American Revolution, Vietnam, Civil War, Guerilla War, Fabian Strategy, Jackson, Arnold, Lafayette, Clinton, Cornwallis and Yorktown

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 21st, 2012

Politics 101

In a Civil War where the Enemy was Everywhere and Holding Cities meant little the Only Way to Win was to Kill the Opposing Army

The American Revolutionary War was a lot like the Vietnam War.  Both involved a people on one side of the conflict torn apart by civil war.  Both were bloody.  Both involved a military superpower fighting on the far side of an ocean.  Both involved the French (the French role in Vietnam was in the decade which preceded the American’s two decades).  In both conflicts the French suffered politically at home and profited little for the blood and treasure they invested after the war.  In both the underdog used a Fabian strategy where they avoided major battles for their winning strategy was simply not to lose.  So they fought to extend the war to make it more costly (in both treasure and politics) for the other side to keep fighting.  Both involved poor military planning where decisions were based more on politics than military necessity.  In both the Americans and French were on the same side.  During the American Revolution they were both on the winning side.  In Vietnam they were both on the losing side (though the French stopped fighting before the Americans began fighting).  And, of course, both were wars contesting overseas colonies.

The fighting was cruel in Vietnam.  Especially against the civilians.  As the opposing sides fought through villages people suffered if they had shown the ‘wrong’ loyalties when the other side had controlled the village.  The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (the guerilla insurgents in South Vietnam) did some nasty things.  As did the South Vietnamese American allies.  Even some Americans did some nasty things.  There were few innocents.  Though the Americans were probably more innocent than most.  For when they did something nasty it became public.  Eventually.  And the Americans punished those responsible.

Both sides used killing as the primary strategy.  The Americans introduced the body count.  Measuring the success in military operations in the number of enemy dead.  The Viet Cong conscripted anyone who could fight.  Removing most young men from villages in areas they controlled.  Or they killed anyone who could fight against them.  Both sides tried to kill as many of the other as possible because in a civil war where the enemy was everywhere and holding cities and hills meant little the only way to win was to kill the opposing army.  So they couldn’t fight you anymore.

Neither the Patriots nor the Tories could claim the Moral High Ground in the Deep South

General George Washington quickly adopted a Fabian strategy in the American Revolutionary War because he had no choice.  He was fighting the world’s sole superpower.  And when the war broke out the Americans had no army or navy.  So until they did they fought a guerilla war.  Especially in the south.  Where Patriot partisans controlled the country.  And Tories loyal to the British held the cities.  And manned posts in the interior.  Under the command of British General Cornwallis.  Who reported to General Clinton comfortably ensconced in New York City.  Waiting for General Washington to launch an assault on New York.  Which would never come.

The civil war in the south was about as ugly as civil wars get.  And the ugly stuff was American on American ugliness.  Patriot against Tory.  The British charged that the partisans were killing innocents and neutrals.  And the Americans claimed the Tories were doing the same.  Neither side could really claim the moral high ground.  A young Andrew Jackson (hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and America’s seventh president) even said, “In the long run, I am afraid the Whigs [the Patriots] did not lose many points in the game of hanging, shooting and flogging.” 

It was a merciless guerilla war in the South.  And they did kill wholesale.  Because that’s the only way to win a civil war.  You kill fighting men until there are not enough of them left to fight back.  And the fighting was not always honorable.  The British captured Jackson in a Waxhaw meetinghouse.  When a body of Tories dressed as locals advanced ahead of a body of Redcoats.  The trick worked.  They captured eleven.  And a British officer gave Jackson scars that would leave him a lasting hatred of the British for the rest of his life.  The officer demanded that Jackson clean his boots.  Jackson claimed he was a prisoner of war.  And that the British officer should treat him as such.  The officer saw him as a partisan traitor.  And brought his sword down on Jackson’s head for his insolence.  Jackson tried to shield his head with his left hand, leaving two deep scars.  One on his head.  The other on his hand.

The Grand Battle George Washington longed for was before him at Yorktown 

The changing fortunes of war in the South often changed the fighting spirit of those fighting the war.  On both sides.  British deserters joined the American lines.  And American deserters joined the British lines.  The Americans serving in the Continental Army were still hungry, thirsty and half-naked.  The Battle of Eutaw Springs was the last big battle in the Deep South.  And it almost ended in a route of the British.  Had not the hungry, thirsty and half-naked Americans stop their pursuit when they entered the abandoned British camp.  As they enjoyed the spoils of war the British returned.  And another 3 hours of bloody fighting continued.  In the sweltering heat of the Deep South.  By the time it was over the Americans lost.  The American casualties were just over 500 (about 25% of their force).  The British lost over 800 (about 40% of their force).  A costly victory for the British.  Despite this loss the Americans were in control of the lower south.

Up until this point Virginia had seen little of the ravages of war.  Lucky for them as Virginian governor Thomas Jefferson, though a brilliant thinker, was a pretty poor wartime governor.  Washington urged him to prepare some defenses.  But he didn’t.  General Cornwallis urged General Clinton to abandon New York and conquer Virginia.  An action he believed would win the war.  Clinton refused for awhile.  But finally agreed to send a force under America’s greatest traitor.  Benedict Arnold.  A new brigadier general in the British Army.  Who landed unopposed in Virginia.  And moved at will.  Tarleton’s cavalry came up from the south to join Arnold.  Entered Charlottesville.  Captured members of the Virginia legislature with Jefferson just escaping in the nick of time.  With the addition of British reinforcements in Virginia Washington sent a force under Lafayette to Virginia to help with their defenses.  A perfect storm was gathering for the British in Virginia.

Cornwallis himself entered Virginia.  And futilely gave chase to Lafayette.  Cornwallis wanted Clinton to commit a major force to the conquest of Virginia.  Clinton wanted the few thousand troops he sent to Virginia returned to New York.  Clinton ordered Cornwallis to hold a position on the Chesapeake with his reduced force.  Cornwallis thought that order was stupid and ordered a withdrawal of his own forces.  Clinton countermanded that order.  Insisting that he pick a place and defend it.  Cornwallis picked Yorktown.  With his back to the sea.  And hopefully the British fleet.  While he moved towards Yorktown the hunter became the hunted.  Lafayette harassed him all the way.  Worse, the French were also on their way.  And the French fleet would engage the British fleet and defeat them.  And a French force would join Washington who came down from New York.  Finally able to abandon his Fabian strategy.  The grand battle he longed for was before him at Yorktown.  Cornwallis was trapped.  And would surrender his Army.

With the surrender of a second British army the initiative went to the Americans.  To continue the war would cost far more British blood and treasure.  But that price was too high.  The British wanted out.  Conceding that the Americans were indeed independent of British rule.  The delaying Fabian strategy, though costly, had worked.  As they would again in another American war.  Where the Americans instead would be fighting on foreign land.  In a place called Vietnam.  Only the Americans would suffer the same fate the British did in the American Revolutionary War.  As a Fabian strategy can be a very effective strategy.  As long as time is on your side.

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