History, as the cliché goes, is written by the victors. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mythology of the American Revolution. The men who orchestrated America's revolt against England have earned an almost religious reverence in the history books (the very act of calling them collectively the Founding Fathers has a certain Divine righteousness to it). But with all great mythology, the heroes must have their adversaries. And those adversaries are bound by the laws of myth to serve as dark mirrors to the heroes, taking in all of the virtues assigned to the victors and reflecting back the vices against which the heroes fight.
Accepted history and truth, however, are not always the same thing. In Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, we are reintroduced to the villains of the Revolutionary War. What we learn is that far from being the corrupt, inept, and tyrannical men the history books have presented to us, these men were capable, honorable, and often hamstrung by a host of geopolitical, economic, and sociological constraints that made negotiation with the Colonies impossible and dragged on the war far longer than anyone had wanted.
Much of O'Shaughnessy's book rests on the key point that the origins of revolution did not have their seeds in hatred for King George III, but rather distrust of the British Parliament and the feeling that Parliament did not take the needs of the colonies into consideration. Indeed, early in the war, men on both sides claimed they were fighting for the preservation of both the King and the Empire. It was only as the war dragged on and it became apparent that King George would not (in truth, could not) scale back the excesses of Parliamentary power that the king became viewed as a tyrant and full succession from the British Empire became the only option for the Colonies.
The author does a brilliant job of presenting the profiles of the key British figures of the war and how a host of outside influences undermined their ability to adequately wage war or negotiate for peace. Drawing from a wealth of personal letters, journals, biographies, and news reports of the period, O'Shaughnessy shines a light into the thoughts and hearts of these individuals who were at various times during the conflict more respected in the Colonies than in their own homeland.
The Men Who Lost America is a valuable addition to our understanding of the Revolutionary War and how it shaped both American and British history.
Reviewer's Note: I was given an Advance Reader Copy for review.
on June 19, 2013
This is a fascinating book that is written so well that the reader need NOT be particularly knowledgable about its characters to enjoy its content: even so the book is clearly a serious work digging well below the superficial and aimed at a serious, if not scholarly, readership. Author Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy (a compelling name for an author, if ever...) is a professor of history at Mr. Jefferson's venerable University of Virginia and offers with this book, "something completly different" for those interested in early American history, especially the Revolutionary War.
In four parts, consisting of nine chapters and 361 pages, Professor O'Shaughnessy introduces his readers to each of the ten men who played a part in the political or military prosecution of the war - all British and their participation explained from the perspective of the British - without American partiality. This book is a, "what went wrong?" postmortem of the events of 1775-1783... even so, the parallels to the U.S. conflicts of 1955-1975, or 2003-2011, or 2001 to present - are hard to miss regardless of your politics.
Little if anything is the "warmed over" of past reads. The book is full of first discoveries and fresh perspectives. Its writing flows easily and the author thoughtfully reintroduces the second-tier characters for his (American?) readers as they reappear in the separate parts and chapters of the book, many of whom may be, "household names" in the UK... are less so in the US!
There are over 100 additional pages of citations, bibliography, index, afterward materials (in the scholarly fashion) for those who may care to further pursue a point, or continue their reading on the topic. And, bound in the center of the book are very interesting color plate portraits of the principals, reproduced from the originals in the British National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Collection of HM Queen Elizabeth II. This is clearly a 5-star book, but that said, its story, as its title implies, is finely focused and a perfect read IF that focus matches your interest. Highly recommended, but not for all.
See also Harlow Giles Unger's account, American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution for some empathetic sense of Great Britain's consternation with the Colonies, in a nuanced and non traditional look at the spark that brought about the American Revolution.
'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
In 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.
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.
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!!)
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.
