Lesson 4: FACTORS THAT HANDICAPPED THE BRITISH
Discover how the strongest military force in the world
was defeated by the comparatively weak, non-professional
American soldiers, and compare this surprising defeat
to other military conflicts in history.
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Factors that Handicapped the British
At the outreach of fighting between England and the
colonists in 1775, the British military was considered
the strongest in the world. Britain had defeated France
in the French and Indian War and had secured a place
as the world's superpower. Conversely, the colonists
were frequently forced to rely on state militia, farmers
and merchants who volunteered for duty only when fighting
was close to their homes.
Yet despite Britain's overwhelming military superiority,
the British found themselves unable to subdue the colonists.
In fact, it is often said that the American Revolution
was not so much won by the Americans as it was lost
by the Britisha statement with obvious parallels to
the Vietnam War, in which another superpower fought
a much weaker enemy and failed to achieve its military
and political objectives. In this lesson, students will
examine some of the mistakes and misjudgments made by
the British that led to the failure to win the Revolutionary
Related Resources for This Lesson
In this lesson, students will use the following resources:
1. Episode Four of Liberty! (The related web
page for the episode is at http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle/episode4.html)
2. A companion resource to this lesson, called "Factors
That Handicapped the Crown." (See the end of the
Questions PDF (for students)
Questions PDF (for teachers, with answers)
This lesson addresses the following national content
standards established by the Mid-Continent Research
for Education and Learning (McREL) (http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/)
Understands the major developments and chronology
of the Revolutionary War and the roles of its political,
military and diplomatic leaders (e.g., George Washington,
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel
Adams, John Hancock and Richard Henry Lee)
Understands the social and economic impact of the
Revolutionary War (e.g., problems financing the war,
wartime inflation, hoarding and profiteering and the
personal and social economic hardships brought on by
Understands contributions of European nations during
the American Revolution and how their involvement influenced
the war's outcome and aftermath (e.g., the assistance
of France and Spain in the war, the way in which self-interests
of France and Spain differed from those of the United
States after the war, the effect of American diplomatic
initiatives and the contributions of the European military
leaders on the war's outcome)
Analyzes the effects of specific wartime decisions
and how outcomes might have been different in the absence
of those decisions
Analyzes how specific historical events can be interpreted
differently based on newly uncovered records and/or
Knows how to perceive past events with historical
Evaluates the validity and credibility of different
Strategy for the Lesson
Using a world map, the teacher might begin the lesson
by demonstrating the relative distance between Britain
and the 13 colonies. Ask students to speculate how
difficult it might be to maintain a prolonged war
effort over such a distance. The teacher might ask
the class to consider or compare the British task
with that of the United States in fighting a prolonged
conflict in Europe and Asia in World War II, the Vietnam
War, or in the liberation of Iraq in 2003-2004. The
teacher can also have the class look at military tactics
by asking them to discuss the traditional fighting
methods of the British compared to the guerilla warfare
tactics used by the colonists. The class might also
look at the ability of British commanders such as
Howe, Cornwallis, and Burgoyne compared to the ability
of American commanders such as Washington, Gates,
and Benedict Arnold.
(Note: should the teacher want to expand on the
American experience in Vietnam, the following sources
1."How Could Vietnam Happen? - An Autopsy",
by James C. Thompson, from The Atlantic Online,
April 1968. (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/68apr/vietnam.htm)
2.Vietnam Online (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/)
A comprehensive site to supplement students' knowledge
of the Vietnam War and its effects.
Next, distribute copies of the question sheets for
the lesson as well as copies of the "Factors
that Handicapped the Crown's Ability to Wage Effective
War" handout,which are included at the end of
Allot sufficient time for students to answer the
questions. Once students have completed the questions,
the teacher should evaluate them according to the
depth of answer desired, the amount of time allowed
for the assignment as well as any other criteria established
by the teacher, such as spelling and grammar.
After students have completed the activity, ask
students to presume they are "ministers"
to King George III. Have them write "position
papers" in which they suggest changes in Revolutionary
War strategy and outline the potential benefits their
Factors that Handicapped the Crown's Ability to
Wage Effective War
The royal government and generals had no firm purpose
for waging the war. They had no logical aim. Military
victories and control over a section of land could not
create favorable postwar conditions and/or relations.
They sought some type of compromise; yet, there was
no real basis for negotiations. Once the war had started,
the Americans could not see anything of value in what
Britain offered in return for a permanent peace.
