Why The British Army Lost the Revolutionary War


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from a book “The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution” by Edward E. Curtis, Ph.D. It explains why the British were ultimately defeated, discussing the difficulties they faced in waging war effectively across the Atlantic.


      The failure of British arms in the American Revolution cannot be ascribed to want of courage on the part of officers and men. No braver troops ever shed their blood for the flag of England than those who thrice charged up Bunker Hill or attacked the American lines at Saratoga. The failure was due partly to inept generalship, partly to natural difficulties, and partly to maladministration. In this study emphasis has been laid upon the last two factors. The blunders of British generals have frequently been stressed, but the negligence, corruption, and inefficiency which pervaded the administration of the army and the manifold natural obstacles that stood in the way of an attempt to suppress rebellion in America have rarely been accorded adequate recognition.

      As regards the matter of natural difficulties, indeed, the king’s troops had more to contend with than their opponents. As has been pointed out, they were separated from their ultimate base by the broad expanse of the Atlantic. Supplies had to be brought a distance of three thousand miles by water. In these days of steam-propelled ships, it is no small achievement, as the recent war demonstrated, to man and provision an army at such a distance. Infinitely more difficult was it in the era of laggard sailing vessels, which were at the mercy of every wind. Again, America was a vast country. To conquer it, as one British statesman declared, was like trying to conquer a map. The distances were great and the roads were poor. A thinly populated region, it could yield but scanty supplies of food to an invading army. There were no large fortified towns the possession of which would give control over a wide area. Colonial society was so loosely organized that the capture of New York or Philadelphia brought no such results as the capture of Berlin or Paris would bring in a European war.

      Such natural obstacles might indeed have been triumphantly surmounted by an efficient system of military administration. But efficiency, in the sense of the word to-day, was practically unknown throughout British officialdom at the time of Germain and North. With the business of military administration distributed among a half-dozen jealous departments, it is sometimes remarkable that the troops received any food and clothing at all. The absence of centralized authority, the want of departmental harmony, the clashing of various boards, the jealousies of high officials, all combined to reduce the chances of military success to the lowest terms. Considering England’s administration of colonial affairs in the past, however, there was after all nothing very surprising in this mismanagement. Colonial affairs had rarely been subject to a really efficient system of control. Divided authority, interdepartmental friction, clumsy methods of business, ignorance, and incompetence had characterized the rule of the mother country from the foundation of the colonies. The ineptitude displayed by the home government in military affairs during the American Revolution may thus be viewed merely as another manifestation of a long-standing evil.

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