Big Red Car here. The recent bombing in Boston — the work of cowards — had The Boss thinking about the exceptional nature of America and the journey it has experienced since the flame of liberty was lit in New England — the birthplace of the American rebellion and the American Revolution.
It is an amazing story.
The Boss is a huge and voracious reader of military history. He grew up in a military family and his father, The Old Man 95 years old in June of this year, lived quite a bit of the nation’s history. The Boss studied it at Virginia Military Institute. At VMI, you have to study the individual battles from the Revolution to Viet Nam. VMI grads fought in all of them since its founding in 1839.
Now The Boss is re-reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer originally issued in 2004.
It is a great book and a “must read” for any serious military history enthusiast. It chronicles the first days of the American Revolution but really focuses on the Battle of Trenton — the “crossing” of the Delaware being central to that battle — and the Battle of Princeton in which Washington exploited the tactical successes of the American deployment against the British forces who had abandoned Princeton to come to the aid of Trenton. A nifty piece of generalship for the Americans all around.
The improbability of the idea of American liberty
The American rebellion was based upon a very improbable idea for its times. An idea that was way, way, way out there in a time of royalty and kingdoms and serfs and peasants. America was populated by folks who had fled feudal societies looking for an opportunity for a better life. They found one.
When the American rebellion took shape, it had the support of a broad cross section of colonials but not everyone. There were a great number of Loyalists and Tories who still supported the Crown. Even in the Colonies the idea of liberty was not universally embraced.
The King, his Court, the Houses of Parliament all thought that the American rebellion was a brush fire to be stamped out before it consumed their valuable vassal state. They did not see it as an issue of liberty or enlightenment. They saw it simply as some misbehaving colonials who had gotten too big for their britches and like other colonials in other corners of the globe they would come back into the fold at the point of a British bayonet or on the steps of the gallows.
What the American rebellion was really about at its intellectual core — a silly notion for its times — is that every man had been imbued with “unalienable” rights which were given by God and not the King. This notion of liberty then mixed with an equally silly notion of personal freedoms such that governments — even governments run by Kings — existed to serve the people and that the people did not exist to serve the government or Kings.
In a time when a common man could not own real estate and in which since the time of William the Conqueror every square inch of England was owned by the Crown — these were weird and profoundly brave musings.
When the British decided to make war against its own subjects — never really having engaged in serious negotiations about the apparent causes of discontent such as taxation — they launched upon a course of action that could only result in either total success or total failure.
The British military
When the British decided to make war against the rebels, the British did not take any half measures. They unleashed all the military might of their army and navy — the two most powerful forces on the planet in that time.
The British Army was battle hardened and fiercesome in its capabilities.
1. The British Army, which landed initially on Staten Island in a well executed and unopposed amphibious invasion, counted amongst its leadership fifteen generals whose average age was 48 years and whose experience individually averaged over thirty years of active military service.
2. The Continentals who rose in opposition were commanded by a general officer corps of twenty one men whose average age was forty three and whose average military service was less than two years.
This was a very unbalanced match from the start.
Worse still was the reality that this British Army was seasoned and blooded having recently swept the field of all of its opponents in the Seven Years’ War in Europe and the French and Indian War in the Northern Hemisphere. They were tested and unbeaten. The British were a powerful expeditionary force as well and had fought and won in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, Cuba, Mediterranean, Philippines and Africa.
Quality is one thing — and the British Army had no shortage of men, equipment and leadership coupled with its actual battlefield experience and knowledge of its officer corps — but quantity is another consideration all together.
The British showed up on Staten Island with two thirds of the entire British Army including their very best units of grenadiers (rough men like Rangers who lead the way in any assault), light infantry, regular infantry, cavalry and artillery. They also brought units such as the 42nd Scottish Highlanders (the infamous Black Watch who were feared as particularly skillful practitioners and wielders of the cold steel of a bayonet and who did not take prisoners or accept such quarter). Each of these elements were the best of breed in their particular art. The British artillery had outdueled the French routinely on every battlefield.
The British regular soldier enlisted for life and its officer corps made a similar commitment. These were not just men who had wed themselves to a profession, they had dedicated their very lives to the pursuit of excellence in one single endeavor — killing the enemyies of their King. Anywhere and under any circumstances.
The British Navy marshaled over seventy warships — warships — which represented one half of the entire British fleet. Their armed might was unmatched by the Americans whose navy was non-existent. This manifested itself in the ability of the British Army to use this naval power for close fire support and many of the ensuing campaigns featured naval gunfire of significant magnitude from warships in the oceans and the Hudson River.
The logistical support and transportation afforded by such a large navy meant that the British Army could move and re-supply itself anywhere thereby creating a huge tactical advantage.
The Hessians and German mercenaries
If the British Army and Navy were not enough in their own right, the British stacked the deck further by ultimately enlisting the support of over thirty thousand Hessian and German mercenaries. These troops were arguably the best in the world — even better than the British themselves.
The ruler of Hesse-Cassel, Friedrich Wilhelm II, provided almost two thirds of these rented soldiers and his soldiers were extremely well trained and experienced. His officers had been schooled in the military arts and science of their time and were universally acknowledged to be the superiors of even their British counterparts. They took their lead from the Prussians who fielded a great army but whose soldiers were not available for rent.
One particular unit sent to the Colonies to soldier with the British, the Regiment Alt von Lossberg, brought majors and captains whose service averaged twenty eight years and even lieutenants, who commanded the smallest maneuver units, had from ten to fifteen years of soldiering.
While the Hessians were an army which did, in fact, have a fair number of noble families’ sons in service, advancement was based almost solely upon merit. Merit measured in combat on a battlefield.
A certain Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, whose regiment would be defeated soundly by and ultimately surrendered to the Colonials of General George Washington in an orchard southeast of Trenton, was fifty years old and had over thirty six years of soldiering, combat and mercenary experience across Europe and in Turkey. The Americans took his life at Trenton, destroyed his unit and captured the remainder.
What drove the Americans
The Americans knew all of the above when their rebellion was still building support and energy. It was a formidable consideration — they were not just playing at rebellion, they were going to fight the best military forces ever assembled in the history of their world. There would be no half measures. It was already established that the British were unlikely to take prisoners. It was a fight to the death.
What drove the Americans was a just cause. The power of free men seeking to live under the cloak of universal liberty and the assurance that this is what God had planned for their lives. A just cause undertaken by honorable men who refused to swear allegiance to just another man even if he was a King.
This is the ultimate power of liberty, freedom and men who understand and respect and embrace those concepts. It is literally the most powerful force on Earth.
It was an exceptional concept which was executed by exceptional men in the most trying of times under the most difficult conditions imaginable. This is the blood that courses in the veins of the American Nation even today.
Our Nation was born at the point of a bayonet wetted by British blood. America did not receive its liberty and distribute its freedoms — it took them by force.
We are a Nation born from rebellion. In combat. By force.
Any person who knows the history of the American rebellion and the American Revolution and the improbable odds of their success, must reflect upon how exceptional this outcome was. The calculus has not changed. The American rebellion and the American Revolution were a miraculous outcome given the long odds and the realities of the conflict.
It is from this exceptional start that America has continued in this tradition of exceptionalism as it has taken the leadership role of all of mankind. The greatest force for good ever put together on this planet. We need to remember that.
In times like this — the economy in shambles, the Boston bombing — we need to remember our roots. We came through when the oddsmakers were not in our corner and we shall prevail again. Stiff upper lip and carry on. We are exceptional.