Britain and the American Revolution

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another essay collection by John D. Beatty, Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon.

Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects.  However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted.  Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.  The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.

Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.

Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes.  In some ways this is arguably true.  However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945.  As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.

Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945

“Changing the Great Game” is an exploration of how the concept of “rights” was grudgingly preserved by dynasty after dynasty ruling the British Isles.  Even if the Scots, Irish and other ethnic groups didn’t recognize it, the rights enjoyed by Englishmen that were unique to their legal system did rub off on them as well, if only in small doses from time to time.  The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.  The legal tradition that no sovereign is above his own laws far predate the Normans.

The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.

“Kings, Kin and Killers” is something of an experiment.  Steven Pincus in 1688: The First Modern Revolution talks extensively about the motives of the supporters of the Stuarts and those who … well, did not support the monarch.  They hadn’t yet expressed a desire to throw out the monarchy as they would later, but the non-supporters of the Stuart kings were far more interested in the power of capital than that of land.  Their arguments were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.  It is almost certain that many of the philosophical animosities in English society between country and town, between farm and workshop, were locked into American society after the Revolution, and hung on in animus for another two generations.

… arguments [in 17th century Britain] were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.

“The Limits of Empire” is explicitly that: an essay into the administrative and technical limitations of imperial administration in the late 18th century.  Law, trade, finance, and community administration all depended on communications, and there was simply no good or reliable way to improve trans-Atlantic communications in the 1770s such that the Revolution, or one like it, could be put down.  Even if India were to become the most prosperous of all of Britain’s imperial properties, it wasn’t yet.  If the Gandhi revolution had come two centuries earlier, by that remove it may have succeeded much faster.

“Copper Bottomed Wizardry” began as a challenge—a sort of a bet.  This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.  Knowing that coppering became standard by 1783, the research started there and proceeded to produce this essay.  The carronade, the short-barreled “smasher” that was the terror of small-vessel warfare before the shell gun, was intentionally left out because of other innovations that made British ships not only reliable and easier to handle, but overall better vessels.  Any sailor can tell you that, pound for pound, any well-handled warship in peacetime is worth three that are better gunned.  In wartime, it’s how well the guns are laid and how long they can stay on station, not just how well they can blast a target.

This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.

Four essays are hardly a working thesis, but they may point to one: Britain was strengthened by the conflict that resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States.  Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty?  Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?

Let these essays inform the reader’s decision.

John D. Beatty is a writer and historian who has published ten books on military history.  Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon is available on Amazon Kindle.

Vietnam Part 1 (aka the French Indochina War): Another French Revolution

In the distance of time historians look at the French experience of 1945-54 as a lead-in to the American experience in what would become Vietnam.  This merging has become a shorthand for academics in and out of the United States, like slavery has become the prime issue for the American Civil War (when it was only one of the most visible), and the Moro rebellion has been called a struggle for independence for the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (submerging the religious aspects completely beneath nascent nationalism).  But the issues in the colony were much deeper than simple nationalism, and began a path to yet another French revolution that would bring down the Fifth Republic.

France has had a fractious history.  Since it became a unified state under Louis XIV the various regions have shown non-national sentiments every other generation or so, bursting out into full rebellion against the Bourbons in 1789.  The revolution began with the spirit of “strangle the last noble with the guts of the last priest,” seeking to remake French society separate from the landed and imposed hierarchy that put Church and King above all else. As the revolution compromised just to keep society itself from spiraling into chaos, it ultimately  just made things worse, especially for future colonies.   The conflict with Europe from 1794 to 1815 provided the external threat that the forces of “revolutionary” nationalism used to forge a new kind of state: a representative republic.  Under Napoleon Bonaparte the ideals of liberty-equality-brotherhood were extended to all those who would embrace French suzerainty.  By 1804 the new-style state had an old name: empire; new wine in old bottles.  The Church still dictated who would have a voice, but after the Terror, bureaucrats made the desired voice heard, and Napoleon recreated his own aristocracy whole cloth, to the resentment of many.

