of the Caribbean. Even these victories were short-lived when the Spanish scattered British logging settlements in the Yucatan and captured the Bay Islands, consolidating Central America for themselves for the first time since the days of the conquistadores. The French sent D’Estaing’s fleet south to defend their own Caribbean possessions, which allowed Commodore Briggs to continue harassing the British around the Bahamas and the Floridas. This defense turned into an offense in late 1779 when the French Admiral coordinated the capture of Tobago, the lone British island in the Lesser Antilles that did not join the revolution. In 1780, as the Rockingham government attempted to make peace with the Continentals, the Royal Navy refocused its efforts on obtaining the islands of its European adversaries. Rodney captured St. Lucia from the French and Trinidad from the Spanish. When the Dutch Republic entered the war in 1780 he took Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire. By that point the British were attempting to make nice with the Americans while still saving face at the expense of their European enemies.

While the war between the British and the colonials slowed, the war between the British and their European opponents intensified. In addition to the Caribbean island swapping, Spain’s arrival into the fray placed the British fortress at Gibraltar under immediate siege. The British garrison at Minorca fell in early 1780. The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, led operations to expelled the British from the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi outposts. His Spanish soldiers defeated British forces at Baton Rouge, Mobile and Pensacola from 1779 through early 1781 forcing the British to direct considerable resources for the defense of the Floridas. So many troops and ships had to be sent from South Carolina and Georgia that it actually opened the opportunity for American attack in 1780. That year also saw the Dutch Republic enter the war when London declared war on Amsterdam over its blatant trade and support of the Americans, French and Spanish. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War would prove to be the one military theater the British excelled in from 1775 to 1783. To the east, battles between the British East India Company, French, Dutch and the Kingdom of Mysore led to the capture of several trading ports but the possession lines would be reset to their status quo antebellum in 1783 save the British annexation of the Dutch port of Negapatam.


Excerpt from Benjamin Chou’s “Untold History of Early America”, Random House Publishing, 1992.

This movement of the war effort from the north to the south proved pivotal to George Washington and his larger scheme of using the independence effort to his personal gain. In 1780 the four great military heroes of the revolution in the public’s mind were Guy Carleton, Benedict Arnold, George Washington and William Briggs. As a naval officer, Briggs was largely confined to the defense of the Caribbean and was not a direct political adversary to any of the mainland based founding fathers. His naval brilliance and charisma was necessary to holding the Caribbean and while he would surely prove to become a post-war political force, he was out-of-the-way and necessary in the current moment.

More pressing to Washington was what to do with Carleton and Arnold now that the many scattered theaters of the war had been refocused on one southern campaign. All three men knew there could only be one military leader in charge of the Continental Army in the south. Technically, Washington was the overarching commander of the rebellion’s war effort but in practice he was the leader of the effort in the Mid-Atlantic colonies. His position gave him an inside track but there was a push to have two commanders in the south or have Washington held back in Philadelphia while Carleton and Arnold led the actual war efforts.

In the end Washington was able to use his considerable political influence over the Congress to kill four birds with one stone. Carleton, being necessary to the loyalty of the Québécois, would maintain watch over Canada and lead operations against Indians and British agents in the northern North American interior. Arnold would lead the charge against Indians and agents in the southern North American interior, namely relieving the chaos that had been raging from western New York and Pennsylvania down into the Kentucky and Tennessee frontiers. This naturally left Washington as the only choice to lead the Continentals against the British in the Carolinas. This relegated Carleton and Arnold to inferior theaters, allowed Washington to take the bulk of the glory and furthermore actually forced Arnold to defend Washington’s valuable land holdings and investments that his family had made in western Virginia and Pennsylvania. While the more dignified Carleton seemed to accept his new orders with relative grace, a letter from Arnold displays how livid the general truly was.

“It was only together with myself to the north and [Washington] to the west that we expelled the British from [New York]. It speaks volumes about the true nature and character of the man that he would relegate my expertise and perhaps the lives of true patriots by my going west to Ohio instead of south to Carolina. I would pray that he could sleep at night knowing how many men must die needlessly but I know full well that what will come for him in his remaining years is worth it in his soul.”

To his credit, Arnold performed his duties on the frontier with professionalism and won several battles against British-aligned tribes. Carleton, in coordination with a small French flotilla, attacked Hudson Bay Company trading posts and forts throughout the summer 1781, effectively ending British control of Canada and leading to the inclusion of Rupert’s Land into the coming peace treaty. In the end it was Washington who took home the final glory of the revolution when he took control of continental troops at New Bern, North Carolina, in 1780.


Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.

The Spanish invasions of the Floridas caused a division of British defenses in the southern mainland of North America. With the French navy tying up the British navy, Commodore Briggs  launched a bold expedition north, his only true offensive action, that captured lightly defended Savannah on March 19, 1780. The prospect of continental troops invading Georgia and cutting the last British bastion in two caused British forces to move south. Washington took full advantage and defeated British forces at the Battle of Columbia, giving the Continentals control of interior South Carolina. British defenders held at the Battle of Augusta on June 9 but were forced to retreat to Charleston before their road access cut off and they found themselves stuck in the frontier. By the fall of 1780 the British in North America were confined to Charleston and the east coast of Florida.

By this point, the Rockingham government had decided the war was not worth pursuing. Having captured a decent share of sugar islands from their opponents, peace negotiations began in Paris in February of 1781. Territorial jostling that year impacted the negotiations but serious British territorial concessions in the Eastern Hemisphere were taken off the table with the success defenses of India and the continued holdout of Gibralatar. The Treaty of Paris was formally signed on January 10, 1782. In it, the American colonies were granted their full independence and provided the remainder of British territory in North America including Rupert’s Land and the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. In separate peaces between the European powers, Spain gained Minorca and the Floridas but failed to take Gibraltar. For all its effort, France only gained Tobago and actually lost St. Lucia. They were given their Indian ports back as part of the treaty. The British gained St. Lucia and Trinidad from France and Spain respectively. In a separate peace in 1783 with the Dutch, the British would take the Curacao, Bonaire, Aruba and the Indian port of Negapatam.

Britain’s generosity with the peace terms came about due to continental gains in 1781 throughout the North American frontier and the Rockingham government’s desire to begin peaceful trade as quickly as possible. On May 7, 1782 the Continental Congress ratified the treaty and the new United States of America was then, truly, independent.

Whether they could keep that independence, or their new country for that matter, would be another battle altogether.

Next Chapter: A Rocky Start


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