UNLIKELY VICTORY: There were at least 13 ways the American colonies could have lost the Revolutionary War, some historians say.
And if we’d fought a losing battle long enough, we might have found ourselves “savagely repressed” by the English army, historian Thomas Fleming contends.
But sheer luck intervened time and again to snatch victory for the beleaguered colonists and defeat what was then probably the world’s most powerful army, Fleming writes in the book What If?, in which historians pose what-might-have-been questions about past wars.
Without that Yankee luck, we might not be shooting off fireworks to celebrate our “independence” from England on July 4, and George Washington wouldn’t have been our first president. He might have been hung.
After 1776 we might have remained under the thumb of famously “mad” King George.
Think back: Our brave forefathers pitted a ragtag band of soldiers against a powerful nation. The sun, it was said back then, never set on at least some part of England’s far-flung gulag of colonies.
“If the Americans had lost the war early in the struggle, they might have been permitted a modicum of self-rule, there would have been few if any hangings,” Fleming contends.
“If victory had come later, when the British government and people were exasperated by long years of resistance, Americans might well have become a subject race, savagely repressed by a standing army and ruled by an arrogant local aristocracy,” Fleming said.
“When a historian ponders the what-ifs of the American revolution, chills run up and down and around the cerebellum.
“There were almost too many moments when the patriot cause teetered on the brink of disaster to be retrieved by the most unlikely accidents or coincidences or choices made by harried men in the heat of conflict,” he wrote.
One case in point:
In mid-August 1776, the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s small army had been badly beaten at the Battle of Long Island and faced almost certain “annihilation,” writes famed historian David McCullough.
The huge British fleet, looking as large as “all London afloat,” in the words of one spectator, had begun arriving in New York Harbor in June. “The defense of New York was considered essential by Congress …” McCullough wrote. Washington, however, had never led an army in the field.
Washington, with at the most 12,000 troops on Long Island, faced an army of perhaps 20,000. On Tuesday, August 27, the Americans were routed, outfought, and outflanked. It was “a situation made for an American catastrophe,” according to McCullough.
The revolution might have been squelched, like a baby strangled in its crib. Washington, many of his best officers killed or missing, fell back with his exhausted men to fortifications on the Heights, awaiting a final assault. The East River was to his back.
British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan put the situation this way: “Nine thousand [or more] disheartened soldiers, the last hope of their country, were penned up, with the sea behind them and a triumphant enemy in front, shelterless and famished on a square mile of open ground swept by fierce and cold northeasterly gale …”
Food was running out for the Americans along with time. But British General William Howe chose not to follow up his victory by attacking. After all, British ships could sail around up the river, cutting off the Americans, and force them to surrender.
But that same cold wind and rain kept those ships from coming upriver with the tide, a wind that blew for most of a week.
Washington finally decided to take to the boats under cover of night. Every vessel that could float in the New York area was summoned, and troops took turns silently climbing aboard to escape the trap.
But as dawn arrived, many soldiers still awaited their turn to leave. However, luck was still with the Americans. A thick blanket of “friendly fog” moved in, covering up the operation from English eyes.
When it lifted, the shocked English discovered that the foe was gone. McCullough calls it “the Dunkirk of the American Revolution.”
It was a close call, but there would be many others before the British army, the French fleet at its back, was trapped five years later at Yorktown and surrendered.
“Oh God! It is all over!” exclaimed the British Prime Minister, Lord North.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!