In 1809 France won its last war, negotiating a treaty with Austria after Wagram.  Though Napoleon would fight many more battles, no other conflicts would go his way.  By 1815 Europe was exhausted and the French emperor banished to a water stop in the South Atlantic.  France had restored the Bourbons briefly in 1814, but wasn’t interested in the royal institution as it had been and went through a number of constitutional monarchies.  The Second Republic lasted until 1852, when a Second Empire under Napoleon’s nephew, Louis (Napoleon III) was declared.  Under Louis, Algeria became a colony in 1830, and in 1861, Indochina.  France was growing her empire as a counterweight to Britain, Germany and Russia, but treated the indigenous peoples to modified forms of citizenship.  As long as they adhered to French revolutionary principles they were treated as philosophical and moral (but not social, legal or economic) equals.

French adventures in Mexico 1862-66 taxed France’s treasury and the patience of her military establishment.  Ongoing insurgencies in North Africa, Senegal, and Caribbean colonies magnified the multiple-tiered nature of French society, even while the “equality” of the revolution was being used as a bedrock of French polity.  The disastrous 1870-71 war with Germany cost France little territory but great prestige at home.  The Second Empire (technically) blew away with the smoke of the Paris Commune.

Meanwhile French law and law enforcement developed a multi-tentacle law enforcement structure that made future revolutions within France practically impossible.  Layer after layer of information-gathering apparatus joined separate security agencies, each responding in secession to every riot and disturbance in metropolitan France.   The Third Republic was practically a fortress of security organizations.

All this insulated the French from any thought that some of their “citizens” in the distant parts of their empire might be unhappy, but, in that remote event, France created a military structure to ensure that Frenchmen would never know of any unrest.  The French Foreign Legion, created in 1831 to protect France’s overseas colonies, was unique for a time in that no French citizen could join directly, but where French officers gained rank quickly.  They fought in every war and campaign France engaged i in every corner of the earth from Mozambique to Mexico, and from the Sahara to Saigon.  In the 1914-18 war Frenchmen marched against German invasion, auxiliaries from all over were brought to the Western Front, primarily as laborers.  One of these, present at the Versailles conference in 1919 with a list of grievances for his people that were never heard, became known later as Ho Chi Minh.

World War I frightened France.  Though she declared herself a “winner” of the conflict, she was more a survivor than a winner.  Her industrial heart had been gutted by German occupation, her best farmland blasted and gassed into muddy abattoirs, and one in five of her military age men killed or injured.  The next 20 years saw her military primarily become fortress troops within France, and the brutal mercenaries of the Legion labored under a veneer of military law abroad.  Heavy handed policies suppressed labor unrest with tear gas in the Caribbean and New Caledonia, machine guns were used on protesters in Senegal and Saigon.  Legionaries, primarily Russians and Germans by 1930, had no idea that the very structure of French society made the French administrators of their colonies blind to the protests of their charges.

World War II devastated France, and completely destroyed her military establishment.  Re-equipped by the Americans and British, only the Legion survived anywhere near intact as an organization.  Other French Army units were rebuilt using whatever manpower could be had, but a fundamental rift in French military policy stayed.  Those who obeyed the Vichy government’s orders to stop fighting in 1940 were labeled traitors and collaborators by 1944; those who ignored those orders were hailed as heroes, including the Legion.  The French Pacific colonies never surrendered but were small; the African colonies split, but the North Africans eventually started fighting the British, then the Americans, then the Germans and Italians–following the loudest orders.  Physically reconstructed after 1945, France’s military was a long time in recovery.

The Legion filled up with men from all over the world whose lives had been displaced and their countries destroyed, giving them a home and an income; all they had to do was fight France’s wars.  These desperate men were sent to Southeast Asia under French officers who barely understood where they were, and were told to fight Vietnamese farmers, students, agitators and guerrillas under a flag that had proclaimed liberty, equality and brotherhood for over a century.

The depth and gravity of the disconnect between France’s desires to hold onto its overseas territory that did not want to be held onto was played out in a long agony from 1945 through 1954. Militarizing two essentially civil conflicts, playing for time, enjoying successes rarely and ambiguous or disappointing results normally, support for the conflict in Southeast Asia waned as the Cold War warmed up, Korea and China became hot spots, and Algeria became troublesome in stages.  By Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French were so weak in comparison to the Viet Minh that every draw was a Vietnamese victory.  After months of preparation and weeks of horrific and one-sided fighting, the last French stronghold in Asia fell to the Viet Minh, who had been armed with the weapons of the Germans and Japanese who had humiliated her before.  France finally found peace only after another republic fell and the disobedient hero of the 1940-45 war, Charles deGaulle, took charge.

