War and History Fiction posted October 24, 2018

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The more things change...

The World Turned Upside Down

by Bananafish308

Legend has it that the British army band played the song, "The World Turned Upside Down" during their surrender after the Siege of Yorktown during The American Revolution. If this is true, General Lord Cornwallis, the British commander, was more prophetic than he ever could have imagined. Perhaps no other country has been more influential over world events during the last 230 plus years than the United States of America.

Historians consider the American victory during the "Battle of Saratoga" to be the turning point in The American Revolution, and with good reason. Up to that point, the British were winning the war. The battle was a decisive tactical, strategic, and emotional victory. The victory forced the surrender of an entire British army. It ended the British invasion of New York from Canada. And just as importantly, it convinced France to enter the war on the American side.

France's entry into the war was a key factor in the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, but it was not the only factor. Rarely, in the course of human events does the single decision of one person decide the fate of the world, forever. In the winter of 1776, however, the decision of one man did that very thing. One desperate gamble by a man with nothing to lose appears to have changed the course of human history.

In December of 1776, the remnants of General George Washington's American Continental Army was beaten, exhausted, and demoralized. They had been chased across Long Island, New York City, New Jersey, and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

In less than a year their change of fortune was drastic. In March of 1776, Washington's Continental Army and it's militia contingents were flying high after chasing the British from Boston. Once the British commander, General William Howe, evacuated his troops by sea to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Washington moved his army to New York City to defend against a likely attack on that city.

In July, as expected, Howe sailed into Lower New York Bay with his reinforced army and landed his troops on Staten Island. Over the next month and a half he continued to receive reinforcements until his army numbered 32,000. Washington's army was stationed across the Narrows on Manhattan Island, Brooklyn Heights, and Long Island. On August 22nd, Howe landed 20,000 British and Hessian troops on the shores of Long Island. On the night of August 26th, he sent 10,000 men on an overnight march and attacked the American left flank in the morning, resulting in one of the most decisive defeats ever inflicted on an American army in the field of battle. Washington's outnumbered, inexperienced, and outflanked army was no match for the superbly trained British and Hessian troops. Washington suffered heavy casualties and was forced to retreat to a fortified line along Brooklyn Heights.

This bought him a temporary respite, but Washington was now trapped, with Howe's army in front and the East River to his rear. Howe was content to bide his time and lay siege to Washington's fortified position. Washington seized the opportunity and evacuated his army across the East River to Manhattan Island in a daring nighttime crossing. Howe followed and over the next four months scored a series of victories that forced Washington's army to withdraw from Manhattan, through White Plains, NY and across the Hudson River into New Jersey. At this point, Howe detached General Lord Cornwallis with a contingent of troops to pursue Washington through New Jersey. In early December Washington retreated across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

The American army was now at its lowest point. Washington's army was reduced from almost 20,000 before the Battle of Long Island to less than 5,000 men. Morale was very low. Troops were deserting and many enlistments were up at the end of the year, which would drastically reduce his army even further. This was the desperate situation that inspired Thomas Paine to famously declare, "These are the times that try men's souls." Even Washington was pessimistic about their chances, writing to his cousin, "I think the game is pretty near up."

It was this perilous situation that motivated Washington to arrive at the decision that would change the course of history. He knew something decisive needed to be done by the end of the year to improve morale and encourage his troops to reenlist. The British army had gone into winter quarters and Cornwallis was content to let Washington be until spring and then continue his pursuit. The British established a chain of outposts throughout New Jersey, while Cornwallis camped with the main British army in New York.

One such British outpost was a force of four Hessian regiments (approximately 1,400 troops) camped across the Delaware River in the town of Trenton, NJ. Washington devised a plan to cross the Delaware the night of December 25th with 2,400 men and launch a surprise attack on Trenton before dawn. The crossing took place during a winter storm and the troops were hampered by sleet, snow, and freezing conditions. As a result, the attack on Trenton was delayed until after dawn. Despite the setbacks due to the weather, the Battle of Trenton was a resounding victory for Washington. Almost one thousand Hessians were killed or captured. Only two Americans died from exposure due to the severe weather conditions.

