Resources of America and Great Britain Compared

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Resources of America and Great Britain Compared

RESOURCES OF AMERICA AND GREAT BRITAIN COMPARED. By every measure of military potential, the resources available to the British government vastly exceeded what the American colonists could muster. The population of the British Isles in 1775 was perhaps 12 million people, roughly five times the 2.5 million people in the colonies; the British advantage was even greater if the half-million slaves are subtracted from the colonial total. Britain maintained a standing army of perhaps 36,000 men, some 13,000 soldiers less than its authorized strength, along with 16,000 sailors who manned the Royal Navy's 270 ships. In nearly every category, too, Britain had the capacity to build up its military power faster than the colonies. The key factor here was not merely Britain's vastly greater wealth, but the existence of proven financial markets and mechanisms that would allow the government to borrow at reasonable interest rates. Britain could mobilize liquid capital to pay for more ships, more soldiers (recruited at home or hired on the Continent), and more military material (manufactured at home or purchased on the Continent) than could the colonies. By the end of the war in 1783, over 200,000 of George III's subjects from the British Isles were under arms (100,000 in the army and 107,000 in the navy), to which should be added nearly 30,000 German auxiliaries and at least 21,000 American loyalists. The Royal Navy numbered 468 ships in 1783, despite having lost 200 vessels to various causes during the war. Despite some shortfalls, British merchant shipping was able to transport soldiers and matériel across the Atlantic with reasonable efficiency, a necessary requirement for a war waged so far from sources of replacement and supply.

Still, given the staggering logistical and command problems in fighting a transatlantic war, the margin for error was sometimes very thin: only one British supply ship passed safely from Britain to Boston between August and November 1775. Faced with a colonial rebellion of unprecedented size and scope and with traditional enemies, especially France, waiting for an opportunity to exact revenge, Britain's leaders had to make the right decisions rapidly and use military force to maximum effect to achieve a political solution to the conflict, the only real way of returning the colonies to their prior political allegiance. The entry of France into the war as a partner of the American rebels in February 1778 turned a rebellion into a world war and forced the British to raise, equip, and field unprecedented numbers of armed forces.


The contrast with the armed forces available to the colonial governments at the start of the conflict was so extreme as to be laughable. The colonies maintained no soldiers under arms in peacetime and relied for their defense (or for rebellion) on a militia that theoretically included all able-bodied men from eighteen years of age upwards to fifty, fifty-five, and even sixty years old, varying by colony. The most experienced soldiers in the colonies were the veterans of the French and Indian War, an invaluable resource for training and command purposes, but too few in number and, by 1775, too old to fill the ranks. The colonies maintained no standing navies, but here again would have to rely on veterans of the largely private war vessels (privateers) that had filled the seas in previous conflicts.

A questionnaire from Lord Dartmouth to all colonial governors in 1773 revealed the sorry state of military preparedness on the eve of the war. Virginia and New Jersey reported "not one fort now." All New Hampshire reported was a "quite ruinous" stone castle at Portsmouth, and Pennsylvania reported only a half-finished fort in the Delaware River to ward off pirates. Boston's Castle William was in ill repair, and there were only a few batteries to protect the other Massachusetts ports. Georgia had four forts. New York had a fort and batteries at the mouth of the Hudson River and forts at Albany and Schenectady, but none was properly equipped with cannon or adequately supplied.

One must assume that American military potential was not negligible, at least in the minds of the men who wanted to fight; presumably, enough colonists were convinced that they could successfully resist the British and defend their political freedoms by force of arms, or else they would not have begun an armed resistance in the first place. But American potential was largely latent, and it would take time to ramp it up to a point where enough potential had been transformed into actual, operational capability for success to be possible. Since manufacturing in the colonies was inadequate to support sustained combat, most military supplies would have to be purchased abroad (largely on credit) and shipped across the Atlantic. Because building an armaments industry in America was out of the question, access to European sources of all sorts of military supplies was crucial.

