Hits and Misses of Britain’s Strategies to Control American Colonies

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The French Alliance forced the British to rethink their strategic priorities in dealing with their rebellious colonies. Sir William Howe was replaced in command of the British Army in North America. What prompted Sir Henry Clinton, who was promoted in Howe’s place, to withdraw the army from Philadelphia?

Oil painting showing George Washington with his troops in the battle of Monmouth.
Henry Clinton had to withdraw British troops in Philadelphia in order to deploy them in other places in America to build pressure on George Washington’s army. (Image: Emanuel Leutze/Public domain)

Withdrawal of the Army in Philadelphia

Clinton withdrew the British Army from Philadelphia, and the bulk of it was sent to the West Indies to carry the war to the French islands in the Caribbean. Only a reduced force was maintained in New York City. Clinton used New York City and those remaining troops as the base for mounting raids along the American coast just to keep the pressure up.

Attack on the British Rear Guard

As a major theater of warfare, the British were forced to turn their attention to dealing with the French in other places in the world. They marched out of Philadelphia on June 28, 1778, and headed for New York City with 3,000 loyalists. George Washington struck his winter camp in Valley Forge, looking for an opportunity to cut off part of the slow-moving British column, and on June 18, near Monmouth, New Jersey, he attacked the British rear guard, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis.

The officer to whom he delegated the attack, botched the job, and in short order Clinton turned around with his main column to rescue Cornwallis. Washington arrived to take personal command of the situation and the Americans organized themselves, developed their lines, fended off Clinton’s assaults, and under cover of night, the British turned around and continued their march to New York City.

Learn more about the American Revolution.

Inside Story of the Continental Army

One of the New Jersey captains boasted that the Continental Army had met and fought the flower of the British Army, succeeding in humiliating the proud king’s guards and haughty British grenadiers. Indeed they had, at Monmouth, and one reason for it was the influx of French money that allowed Washington to re-equip and retrain the Continental Army during the dreary months of the winter encampment at Valley Forge.

Illustration depicting the Continental Army troops marching in extreme winter.
Due to the bad situation of his troops, Washington had to confiscate the usable muskets reserved for the Continentals. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The army Washington commanded through 1776 and 1777 was chronically under-clothed, underfed, and amateurishly officered. The shortage of muskets in the Continental Army was so acute that Washington paraded the Connecticut State Militia and confiscated all the usable muskets they possessed for the Continentals. The army that dragged itself into Valley Forge in December 1777 faced a winter in which one-fourth of the army was sick, and another fourth was without shoes or adequate clothing to face the winter. Washington had only 7,600 men ready for duty in February 1778, and a third of them were on detached service at outposts scattered between Trenton, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Renewed Face of Washington’s Army

The French Alliance, formalized in February of 1778, altered the appearance of Washington’s army. They shipped 23,000 muskets to the Continentals, and French money bought the services of a cadre of veteran French and European mercenary officers: the youthful Marquis de Lafayette; Baron Johann DeKalb; the Polish hero, Thaddeus Kosciusko; and, most of all, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Competent Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Von Steuben passed himself off as a Prussian general, member of the staff of Frederick the Great, but he had never risen higher than the rank of a captain in the Prussian Army in reality. Steuben did have nearly 20 years of experience as a junior officer in training soldiers, making him more valuable to the Americans than any aristocrat in lace epaulets. Because of Steuben, by the spring of 1778, the Continental Army had acquired precision, discipline, and self-confidence. The Prussian’s claim to nobility might have been fraudulent but not his claim to competence.

Sir Henry Clinton did not try to propose serious consequences with Washington’s Continentals. The British Empire had its hands full elsewhere with the French and so America began to take a back seat in this war. In September 1778, the French launched a series of attacks on the British islands in the West Indies, capturing the islands of Dominica, which they had lost at the end of the French and Indian War; St. Vincent; and Grenada. The American sea captain, John Paul Jones, took a French squadron raiding along the English coast, and in September 1779, Jones challenged and captured a British frigate, HMS Serepis, in the stand-up fighting at sea that the Royal Navy had never expected to lose.

