The Empire Strikes Back
The British made a determined effort to subdue the rebellious colonies in 1776. The government exerted itself to collect the largest expeditionary force yet seen in British history. Sending such a force across the Atlantic was a remarkable achievement for an eighteenth-century state and a measure of the enormous power inherent in imperial Britain. The cost of this effort was very high, in more ways than just financial. Britain would be unable to equip another such force during the course of the war.Gathering the Force
Waging another American war raised daunting financial problems for the British government. The debt from the French and Indian War, which British officials had vainly hoped to reduce through American taxation, had not been retired. Paying for the war would demand sacrifices from the British people. This gave opportunities to the opponents of the government in Parliament. Though a minority, the opposition remained vocal throughout the war. There was little enthusiasm for the war in Britain. Several distinguished army officers and admirals made it clear that they would not take up arms against the Americans. Nor did men of more humble station throng to military recruiters.
This paucity of volunteers led to one of the most controversial wartime decisions of the government. The British army was highly efficient, but it was relatively small compared to its European counterparts. In time of war, the British had traditionally subsidized continental allies and hired mercenaries. When the British government realized that the war in America would require more soldiers than were available, it decided to purchase additional troops in Europe. The German princes of Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick, Hesse-Hanau, Anspach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst were military entrepreneurs who proved quite willing to lease their soldiers to the British. Hesse-Kassel had done this many times before. Because the largest contingent came from Hesse-Kassel, these German troops were known collectively as Hessians. Altogether, some 30,000 served in America. The use of these mercenaries outraged both the Americans and the political opposition in Britain. The unleashing of supposedly bloodthirsty Germans upon the King's subjects was seen as a gruesome measure of the government's tyranny.
The leasing of soldiers was a profitable business for the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Hessians had been leased to the British in 1739, 1740, 1742, and 1746. A good bargainer, the landgrave received a subsidy for his soldiers that would continue for a year after the regiments returned home.
Sending large forces across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century was expensive and dangerous. A sailing ship could take from one to three months to make the voyage, always at the mercy of ocean currents and the winds. Storms posed a constant peril. Many ships were lost at sea or blown far off course.
The British war effort suffered from a lack of direction. The King left the conduct of the war to his ministers. No one ministry controlled military operations; instead, a series of departments and boards were loosely coordinated by the cabinet. Lord North was not a dynamic war leader. He himself acknowledged that “Upon military matters I speak ignorantly, and therefore without effect.” The colonial secretary Lord George Germain conducted much of the day-to-day management of the war. He was able and energetic but lived under a political cloud because he had been courtmartialed for cowardice in the last war.
The strange fate of a British military transport illustrates the perils of sea travel in the eighteenth century. In December 1779, a British fleet sailing south from New York was caught by a storm off Cape Hatteras. One transport was driven across the Atlantic and ended up on the coast of Cornwall.
Exerting itself to the utmost, the British government deployed large forces to America. More than 10,000 reinforcements enabled Carleton to sweep the American invaders from Canada. Most of the men and supplies went to General Howe, who was to make the main offensive effort for the year. Howe left Halifax and arrived off New York City late in June. He then waited for Parker and Clinton to come up from Charleston, and for the large force that had sailed from Britain.
On July 12, his brother Admiral Lord Richard Howe arrived with a large fleet. More ships and troops continued to appear until August. Ultimately the Howe brothers had at their disposal seventy-three British warships manned by 13,000 sailors and an army of 34,000 troops, supported by a fleet of 400 transports. It was the most powerful military force ever assembled in America.