Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Geopolitics of the American Revolution
The Geopolitics of the American Revolution

The Geopolitics of the American Revolution

  • Jeremy Black
  • July 26, 2017
  • Center for the Study of America and the West


The image is clear, the message obvious. Across a sun-kissed meadow, dappled with shade, lines of British soldiers, resplendent in red, move slowly forward, while brave American Patriots crouch behind trees and stone walls ready to blast these idiots to pieces. Frequently repeated on page and screen, the image has one central message: one side, the American, represented the future in warfare, and one side, the American, was bound to prevail. Thus, the war is readily located in both political and military terms. In each, it apparently represents the triumph of modernity and the start of a new age: of democracy and popular warfare. The linkage of military service and political rights therefore proved a potent contribution. Before these popular, national forces, the ancien régime, the old order, with its mercenaries, professionals, and, at sea, unmotivated conscripts, was bound to crumble, and its troops were doomed to lose. Thus, the political location of the struggle, in terms of the defining struggle for freedom, apparently helps locate the conflict as the start of modern warfare, while, considering the war in the latter light, helps fix our understanding of the political dimension. Definition in terms of modernity and modernization also explains success, as most people assume that the future is bound to prevail over the past.

In making the war an apparently foregone conclusion, this approach has several misleading consequences. First, it allows most historians of the period to devote insufficient attention to the fighting and, instead, to focus on traditional (constitution-framing) and modish (gender et al) topics, neglecting the central point about the importance of war in American history: no victory, no independence, no constitution, no newish society. Second, making the British defeat inevitable gravely underrates the Patriot (not American, as not all Americans fought the British) achievement. Third, making British defeat inevitable removes the sense of uncertainty in which contemporaries made choices.

Rethinking the War of Independence

Instead, the war needs rethinking. It has to be understood as a formidable challenge for the Patriots. Britain in 1775 was the strongest empire in the world. Other states, especially, but not only, China and Russia, had larger armies, but no other state had Britain’s capacity for force projection, for exerting power at a great distance. As a result, the geopolitical situation is very different from today. As the Russians showed in Cuba in 1962, it is now possible for “Continental” powers to back opposition to the USA in the Americas, a point more recently demonstrated with Venezuela. Britain not only had the largest navy in the world, but also a navy that had soundly beaten the second largest navy, that of France, as recently as 1759, in the key year of conflict in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). With this navy, Britain had a network of bases, especially around the North Atlantic, particularly Plymouth and Portsmouth in Britain, Halifax in Nova Scotia, and Kingston, Jamaica and English Harbour, Antigua in the West Indies.

The British navy also rested on the best system of public finances in the world. The National Debt, guaranteed by Parliament, enjoyed international confidence to an extent unmatched among Britain’s rivals, and the British could therefore borrow abroad as well as at home, and in large amounts. Indeed, the War of Independence was to be waged by the British without a serious financial crisis. In part, this ability reflected the buoyancy of government customs revenues, based as they were on Britain’s leading role in Europe’s global trading system.

Rich and creditworthy, as Russia would not be today, but China would, Britain was also politically stable, albeit within the constraints of the parliamentary system. The government of Frederick, Lord North had just won the general election of 1774. Under the Septennial Act, it did not have to fight another election until 1781. In fact, perfectly legally, it was to hold the next election in 1780, and to win that. The opposition criticized the war in America, but the government was in control of parliament and this control was not lost until early 1782: there was a collapse in parliamentary confidence after defeat at Yorktown the previous October.

As far as North America was concerned, the British army had plenty of experience in fighting there, and successfully so, as a result of conquering Canada from the French in 1758-60 during the Seven Years’ War (otherwise known as the French and Indian War). Furthermore, compared to Havana and Manila, which the British had captured from Spain in 1762 (prefiguring the American achievement in taking both from Spain in 1898), the eastern seaboard of North America was a relatively benign area for British operations. The killer diseases of the Tropics, such as yellow fever, were absent from New England, the original center of the Revolution.

