Losing America Cast of characters shines in captivating tale of British decision makers

“The Men Who Lost America” by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. Yale, 2013. $37.50.

You’ve heard of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, and of the courage and drama that accompanied America’s War for Independence. But you don’t know the half of it.

That is, you have yet to appreciate the other side: who prosecuted the war against the rebellious colonies, and how their strategy unfolded.

O’Shaughnessy’s far-reaching portrait of Britain’s tangle of decision makers is a profound and invigorating re-examination of the Revolution that breathes new life into a complex moment in global politics.

Let us start, as he does, with King George III. The monarch whose enlightened library became the basis of the British Museum was not the enemy of liberty that the Revolutionaries’ propaganda declared him to be. Initially reluctant to provoke the colonists, he was pretty hands-off when it came to war making, but grew hawkish as the conflict evolved.

Among the personal and engaging stories that follow are those of the embarrassed Prime Minister Lord North, who, despite his popularity within Parliament, admitted to his own incompetence; Maj. Gens. William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton; Lord George Germain, the possibly gay secretary of state for the American Department who was the “chief architect” of Britain’s overall strategy; Charles, Earl Cornwallis, whose hopeful incursions in the Southern states were erased by a catastrophic collapse at Yorktown; and John Montagu, the earl of Sandwich, first lord of the admiralty, who led the seemingly unstoppable Royal Navy.

O’Shaughnessy’s saga takes the reader through all of the better-known events of the Revolutionary War from London’s perspective: an initial expectation of a negotiated settlement or else quick victory, the capture of Manhattan and Long Island, the shocking downturn of 1778 occasioned by the Battle of Saratoga, and rather mixed experience seeking local allies (“their friendship was only passive,” wrote Cornwallis to Germain) while aiming to pacify the Carolinas.

Pesky raids, frontier ambushes, and finally, “the disaster waiting to happen” at Yorktown, destroyed the generals’ and politicians’ confidence by the end of 1782.

It is the colorful cast of characters that makes the narrative shine. Burgoyne, the least aristocratic of the military leaders in America, was at once a notorious gambler and respected playwright — a “showman with staged mannerisms and speech.”

He had made his bones as a soldier fighting in France and Portugal a decade before. Eager to drive through the upstate New York countryside and outdo more cautious British army commanders, the ambitious, over-optimistic “Gentleman Johnny” ranged south from Canada, engaged Indian allies and German auxiliaries in pursuit of Americans, and outran his supply lines. Surrounded and outnumbered at Saratoga, he was “singing and drinking,” until he ended up a prisoner at Albany. Burgoyne lay the blame on others, and on politics. After the war, he returned to musical comedy.

Sandwich is perhaps the most misunderstood and ultimately most sympathetic character in the book. He was hampered not just by marauding privateers off the coast of America, but by Lord North’s fear that too large a fleet would lead to all-out war with France and Spain. Sandwich, if you’ll pardon the pun, was caught in the middle.

This is fascinating history, captivatingly written. The British were taxed with conquering and occupying a resistant people when their own government was never fully united. Their war was a roller-coaster ride for the capable, conflicted leadership corps that ran Britain’s sprawling empire.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship professor of history at LSU, and author, most recently, of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died.”