Learn more about the Continental Army under George Washington.

Raid on Savannah

Oil painting of Sir Henry Clinton.
Henry Clinton, who was the British army commander, was able to capture many colonies with his well thought out strategies. (Image: Andrea Soldi/Public domain)

In April 1779, Spain joined the alliance, hoping, in the event of a British defeat, to recover control of Gibraltar. This meant that Britain was stretched fatally thin. Sir Henry Clinton did his best to keep the Americans off balance. In December 1778, taking off about 3,000 men from his small garrison in New York City, Clinton sent a raiding expedition against Savannah, Georgia. The surprised Americans defending Savannah offered a brief resistance and then ran, leaving Savannah and a good portion of the Georgian hinterland open to British occupation.

It had taken so little effort to capture Savannah that the British promptly turned and lunged northward at Charleston in the summer of 1779, briefly laying siege to Charleston. The following summer, Clinton took charge of the British troops in Georgia, to march northward again, forcing the surrender of Charleston on May 12, 1780, with 2,500 Continental soldiers as prisoners. Carolina loyalists came to Clinton’s banner, and one group of loyalists, in particular, was organized as the British Legion, under the command of a young British cavalry officer, Banastre Tarleton.

Banastre Tarleton

Tarleton’s legion acquired a reputation for evening up scores with their fellow Americans. Under Tarleton’s orders, loyalists massacred a detachment of 350 Continentals at the Waxhaws at the end of May. Clinton organized other raids along the New England coast in the summer of 1778, hitting New Bedford, New Haven, Fairfield, Norwalk, and New London.

Learn more about George Washington inaugurated as the first president in New York.

Clinton’s Unjustified Raids

Unlike Howe or Gage, Clinton did not go easy on the Americans. Deprived of reinforcements, Clinton and his officers took out their frustrations on their opponents and their property. The raids on New Bedford and New Haven included widespread burning, looting, and destruction. Handsome bribes and promises allowed British agents to recoup their Iroquois Confederation in New York, to rampage through the unprotected New York and Pennsylvania frontiers. The Cherokees were also promised, bribed, and encouraged to harass the backwoods of Georgia and the Carolinas. Tribes like the Shawnee, the Miami, and the Wyandotte were intended to attack Virginia’s most extended settlements across the Appalachians in Kentucky.

Common Questions about the American Revolution

Q: How did George Washington outwit the British?

The British were forced to turn their attention to dealing with the French in other parts of the world and on June 28, 1778, headed for New York City with 3,000 loyalists, leaving Philadelphia behind them. George Washington looked for an opportunity to cut off part of the slow-moving British column, and on June 18, near Monmouth, New Jersey, he attacked the British rear guard, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Q: How did Baron von Steuben help the Continental Army?

Baron von Steuben passed himself off as a Prussian general but had never risen higher than the rank of a captain in the Prussian Army. Steuben had nearly 20 years of experience as a junior officer in training soldiers, making him valuable to the Americans. Because of Steuben, by the spring of 1778, the Continental Army had acquired precision, discipline, and, most importantly, self-confidence.

Q: What happened at the Siege of Savannah?

In December 1778, Clinton sent a raiding expedition against Savannah, Georgia. The Americans defending Savannah offered a brief resistance and then ran, leaving Savannah and a good portion of the Georgian hinterland open to British occupation. It took so little effort to capture Savannah that the British promptly turned and lunged northward at Charleston in the summer of 1779, and briefly laid siege to Charleston.

Q: Why was Banastre Tarleton important?

Banastre Tarleton was important as his legion had acquired a reputation for evening up scores with their fellow Americans. Under Tarleton’s orders, loyalists massacred a detachment of 350 Continentals at the Waxhaw’s.

Keep Reading
The British Empire’s Failings in the American Revolution
Famous Battles of The American Revolution: The Second Victory at Trenton
The Heating Up of the American Revolution