It was also an area particularly vulnerable to amphibious operations, in which the British were especially skilled. In 1775, 75 percent of the American population of European and African descent lived within 75 miles of the coast, and this percentage included most people who counted politically. Their vulnerability to seapower was greatly accentuated by the poorly developed state of the roads and bridges, which led to an emphasis on coastal traffic. Moreover, inland towns such as Philadelphia and Albany, were also ports reachable up rivers. All the major towns could be reached by water, while the eastern seaboard of North America is bisected by waterways that help maritime penetration: round Charleston; further north, the Chesapeake, the Delaware and Long Island Sound; and, countering any American invasion of Canada, the St. Lawrence. The last, for example, enabled a British naval squadron to relieve Quebec from American siege in 1776 as soon as the ice in the St. Lawrence melted.

Once ashore in North America, the British did not have to face a new type of foe, nor a revolution on the battlefield. Pressed by George Washington, the commander of the Patriot national army (Continental Army), to adopt the form of a conventional European army, the Americans relied on the volley fire and linear formations with which the British were familiar. The major difference to conflict in Europe was that the general absence of cavalry from the battlefield ensured that troops fought in a more open order. Also, compared to war in Europe, both sides employed relatively few cannons. The Patriots did not inherit a significant artillery park, but there was also, for both sides, a question of fitness for purpose (the use of appropriate methods) which is so often a rule in military history. In this case, the great distances within America and the poor nature of inland communications discouraged a reliance on cannons, which were relatively slow to move. As a result, although cannons played a role in some battles, such as the indecisive one at Monmouth Court House (1778), these clashes were not characterized by the efficient exchanges of concentrated and sustained artillery fire seen in Western and Central Europe, nor did the Patriots match the development of artillery standardization and organization then being pursued by the French. The role of the rifle is frequently discussed and, on land, the Patriots found the rifle very useful in sniping. However, its slow rate of fire (compared to the musket) and inability to carry a bayonet (again compared to the musket) gravely reduced its value as a battlefield weapon and notably so against advancing infantry. Anyway, the British also had riflemen.

Far from being revolutionary, the American War of Independence did not see new weapons that transformed warfare. One was tried by the Patriots—the submarine. Had it worked, it would have changed the war, as the British were dependent on their navy and its anchorages were undefended. However, as yet, the submarine could not fulfil its potential: the dependence on human energy for propulsion and on staying partially above the surface for oxygen, made it only an intimation of the future. The submarine of the late eighteenth century was not viable, whereas those of the American Civil War (1861-5) were. The Ferguson breech-loading rifle proved effective in the hands of the British at the battles of Saratoga and Brandywine in 1777, but it was costly and difficult to make compared to the Brown Bess musket. Only about 100 were used in action by Ferguson’s Experimental Rifle Corps which was disbanded after Ferguson was wounded at Brandywine.

Organizationally, the British were challenged by the Patriots. The major role of the Patriot militia created a particular problem for the British. This was true both in operational terms, for example by restricting the range of the British supply-gatherers, and in the political context of the conflict, especially in harrying Loyalists. At the outset of the Revolution, militia overcame royal governors, and defeated supporting Loyalists. In December 1775, the Earl of Dunmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia, was beaten by Virginia militia at Great Bridge; Josiah Martin, his North Carolina counterpart, following in February 1776 at Moore’s Creek Bridge. These successes helped give the Americans strategic depth in the face of British amphibious attacks. Furthermore, the militia could provide at least temporary reinforcements for the Continental Army. It helped to ensure that the British were outnumbered, which limited their effectiveness as an occupation force.

Lastly, the political context was crucial. Had all the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere rebelled, then the British would not have stood a chance. Fortunately for the British, the economically most crucial ones (the West Indies sugar islands, such as Jamaica and Barbados) and the strategically vital ones, those with the naval bases (Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Antigua) did not rebel. As a result, the British had safe bases – to both the north and the south of the Thirteen Colonies, from which to mount operations. When, in March 1776, General Sir William Howe withdrew from Boston, leaving the Patriots victoriously in control of the Thirteen Colonies, he did not have to retreat to Britain. Instead, he sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a key naval base, and rebuilt his force, so  that summer, the Empire could strike back, with British forces landing on Staten Island at the start of the New York campaign. The eventually successful British defence of Canada in 1776 ensured that, as with that from East Florida (modern Florida minus the panhandle) into Georgia, there were also land frontiers across which the Patriots could be attacked.