Americans had the advantage of fighting on their own ground, where they were familiar with the types of terrain and climate that might limit the effectiveness of European-trained regulars. Few Americans, however, had training or experience as military engineers and artillerymen, and even fewer had any experience in army organization, administration, and training. (Washington, who had observed how Edward Braddock in 1755 and John Forbes in 1758 handled an expeditionary force, probably had more experience in these areas than any other American.) While many officers had tactical experience in the colonial wars and would provide essential leadership for the young soldiers in the army, the slow development of expertise above the regimental level was a nearly fatal shortcoming. Although urban dwellers might have limited experience with firearms, the fact that outside the cities the economy of the colonies was agricultural meant that many people owned and had some experience using guns. Settlers along the frontier in the interior had more experience hunting for game with Pennsylvania rifles, and many had participated in recent campaigns against Native American tribes. Despite the widespread ownership of firearms, owning a gun was a far cry from knowing how to use it in a military situation. Learning how to do that would inevitably take time.


The presence of Loyalists (in significant numbers in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and the South) was not usually a handicap to the American war effort, since the rebels achieved and maintained political superiority in most areas. The actual or expected presence of British forces, on the other hand, could cause a recrudescence of Loyalist activity and led to major problems in the South. The British, however, suffered from a disinclination to mobilize Loyalist support early in the war and tended to base strategy on the assumption that Loyalists were present in large numbers and could be counted on for support in regions where the king's troops had not yet tried to operate. Once France entered the war in February 1778, British strategy relegated the suppression of the rebellion to second place behind survival against the rejuvenated forces of an ancient enemy. Reliance on residual Loyalist sentiment in the South was the only option open to the British, and it became their "southern strategy" in and after 1778.


Leadership is the vital ingredient that transforms military potential into success in war. British military leaders were generally competent professional soldiers, no more or less prone to infighting than their American counterparts. British political leaders might be seen in retrospect as behaving in ways that lacked imagination and scope, but faced with a transatlantic military problem of unprecedented complexity, they generally acted with intelligence and dispatch in ways for which their experience had prepared them. Unfortunately for the survival of the first British Empire, the same lack of vision and statesmanship that had led them to lose the political allegiance of the American colonists also crippled the development of the indispensable political component that was needed to suppress the rebellion.

American military leadership was beset by inter-colonial and sectional difficulties at the beginning of the war, not a surprising situation in what was essentially a military alliance of thirteen separate sovereignties. Men of talent worked unremittingly—none more so than Washington—to meet the challenge of organizing effective military forces from the most unpromising of parts. Much of American military activity continued throughout the war to have an ad hoc quality; significant mistakes in judgment were made by many senior officers, including Washington. But none of the mistakes proved to be fatal, and in large part because Washington inspired others with his commitment never to give up the fight, the American military had achieved by 1777 the most it could hope to achieve: by not losing, it ensured that the British would not win. Washington may have been the finest manipulator of military force ever to arise from the American nation, but even he could not win the war with American resources alone. When French aid arrived in sufficient quantity and with excellent leadership, Washington was astute enough to maximize its benefits to achieve a victory at Yorktown that proved to be the makeweight in shifting British political will toward ending active hostilities.

American political leadership also reflected the fact that the colonies were partners, not part of a single sovereignty. More political infighting occurred in Congress's management of the war than in the army, and Congress was less of a nation-building factor than was the Continental army. Congress did not squarely face the problem of how to pay for the war and so contributed significantly to the single greatest danger threatening the new nation: the collapse of the economy. But here, too, ad hoc solutions were found, and at the time of greatest danger, Robert Morris managed to use his financial expertise to cobble together an economic bandage that, with the help of many other financiers, agents, ambassadors, and people of good will, kept the nation afloat just long enough so that a peace treaty could be secured. In the end, American political will sustained the military effort to secure independence better than British political will sustained the military effort to suppress the rebellion. But only by a hair's breadth.

SEE ALSO Colonial Wars; Loyalists in the American Revolution; Manufacturing in America; Militia in the North; Populations of Great Britain and America; Recruiting in Great Britain; Riflemen.


Conway, Stephen. The British Isles and the War of American Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky