The central theme and title of this well-written and soundly researched work is announced in John Adams’ sarcastic words of November, 1777, “that year which the Tories said had three gallows in it, meaning the three sevens.” And well they might. By late 1776 the American cause was desperate. Though Boston had fallen to Washington in April, his campaign around New York City had ended disastrously. Extricating his meager forces from that Tory-minded city, Washington had led a “strategic withdrawal” down the length of New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. By December Tories were chortling, while Patriots gloomily anticipated military defeat and political collapse. Beset with an ineffective Congress, limited by a mere trickle of sub rosa French aid, Washington could maintain but a flicker of rebellion.
Two small actions saved the Revolution. Washington’s raid on Trenton nurtured optimism in the colonies and at Versailles, and the January, 1777, skirmish at Princeton cheered even the fatalists. John Pancake suggests that this brace of victories provided sufficient impetus to sustain the cause into the summer of 1777. Americans have frequently exaggerated small successes with paeans of triumph, from Concord and New Orleans to Bull Run and Midway. The psychopropagandistic utility of a victory is frequently more significant than its military value.
Pancake devotes nearly a third of 1777 to a review of the war in 1775 and 1776, frequently illuminated with particularly knowledgable discussions of the state of Anglo-American political and military affairs. His chapter on the Redcoats, the Continentals, and the militia is a fascinating overview, nicely peppered with a wealth of detail. Pancake’s understanding of the eighteenth century mind provides another of 1777’s strengths. But indisputably the central event of the year was the complex British northern campaign that foundered at Saratoga in October, and the remainder of 1777 is about its formation, execution, and results.
Traditional histories of the Revolutionary era have dwelled on King and Chief Minister; Pancake relegates George III to the role of offstage eminence grise. The langorous but capable Lord Frederick North appears infrequently, cast as policymaker and parliamentarian. 1777 focuses on Lord George Germain, the ambitious Secretary of State for the American colonies. Still smarting from a court martial for disobedience at Minden during the Seven Years’ War, Germain had carefully mended his political fences, revived his fortunes, and in 1775, won cabinet rank as a hardliner on America. He must now break the rebellion, using a large but corruption-ridden navy and a good, if tiny, army. Should he overcommit either to America, France would seize the moment and attack Great Britain. His solution, the wholesale renting of German mercenaries and the launching of a major American campaign in 1777, neatly avoided public antidraft opinion and still carried the war to his enemies.
Pancake narrates with verve the Sisyphean labors of this dedicated minister who hurled thousands of troops across the Atlantic to subdue an empire. Germain’s original plan had ordered three forces to march on Albany, New York, from the north, west, and south. Once secured, that city would become the base of a line of posts stretching north to Canada and south to Manhattan Island that would presumably separate the fractious New Englanders from New York, using a “divide and conquer” technique. He did well, logistically, considering the corrupt and creaky nature of His Majesty’s government in 1777.
Planning sessions in Whitehall are easier than execution 3,000 miles away, and Germain became the parent of one of Great Britain’s more unfortunate ventures. He buckled before the combined influences of a trackless wilderness quite unlike the high road from London to Oxford, and his American commanders, the brothers Howe, Admiral and General. These worthy gentlemen reduced Germain’s resolve with an endless, windy barrage of letters. Ultimately, says Pancake, the fate of the Northern Campaign was shaped by the strategically incompetent though brave General William Howe.
Two elements of the original plan were retained. Colonel Barry St. Leger was ordered from Montreal through Oswego and down the Mohawk. General John Burgoyne was to march south along the traditional Richelieu River-Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River invasion route, past Crown Point and Ticonderoga. But Howe, with Germain’s passive acquiescence, proceeded to Philadelphia instead of Albany, and, surrounded by liquid and female creature comforts and his personal bodyguard (also known as the British Army), there established comfortable winter quarters.
A chapter entitled “Philadelphia Takes Howe” describes that general’s habitual—Pancake says—incredible indolence that cost Britain an army. Howe’s reputation, like that of his successor Clinton, deservedly suffered from the American war. He lacked the killer instinct, although—with the notable exceptions of Tarleton and Arnold—so...
(The entire section is 2095 words.)