More serious were the Loyalists, for this was a civil conflict, the first major American civil war. Loyalists fought and died for their vision of America, just as Patriots did, and in some areas, especially Georgia, North Carolina, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, and parts of New Jersey and New York, Loyalists were numerous. Furthermore, the boundaries between Patriots and noncommitted, and noncommitted and Loyalists, were porous, not fixed. Politically, the British had to move as many Americans as possible across these boundaries; and Patriot strategy provided them with their opportunity. The Patriot emphasis on position warfare in order to protect their major cities – New York in 1776, Philadelphia in 1777, and Charleston in 1780 – gave the British repeated chances to defeat their opponents, and thus to bring many Americans back under the Crown and affect opinion elsewhere within America.

A New Type of Revolution

Both sides, initially imagined a short conflict, but the war became a lengthy struggle that pitted the world’s leading maritime power against a portion of its subjects. It proved relatively simple for the Patriots to drive the poorly prepared British from the rebellious Thirteen Colonies, especially outside Massachusetts, as the British concentrated their forces there. Their situational awareness of the colonies was seriously inadequate. When, under threat from Patriot artillery positions overlooking the harbour, they withdrew from Boston in March 1776, leaving the British without any bases in these colonies; but the British then made a formidable attempt to regain the colonies. Helped by the fact that in 1776 they were at war with no other power, they sent the largest army they had hitherto deployed abroad. Its arrival on Staten Island in the summer of 1776 signalled a major attempt to regain both the initiative and control, inaugurating the second stage in the war which, unlike the first, was to end with neither side in complete territorial control. Indeed, at the close of the conflict, the British evacuated the major port-cities of Charleston and New York; the Patriots were not strong enough to drive them away.

For the Patriots to sustain this effort, it was necessary that the war was a political as much as a military struggle, one in which the revolutionaries had to convince themselves and the British that there was no alternative to independence. The resulting politicization of much of the American public, and the motivation of many of their troops, were important aspects of what was to be seen as modern warfare: in the West, a notion of popular commitment was important to this definition. There was little in the War of American Independence, however, of the emphasis on large armed forces and the mass production of munitions that were to be such obvious aspects of the industrial, or total, warfare waged by Western states in the late nineteenth, and early and mid-twentieth centuries. Moreover, by the early twenty-first century, the ability to rely on professional military forces composed of volunteers helped ensure that popular commitment was not a key element, as shown by American, British, and French military interventions overseas.

A popular fight for independence was not unprecedented in the eighteenth century. Within the Western world, it was possible, for example, to point to the Swiss in the thirteenth century and the Dutch in the sixteenth century, both of whom had overthrown Habsburg forces and created republics. In the eighteenth century itself, the American Revolution was only one of a number of popular uprisings within the British Empire; but those by the Jacobites in Scotland in 1715 and 1745, and by nationalists in Ireland in 1798, were all suppressed.

The uniquely successful character of the American Revolution focuses attention on the political and military factors that were specific to this struggle, the problem facing all anti-imperial insurrections. Among them, it is important to emphasize the distance between the colonies and Britain. Indeed, America was the first of the European transoceanic colonies to rebel, and it led the way to the successful rebellion of Haiti against France in the 1790s, and those of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World in the 1810s and 1820s.

Campaigning in North America posed serious problems for the British, particularly with logistics (supplies), and with defining an appropriate strategy that could translate triumph in battle into victory in the war. War, then, as at the present day, is a matter of forcing one’s will on an opponent, and, although victory in battle can help achieve this end, such victory is not generally enough. The political problem for the British was that they needed to persuade the Patriots to surrender: the British had insufficient forces to conquer and occupy more than a portion of the Thirteen Colonies, and, partly as a result, the war, as John Adams, a prominent Patriot, claimed, had been lost by the British before the fighting had begun. This was certainly true in New England, Adams’ base, where there were few Loyalists, but was less the case elsewhere.

