Sackville, George

views updated

Sackville, George

SACKVILLE, GEORGE. (1716–1785). Later Germain. Soldier and secretary of state for the colonies (1775–1782). Born in London on 26 June 1716, he was known from 1720 as Lord George Sackville and then Lord George Germain from 1770; subsequently, he became Viscount Sackville in February 1782. His father, Lionel Sackville, seventh earl and (from 1720) first duke of Dorset, made lavish use of his patronage and influence to start George on careers in the army and in politics. This influence was not inconsiderable—George I was George Sackville's godfather and George II his father's friend—and like many younger sons of the period, Sackville came to understand very well the need to court great men. His weakness was a tendency to overplay his hand, which, combined with a tendency to deviousness and arrogance, could alienate patrons and allies as easily as his ability and charm could win them.


He was educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Dublin, which was then more academically rigorous than either Oxford or Cambridge. At the age of eighteen, he graduated with a master of arts degree and was at once bought a commission in the Seventh Horse, a regiment on the Irish establishment. In 1736 he accompanied his father, lord lieutenant of Ireland, on a diplomatic mission to Paris. Returning to Dublin in 1737 as aide to the new lord lieutenant, he was promoted to captain in his regiment and appointed to the Privy Council of Ireland. In 1741 he became lieutenant colonel in the Twenty-eighth Foot and also became a member of Parliament for the first time.

By then Britain was officially at war with Spain and, following the Prussian attack on the Hapsburg Empire, unofficially with France. Sackville went to war for the first time with the allied Pragmatic Army, which was intended to keep the enemy out of Hanover (George II's other realm) and the Austrian Netherlands. He is supposed to have distinguished himself near Dettingen on the river Main (in 1743, and on 11 May 1745 he was severely wounded in the chest at Fontenoy. He recovered in time to serve against the Jacobites and, as colonel of the Twentieth Foot, was prominent in the pursuit of the fugitives after Culloden. He was briefly governor of Dover Castle, and his father's influence ensured that he was chosen as member of Parliament for Dover before returning to the Pragmatic Army. In November 1749 he took over command of the Twelfth Dragoons before moving in 1750 to his old regiment, the Seventh Horse. By 1750 he was demonstrating considerable promise in Parliament, and during his father's second term in Ireland (1751–1756) was his principal secretary and secretary at war. Although his combative manner as secretary at war earned widespread disapproval, Germain, promoted to major general in 1755, continued to be a significant military and political figure during the first part of the Seven Years' War.

After taking part in the abortive raid on St. Malo in September 1758, he became second in command of the British contribution to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick's allied army in Hanover. Soon afterwards, on his superior's death, he succeeded to command of the British contingent. His rise ended when, as commander of the British cavalry at Minden, he refused to obey repeated orders to charge the retreating French army. Sackville argued that the duke of Brunswick's commands were unclear and impracticable. Others, however, said he was motivated by personal pique and even cowardice. Although he was dismissed from his command, the affair might have come to nothing had not Sackville insisted upon a court-martial to clear his name. Sure of acquittal, he paraded such disdain for the court that on 5 April 1760 he was convicted of disobedience and declared unfit to serve the king in any military capacity. The king at once expelled him from the Privy Council, and he was effectively shut out of office of any kind for fifteen years. Only in the autumn of 1775 did North bring him in as secretary of state for the colonies.


It thus fell to Sackville, now Lord George Germain, to direct the war in America. It may have been a mistake to place army officers under a man who had been so spectacularly disgraced for military misconduct, and still more one who did not get on with Carleton and Howe. But Germain had his virtues. Far from being the lazy bungler of legend, he was an efficient administrator and a perceptive strategist. Even before he took office he was arguing cogently in favor of a descent upon New York, which would make an ideal base from which to cut off New England and begin the recovery of the other provinces. Its capacious harbor would provide a safe haven for warships, transports, and supply vessels while the Hudson Valley would provide a waterway to the interior. The experience of Bunker Hill suggested that any frontal attack on a prepared position, even when manned by inexperienced militia, would be unacceptably costly, and that any breakout from Boston would probably involve a succession of suck attacks. However, an American army driven from New York City would have no strong place to make a stand short of the Delaware or the upper Hudson. Moreover, the middle colonies, where the Loyalists were believed to be stronger than in New England, would throw their weight into the balance once the British Army arrived to rescue them from the rebels. This analysis, though based upon imperfect knowledge, was intelligent and essentially sound. Pursued vigorously, it would have given the British at least a chance of securing victory before France could effectively intervene.