The “first Vietnam War” was less a “war of liberation” from European oppressors than it was a symptom of the failure of French society to realize and appreciate that its high-sounding philosophy had to be evenly and consistently applied.   Noble social philosophies forcibly applied by desperate men with nowhere else to go will likely fail, and military organizations with strategic direction at odds with social policy will always fail.

The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

Pea Ridge: A Lonely Fight in a Lonely Place

Generally, battles are fought over some geographic thing someone wants: a river crossing, a city, a peninsula, a mountain pass.  Few battles are fought literally in the middle of nowhere. But in early 1862, the United States had this problem called the Confederacy.  The Confederate States believed that they could just leave the Union at any time.  Most of the people in the United States objected to this idea, so there was this war….

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much how folks west of the Mississippi addressed their Civil War.  In Missouri, where slavery was technically legal but deeply unpopular in some parts, the conflict had taken on a life of its own, and had even before the Secession.  Missouri sent regiments to fight under both the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, and whole families were at war with others.  Neighboring Arkansas, however, wasn’t quite so divisive.  Admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state, she left the Union in May of 1861, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.  A quarter of Arkansas’ population was slaves: she could hardly do any other.

The war in the west (generally referred to as anything west of the Appalachians) began at a place called Wilson’s Creek near Springfield on 10 August 1862, a bloody affair between a 5,400 man Union force and a 12,000 strong Confederate force primarily of the Missouri State Guard.  In a morning-long slaughter-fest the Confederates and Federals were both exhausted, but the casualties were about equal.  The barely-trained armies both withdrew.  At Lexington in September, the Confederates also fought the Federals to a standstill, but once again withdrew because their ammunition was critically low.

The pattern of major western battles was set: the Confederates may have outnumbered the Federals, but there was no way to defeat the Federals decisively without reliable logistics.  The most reliable supply lines were the rivers.  The Federals dominated the major waterways.  A plus B equals…it didn’t matter who won on land, because the Federals would be resupplied, ranks refilled, and back on the battlefield before the Confederates could.

By early 1862, a 10,500 man Union army under Samuel R. Curtis was in Benton County, Arkansas in the northwest corner of the state.  The Confederates under Earl Van Dorn commanding the 16,000 man Army of the West, decided to outflank Curtis.  But Curtis was a better general than that (at least, he had better intelligence) and on 6 March 1862 turned to meet Van Dorn at Pea Ridge near a small village called Elkhorn Tavern.  On 7 March, a firefight ensued (technically a meeting engagement since both sides were on the move and neither expected contact).  Even though outnumbered, the Federals logistics ensured that they had more ammunition.  Bone-chilling weather hampered the fighting on 8 March but Price counterattacked and managed to capture Van Dorn’s supply train. On 9 March, the long retreat began for the Confederates as the army disintegrated.  Another backhanded attempt to distract the Federals from their Mississippi Valley campaign was over.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War discusses Pea Ridge and other lonely and long-forgotten fights in the West during the spring of 1862.  Available in paper back and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

The Revolt of Texas

As revolts go, the Texas Revolution was remarkably short, and unusually successful.  The simple matter is that the predominantly American-born Texians (the English speakers north of the Rio Grande) wanted their independence from Mexico, and so they took it. The Mexican republic, based in Mexico City, was not in any sort of condition to stop it, despite their remarkable victory over Spain in 1821.

So on 2 October 1835 the Texians declared Texas independence.  Their issue was that the increasingly autocratic government of President  Antonio López de Santa Anna had essentially cancelled the 1824 constitution, and had tried to emulate the draconic noble rule of Spain, without a titled nobility.  Further, it was slaves.  Texas allowed them; Mexico did not.  In theory Mexico could enforce the prohibition, but for practical and pragmatic reasons (slaveowners were paying more in taxes and raising more in revenue) they did not.

It wasn’t until February 1836 when Santa Anna personally led an army into Texas, murdering all the way.  On 2 March 1836, the Texas Convention declared Texas to be independent, again.  The next day, another thousand Mexican troops arrived at San Antonio de Bexar, closing up the siege of some 180 men and at least 50 women and children at the old Alamo mission.  Under these conditions, “independence” was a theory, not a fact, as any rebel knows.