NB This book was provided for review by the publishers.
on October 4, 2014
I'm not sure if I am being unfair here, so if you are considering buying this book please do not construe my less than stellar 3 star review as a call to avoid this work at all hazards. The word that comes to mind when thinking back on reading this book last Spring is disappointment. The British side of the War of American Independence does not, in my opinion, have a sparkling historiography attached to it, excepting Mackesy's brilliant (but now 50 year old!) War for America [caveat: Mahan and Syrett did excellent works on the naval aspects, but this is specialist stuff]. This book did not tell me much of anything I did not already know, and I am not an expert in this field. It is solid and workmanlike, but lacks real insight into the thoughts and motivations, the worldview, of the British. It also mistakes, I think, the fervency of the American revolutionaries for popularity. John Adams once said (I'm paraphrasing) that a third of Americans were for independence, a third against, and third didn't care. I read one modern scholar who was bold enough to say that 28% of colonists were Loyalists. Certainly, at no point were 50% or more of those living in the colonists actively supporting the Revolution. So the British were not nuts to believe that Loyalist sentiment and minority indifference could and would play their way.
What the author misses is the ruthlessness and brutality with which the Loyalists were cowed, and the fact that Loyalists, by definition, were men and women who looked to "their" government and Crown to protect them and their interests. They were not joiners or militants, but conservatives (in the old fashioned sense of that word). The Revolutionaries knew they would have to do the fighting and the dying if they were going to get what they wanted. The Loyalists looked to established authority to do that for them. This was natural, but suicidal. In most places outside of the South it placed them at the mercy of their armed, militant, and mobilized neighbors. And in the end most Loyalists did not want to die for a government that could not protect them.
O'Shaughnessy doesn't seem to see any of this, so he misinterprets the actions and attitudes of both the British and the Loyalists (and doesn't really want to dwell too long on the fate of the Loyalists where they didn't have the time or the inclination to organize and launch their own terror operations against the Revolutionaries). Therefore, I see this book as sober and conventional, but not probing or revelatory.
on July 3, 2013
If your understanding of America's revolutionary beginnings derives from the works of Ellis, Chernow, McCullough, Ferling, Fischer, et. al., then Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's The Men Who Lost America is a welcome and overdue appendix to your study. The notes and bibliography testify to the overwhelmingly primary research (as expected from a university press) that went into this volume full of facts and details never covered when the story is told from the colonists' point of view. While the approach is biographical, it is not biography in the sense of starting with the fateful unions of maternal great-grandparents. The focus is on the lives of nine important military and political men of Britain during the years they spent trying to defeat a rebellion and preserve Parliamentary sovereignty over some of England's most important colonies. By its conclusion this book expands insight into the history of the American Revolution by providing the back home version of every important moment of the conflict. An added dimension is the emphasis given to the global aspects of the war. These are the men who acted and reacted during the Revolution, and this easily readable book cogently tells how they affected events and how events affected them. O'Shaughnessy puts an end to the silence of defeat that settled over the British version of the war following the impact of Yorktown on the mother country's version of the history--at least here in the victorious United States.
on August 5, 2014
In this exceptional book, Author O’Shaughnessy undertakes to tell the story of the American Revolution from the viewpoint of the ten British overseers who actually managed it, if ‘managed’ is the right word in this context. And he very definitely succeeds. None of the many, many other books I have read on the rebellion have portrayed as well the challenges facing those who took up the colonists’ challenge and sought to counter it from their remote location with all that its isolation portended for miscommunication, misunderstanding, erroneous presumptions, and manpower and supply challenges that ultimately doomed them to defeat.
The reader gets an invaluable look at the three primary reasons that the war was not only lost, but doomed to failure before it commenced. First, the British grossly misjudged the number of loyalists among the American population, their commanders waiting time and again, against all hope, for pro-British colonists to come forward to fight with them. Second, and despite the fact that a good map would have revealed the truth of it, they under-appreciated the sheer size of the theater they were trying to conquer and hold, essentially never succeeding in first taking and then being able to secure any sizeable chunk of territory. Third, and perhaps most crucially, they simply could neither afford nor transport enough men and materiel to overwhelm the opposition. Add to these reasons the more subtle but nonetheless crucial inability of the leadership to set and adhere to priorities among Britain’s Caribbean holdings, the continuing threat of French and/or Spanish intervention, and other pressing demands, and you have all the makings of the disaster that inevitably ensued.