Where Germain, like other ministers, failed was in underestimating the scale of the revolt and therefore the scale of force needed to put it down. New England, and Boston in particular, had long been thought to be the heart of the rebellion. Curiously, this went with an underestimate of Loyalist strength in the middle colonies and an exaggeration in respect of the South. In 1776 the result was an unnecessary dissipation of force, which allowed Washington to survive his defeats and prevented Howe from giving adequate protection to the Tories of New York and New Jersey. Germain failed to learn the lesson for the campaign of 1777: the Saratoga debacle came about partly because he did not order Howe directly to support. Burgoyne. Yet he was neither lazy nor negligent nor uncommonly lacking in perception: no one in Britain dreamed that Burgoyne would need to be rescued.


Germain's political weakness was that he could not carry his colleagues with him without North's support, and North, better at conciliation than decision, was no Pitt. Germain was left to wrangle with Sandwich, who wanted to keep the bulk of the fleet in home waters in anticipation of a Bourbon invasion. There were strong arguments on both sides, but the effect of the dispute was to leave British land forces in America without adequate logistical or naval support. The results were crippling. In 1776 Howe's reinforcements and essential equipment arrived far too late in the season. In 1777 a lack of transports and escorts delayed the attack on Philadelphia as decisively as Howe's excessive caution, and afterwards the naval forces available were unable to quickly open the Delaware.

The moment France entered the war in 1778, the British army in America was in danger. The appearance of a powerful squadron off New York or the Delaware, combined with a land blockade, would cut off essential supplies and rapidly lead to capitulation. The Royal navy could not simultaneously keep a protective force in North American waters, cover the Channel, and meet its commitments elsewhere. Yet Germain remained an advocate of boldness in America. His decision to abandon Philadelphia was justifiable on two grounds. First, Philadelphia was now a strategic liability, with its only supply route via the Delaware constantly under threat. As it was, a French fleet appeared off the Delaware, forcing the troops to escape overland. Second, garrisoning the city and guarding the river tied up forces that could have been better used in offensive operations elsewhere—for example, to exploit the supposed Loyalist strength in the southern colonies and for an attack on French sugar islands. Third, the naval peril would remain the same, whether British strategy was offensive or defensive, and an aggressive policy promised at least a chance of victory. The plan's great weakness, as Sir Henry Clinton never tired of pointing out, was that it further dispersed the available troops and given early and vigorous Franco-American cooperation, should have led rapidly to defeat.


Yet, thanks partly to French mistakes, it came very close to success. Savannah was taken and held, Charleston and most of South Carolina fell, and American attempts at reconquest were routed. North Carolina was invaded. By 1781 Washington himself thought that the British might win the war. In the end, Germain's strategy was ruined by Cornwallis's overland march into Virginia (which Germain himself approved), which cut him off from the seaborne support so crucial to British successes. This critical error was followed by the ill fortune of an unprecedented coordination of French and American sea and land forces and capitulation at Yorktown. Even then the significance of Yorktown, where fewer than four thousand troops were lost, was political rather than military. Coming on top of reverses elsewhere, it turned the majority in Parliament against the war and raised demands for a change of ministry.

Germain still wanted to fight on. After all, Clinton's main army was intact and the British still held New York, Charleston, and Savannah. From these bases, amphibious operations could be launched to mobilize Loyalist support around the lower Delaware. It was a workable plan and consistent with his policy since 1778. But now he was completely isolated, even within the cabinet, and by the year's end he was asking the king's leave to resign. He finally left office on 10 February 1782, some weeks before the fall of the North administration.

Germain was neither a minister of genius nor an engaging personality. He could not obtain the consistent support of North and Sandwich, he made serious strategic errors, and he underestimated the popularity and determination of the rebels. Yet he was far from alone in these failings. In addition, he was intelligent, able, and conscientious. While his offensive strategy from 1778 carried with it enormous risks, it also brought the British within sight of victory.

SEE ALSO North, Sir Frederick; Sandwich, John Montagu, fourth earl of.


Brown, Gerald S. The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775–1778. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America. London: Longman, 1964.

                              revised by John Oliphant