Blundering nincompoops and sneering sadists

A few weeks ago, as you might recall, I expressed some frustration with the way AMC’s Turn indulges in some common stereotypes about British officers in the Revolutionary War.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book The Men Who Lost America has won the George Washington Book Prize, and speakers at the ceremony noted this tendency to remember the British commanders as either villains or fools:

In a statement praising the winner, Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said: “Countless popular books and Hollywood films have portrayed the redcoats and their leaders as blundering nincompoops at best, sneering sadists at worst. O’Shaughnessy’s work ought to kill these stereotypes once and for all — and, in the process, give Americans a richer and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s origins.”

…Publishers in the U.K. told O’Shaughnessy that “no one wants to read about wars we lost.” But he had long been troubled by what he called “a tendency to parody the British commanders as aristocratic buffoons, which was even more pronounced in Britain than in the U.S. It is a thesis that is perpetuated in movie caricatures, popular history and even college text books.”

These stereotypes about the British serve as a foil to what we Americans would like to believe about our own ancestors.  If the British were “sneering sadists,” then the Patriots’ virtue looks that much more sterling by comparison, even though Whigs could be extremely brutal to Tories in American-controlled territory.  And if the British were “blundering nincompoops,” it makes sense to believe that the Americans could defeat them with nothing but pluck and good old Yankee ingenuity, even though American commanders like Washington and Greene knew that the only way to defeat the British regulars was to create an army with the same discipline, hierarchy, and professionalism.



Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

4 responses to “Blundering nincompoops and sneering sadists

  1. Dan

    I agree the depiction of the British as sadists is totally absurd, but if we wanted to paint the Patriots in the best possible light, wouldn’t the objective fact that the Patriots won lead us to want to depict the British as brilliant strategists and masterful tacticians? This was an implicit argument from many of the historians writing in the 60s-80s during and in the aftermath of Vietnam, that as a “people’s war” there was simply no way the British could have won, no matter how brilliantly they fought (though those authors tend to have a range of opinions on how well the British actually did).

    The simple matter is, the British were faced with a type of war they didn’t understand. Looking at the southern theater, historians overwhelmingly focus on the southern campaign of 1780-81/82, but the origins of that victory came at the very beginning of the war when the political and militia leaders launched a comprehensive strategy of controlling Loyalists (and not just through indiscriminate violence, but through a number of other means) to ensure they would not be able to contact, correspond with, meet with, or join forces with the British officials in the coastal cities (and any British force sent to those cities to help them). Even after the difficulty of leveraging Loyalist support early in the war, when the British developed the southern strategy in the middle of the war they did so in a way that made it absolutely necessary to have Loyalist support, and to have it almost immediately upon securing conventional victory. That they never understood their adversary’s strategy, even after 1780, was at the root of their defeat. It didn’t matter how many conventional victories they achieved when they fundamentally did not understand the enemy, and once they started losing conventional battles as well, the writing was on the wall.

    So casting the British as strategically deficient in this context is not simply American triumphalism – it gets to the truth. I haven’t had the chance to read O’Shaugnessy’s book yet since I’m in the middle of dissertating. But he was nice enough to send me his chapter on Germain after I asked him about it following a presentation he gave on the topic at a conference a year or so before the book was published (and I’ve heard only good things about the book). I understand the motivation of the book, to show that the British were not monsters or morons, both of which are true. But I guess my reading of the sources leads me to a different interpretation of Germain. He was not a bad person, and he had a tremendously difficult job to do, but he was in over his head and as a result simply cast about for something – anything that might work. He often seemed to will away the bad news that his commanders on the ground were sending him, convincing himself that they’d certainly work this time around.

    But to say the British didn’t understand the war they were fighting does take away credit from the Patriots, who understood any hope at British success would require Loyalist support, and that was where they would focus their efforts. Of course, particularly in the South, they already had extensive experience with establishing and maintaining control of a potentially subversive and insurrectionary population living among them side by side – and were able to borrow from many of those methods of population control, propaganda, and intimidation to prevent the Loyalists from rendering support to the British officials or army.

    • Michael Lynch

      There does seem to be a sort of disconnect with reality in some of Germain’s communications with the commanders on the ground.

      • Dan

        Yep – a constant refrain of “I flatter myself that this endeavour that you just told me failed miserably will meet with the greatest success” (I may have paraphrased there)

  2. Dan

    I’m really enjoying Turn, but I do roll my eyes every time Major Hewlett goes on about hearts and minds. First, the fact that he considers making the local residents dig up their own ancestors’ gravestones to be winning hearts and minds represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept (though his admonishment of Simcoe for starting fights with the locals in the most recent episode is more like it). But the problem the British faced was not that they couldn’t get enough people to like them – more often than not it was actually translating that support into tangible action. And that’s where the Patriot strategy came in.

    As Jim Piecuch argued in Three Peoples, One King, the argument (again, mainly from the Vietnam generation of historians) that Loyalists in the Carolinas simply didn’t exist in the numbers the British expected, and that the British officials in London had been bamboozled by the likes of Josiah Martin and William Campbell, the last royal governors of NC and SC, is simply wrong. But the Vietnam era of historians, writing as the term “hearts and minds” was being pounded into their heads, assumed that because Loyalists didn’t come out after Charleston and Camden that they didn’t exist, and that the British didn’t do enough to win hearts and minds to create Loyalists. But the reality was the Loyalists often didn’t have a choice, and despite their best efforts to recruit and assemble, the Patriots managed to block their progress just about every time.

    If you take the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, for example, historians focus on the battle itself, and the absolute rout by the Patriots in a matter of minutes over the combined force of Loyalists and Highlanders. But what that doesn’t tell you is the effect of the groundwork laid by the Patriots over the preceding months to prevent Loyalists from gathering, intimidating them into deserting, blocking all efforts by Josiah Martin to coordinate efforts with the Loyalist/Highlander leaders in the interior, using agents to acquire intelligence of Martin’s plans, and physically blocking the enemy in its progress from Cross Creek (Fayetteville) to Wilmington. It was this strategy of population control and armed propaganda (to use a more modern day term), that allowed for the overwhelming Patriot victory when the conventional battle occurred.

    Hearts and Minds assumes that all the agency is on the side of the population – either they support one side because they were wronged by the other, or they make some kind of rational decision based on their interests as to which side to support. That’s rarely what actually happens. Or I should say, that may very well determine how they feel about one side or the other, but ignores the problem of actually having that ideological support translate into actual tangible support. More often than not, its a battle between the two sides through control and coercion of the population, which oftentimes deprives the people of agency, something we don’t like to think about in this historiographical age of “crowds” and “the rabble” of “ordinary Americans” deciding major historical events like the Revolution. If the British were going to have a chance to win, they would have needed to focus efforts on breaking that control the Patriots held over population and terrain. Conventional victories would have been necessary, but by no means sufficient. That is what they fundamentally did not understand with their 18th century European notions of warfare.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s