1777

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2095

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...

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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 did the entire British officer corps. No Pattons in scarlet, these nobles and gentlemen discarded their victories with a sheeplike passivity and a repeated failure to pursue and destroy.

And so the seeds of disaster grew lustily in the summer of 1777. St. Leger’s well-planned ambush at Oriskany and his siege of Fort Stanwix failed to impress the local farmers. The defection of his Indian allies halted his advance, and he took no further part in the campaign. With St. Leger resting in central New York and Howe comfortably ensconced in Philadelphia, a most untoward thing happened to Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Burgoyne was no fool. Member of Parliament and bon vivant, a highly acclaimed playwright and musician, he was a capable and sensitive leader of men. Overburdened with his precious artillery (which was considerably heavier than his oft-noted personal silver and wine carts), he led five thousand men (and perhaps a thousand women) across extremely difficult terrain to the headwaters of the Hudson. There, deserted by both supporting forces and outnumbered by determined and well-led enemies, he surrendered his army. The chief victim of a plausible but poorly executed plan, Burgoyne abandoned the American stage (one hopes as gracefully as George Bernard Shaw’s Burgoyne) for London, a session of Parliament, and a new musical comedy. There are worse ways to wage war.

Pancake reminds us that the war of the Revolution was small, fluid, and unpredictable, especially when compared to the Civil War. Washington never commanded twenty thousand men in one place. The raid on Trenton netted fewer than a thousand prisoners at a cost of two American casualties. Burgoyne surrendered a mere five thousand troops at Saratoga. Yet an alert guard at Trenton or a bit of luck for Cornwallis at Princeton could have changed history’s path; vigorous counterpressure from Howe might have fulfilled Germain’s highest hopes. Each miniscule fight determined the title to great swaths of territory. Rall’s defeat at Trenton precipitated a British retreat the length of New Jersey. Burgoyne, improbably charged with maintaining a post line from Canada to New York City with an available force of eleven men per running mile, lost one battle, and invoked the entire European balance of power. Yorktown, an equally small affair, won a continent.

Burgoyne’s enemies at Saratoga were talented men. Washington elected to remain at New York City, and entrusted the Northern Department to Horatio Gates. That general was ably supported by the colorful John Stark of Vermont, and the two most pugnacious officers on the American side, Daniel Morgan of Virginia and the constantly feuding Benedict Arnold. Together, aided by terrain, reinforcements, and luck, they ended the year’s campaigning victoriously.

Saratoga, sadly, was not the victory. It was a setback for the Crown, but not a disaster; the surrender, with due honors of war, of a small expeditionary force was bearable. In the Seven Years’ War such events had occasioned transfers and promotions, but not collapse. Washington, well aware of this, planned a coup de grâce aimed at Philadelphia. With his forces reassembled, Washington could have beaten Howe and ended the war. Pancake describes the Commanding General’s attempts to reunite the Continentals in detail. Full of himself after Saratoga, Gates practically refused Washington’s requests for his now unemployed troops, and that gentleman failed to order him to do so forthwith. The moment passed, and the war dragged on until 1781.

Pancake, no uncritical admirer of Washington, praises his incredible patience with the incompetent Continental Congress and his apparent immunity from the apathy surrounding him. But Washington was no Robert E. Lee. Dangerously impetuous in battle, though a capable field officer, he was a passive Commander-in-Chief, and often failed to control distant subordinates. Thus, while he levered the minor victories at Trenton and Princeton into a major military success at Saratoga, Washington did not bring the war to a conclusion by taking Howe at Philadelphia.

Tories wept at the rejuvenation of the Patriot cause after Saratoga, though the Continental Army, frozen into winter quarters at Valley Forge, remained short of every accouterment. Enlistments still dragged, militia remained passively at home. But Saratoga had a powerful effect on Europe. The Crown, fearing open French intervention in the war, conceded every disputed point save independence, and in 1778 sent the Carlisle commission to Congress with a solid offer of peace within a redefined empire. France, horrified at the thought, countered with powerful stiffeners: treaties of recognition, trade, and defense, war against Great Britain, armies and fleets for America.

Pancake neatly debunks some old assumptions and offers some new ones in 1777. The scalping of Jane McCrea by Burgoyne’s Indians had a minimal effect on local farmers. Pancake’s précis of American troop strength before and after the incident reveals little change. But his attempt to defend the overall ability and effectiveness of the British Army is less convincing. The best soldiers in the world, says Pancake, and he may be right. “Tommy” did exactly as ordered, even if the orders were—as at Bunker Hill or Cowpens—stupid. Pancake respects the mistreated proletarian in the ranks, and his picture of the social differences between senior officers, ambitious subalterns, and obedient soldiers is fascinating to our democratic age. That Tommy fought at all is explainable only by that European cake of custom that the American rebels were busily cutting to pieces. Confronted by the world’s first modern nationalist decolonization movement (except for Ireland), Great Britain attacked its army with a corporal’s guard, sure that the American “people” would soon rise on behalf of King and Country. But the Patriots better understood the game, and while Howe, Clinton, and later, Cornwallis, marched about in a near-vacuum, their industrious enemies enveloped them with congresses, associations, committees, and councils, and maintained unchallenged control of the countryside. Armies are more than soldiers, and Pancake’s narrative of misunderstanding, impossible planning, sloppy staff work, and casual execution of orders fails to erase the old historian’s dictum: “armies of lions, led by asses.”

One of Pancake’s more revealing themes describes the Patriots’ control of the Loyalists through militia, oaths of allegiance, threats, confiscations, and exile. Pancake reminds us that, despite strong words and occasional bullying, the American Revolution was socially moderate, except for the uncivil war in the Carolinas. Few died for their beliefs; neutrality and silence were generally acceptable to the Patriots. New York, Pancake notes, executed fourteen Tories in the course of the war, Connecticut only one.

Pancake’s writing style is anything but flat. His enthusiasm for his subject shines on every page, and frequently sparkles. General Herkimer bleeds to death following the Battle of Oriskany, “cheerfully” smoking his pipe. Washington’s perennial political problems leave us marveling that “the great one” failed to order his Continentals to attack the Congress. General Howe’s fondness for mistress, bottle, and inactivity, while demolishing his military reputation, convinces us that he was not a bad fellow after all. The not inconsequential role of the mad Hon-Yost Schuyler in terrorizing St. Leger’s superstitious Indians before Oriskany again demonstrates the humanity of history.

The condensed endnotes are appropriate for a reinterpretation of interest to general readers, and the bibliographical essay convinces scholars that Pancake knows his sources. The University of Alabama Press, despite some lackadaisical proofreading, has ably packaged Professor Pancake’s work.

Pancake has provided a soundly researched contribution to the literature of the American Revolution, quite superior to the “bicentennial” works surrounding it on the bookstore shelves. With none of their literary ponderosity, he has synthesized the historical views of the Imperialist historians, mixing on his broad palette such diverse elements as British public opinion, the sorry leadership of Congress, the state of warfare in general, and the political infrastructure of the Revolution. Pancake’s study of the events of the Saratoga year presents a broad canvas of men, events, and movements that spans three nations, two continents, and an ocean.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19

Best Sellers. XXXVII, September, 1977, p. 185.

Choice. XIV, December, 1977, p. 1421.

Horn Book. VI, October, 1977, p. 3.

Library Journal. CII, August, 1977, p. 1643.

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