The brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton in December 1776 and January 1777 by Continental Army Commander in Chief George Washington did not fundamentally alter the military situation in North America. Great Britain remained in control of New York City, dominated the sea and stood poised to invade the American hinterland with overwhelming military forces.
British decision-makers had long focused their strategic hopes on the Hudson River. In 1776 Maj. Gen. Sir William Howe’s forces seized control of the Hudson’s mouth at New York City. Another army under Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne assembled in Canada early in 1777. If Howe and Burgoyne attacked simultaneously along the Hudson from New York City and Lake Champlain, they could cut the colonies in two.
Washington suspected the British would target the Hudson, but West Point and other American forts along the river seemed too weak, and the Army lacked the strength to protect both the Hudson and Philadelphia. As the winter snows melted, he feared disaster. Would he defend Philadelphia or abandon it and move toward West Point?
Then Howe made the decision that changed the course of the war.
Howe’s penchant for peculiar decisions had already alienated many of his officers. On several occasions in 1776 he had declined opportunities to administer the coup de grâce to Washington’s struggling army. Deep down he refused to believe that most Americans opposed British rule. A show of force, he hoped, would convince the colonists to give up their struggle.
British spies told Howe that a hotbed of Tory feeling seethed around Philadelphia and in the middle colonies. A British army in Philadelphia, they said, would encourage the Tories to rise up and overthrow the Patriots, and the British could sit back and watch the revolution fall apart.
Lord George Germain, who managed British strategic affairs in North America, didn’t share Howe’s optimism. To him, the American victories at Trenton and Princeton revealed a deep well of Patriot feeling. Germain feared that a move by Howe’s army on Philadelphia would leave Burgoyne’s army exposed to disaster in the wilderness between Lake Champlain and Albany, N.Y. Thus when Howe asked permission to abandon the Hudson River strategy, Germain refused.
Germain failed to reckon with the arrogance and vainglory of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. Let Howe move on Philadelphia, he told Germain. From Canada, Burgoyne could move easily down Lake Champlain and past Saratoga to Albany. Burgoyne could then either continue his advance toward West Point or hole up at Albany in preparation for his triumphal entry into New York City in the summer of 1778.
Faced with the determination of his two generals to go their separate ways, Germain relented—and opened the door to catastrophe.
In the summer of 1777 Howe sailed south with most of his army to Chesapeake Bay and landed at Head of Elk in Maryland. He first defeated Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11. Two weeks later he entered Philadelphia. After beating the Americans at Germantown on October 4, the British settled down to a cheery winter of balls and banquets, while Washington retreated to the hardships of Valley Forge.
Burgoyne’s triumphal procession down the Hudson, meanwhile, turned sour. American militiamen and Continentals under Maj. Gens. Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold inflicted severe losses on the British at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, forcing Burgoyne to surrender on October 17.
No Tory uprising attended Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia. Instead, Washington’s forces vied successfully for control of the countryside. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, meanwhile, helped convince France to enter the war in support of the United States.
Howe’s hopes that a few battlefield victories would convince the Americans to give up had been dashed. He lost the confidence of his London superiors and resigned. By the end of June 1778 British strategic ambitions in North America lay in ruins, and the United States had taken its first major steps on the road toward independence.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.