Magazine article The American Conservative

The Real Redcoats: How the British Fought the American Revolution-Bravely

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Real Redcoats: How the British Fought the American Revolution-Bravely

Article excerpt

A few paces west of the public beach in Yorktown, Virginia, is a little cave looking out toward the water. We all know Yorktown from history class. This is where, in October 1781, the British army commanded by Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans under General George Washington and the French under the Comte de Rochambeau.

It's not much of a cave, really, but tourists by the thousands stop to peep into it, as they have for more than two centuries. It is known to this day as "Cornwallis's Cave," and for most of our history visitors have been told that this is where the British general took refuge during the last days of the siege. He hid there, guides said, and visitors nodded knowingly. That is because, as we all know, Cornwallis was a coward, and it was just like him to find such a fittingly ignominious hole wherein to snivel and whimper while, in the defenses around the town, his troops were destroyed.

Because we have learned that is what British generals did in the war. They ponced about in their splendid red uniforms, dipped snuff, and looked down their snooty noses as the silly-billy Americans dared take on the Most Powerful Army in the History of the World. And the moment the cannons burped, they abandoned their troops to be slaughtered while they stayed safely out of harm's way, lest their wigs get mussed.

It's part of our national mythology that does not serve us well. By belittling the enemy, we diminish the magnitude of our American achievement. While well intended, this "History Channel" fairytale about Cornwallis, the other British generals, the troops they led, and the conduct of the war is counterproductive. It is an instance of American exceptionalism--we are always better, smarter, and more courageous than the "JV teams" we face--that we should guard against, not encourage. It makes us vain and smug, and therefore tempting prey for the ruthless SOBs of the world who are amused by our assumptions of unassailable virtue and sparkling intelligence and would take advantage.

So who was Charles Cornwallis, really? While the most aristocratic of British commanders in North America, he was also one of the least pretentious. He had little patience for ceremonies and far less use for titles than our own John Adams. He was also a dedicated soldier. Over the protests of his wife, he came to fight in America, even though "nothing could be expected" of the war, which he realized would not be a cakewalk. He did not cower in the rear. He led his troops from the front and, like Washington, had horses shot out from under him, several times.

While chasing Nathanael Greene's troops in North Carolina, he ordered his own supply wagons to be burned, living off the land with his men. One of his sergeants said Cornwallis "would allow no distinction" in the treatment of his officers and the men they commanded, "nor did he indulge himself even in the distinction of a tent; but in all things partook our sufferings and seemed much more to feel for us than for himself."

Cornwallis "in no way fits the popular image of the British officer as effete," says Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, the author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. "The way Cornwallis is portrayed is highly misleading. The Mel Gibson movie 'The Patriot' shows him more concerned with his sartorial elegance than winning the war, when he was the least pompous of the British generals"

The popular notion of the siege of Yorktown seems to blame Cornwallis for seeking refuge there, as if he was chased to the water's edge. In fact, with winter coming on, he was ordered to find a port for British ships and did so. We all know too about the surrender ceremony and how he pleaded illness and sent someone in his place. This in itself is considered suspicious and revealing. It means he was a liar and a coward. But Cornwallis might well have been telling the truth. …

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