- A Deluded and Infatuated People
In contrast to the rich historiography about the Confederacy during the American Civil War, there is no equivalent literature on the British during the Revolutionary War. The British dimension of the war remains relatively undeveloped by historians, which is a loss for our understanding of the American Revolution. The paucity of studies is particularly remarkable when we reflect that the revolutionaries were largely reacting to British policy initiatives in the preliminaries to the war and generally acting defensively against British offensives during the war itself. It is essential for historians to understand the British perspective and strategy in order to make the course of the war intelligible and to understand why Britain lost America.
James and Patience Barnes have contributed to redressing the balance in this two-volume edition of over twelve-hundred pages of documents relating to the British side of the American Revolution. They have produced at least nine such documentary collections, including a three-volume set of the American Civil War from a British perspective, and they have similarly collaborated to write on topics such as fascism in England in the 1930s. They have a particular interest in Anglo-American themes. Their primary objective in The American Revolution through British Eyes was to publish “firsthand accounts by British officials and military officers who were serving in North America during the War for Independence” (1:xi). The documents are primarily selected from colonial office correspondence between civil governors, generals, senior army officers, naval officers, and Indian agents and Lord George Germain, who was secretary of state for the American Department between 1775 and 1783. Germain was the minister in London most responsible for the conduct of the war in America.
The collection is divided into sections that deal with different theaters of the war within North America. There are short editorial introductions to each section explaining the progress of the war. There is also a biographical directory [End Page 41] and a cumulative index at the end of the second volume. The collection includes many previously published documents, especially those edited by K. G. Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783 (20 vols., 1972–81), which calendared and in some cases transcribed the colonial office papers. The editors indeed cite other editions if a document is already published, including in other miscellanies like The Spirit of Seventy-Six, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (2 vols., 1958). Nevertheless, they transcribe many hitherto unpublished documents—primarily from the National Archives at Kew—that relate to Indian diplomacy, the American Northwest, Canada, Pensacola, Eastern Florida, and Georgia. The collection also includes diaries, letters, and journals that are not in the colonial office papers. There is a previously unpublished translation and transcription of an extract from Heinrich von Breymann’s journal. Von Breymann was blamed for not coming to the aid of Colonel Baum at the Battle of Bennington in 1777 (2:1157). There are eye-witness accounts of battles such as Bunker Hill. There are descriptions by John Stuarts of his negotiations with Chicksaws and Choctaws on behalf of the British (1:526). There is the “Statement of Benedict Arnold to the Inhabitants of America, October 1780,” explaining his motives for joining the British (2:8676–79). It is apparent from this collection that the British simply could not comprehend why anyone would exchange the liberty of British government for what they regarded as the tyranny of the Continental Congress (1:65, 482–83). They increasingly regarded their colonial brethren as foreign, with John Bowater, the Captain of the Marines, daily cursing Columbus “and all the discoverers of this diaboloical country” (1:513).
The strength of this documentary collection is that it offers insight into objectives, influences, relationships, obstacles, and choices that help explain British strategy in America. It is possible, in some instances, to recreate the process of decision making for campaigns. The collection is also revealing about...