Furthermore, persuading the Patriots was a matter, as the British saw it, of getting them to return to their loyalty. This goal contributed to the nature of British warfighting. To inflict so punitive a defeat on the Patriots that this return to loyalty would be grudging, and only enforced by an expensive British occupation force, seemed pointless. Instead, the goal was that of the defeat of the main American field force, with the hope that this defeat would lead the rebels to negotiate. Based on wishful thinking, this goal was confused by the further emphasis on seizing key American positions. Both policies were to be supported by a naval blockade that, it was planned, so weakened the American economy that negotiations seemed sensible.

Defeats were certainly inflicted by the British, and major cities were captured and held – New York from 1776, Newport in 1776-80, Philadelphia in 1777-8, Savannah from 1778, and Charleston from 1780 – but neither defeats nor captures was sufficient. Instead, the total defeat of a British force (that had advanced south from Canada) near Saratoga in the Hudson Valley by a Patriot army that was not the main Patriot field force indicated the limitations of the British perception of the Patriots. So also did the Patriot ability to continue fighting after cities had been captured. For example, despite the surrender of a large Patriot force when besieged Charleston surrendered in 1780, it proved impossible for the British to enforce control over the Carolinas. Despite a further victory in the South at Camden in 1780, the British could not craft an acceptable political strategy and also could not crush dispersed forces of Patriots.

Problems for the Patriots

The British were helped, nevertheless, by the problems confronting the Patriots. To create and sustain an effective army was no easy task, and the Patriots faced many difficulties in doing both. Money and supplies were serious issues, and much of George Washington’s correspondence is an account of organisation and improvisation under pressure. The anti-authoritarian character of the Revolution and the absence of national institutions made it difficult to create a viable national military system for land and, even more, sea, power. Initial enlistments for one year did not amount to a standing army. In early 1777, for example, Washington’s army was badly affected by desertion, expiring enlistments, and supply problems. There were difficult negotiations over the militia, as seen in Washington’s letter to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety on 29 January: “If some mode is not adopted for obliging the officers of the militia to return the arms and accoutrements that are lent to them, we shall be in the greatest want of them when the regular regiments are raised.” On 3 February, he wrote to Jeremiah Wadsworth: “The present unsettled state of the Commissary’s department in this quarter, makes me fearful, that unless some measures are fallen upon to reconcile the jarring interests of these who act, or pretend to act, under the appointments of Colonel Trumbull, that the army will in a little while want supplies of every kind.”

These problems did not disappear. In 1780, the talented Nathanael Greene resigned as Quartermaster General because of his anger with civilian politicians and what he saw as their responsibility for his failure to meet the logistical demands of the Continental Army. Such a clash looked ahead to later disputes between the American military and their civilian overseers.

The Patriots also faced a central strategic dilemma. They could not defeat the British other than in the limited (but important) sense of denying them victory in North America and hoping that this would lead them to abandon the struggle. As John Paul Jones showed in 1778-9, the Patriots had ships able to operate in British waters, but they lacked a fleet, let alone the amphibious capacity and strike force to take the war to the British Isles: at the battle off Flamborough Head in 1779, Jones’ fleet was two American and two French ships, none of them large warships. Indeed, the Americans still did not have such a fleet when conflict with Britain resumed in the War of 1812-15. France and Spain possessed such a capability, but their joint invasion attempt on southern England in 1779 was, partly due to disease amongst the invasion fleet, as unsuccessful as others separately mounted by both powers during the century, and, without that invasion success, Britain could stay in the struggle.

This was a real problem for the Patriots, as only a brief conflict had been envisaged in 1775. Instead of a willingness to fight overawing King George III, and forcing him to negotiate, as the Patriots wanted, the British, in 1776, sent a major army to defeat the Revolution. The struggle then became more sustained and bitter than had at first seemed likely. Even worse, in 1778, the British displayed a determination to continue the struggle in North America on land despite formal French intervention in the war. This determination was against the advice of the British opposition, and despite the fact that the British now faced serious challenges in home waters, the Mediterranean, the West Indies, West Africa, and India, challenges that expanded when the war widened to include Spain in 1779 and the Dutch in 1780.

