Headed for Auction: Back-Channel Gloom on Revolutionary War





Despite King George’s boast that “once these rebels have felt a smart blow, they will submit,” back-channel messages from British generals and diplomatic officials in America during the Revolutionary War, some of them previously unpublished, turn out to have been decidedly more pessimistic.

As early as June 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill — which the Redcoats technically won — Gen. John Burgoyne pronounced British military prospects in America “gloomy” in what he called “a crisis that my little read in history cannot parallel.”

“Such a pittance of troops as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and insure disappointment,” Burgoyne added in a letter in the collection that will be auctioned beginning next month by Sotheby’s in New York. “Our victory has been bought by an uncommon loss of officers, some of them irreparable, and I fear the consequence will not answer the expectations that will be raised in England.”

By the next summer, Henry Strachey, the secretary to Gen. William Howe and Adm. Richard Howe, the brothers who served as commanders in chief of the army and naval forces in the colonies until 1778, was also voicing despair. The Howes had been dispatched to New York to negotiate peace with the rebellious American colonies and, failing that, to wage war against them.

“Killing seems to me a very unnatural trade, but these people are beyond nature as well as reason,” Strachey wrote to his wife after the British won the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. “They might at this moment have peace and happiness, but they insist upon having their brains knocked out first.”...

Despite King George’s boast that “once these rebels have felt a smart blow, they will submit,” back-channel messages from British generals and diplomatic officials in America during the Revolutionary War, some of them previously unpublished, turn out to have been decidedly more pessimistic.

As early as June 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill — which the Redcoats technically won — Gen. John Burgoyne pronounced British military prospects in America “gloomy” in what he called “a crisis that my little read in history cannot parallel.”

“Such a pittance of troops as Great Britain and Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expense and insure disappointment,” Burgoyne added in a letter in the collection that will be auctioned beginning next month by Sotheby’s in New York. “Our victory has been bought by an uncommon loss of officers, some of them irreparable, and I fear the consequence will not answer the expectations that will be raised in England.”

By the next summer, Henry Strachey, the secretary to Gen. William Howe and Adm. Richard Howe, the brothers who served as commanders in chief of the army and naval forces in the colonies until 1778, was also voicing despair. The Howes had been dispatched to New York to negotiate peace with the rebellious American colonies and, failing that, to wage war against them.

“Killing seems to me a very unnatural trade, but these people are beyond nature as well as reason,” Strachey wrote to his wife after the British won the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. “They might at this moment have peace and happiness, but they insist upon having their brains knocked out first.”...



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