The book does present a couple of issues, though. The first and most important is the difficulty faced by any author who undertakes to fashion joint biographies of contemporaries engaged in the same enterprise, repetition of events and attitudes. For instance, by the time the reader has completed the portraits of George III and Prime Minister Lord North, he understands many times over that North early on really, really, absolutely, urgently, and honest to goodness wanted to resign. Indeed, the reader understands so well that he is tempted to resign himself, resign, that is, from reading the rest of the book. Second, the author is a pedestrian writer who while he does a decent job of portraying the respective roles of the subjects, lapses into Wikipedia-like flatness when he sets out the ‘after-action’ lives of the protagonists. Finally, and as I wrote in my review of “The Siege of Fort William Henry,” I guess authors don’t want to take the time to consult Mapquest or Google Earth when citing locations and distances. On page 142, O’Shaughnessy writes, “The delay allowed the enemy force to strengthen their fortifications at Crown Point and Ticonderoga, the former situated at the north end of Lake George and the latter near the southern end of Lake Champlain.” Uh, no. Ticonderoga is indeed located at the southern end of Lake Champlain, and Crown Point is located approximately 10 miles NNW, just a bit farther up Champlain’s western shore and relatively nowhere near Lake George.
All in all, this a most worthwhile read, and not only because you won’t find the same amalgam somewhere else. It stands alone as an excellent and unique piece of scholarship, innovative and long overdue.
on October 27, 2013
This is the most interesting book I have had the pleasure to read all year.
For most of us Americans, our revolution brings forth images of a starving army, led by the great George Washington (and he was great) facing almost impossible odds against the most powerful nation on the planet at that time, and after too many years of defeats on the battlefields and an inconsequential Congress, somehow, we, with the help of the French, defeat the British, and win our independence.
It sounds good, but when you read this historical masterpiece by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, you understand that this war was pre-determined by years before the first shots were fired in anger. As the author points out, John Adams said that American independence was a state of mind of the people long before Lexington. While Britain was formidable, Americans were so far removed from thoughts of peers and royalty and resented any attempts at taxation, no matter how seemingly benign.
If Americans love an underdog, then we love our history of this war. It is steeped with the multi-volume accounts of prominent historians that glorify our fight against all odds, then this author comes along and in a very good summary, shows us the prominent players from the British side of the equation.
You obviously have to lead off with George III, so described by Jeremy Black George III: America's Last King (The English Monarchs Series) as the last absolute monarch of England. This is followed by the stories of Lord North, the Howe Brothers and other various British military commanders, Lord George Germain, and the earl of Sandwich.
I cannot help but draw conclusions from this war to our own war in Vietnam. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we were saving Vietnam, while the Vietnamese simply wanted us out, and we all know the result. It was a very similiar situation in London. The British were firmly convinced that there were so many people in America loyal to the crown the they would flock to the British army, and while the British were formidable once they entered into the conflict, the response of the loyalists was never significant enough to change the outcome, although it was our first civil war in most respects. In addition, the British were not able to subsist on the land and had to supply their horses, rations, and everything else because they were unable to secure this locally. This created a tremendous burden in transporting all these supplies across an ocean that took weeks to traverse.
The government was also disjointed in that Lord North, as a type of prime minister, was not effective in uniting the cabinet, and George III, while not attending cabinet meetings, was determined to put down the insurrection in America while many of his ministers and generals thought the thing was lost long before Yorktown. Lord North made many attempts to resign. The war itself was the responsibility of Lord George Germain, who took a hard line that was supported by the king, but had limitations in his power to get everything he thought needed to put down the rebellion. The government was simply not effective, and while the British did occupy major cities, they were also many times short of supplies, which caused more problems with the Americans, and to top it off, they brought in Hessians to fight the colonists. The laundry list that Thomas Jefferson wrote in his condemnation of George III was extensive and made it a personal attack against the monarch instead of blaming the bumbling on the ministers.
There were multiple problems for the British; they lost an army led by John Burgoyne, and then faced the thing evolving almost into a world war with France, Spain, and the Dutch coming in against them. The British Navy at this point was not enough to hold off the French Navy, and the British were further weakened by the need to transfer troops and ships to the Caribbean during the American Revolution.
