- George Hanger: The Life and Times of an Eccentric Nobleman by Ian Saberton, and: The American Revolutionary War in the South: Re-evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of The Cornwallis Papers by Ian Saberton
Since its publication in 2010, The Cornwallis Papers, a six-volume collection edited by Ian Saberton, has joined the exclusive list of primary sources that scholars must consult if they wish to do serious research on the southern campaigns that concluded the American Revolution. The collection includes not only transcripts but also well-researched annotations and extensive commentary. Saberton has strong opinions on why the British effort in the Revolution failed. His perspectives are displayed in The Cornwallis Papers and again in the two works that are the focus of this review.
The American Revolutionary War in the South: Re-evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of The Cornwallis Papers is a slim volume consisting of eight essays, most of which have been previously published. Saberton's first essay, "Was the American Revolutionary War in the South Winnable by the British?," sets the stage for the rest and is, in essence, what the collection is about.
On the subject of generalship, Saberton reserves his strongest criticism for Charles Cornwallis, which is to some degree ironic. The author notes in reference to General Henry Clinton, "wars are won, not by cautious, hesitant commanders, but by those who are prepared to take risks" (p. 13). Cornwallis was a risk-taker. In the southern campaign, he failed to achieve his objective and lost his army in the process. And of course, his reputation suffered for it, though his subsequent achievements in India and Ireland may vindicate him to some degree.
Despite the outcome, Saberton argues, "Britain's grand strategy for reducing the southern colonies was at least in part sound," but it was undone by the planners' initial underestimate of the number of troops that would be required (p. 2). Fighting against a guerrilla movement complicated the British position [End Page 668] still further. As Saberton recognizes, the Patriots overwhelmingly won the propaganda war in the South. Tales of atrocities committed by British forces fed hatred of them and brought forth more volunteers for the partisans.
Saberton asserts that the British move into Virginia should have been delayed; that in order to match the speed of the Americans, British infantry should have been converted to horse; that Cornwallis (whom he portrays as excessively lenient) should have, as a deterrent, followed Banastre Tarleton's lead by dealing more harshly with enemy forces and with disaffected elements generally; and that the British army in the South should have been consolidated, minimizing the use of detachments. If implemented, these initiatives, Saberton believes, would have made the war "winnable."
His perspective is interesting, and military history thrives on such arguments, but, given the realities on the ground in 1780 and 1781, the most appropriate answer to the question of whether the British could have won the war in the southern theater is, almost certainly, no. They could have continued to occupy Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and other strongholds, and Cornwallis's army might conceivably have been evacuated from Yorktown, Virginia—Saberton and other historians would add that it should not have been there to begin with—but in addition to the difficulties discussed by Saberton, there are two that he largely ignores, and both are material. First, there was the grand strategy of the government in Britain. By 1779 it had virtually given up on the American colonies, and, with France entering the war, it was focusing on home defense and on maintaining control of the British West Indies. While both Clinton and Cornwallis were begging for more troops, the government's...