Make-or-Break Moments

Did any of this matter? After all, the British, at one stage or another, held all the major towns in North America, and they won a series of major battles, including Long Island (1776), Brandywine (1777), and Camden (1780). Yet, despite these achievements, the Patriots were willing to continue fighting. In short, there was a basic strategic problem for both sides: that neither could knock out their opponent, however many battles they won. The war, therefore, would have to end, as indeed it did, with a compromise peace. Even after the surrender of a British army at Yorktown on 19 October 1781, the British held on to New York City and Charleston, and the close of the war partitioned British North America, with Canada remaining under George III and the British ceding Florida to Spain.

Whether this situation could have been changed by repeated British victory depended on how far Patriot resilience would have survived defeat. The willingness of Charleston to accept the consequences of British victory in South Carolina in 1780, and to return to its allegiance to George III, was instructive, and poses a question mark against bombastic Patriot claims of liberty or death. The voluntaristic character of Patriot military service was a problem, and, in 1776, the British nearly succeeded in turning it against the rebels. As the British scored one victory after another in the New York campaign between August and December 1776, Washington’s army all but disintegrated. Men laid down their arms and returned home. At the same time, covered by the British advance, Loyalists came forward in numbers in New Jersey.

As a result, Washington’s Trenton campaign, especially his successful surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in the town of Trenton on 25 December 1776, was a make-or-break operation that was important for its results for both sides. Richard Henry Lee wrote to George Washington on 27 February 1777:

I really think that when the history of this winter’s campaign comes to be understood, the world will wonder at its success on our part. With a force rather inferior to the enemy in point of numbers, and chiefly militia too, opposed to the best disciplined troops of Europe; to keep these latter pent up, harassed, and distressed. But more surprising still, to lessen their numbers some thousands by the sword and captivity!

By stemming the tide of British success in December 1776, Washington led them to abandon much of New Jersey. This had disastrous political and military consequences for the British. The local Loyalists were hit hard, which compromised future chances of winning Loyalist support in the Middle Colonies. Militarily, the British advance on Philadelphia, the location of the Patriot Continental Congress, in 1777 was mounted not rapidly by land from Trenton, but, instead, slowly, by sea via the Chesapeake. Philadelphia did not fall until 26 September 1777. By then, General John Burgoyne’s force advancing south from Canada was very exposed near Saratoga. It was to surrender on 17 October. A speedier British victory near Philadelphia in 1777 would have put General William Howe, the British commander in North America, in a better position to mount operations that would have made it harder for the Patriots to concentrate against Burgoyne. This success would also have given substance to the plan of cutting the Thirteen Colonies in half along the Hudson Valley, a move that would have dramatically reduced the articulation of Patriot power and made it more a series of local forces, which the British could try to fight and/or negotiate with separately.

Washington’s victory at Trenton also revitalized resistance and permitted Congress to raise a new army, including many who agreed to serve for three years, a luxury Washington had never enjoyed before. Yet, it had been a gamble, a dangerous operation that was dependent on surprise and, anyway, partly miscarried. It is worth asking: what if Washington had failed to achieve surprise, if the Hessian garrison at Trenton had driven him back to Pennsylvania, or if the British had continued to garrison New Jersey? Not only is it unclear that Congress would have been able to raise a new army for 1777, but also uncertain that the Patriots, who were anyway to be defeated that year at Brandywine, could have put up a better effort earlier in the year had it been in the aftermath of a defeat at Trenton.

Late 1776 was not the only low ebb. By 1780, the Patriots faced growing exhaustion and war-weariness. Despite the anxieties expressed in Britain in 1778, French entry into the war had not obliged the British to abandon New York, nor had it led to another attack on Canada, nor to the permanent postponing of operations in the South. Similarly, the British position had not collapsed outside America, and, by the beginning of 1781, Britain had lost few possessions outside North America.