There was no center of the enemy that Britain could
capture and end the war. The Continental Congress moved
from city to city, and each Continental army fought
almost as an independent army. There was no one that
the British army could defeat that would quickly bring
about the surrender of the entire colonial opposition.
Britain greatly underestimated the colonists' resolve
to win the war once it began. They expected the people
to give up their resistance once thousands of troops
landed in America. They expected colonial support for
their leaders to crumble, especially because none of
the colonial leaders had had any previous experience
in leading a national government or a major war.
British commanders seriously underestimated the skills,
talents, maturity, and charisma of George Washington.
Because of its huge debts, the royal ministry had
to wage war economically. It had to take shortcuts or
do without certain things; these actions added to the
caution and delays.
Fighting against their own countrymen was both a
psychological and emotional handicap for soldiers as
well as civilians on both sides of the ocean.
The element of time continuously handicapped British
operations. Communications and transportation, both
across the Atlantic and within the colonies, were slow
and ineffective. The typical transatlantic voyage took
four to six weeks. Seasonal weather conditions played
a major role in the quality as well as length of the
Delays in news, orders, and supplies were costly.
The uncertainties surrounding arrivals or replies frequently
led to either undue caution, unnecessary delays, or
uncertain expectations in key situations, which later
proved costly. Speed of communications and transportation
was never considered so vital so frequently in any of
Britain's previous wars.
The use of foreign mercenaries proved a useful propaganda
weapon for the colonial press. These foreigners were
viewed as hired killers of the king to fight against
the king's own people.
The Crown's army suffered from extreme overconfidence.
Regular officers and men were sure of victory, especially
after examining the appearance of the colonial militia
and initial battle behaviors of the colonists.
The British depended on the bayonet instead of shooting
accuracy. This was crucial in some areas where accurate
distance shooting could change conditions on the battlefield.
Military etiquette used on European battlefields,
as developed by Frederick the Great, had to be modified.
The British preferred to fight in the traditional Continental
style throughout the war.
Crown officers were more gentlemen than soldiers.
They were used to the comforts of life as if they were
still in England. Every Crown general's way of life
as an English gentleman had to be maintained at all
timeseven on the march and near the battlefield.
There were few advocates of a so-called soft peace
with the colonists. Many ministers of Parliament wanted
harsh terms and payments. Thus, the colonists assumed
that it was a do or die struggle on their part.
Britain was mostly self-sustaining. Britain's ability
to maintain a large army overseas and to support its
population at home was limited. Britain's merchant marine
was further handicapped due to the lack of protection
from attack or capture on the open seas. For example,
over 750 military and nonmilitary cargo ships were captured
by colonial ships in one twenty-month period. The merchants
were also restricted because of the closing of colonial
and ally ports to their ships.
Britain was not prepared for a war, much less a long,
intense war. Not until after the Battle of Bunker Hill
in July 1775 did England even begin to think in terms
of war rather than merely rebellion. It tried to avert
a war. Even as late as July 1776, it still hoped to
end all hostilities. Britain never planned for a long
war and always waited for the one decisive victory.
Britain had no allies to help fight a war to protect
its overseas empire. After the Seven Years' War, no
one would support it. With the exception of hiring troops
from Germany, Britain had to fight entirely alone.
Britain tried not to go to war with France. A war
with France meant a war with Spain. Britain had to avoid
a two-front war effort because it could not finance
or capably wage a two-front world war. It hoped a concentrated
effort in the colonies would bring about a quick conclusion
before the Americans could convince the French to aid
Britain constantly sought and hoped for Loyalist
support on a large scale. This support was never received.
Its armies could never get a large number of Loyalists
to help them control any particular area. Moreover,
the generals and Parliament also never did what was
needed to gain and keep the Loyalists' support because
they tended to ignore or de-emphasize the support that
the Loyalists did give.
Overseas warfare was difficult to wage due to the
problem of distance. The 3,000 miles that separated
the colonies from the British Isles took between four
and twelve weeks to cover. In addition, the troops often
arrived sick and weary from the voyage, and most of
their horses died in transit.
The Royal Navy was in poor condition many old or
poorly repaired ships, and thus it was very ill-prepared
for any heavy-duty operations. After 1765, few warships
were kept in full condition and even fewer were built.
Britain frequently won with smashing victories at
the last minute. It did not begin to really try to win
the war until 1778. By then it was too late because
France and Spain had entered the war.