S. D. M. Carpenter u.a.: The War of American Independence, 1763–1783

The War of American Independence, 1763–1783. Falling dominoes

Carpenter, Stanley D. M.; Delamer, Kevin J.; McIntyre, James R.; Zwilling, Andrew T.
Warfare and History
London 2023: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
338 S.
€ 162,50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Michael Mann, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Many voluminous monographs on the American War of Independence or the American Revolution that have come out in the last decade seem to have again left no stone unturned. Though they certainly have enlarged the amount of details, that peak of clarity and panoramic view still has not been reached. It is therefore quite refreshing to now have a textbook at hand that tries to concentrate on the main events and guide us through the labyrinthine paths of the history of settlers in North America and British colonial history. A particular feature of the historiography on the American War of Independence is that it has been and still is written – cum grano salis – from two angles, namely from the British colonial side or the American colonists’ side, from a royalists’ or a rebels’ perspective, or, for that matter, a Whig and Tory position.12.

In contrast, “The War of American Independence, 1763-1783. Falling Dominoes” is a book written by a team of authors who want to overcome the mainly one-sided approach and, instead, provide a multi-actor angle including a local, regional, transregional and eventually a global perspective. The four authors argue that political and strategic leaders in Britain failed to develop an effective strategy to quell the discontent and subsequent revolt in the North American colonies and hence failed to restore allegiance to the Crown. The authors also want to take account of and analyse the main contemporary actors’ decisions and outcomes in Great Britain, North America, France and the Netherlands, actions and reactions in the public, as well as the role of hitherto less-considered groups like women and black-slaves in the North American colonies.

In addition, and contrary to most of the history books on the American War of Independence, they do not want to present a ‘drum and trumpet’ history of military campaigns and battles as such narratives obscure the complexities of a society at war. Consequently, the book incorporates the main social, cultural, economic and political developments of the time. It is against this background that the authors highlight their idea of an American Evolution rather than an American Revolution, which is, on the one side, emphasised by choosing the long period lasting from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 until the independence of the thirteen colonies in 1783. On the other hand, the evolutionary character of events is expressed by the concept of ‘falling dominoes’, as the subtitle suggests, meaning a sequence of various connected and intertwined events which finally led to the complete collapse of British colonial rule.

The team of authors consists of Stanley D. M. Carpenter, Emeritus Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College in Newport and retired US Navy Captain. His latest monograph is on Charles Lord Cornwallis’s warfare in the South of the American colonies which ultimately led to the British disaster at Yorktown in 1781. “The Southern Gambit”, as Carpenter metaphorically names his biographic study, turned out to become a premature checkmate 3. Kevin J. Delamer is a retired US Navy Commander and aviator and a former Naval War College Strategy Department Military Professor. James R. McIntyre is Associate Professor of History at Moraine Valley College in Chicago and a specialist on the German subsidiary troops in North America as well as irregular warfare. His latest monograph is on the “Light Troops in the Seven Years War”4. Andrew T. Zwilling is Assistant Professor of Strategy at the Naval War Colleges and especially interested in the American Revolution and the eighteenth and nineteenth naval history.

The book is organised in four parts: ‘Blowing the Matches’ (I), ‘Stalemate in the Middle’ (II), ‘Southern Gambit’ (III) and ‘A Measure of the Utmost Importance’ (IV). Each part consists of three chapters. The Introduction provides very useful access to the book since it puts an emphasis on the various people who had been involved in the struggle for independence, starting with the main military and political actors and ending with women, African slaves, and American indigenous people. Strangely enough, this is the only section of the book in which the latter three groups are mentioned. Readers may have expected various instances of the marginalised, often forgotten from public memory, within individual chapters. Instead, the subsequent three parts and chapters follow more or less the established narrative of battles and political decisions. Admittedly, as said above, this narration gives a fairly good overview of these events hence providing a connecting thread through the maze of historical events.