The absence of major engagements in the Middle Colonies in 1779 and 1780 did not indicate a disinclination to fight. However, the manpower situation in both armies was a testimony to the strains they were suffering from. The British had lost one army at Saratoga, and now had other pressing commitments, both in the South and outside North America, while the Patriots were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain a major army. As a result, both actively sought new support: the British looked to the Loyalists, especially in the South, the Patriots to French intervention in America, rather than, as the French wanted, the West Indies. The war therefore became a curious interplay of cautious moves and bold aspirations, as increasingly exhausted participants played for stakes that had been made higher as a consequence of the new factor of the intervention of French naval power, and in an atmosphere that the changing arithmetic of naval strength helped to make volatile for both sides.

Hyper-inflation had wrecked the American economy, and the war indeed reduced median household wealth by more than 45 percent. The resources that existed were mismanaged. The limited credit-worthiness of Congress, and the reluctance of the states to subordinate their priorities and resources to Congress, meant that the army had to live from hand to mouth. Much of the supplying of the Continental Army relied on the issue of largely worthless certificates. In January 1781, short of pay, food and clothes, and seeking discharge, both the Pennsylvania line and three New Jersey regiments were to mutiny. The Pennsylvania mutiny was to be ended only by concessions, including the discharge of five-sixths of the men.

This episode is a reminder of the precarious nature of the Revolution militarily, and the extent to which the situation did not improve for the Patriots as the Revolution continued. Instead, both sides faced serious difficulties and had major drawbacks. Militarily, this meant that there was everything to play for, and that managing limitations was as important as grasping opportunities. Politically, these drawbacks also ensured not only that there was everything to play for, but also that whichever side was better able to accept its weaknesses and persist was likely to win the struggle of will.

1780: The Final Stage Begins

In 1780, this outcome was still unclear. 1780 was a year of disappointment for Britain’s opponents. The French expeditionary force that arrived in Newport achieved nothing, while Washington was unable to shake British control of New York. His troops were increasingly demoralized. The British still controlled the sea, and, if their impact in the interior was limited, they revealed at Charleston, and around the Chesapeake, an ability to use their amphibious forces to considerable effect, taking the initiative, harrying their opponents, and disrupting the American economy.

That year, the Southern British strategy was largely successful – at least until Patrick Ferguson’s defeat at King’s Mountain on 7 October. In the Middle Colonies, General Sir Henry Clinton, who had succeeded Howe as Commander-in-Chief in 1778, had a plan for crushing Washington by advancing on his position in New Jersey, and forcing battle on the outnumbered Patriots. Had Clinton achieved that objective, he would have moved against the French when they landed that year in Rhode Island. The French would not have been able to withdraw into the interior. With Washington’s army gone, Clinton would probably also have captured West Point, thanks to the treachery of Benedict Arnold, and thus gained naval access to the entire Hudson Valley.

But he told nobody in New York about this plan, and before he returned from Charleston, the Loyalists, who were convinced that Clinton was incapable of decisive action, had persuaded General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, the commander of the Hessian auxiliary forces, to land in New Jersey with a smaller force than Clinton had envisaged. By the time Clinton returned, there was no chance for surprise, and he pulled back to New York after the indecisive Springfield raid (7-23 June 1780). This campaign was the last major one north of Virginia, and it was an important morale-boosting encounter for the Revolutionaries: a fighting withdrawal by the Patriots in the face of large British forces, was followed by the establishment of a stronger defensive position, and a British retreat that led to the abandonment of New Jersey.

The close of 1780 saw the central themes of the 1781 campaign in America already clear: the need for Franco-Patriot cooperation if a major blow was to be struck against the British; British problems in the South; the rising importance of the Chesapeake in military operations; and the crucial role of naval power. The contrasting results of the campaigns of 1780 and 1781 indicate, however, that these circumstances and problems made nothing inevitable; a point that is more generally pertinent for military history.

Although Springfield, King’s Mountain, and Banastre Tarleton’s defeat at Cowpens on 17 January 1781 did not involve the main field armies, they ended the impression of Britain successfully gaining the initiative, tarnished Britain’s Southern strategy, and indicated that this strategy had not had any significant consequences for the British in the Middle Colonies. After then, it was unclear that the British could have won. The combination of Washington’s strategy of attrition in the Middle Colonies and Greene’s strategy of partisan warfare in the South denied the British effective control of the areas in which they operated. A different balance of naval power and advantage would have led to a successful British withdrawal from Yorktown in September or October 1781 in the face of Washington’s army, but this withdrawal would not have resulted in British victory. Instead, having fought their way to impasse in the Middle Colonies and the South, the British would have had to evacuate Virginia.