Upon hearing about the Hessian defeat, Cornwallis marched into New Jersey with a force of approximately 6,000 men in pursuit of Washington. At The Battle of Princeton (January 2-3, 1777) the Americans scored another modest victory against a small force of Cornwallis' troops. After the battle, Washington withdrew from Princeton and both armies went into winter encampment.

In terms of numbers, the victories at Trenton and Princeton were somewhat minor, however the strategic and moral impacts were drastic. As a result of the twin defeats, Cornwallis withdrew most of his forces from New Jersey. The boost to American morale was incalculable. Most of the troops whose enlistments were up were persuaded to reenlist, and the victories encouraged new recruits to join the cause. The Americans were now convinced that they could win. The victories at Trenton and Princeton clearly saved the rebellion and set the stage for the victories at Saratoga and Yorktown, which resulted in the ultimate British defeat.

When the British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ending The American Revolution and declaring British recognition of the United States of America as independent states, it also signaled the decline of British influence in North America. On the other hand, the U.S. went on to double its size with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and became a major world leader by the end of the century.

What if, however, Washington hadn't crossed the Delaware that stormy Christmas night? What if, upon observing the extreme weather conditions that night, he called off the attack deeming it too risky? Despite his famous aloofness, he was profoundly distressed by casualties suffered by his troops. Let's say he decided to draw on his rather extensive powers of motivation and opted instead to gamble on his ability to persuade the bulk of his army to reenlist come January 1. Would it really have changed the course of history? Perhaps it would have played out something like this:

It was New Year's Eve 1776. Despite their despondent plight, the troops of the Continental Army were looking forward to ringing in the New Year and forgetting about the dire straights of the cause for a few hours. With their enlistments due to expire, many were looking forward to rejoining their families in a few days. Washington, not wanting to impose on the evening festivities decided to address all the troops early in the day.

Once the troops were assembled before him, Washington kept it short, but heartfelt. He thanked them profusely for their service up until now, and implored them not to give up, that victory was still possible. He took great care to reassure the men that there would not be any resentment directed at those who choose not to reenlist and they should hold their heads high over the sacrifices they made for the cause.

Despite Washington's stirring words and the obvious emotional impact it had on the men, very few reenlisted. In addition, his few remaining spies informed him that the British ranks were swelling with colonial Loyalists. People of dubious character will often gravitate toward those who they sense will ultimately hold the positions of power in order to curry favor and that is exactly what was occuring in the American colonies. Conversely, the rebellion was attracting very few new recruits.

Now willing to accept the inevitable, Washington sent an emissary to Cornwallis requesting a parley. He knew Cornwallis to be a man of honor and Washington hoped that he would speak on behalf of the Americans to help negotiate as favorable as possible terms of surrender. Washington's optimism was rewarded when the British Crown offered very generous terms.

The Crown guaranteed that no colonists would be prosecuted for treason and life would revert back to the status quo before the revolt. The colonists would not escape complete punishment, however. The rebellion had cost the Crown a fortune and they were in great debt. They felt it only fair that the colonists help pay down the debt, so the colonists would be taxed as a form of war reparations. In addition, the British would maintain permanent and substantial garrisons in major colonial cities, such as Boston, New Year and Philadelphia, to discouragement future insurrections. The colonists agreed to these terms, confident that over time they could regain the Crown's trust.

Understanding that it might take awhile for serious animosities to subside, both sides settled into an uneasy coexistence. The American colonies flourished economically, as their population soared. At the turn of the century, Europe was in turmoil in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise to power of Napoleon in France. By 1803, Great Britain was embroiled in the first of The Napoleonic Wars against France under Napoleon.

With the American colonies still under British rule, the French did not have the option of selling Louisiana to the Americans in order to curtail the costs of war and were forced to find other means of financing the war. England, on the other hand, benefited immensely from American prosperity through ever increasing tax revenues. Retaining rule over the American colonies also reinforced their position as the foremost power in the world.

Napoleon knew, however, that maintaining control of the Louisiana Territory provided other advantages. The Mississippi River and the port city of New Orleans had become increasingly important to American and British commerce. Napoleon realized he could strike a serious blow to the British economy by denying them access to New Orleans and the Mississippi River. To this end, he sent reinforcements to the French garrison at New Orleans and blockaded the mouth of the river.

