The Impact of Geography on the American Revolution: Expanding Regions of British Military Responsibility

Article excerpt

It has always been a truism that historians cannot effectively explain major military events without taking into consideration the "geographic influence." When you consider that all human events are caught up in both time and space, it is imperative that teachers give equal classroom time to the spatial realm. D. W. Meinig in his path-breaking book, The Shaping of America: A Geographic Perspective on 500 Years of History, argues that the American Revolution, and with it British Imperial strategy moved through three distinct periods, related to three distinct geographic phases. The first period was a regional revolt, centered in the New England area of the American colonies. Next came the "Continental Phase" when Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, thus forcing King George III and Parliament to plan for military actions in all thirteen colonies. Finally, with the entrance of France on the American side of the war, Britain found itself engulfed in a much wider military geographic commitment, the entire North Atlantic. The implications are clear, the expanding geographic theatre of war increasingly stretched Britain's military resources to the point where they could no longer continue an effective war effort.

Many British military and political leaders believed from the beginning of hostilities in 1775 that the American Revolt was nothing more than a regional uprising, centered in the colony of Massachusetts. More precisely, they saw Boston as the key to quelling the upstart rebels. As early as 1770, British troops resided in Boston, provoking an emotional response from local citizens that climaxed in the famous Boston Massacre during March of that year. Between 1770 and 1775 more and more British troops were sent to the uneasy colonial seaport.

It was no surprise that a significant military incident occurred in April of 1775 when General Thomas Gage, commander of British troops in Boston, ordered Colonel Smith to march out of the city and into the countryside in search of the rebel leaders and stored weapons. The resulting Battles of Lexington and Concord initiated a true regional conflict. After British forces scattered the "minutemen" at Lexington, word spread quickly throughout the area and American militia units gathered in large numbers near the town of Concord. Colonel Smith ordered a general "retirement" from Concord and his troops suffered terribly as rebel sharpshooters picked off scores of his men. The "retirement" turned into a full retreat later in the day as the number of American militia grew to an overwhelming force. Now, the rebels continued their advantage by surrounding Boston, limiting British movement to within the besieged city. Undaunted, General Gage planned to deliver a knockout blow to militia forces commanding the heights of Breed's and Bunker Hills.

General Gage, as acting supreme British commander in North America, himself saw the revolt as a Massachusetts problem and shortly after Lexington & Concord issued a proclamation of amnesty to all of the rebels who would "lay down their arms." He wrote:

A number of armed persons, to the amount of many thousands assembled on the 9th of April last and from behind walls, and lurking holes, attacked a detachment of the King's troops, who...unprepared for vengeance, and willing to decline it, made use of their arms only in their own defense. Since that period, the rebels, deriving confidence from impunity, have added insult to outrage; have repeatedly fired upon the King's ships and subjects, with cannon an small arms, have possessed the roads, and other communications by which the town of Boston was supplied with provisions; and with a preposterous parade of military arrangement, they affect to hold the army besieged; while part of their body make daily and indiscriminate invasions upon private property, and with a wantonness of cruelty ever incident to lawless tumult, carry degradation and distress whenever they turn their steps. …