The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

‘Your failure is, I am persuaded, as certain as fate. America is above your reach…her independence neither rests upon your consent, nor can it be prevented by your arms. In short, you spend your substance in vain, and impoverish yourself without hope.’

Thomas Paine, “To the People of England,” 1774

the men who lost americaIn this scholarly but very accessible book, O’Shaughnessy takes the view that Britain’s loss was not inevitable, and that in most cases the commanders and political leaders were scapegoated for the failure. He does this by taking a biographical look at the main players, political and military, on the British side; and showing the constraints that contributed to their defeat.

As a non-historian, I make my usual disclaimer that I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book. Prior to reading this, all I knew about the War of Independence was that for some reason the Americans took umbrage at being asked to pay for a cup of tea and decided a) to declare independence and b) to become coffee drinkers. O’Shaughnessy lets me off the hook of my own ignorance by pointing out that the Revolution hasn’t been highlighted in British syllabi over the years, since we tend to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures. He also makes the point that British historians have been less sympathetic than their American colleagues to the British leaders, although this is partly because many American historians believe, with Paine, that the British loss was inevitable.

I always enjoy biographical history and so the format of this book was perfect for me. Each section concentrates on one person (except for the Howe brothers, when O’Shaughnessy combines their stories). O’Shaughnessy tops and tails each biography with brief summaries of the person’s life and career before and after the war, but the bulk of each section concentrates on the involvement in the war itself. In each case, he explains the reasons behind any successes or failures and, as the book progresses, common themes emerge.

Lord George Germain by Romney
Lord George Germain
by Romney

The British system of government at the time led to divided responsibilities and thus to in-fighting between ambitious men. George III still had more power than a modern monarch would, especially in terms of patronage, and therefore interfered in the management of the war. The opposition was powerful and the government could never be sure of parliamentary support. There were budgetary constraints since Britain already had a high national debt. The distances involved led to continual problems with supplies and the supply chain, and for most of the war the British Navy (to my surprise) did not ‘rule the waves’ but indeed was inferior to the combined French/Spanish fleets it was facing. But perhaps most importantly of all, there was a belief that the rebels did not have the support of the majority of Americans and this led the British to place too much reliance on loyalist support which never materialised in the numbers anticipated. This belief persisted throughout despite the increasing evidence to the contrary.

I’m not sure that O’Shaughnessy convinced me that the British could have won the war. In fact, as I read, I became convinced that so many things would have had to be different to make winning a possibility that it actually surprised me that the commanders achieved the levels of success they did. So O’Shaughnessy certainly succeeded in his other aim – to show that the commanders as individuals have, on the whole, been unfairly blamed for the failures. (Except Sir George Rodney – Guilty! Guilty! Off with his head!!) As O’Shaughnessy puts it:

‘In 1778, Charles James Fox brilliantly predicted the fates of the generals who served in America. He argued that whomever the government sent out to command would suffer the same criticisms as their predecessors. They would either be accused of indolence, inactivity, or want of spirit, or of behaving like knights errant, roaming around in quest of adventure, acting too independently, and disobeying their instructions. He concluded that the generals had not miscarried for want of professional skill, bravery, or devotion to duty, “ but merely from being employed on a service, in which it was impossible to succeed.” They were set up to fail.’

The book is very well written, and is both informative and enjoyable. There are a generous number of colour plates, mainly of portraits of the leaders discussed. My only complaint is that the scope of the book means that, though I’m now much better informed about the British side of the war, I remain almost entirely ignorant of the American side, so I sincerely hope that O’Shaughnessy is working on a companion book on The Men Who Won.

Surrender at Yorktown by John Trumbull
Surrender at Yorktown
by John Trumbull

The Men Who Lost America were:

George III

Lord North – Prime Minister

The Howe brothers – General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, the commanders of the British Army and Navy during the first half of the war.

General John Burgoyne – the general who surrendered at Saratoga

Lord George Germain – Secretary of State for America

Sir Henry Clinton – commander of the British Army during the second half of the war

Charles, Earl Cornwallis – who surrendered at Yorktown

Admiral Sir George Rodney – failed to provide adequate support to Cornwallis at Yorktown

John Montague, Earl of Sandwich – First Lord of the Admiralty, held responsible for the failures of the fleet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

15 thoughts on “The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

  1. I think I’m going to very firmly suggest that you read a whole stack of heavy history books for ME, and post detailed critiques. Or maybe you could just write a ‘History Books for Dummies’ for the lazy amongst us

    Your next assignments, please, are : The Factories Act; (19th century) The War of Jenkin’s Ear; The Combinations Act (probably put together by a very tall man called John); The Corn Laws and their Repeal; The Diggers and Levellers

    Do come back and ask for more titles in a week or so

    • Haha! They’ll have to join the queue…which currently consists of a biography of Edmund Burke, Ann Widecombe’s autobiography (!), a historical comparison of Paris and London and a repeatedly-delayed biography of Gorbachev, if it ever actually gets published! I don’t know about John’s Combinations, but I’m very much looking forward to someone putting together a photographic history of Rafa’s Shorts.

        • I’m still trying to recover from trying to sound unbiased in this review – I don’t know if I can handle being nice about Paris…or indeed London!…till I have a little rest. Maybe a good history of Robert the Bruce is required…

          Anyway, shallow as I am, Ann Widdecombe is going to get the priority slot! I can’t wait for her insights on Thatcher, Major, Michael Howard and, of course, Bruce Forsyth… 😉

  2. What an interesting-sounding book! I must read this because I feel exactly the opposite to you. I think I have a solid sense of the American side of things, but not nearly enough background on the British side. Thank you for the recommendation.

    • Yes, I think, being an American and writing for a primarily American market maybe, O’Shaughnessy assumes a level of familiarity with the American side. Which is fair enough, and in no way hindered understanding of this book, but left me wanting to know more about the other perspective.

  3. May I recommend a series called “History in One Hour”? This is an American production, aimed at older teenagers which takes individual subjects e,g. “The American War of Indepndence” and gives the bare bones and a useful bibliography. I have read quite a lot of them when helping kids with history projects, and lots of them are on Kindle.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. Well, I’m quite delighted that you still think of me as an ‘older teenager’! That makes you early twenties! We should both be able to save a fortune on anti-wrinkle cream at this rate. 😉

  4. I spent much of our holiday weekend reading about Benjamin Franklin’s years in London — most of the 18 years preceding the American Revolution. It seemed there were many points where history could have turned out far differently, even before the war began.

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