Saturday, August 15, 2009

Seeds of Defeat (More)

At beginning of June, 1780, the British were confident that they would soon complete the subjugation of South Carolina. By the end of the month, however, that goal was proving elusive. The Backcountry militia were driven into neighboring North Carolina following the battle of Hill's Ironworks, but the destruction of private property and the hanging of some rebels pushed the populace more towards becoming angry and dangerous than frightened and submissive. The British, in other words, had enough numbers and used enough force to provoke many inhabitants of the Backcountry, but they were not so numerous as to deter or suppress armed resistance. The Backcountry militia were stronger at the end of June than they were at the end of May, and the British had inadvertently started on the road to defeat.

There are multiple explanations that can be invoked to explain the failure of the British occupation of South Carolina. Some authors have praised the indomitable spirit of resistance among the South Carolina Scotch Irish, or the guerrilla-style tactics employed by the American militia (see the works by Sam Thomas and Michael Scoggins). In a previous post, I described errors in strategy and policy as root causes of the British defeat. Recently I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell that prompted me to consider overconfidence on the part of the British leadership as a critical factor.

Gladwell often shows connections between seemingly unrelated events, and in this article he identified overconfidence as the root cause of last year's financial meltdown on Wall Street, and the infamous British defeat at Gallipoli in World War I. In describing Gallipoli, he repeatedly referred to Eliot Cohen's and John Gooch's analysis of this defeat. Gladwell wrote:

"Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt--a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations. And behind that failure to adapt was a deeply psychological problem: the British simply couldn't wrap their heads around the fact that they might have to adapt. "Let me bring my lads face to face with Turks in the open field," [Sir Ian] Hamilton wrote in his diary before the attack. "We must beat them every time because British volunteer soldiers are superior individuals to Anatolians, Syrians or Arabs and are animated with a superior ideal and an equal joy in battle."

What struck me while reading this article is the several parallels between the British invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 and South Carolina in 1780. In both cases, a second front was opened in order to bring a stalemated war to a successful conclusion. In both cases, the invaders had a low opinion of the opponent they faced, and in both occasion the invaders would be slow to adapt to unanticipated difficulties (such as the asymmetrical warfare adopted by the Americans in the South).

"'The attack was based on two assumptions,' Cohen and Gooch write, 'both of which turned out to be unwise: that the only really difficult part of the operation would be getting ashore, after which the Turks could easily be pushed off the peninsula; and that the main obstacles to a happy landing would be provided by the enemy.'"

The British planning for the invasion of South Carolina was likewise concerned primarily with getting the army safely ashore, and dealing with the threat posed by the Continentals. In fact, defeating the Continental army at Charleston proved to be a much less formidable task than subduing the rural parts of the state.

I'm not going to be do justice to the article in this post, but I'll share one tidbit that I found to be especially interesting. Regarding the origins of overconfidence, Gladwell wrote:

"As novices, we don't trust our judgment. Then we have some success, and begin to feel a little surer of ourselves. Finally, we get to the top of our game and succumb to the trap of thinking that there's nothing we can't master. As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we're involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn't matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a highstakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root."

Is this what happened in South Carolina? Arguably, the British commanders, Lieutenant-Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis had much the same background and were in much the same situation. Cornwallis in particular seemed to take increasingly large and ill-advised risks during the Southern Campaign. He wisely refrained from invading North Carolina in June of 1780 because he felt insufficiently strong and because South Carolina had not been wholly subdued. In August, he took a big gamble at the battle of Camden (attacking a force he believed to be several times larger than his own) that paid off spectacularly well. In the spring of 1781, he invaded North Carolina with a little over 2,000 men, even though this entailed advancing into a wilderness where he could not be supplied and where few supplies could be found. That too paid off, or so he may have convinced himself because of the "victory" won at Guilford Courthouse. And so on it continued until his final courting of disaster at Yorktown.


Sam Thomas. The 1780 Presbyterian Rebellion and the Battle of Huck's Defeat.

Michael C. Scoggins. (2005). The Day It Rained Militia: Huck's Defeat and the Revolution in the South Carolina Backcountry, May-July 1780. (link to

Malcolm Gladwell. Cocksure: Banks, battles, and the psychology of overconfidence. The New Yorker. July 27, 2009.

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