Monday, July 4, 2011

Calamities of War: Part 1

Before one can understand why and how British soldiers burned Clermont in October of 1777, an understanding of the progress of the Revolutionary War to that point is needed.

The War To 1777
The American War of Independence started on April 19, 1775 in the small Massachusetts’ towns of Lexington and Concord. From the initial small skirmishes of that day, the war expanded in a manner that shocked the British establishment. The Rebels, initially seen as no more than a rabble using unorthodox tactics, had proven themselves by standing up to the strict discipline of the attacking British Army at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, a very costly British victory. The British for their part, had counted more on impressing the Rebels with a show of force than actually fighting them that day. In May of 1775, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had also captured the strategic fortresses of Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. In September, the fiery General Arnold and the gallant former British Officer Richard Montgomery invaded Canada and pushed the British back to Quebec City. By January 1, 1776 the British only held Quebec City and Boston in the face of the rising Rebellion.

The Spring of 1776 dawned with the British government taking more seriously the threat posed by the Rebellion. Reinforcements were dispatched to Canada under General John Burgoyne to relieve Quebec and Lord Howe, now Commander and Chief in North America, evacuated Boston for Halifax on March 17, 1776. The Spring of 1776 was a dire period for British Arms as the initiative laid completely with the Rebels until these reinforcements could make their presence felt on the field. The subsequent campaigns in both Canada and the region surrounding New York City were very successful. The success at New York City forced the New York State Legislature to remove itself to upriver to Kingston. By the end of 1776, the Rebels had been pushed completely out of Canada by Generals Carlton and Burgoyne and into the fortifications surrounding Ticonderoga on the southern end of Lake Champlain. Lord Howe had executed amphibious operations that gained control of New York City, the lower Hudson River south of the Hudson Highlands, parts of New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Through these operations, the British had gained important base areas for their future operations in 1777. These gains, and the apparent loss of enthusiasm for the Rebellion amongst colonists due to these reverses, left the British government and the British Army in America feeling that a final victory could be achieved in the colonies during the coming year. Yet General Washington had gained a ray of hope for the Rebels by his surprise victory at Trenton on December 26th that led to the withdrawal of British troops from western New Jersey early in 1777. The British still remained optimistic in the face of these reverses and anticipated that the campaigns of 1777 would be decisive in bringing the war to an end. Historians point out that 1777 was the last year that the American Rebellion would remain an internal domestic dispute between the colonies and the Mother Country.

General ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne and His ‘Thoughts For Conducting the War from the Side of Canada’
General John Burgoyne had served in North America since 1775. In that year, along with Lord Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, he had been sent to Boston to observe and help British forces in any manner that General Gage, then Commander and Chief, could devise. This ‘triumvirate of reputation’ had been picked by King George the Third because they were the best General Officers willing to fight the Rebellion brewing in the colonies. Many of Britain’s best officers were reluctant to fight what they saw as fellow Englishman.

The British were in a strong position to continue the war in 1777. Burgoyne had returned to England to lobby for the command of an invasion into New York of his own design from Canada. With political deftness and much scheming, Burgoyne maneuvered his way into command of the British Army that would invade Northern New York in 1777 from Canada. On February 28, 1777 Burgoyne submitted to Lord Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Colonies, his Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada, which in essence was his own plans for invading Northern New York.

In Burgoyne’s ‘Thoughts’ he proposed a three-prong invasion of the Colony of New York. The three prongs would consist of an army moving along Lake Champlain via Lake George and the Hudson River or if necessary via Wood Creek to Fort Edward and the Hudson from Canada down to Albany; a diversionary force striking via Oswego to the Mohawk River to Albany; and, most important of all, the main British Army in North America at New York City under Lord Howe moving north along the Hudson River to affect a junction with the other prongs at Albany. Burgoyne’s main objective in his plan was to cut communications between New England and the rest of the colonies by controlling the Hudson River Valley thus cutting New England off from the rest of the Colonies. This strategy was based on a false assumption that New England was the main source and inspiration for the rebellion and that by cutting it off, the other colonies would quickly fall back into the British fold.

Burgoyne in this work anticipated and described many of the difficulties that he would encounter in his move toward Albany. He saw supply would be a great difficulty, but he was confident that Canada could supply many of his logistical needs (a confidence that would later prove unfounded). A reader of his plan has to admit that he had a very good grasp on the situation of Crown forces in Canada and what would be available for his operations as far as regular troops were concerned. Burgoyne over-anticipated Canadian support and the support that he would receive from Loyalist sections of the Colonial population in his area of operations.

This was an area of concern that would consistently be overestimated by planners in London throughout the war. Burgoyne saw his problems, but he greatly overestimated his army’s ability to overcome them. A further problem with Burgoyne’s plan is it failed before it was ever executed because Lord Germain never sent specific orders to General Howe commanding him to link up with Burgoyne at Albany. Burgoyne expected this juncture, but instead Lord Howe moved his army against Philadelphia, and left small forces in New York City. This breakdown in communication had dire consequences for Burgoyne as he moved towards a juncture that was not going to happen. Howe in the meantime had no idea that he had very specific orders to facilitate Burgoyne’s move to Albany. Howe was under the assumption that he was only to move north in the event that Burgoyne ran into trouble.

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