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History

The Best Laid Plans Don’t Always Lay Smoothly

Overconfidence can lead to downfall for individuals and groups alike. It has caused investors to lose millions of dollars and sports teams to lose games they should have won.

It also causes countries to lose their colonies.

The government of the British Empire had an overabundance of confidence when dealing with its 13 little colonies here in America. The British underestimated the Americans’ knowledge of the land and a way to fight that the British army wasn’t accustomed to.

England believed that the American colonies were too dependent on the parent country to rebel, so it forced unfair policies on the Americans. Taxes and civil rights violations limited the colonists throughout the 1760s, and they were angry.

After the American Revolution began in 1775, more bad policies were made by British politicians and military leaders. British generals made questionable strategic decisions on how to fight the war, and these decisions were unwisely approved by politicians back in England.

The year 1777 was especially bad for England’s big, overconfident ego. This is considered the turning point of the American Revolution – the British campaign of 1777.

This was the year that two British generals devised two different plans of action that should have been coordinated more efficiently. And it cost England a huge slap to its overconfidence, the loss of an army of more than 7,000 soldiers, and more bruised egos.

One British general was Major General William Howe, who planned a campaign to capture the city of Philadelphia. This seemed simple enough since all Howe had to do was cross New Jersey, defeat a ragged American army led by George Washington, then conquer Philadelphia.

It turned out to be more difficult than Howe imagined.

The other British general was Major General John Burgoyne, who was to lead an army from Montreal, Canada, down to Albany, New York, on the Hudson River. The rest of Burgoyne’s plan required Howe to assist by sailing up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. The objective of this plan was to cut the New England colonies off from the rest of those to the South. The New England colonies was where the revolution began, and both British Parliament and the generals believed that cutting the head off the snake would end the rebellion.

Burgoyne and the rest of the military brass were brimming with overconfidence. The strongest empire in the world had a plan to crush the rebellion.

Both wings of the campaign — Howe to Philadelphia, and Burgoyne to Albany — were approved in Parliament earlier that year. Timing was extremely important because Howe was supposed to finish off the Americans and capture Philadelphia in time to send a fleet of ships and soldiers up the Hudson River to help Burgoyne.

Problems started before the armies began to march. Howe, who was the ranking British commander in the colonies and believed his plan should take precedence, found out that his plan was subordinate to Burgoyne’s. This may have been a shot to his ego. Was he depressed about playing second fiddle to a lower-ranking officer? If he was, did it cause him to waste too much time in preparation? It wasn’t until the end of July when he set sail for Philadelphia, which made it difficult to get back to NYC in time to help Burgoyne.

Burgoyne’s march was easy at first. He and his army of British soldiers, Native Americans, and German mercenaries reached the southern end of Lake Champlain on July 1 and faced very little resistance. But from that point on, the British had a tough time traveling through the wilderness of upstate New York.  American militia cut down trees to block trails and roads, and they rolled boulders into creeks, causing the roads to flood. It took Burgoyne’s army 20 days to march 23 miles through a stretch of the New York wilderness.

By August, Burgoyne was too far away from Montreal for supplies, and Albany was still far ahead. The American militia was becoming a bigger threat by the day as new recruits joined and harassed the British with constant gunfire. Burgoyne was growing more afraid that if Howe did show up at Albany, he would turn around since Burgoyne wasn’t there to meet him.

But Howe was nowhere near Albany. And he wasn’t close to Philadelphia either. He decided to go by sea, and this used up more valuable time. Reports told that Howe’s fleet of ships and soldiers reached the mouth of Delaware Bay, but instead of sailing up the bay to the Delaware River, Howe turned and headed farther south. He entered Chesapeake Bay weeks later and never landed his army until late August. When his army stepped off the ships it was closer to Baltimore than Philadelphia.

Two weeks after landing in Maryland, Howe defeated the Americans at the Battle of Brandywine, then marched into Philadelphia. Mission accomplished. But he was too far away and there was no time to offer any help to Burgoyne.

Burgoyne never made it to Albany. The British recorded a hollow win in September at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. And three weeks later, the British were nearly destroyed at the Battle of Bemis Heights. Burgoyne and his army surrendered to the Americans on October 17, 1777.

British Parliament removed Howe and Burgoyne from command posts in America and both went under investigation on why the British were defeated. Less than a year later, France agreed to join the revolution and helped the 13 little colonies win the war in 1781.

Burgoyne’s army wasn’t prepared and outfitted for long marches in the wilderness. Long broadswords, heavy knee-high boots, cannons, and other equipment got caught in the underbrush; and Burgoyne was no help by bringing 30 wagons full of his wardrobe and champagne collection. European battlefield tactics depended on marching in open fields and outmaneuvering your opponent. The forests of upstate New York were suited more for guerilla fighting and ambushes, which the Americans excelled at.

An untrained American army with part-time soldiers didn’t elicit much caution when Howe or Burgoyne devised their plans, and parliament had just as little caution in approving them. Being too confident of its invincibility was a problem for the British.

A more cautious approach could have averted a disaster like this, but no one listened to the dissenters. Before the American Revolution even began, some in the British military warned about going to war. “Invading a vast, sprawling domain like America was comparable to driving a hammer into a bin of corn, said one British General. “Some kernels are damaged but the hammer…runs the risk of getting lost.’’

 

Sources:

  1. The War of American Independence, by Don Higginbotham, 1971.
  2. Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, by Thomas Anburey, 1923. This is a journal from one of the British soldiers in Burgoyne’s army.

 

Note: Traveling armies back in these days had plenty of civilians moving with them. They were known as “camp followers.” Some camp followers were families of enlisted soldiers, others were businesspeople who sold wares and services to the soldiers, and others were employed in the “oldest profession in the world.” The British army had the local wildlife as a newer group of camp follower. As the soldiers discarded rotting foods, foxes, bears, and other animals trailed the army throughout upstate New York.

Thanks Laura.

About pm

Teacher, writer, and freedom lover.

Discussion

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