Footnote 29 — Alistair Cooke, America: A Personal History (1973)

Footnote 29 — Alistair Cooke, America: A Personal History (New York: Basic Books, 1973)

Since I first heard it decades ago, I have been intrigued by the unique perspective, colorfully describing aspects of the American Revolution by Alistair Cooke, BBC and British newspaper correspondent (and, later, host of Masterpiece Theatre). Cooke came to the USA in 1932 on a fellowship to Yale after graduating Cambridge, married a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, became an American citizen on 1 December 1941, and stayed, for the most part, from the Great Depression until his death in 2005.  Cooke toured the US by automobile many times seeking stories to explain to British subjects the enigmatic behaviors of their American cousins, attempting to bridge the chasm described in George Bernard Shaw’s memorable depiction (later borrowed famously by Sir Winston Churchill) of the British and Americans as “one people separated by a common language.”  Cooke’s 13-part television series, The Americans (1973), was accompanied by a book, from which the following passage is excerpted.

“We should not forget that for quite a time the rebels thought of themselves as Englishmen abused, and in many engagements felt an uncomfortable sympathy for the Englishmen sent over to fight them.  In Ridgefield, Connecticut, there is a plaque sunk in the wall of a cemetery.  It says:  ‘In defense of American independence at the Battle of Ridgefield, April 27th, 1777, died Eight Patriots who were laid in this ground, Companioned by Sixteen British  soldiers, Living, their enemies, Dying, their guests.’

“The British arrived as a professional army expecting, with companies of German mercenaries, to fight European set battles. Not enough of them had learned, at first or second hand, the lessons of the French and Indian Wars.  The Americans were at once too shrewd and too untrained to oblige them with an old world war. First of all, as John Adams said, the colonial population divided up into one third that took to arms, one third that was either openly or secretly loyal to the British, and one third that didn’t give a damn – not the best recipe for a disciplined national army.  

      “So against the army of British regulars there stood – besides some French volunteers, immensely valuable as professionals at the start – mainly a large, improvised force of farmers, mechanics, tradesmen, parsons, lawyers, grocers, hunters, trappers, con men, thieves, and hoodlums. ‘Never,’ their sorrowing commander was to lament when the going was bad, ‘such a rabble dignified by the name of army.’  How could they hold off for six years, much less defeat, one of the crack armies of Europe?

     “For one thing, there was weaponry.  The British army for the most part used smooth-bore muskets that allowed a lateral error of three feet at a hundred yards range.  The British infantryman was not trained to pick off single targets; he stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellows and they sprayed, shall we say, in the general direction of the enemy!  The Americans had smooth-bore muskets too, but as the war moved into the interior the British came up against the frontiersmen, who did not use guns for sport.  Their very existence depended on shooting their food on the wing and saving their families by picking off Indians in night raids. They needed a weapon that was light and accurate, and found it in the Pennsylvania flintlock, developed for them by German settlers in Pennsylvania who doubled the length of the barrel and grooved it make the bullet spin and stay on line…

        “At long range, this weapon did bloody damage to shoulder-to-shoulder infantry.  A Pennsylvania Tory who had seen it at work wrote a letter to a London newspaper offering rather chill advice: ‘This province has raised a thousand riflemen, the worst of whom will put a rifle ball in man’s head at a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards.  Therefore, advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure.’  This reputation for sharpshooting was magnified in England into a witch’s curse, and there were some lively desertions among men drafted for service in the Colonies.  It is, on the whole, and all-too-true American myth:  that legendary reputation for spotting the bull’s eye which began with the embattled farmers and was sustained down through the next century and a half by Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Sergeant York…

     “A British commander sent home a short report that was read in the House of Commons.  The gist of it was: ‘The Americans will not stand and fight.” They were jack-in-the-box guerillas who would fight like devils for a day and a night and then go home and harvest their crops on the weekend.  They would return, not always in any discernible formation, and after a swift onslaught vanish into the country by night, and then again at some unpredictable time come whizzing in like hornets.  What baffled and eventually broke the British was what broke the Roman armies in their late campaigns against the barbarians, and for so long frustrated the Americans in Vietnam. …. [A]s William Pitt sadly commented, looking at his drawn lines on an alien wilderness: ‘You cannot conquer a map.’


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