So, while I appreciate the birth of the American nation during this time, I can't help but realize that the midwife was herself, the British government.
It is an interesting book, and through the presentation of nine (or ten) prominent British politicians and commanders of that time, we come to realize that American independence was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
I would highly recommend this work.
on November 10, 2013
I say unexpectedly because about a quarter of the way through this book I thought I might put it down and start another. I'm usually not one to bail on a book but in this case the reading was slow and the material seemed repetitious. In part that's because of the author's purpose in writing The Men Who Lost America. His intention is to demonstrate that the British commanders who lost America were not incompetent but were in fact very capable men who were handcuffed by political turmoil at home and circumstances beyond their individual control. By following the major players from King George and Lord North to the British Admirals and Generals who fought in America, he gives a comprehensive if somewhat overlapping review of the circumstances facing the British fighting the American Revolution.
Each time I put the book down I was sure I wouldn't finish it but then I'd pick it up again and the next thing I knew I was more than half way through the book and thoroughly immersed in Andrew O'Shaughnessy's account of the war. I realized that what kept me coming back was that the material itself and O'Shaughnessy's presentation is very interesting even if you're not a history buff. The book is published by Yale University Press so you expect the scholarship to be solid and O'Shaughnessy presents it in such a way that it's readily accessible and builds to support his argument that the British loss of America wasn't due to incompetent political and military leaders.
O'Shaughnessy's final chapter, aptly titled Conclusion, demonstrates the logic of his original premise and does a nice job of tying everything together. I'm not sure I was entirely convinced by his argument. However I did learn a good deal about the Revolutionary War from O'Shaughnessy's analysis and feel richer for the experience of reading this book.
on October 2, 2013
While most major conflicts result in biographies of generals on both sides (World War II and the American Civil War standing as good examples), literature regarding the American Revolutionary War has usually focused on the leaders on the American side. So it's good that someone as intelligent and even-handed as O'Shaughnessy has put together this study of the British generals in the Revolution.
Growing up, history teachers had usually given the impression that the British pro-war politicians and generals were out-of-touch, incompetent, or both. However, the author does a good job of laying out the strengths and weaknesses of the personalities involved, as well as the enormity of the task they took on. O'Shaughnessy also sets out the context of the political environment that Lord North, King George III, Lord Cornwallis and Burgoyne (among others) were operating in.
O'Shaughnessy clearly has done exhaustive research, and the perspective and empathy he brings to bear on his subjects results in a fascinating book.
on February 27, 2015
The Men Who Lost America is a great book on the American Revolution. by Dr. Andrew Jackson O Shaughnessy, Sanders Directory of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Monticello and Professor of History at the University of Virginia has written a detailed study of British leadership during the American Revolution. Most American students of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) have probably never read a view of the war from the British side. This book fills that void with detailed scholarship and insight. Among the important factors which led to British defeat were":
a. The British Army was small and outnumbered by the American patriots. Loyalist support was not as strong as the war planners in London thought would emerge.
b. Logistics and supplies were lacking for the British Army due to the long journey necessary across the stormy Atlantic.
c., Great Britain had no allies in Europe and was fighting a global war against such strong opponents as France and Spain.
d. George III was heavily criticized and opposed in Parliament by such leaders as Charles James Fox
e. Britain had an army of conquest which repeatedly defeated Washington s ragtag army but they did not have enough troops to provide for a strong army of occupation in America.
e. Britain had a poor administrative oversight over the war with competing agencies seeking to operate the war.
f. The British economy was in shambles and the military budget was severely cut.
g. The war was unpopular in England.
The book is divided into chapters which take a detailed look at the political and military British leaders. Among them":
King George III-The king was a diehard enemy of American independence.
Lord North-He proved to be a poor wartime leader in his role as Prime Minister.
Lord Germain-He was the Secretary for the Navy and was charged with directing a global conflict.
Military leaders such as John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, the Howe brothers and Lord Cornwallis and their military engagements in America are studied.
The book is printed in small print and is well written. A must for students of the American Revolution.