Several unresolved questions arose while reading this book: When did the row of dominoes actually begin to fall and which events do the authors mark as dominos? Also, how do the various lines of dominoes falling relate to the last line and the last domino falling at Yorktown? Do the row of falling dominoes just describe the events in 1781 leading to the fall of Cornwallis, as is – in some way contradictory to the subtitle – suggested on p. 201, when the falling dominoes simply became a “chain of evils”? Or do they all come together at Yorktown? The metaphor of falling dominoes is intriguing, however, the authors fail to operationalise it. History writing is not simply a narration of cause and effect, which falling dominoes may suggest. So, if one uses a seemingly plausible model for explaining the various events of the struggle in North America between 1763 and 1783, one should, in the first place, consequently apply the metaphoric model, and in the second place, make sure that the model works.

Other shortcomings of the book pertain to the role of irregular warfare. Instead of consistently highlighting the forms of irregular warfare, the way these were organised and the consequences they had for armies trained to fight pitched battles, irregular warfare is portrayed as having taken place in the backstage of the theatre of war. By far not causing only background sounds, the personnel of the irregular war (ranging from partisan/ guerrilla fighters to small units of Patriot troops), and in this context also the role of the Patriots’ women, could have helped to explain the efficacy of this sort of war. While traditionally trained military officers usually sneered at it, it was irregular warfare which ultimately forced Cornwallis to lay down arms.

Most instructive and fluently written are the chapters in Part IVI dealing with the naval history and the global effects of the colonial conflict as well as the consequences of the worldwide military confrontations. More emphasis, however, could have been laid upon the failure of a subsequent global terra marique strategy. After the naval battle of the Chesapeake against the French fleet, the British lost their North American colonies at Yorktown in 1781. In 1783, the South Indian settlements of the East India Company were almost lost after the combined siege of the town and naval battle in the roads of Cuddalore between the British and French led forces. To provide soldiers with food and fodder as well as military material through ships proved to be fatal, as Yorktown demonstrated. In the case of Cuddalore, it was only the news of the concluded peace in Europe which prevented a second British disaster.5

Another shortcoming of the book pertains to the role of the press and the public at large on either side of the Atlantic, which is not dealt with at all. And finally, we learn quite a lot about the failures of war strategies and political sentimentalities on the British, yet hardly anything on the American side. Two Continental Congresses seem to have been sufficient to set the frame for resistance and revolt. Were there no personal animosities, no conflicts or contradictions? Do we have only Patriots and Loyalists as opponents among otherwise homogeneous colonial settlers and their political-cum-economic class or elite? What helped to overcome the political, economic and social disparity between the thirteen colonies during the war?

Apart of being a good textbook on the main military affairs of the American War of Independence, based on many new sources, major aspects of the struggle for independence as part of a new way of history writing have not been addressed extensively enough. Contrary to the initially formulated intentions, the book even falls behind the textbook of Harry M. Ward on “The War for Independence and the Transformation of American Society”, a book that was written at the end of the preceding millennium. That book already offers a novel, more holistic narrative, in which civilians and soldiers, revolutionary banditti, non-combatants, women and family, African and native Americans are dealt with in separate chapters.6 Seen against this background, ‘Falling Dominoes’ is basically another “drum and trumpet” history book. If the publisher had announced it as such, it certainly would have made a worthwhile read.

1 Nick Bunker, An Empire in the Edge. How Britain Came to Fight in America., New York 2014.
2 Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming. The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777. (Volume One of the Revolution Trilogy), New York 2019.
3 Stanley D. M. Carpenter, Southern Gambit. Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown, Norman 2019.
4 James R. McIntyre, Light Troops in the Seven Years War. Irregular Warfare in Europe and North America, 1755–1763, Warwick 2023.
5 Quintin Barry, Crisis at the Chesapeake, 1781. The Royal Navy and the Struggle for America, 1775–1783, Warwick 20021, and idem, Suffren versus Hughes: War in the Indian Ocean 1781–1783, Warwick 2024.
6 Harry M. Ward, The War for Independence and the Transformation of American Society, London 1999.

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