England responded by assembling an invasion force drawn from the various garrisons in the colonies and reinforcements sent from Europe. In addition, the American colonists contributed troops in solidarity with the Motherland. A massive flotilla set sail from the colonies to New Orleans comprising troop transports containing the New Orleans invasion force as well as an escort of warships. England still had the most powerful navy in the world and they were able to blast their way through the French blockade and take control of the Mississippi. At the same time, their formidable invasion force landed in New Orleans and was able to overwhelm the French garrison with relative ease.

Napoleon had little desire to got involved in a protracted side war in North America once he lost control of the Mississippi. His primary goal was the conquest of Europe, so he decided to cut his losses in North America and focus all his attention on the European war. As a result, he signed a treaty with Great Britain ceding all of the Louisiana Territory to them. No longer burdened by the Louisiana War, he was now confident that he could defeat England and its allies in Europe and rule over the entire continent.

England reveled in their easy conquest of such a large chunk of territory and the expulsion of France from the Louisiana Territory. Their North American empire now stretched from sea to sea. On the downside, though, their financial woes continued to mount. The cost of even such a short war was exorbitant, along with the cost of administering such a huge expanse of territory. In addition, they were still paying off the cost of the war with the colonists and the cost of maintaining multiple permanent garrisons in the colonies. All this, while financing the war against Napoleon in Europe.

It seemed logical to the Crown that they should tap into the wealth of the American colonies even further, in order to offset their financial difficulties, so they once again raised taxes on the colonies. The colonists were furious. They took it as a thankless slap in the face, after they provided substantial manpower in helping defeated the French. They had no choice, but to accept this indignity and pay the tax increase. Secretly, though, there was a new crop of firebrand leaders who were talking sedition, led by a militia commander from the colony of Tennessee named Andrew Jackson. Few of the rabble rousers were old enough to remember the carnage of the American Revolution, but they had their baptism by fire in The Louisiana War and they were itching for a fight.

The year was 1806. There were now 16 colonies and the population of the colonies had grown from 2.5 million in 1776 to over six million by 1806. At the same time, the Fourth Coalition in Europe had just been formed by England, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden to combat Napoleon. Jackson and other colonial leaders thought the time was right for a second attempt at independence. Napoleon was running roughshod over Europe, having recorded a string of decisive victories during 1805-1806. England was preoccupied with defeating Napoleon and the colonists surmised that England would not have the resources or inclination to simultaneously fight a major war in North America, especially since the colonists were a much more formidable foe than in 1776.

The second insurgency was well-planned and coordinated by veterans of the first insurrection, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These brilliant men learned from the mistakes they made the first time. This time, there were no outward signs of defiance or rebellion. By all appearances, the colonies accepted the new taxes with benign resignation, which lulled the British into a dangerous complacency. Behind the scenes, though, in utmost secrecy, preparations were at a fever pitch with the colonies under full military mobilization.

General Alexander Hamilton, a veteran officer from both The American Revolution and The Louisiana War was appointed commander-in-chief. He appointed Andrew Jackson as his second in command. In the spring of 1807, after months of secretly stashing arms and ammunition, the rebel army struck. They orchestrated brilliantly synchronized assaults on the three major British outposts in the colonies - Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

In each case, the surprised and ill-prepared British garrisons were surrounded by far superior numbers and forced to surrender. The British government, weary of their pesky American colonies, was more than willing to negotiate the release of all the British prisoners in exchange for recognition of American sovereignty and withdrawal of all British forces from within the boundaries of the new United States of America.

A little more than 40 years after Washington surrendered to end The American Revolution, the colonies gained their independence. Although Washington didn't live to see it, he did prove the adage that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. The Second War for American Independence resulted in minimal loss of life and came to be known as the "Bloodless Revolution."

The fledgling nation spanned the entire continent and faced many challenges ahead. Before long, the country would be split over the issue of slavery and suffer through a five year civil war that devastated the nation. The nation somehow managed to endure, although the healing process was slow and arduous and still in progress even today. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States had emerged as one of the preeminent military and economic powers in the world. Throughout that century and into the 21st century they have continued to wield incredible influence over world events.

In the end, the fate of the world turned out more or less the same, despite Washington's decision not to cross the Delaware that stormy night. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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