French intervention in the war was also important in turning one type of Patriot success (avoiding being defeated) into another type of success (defeating Britain). French intervention also transformed the conflict into a worldwide struggle that seriously tested the British Empire. Having earlier supplied weapons, France entered the war on the Patriot side in 1778, Spain following a year later. Thanks to much shipbuilding by these powers in the late 1760s and 1770s, the British were now outnumbered at sea when at war with both, and were unable to gain control of either European or American waters, although control of the sea is a problematic concept given the tactical and operational limitations of contemporary warships. French naval success in blockading a British army at Yorktown in the Chesapeake in 1781 was crucial to the triumph of the American and French besiegers on land, and the resulting surrender led Britain to abandon the war and to acknowledge the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. In a separate campaign, the Spaniards campaigned successfully in West Florida, culminating with the capture of Pensacola in May 1781.

In the event, elsewhere the British Empire largely held during the war, especially in Canada, Ireland (where internal opposition was contained by political concessions), and most of the West Indies. For the British, paradoxically, the war was therefore a clear defensive victory. Once France had come in, it was a global struggle in which Britain was alone. In addition to France, Spain, and the Dutch, Britain was also at war with India’s two leading military powers: the Marathas from 1778 to 1782, and Mysore from 1780 to 1784. There were serious defeats and blows during the conflict, not only the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, but that of West Florida, the Mediterranean island of Minorca to French and Spanish forces (1782), and, in the West Indies, Dominica (1778), Grenada (1779), St. Vincent (1779), Tobago (1781), and Nevis, St. Kitts, and Montserrat (1782) to the French, and, in India, defeats at the hands of the Marathas at Wadgaon in 1779 and by Mysore at Perumbakam in 1780 and near the Coleroon river in 1782.

Yet, the Patriots failed to gain Canada, the French and Spanish invasion attempt on Britain was unsuccessful, and Gibraltar withstood a long siege. In India, the British were able to hold their key positions against both the Marathas and Mysore, and to end up with peace treaties that left them with no gains at Britain’s expense. Crucially, the French fleet was defeated in the Caribbean at the battle of the Saints on 12 April 1782. Britain had failed in the Thirteen Colonies, but the crisis of empire had been overcome. This was no mean achievement.

The availability of naval support, the crucial geopolitical tool of the age, proved a key factor. British initiatives, such as the plan to capture Cape Town from the Dutch in 1781, were thwarted by the arrival of French warships. Likewise, besieged British positions, such as Quebec in 1776 and Gibraltar from 1779, were relieved by the British fleet, while those that were not relieved, such as Pensacola in 1781 and Minorca in 1782, fell. The British were helped by the failure of the most threatening Bourbon naval schemes: the attempted invasion of southern England in 1779, and the deployment of a large fleet in the Caribbean in 1782, which it was feared might attack Jamaica. Furthermore, although they were hard pressed in southern India by the French and their ally, Mysore, the British situation there did not collapse on either land or sea, partly because, in a major deployment of transoceanic strength, ten regiments reached India in 1780-2. The British fleet in Indian waters also displayed great resilience in a series of five battles with the French. The British were helped greatly by an ability to reinforce their fleet in Indian waters that the French could not match.

Aside from the imperial struggle not leading to the overthrow of the British Empire, the Patriot success in winning independence was of great long-term importance. So also was the departure of large numbers of Loyalists to Canada and Britain, which removed what might otherwise have been a continual cause of insurgency in the USA and certainly lessened the seriousness of crises down to 1815.

The deployment of considerable forces at great distances indicated the organizational strength of the Western oceanic empires. The growing role of the state in Western warfare, replacing the semi-independent military entrepreneurs of earlier days, was readily apparent, not least in terms of a higher level of military preparedness and planning.

Jeremy Black is the author of many books, including The World of James Bond; Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance; and The Holocaust: History and Memory.