Continued from Part 3
General Washington’s defense of New York City was almost more of a symbolic gesture. Much like America’s covert support of Angolan forces fighting the Communists in the 1980s, General Washington wasn’t fighting to secure a strategic victory, but rather to deny the British an easy victory of key terrain in the colonies. With Congress determining that New York City was a focal point in the war which should not be ceded to the British, General Washington did his best with what he had to work with, including extremely limited choices for maneuvering when the British controlled the sea and militiamen who were as likely to desert as they were to fight.
On the British side, General Howe was a capable and competent commander who made use of a bold maneuver at Jamaica Pass and the capture of Kip Bay. However, his tactical decisions were influenced by the great costs his army suffered in capturing Bunker Hill during the Boston campaign. Future decisions are influenced by past decisions in a case of path dependency, and military officers are no exception. When General Howe had the opportunity to crush the Patriot forces in Brooklyn, he instead assumed a siege mentality and had his men dig in around American fortifications. This failure to capitalize on wins at Gowanus led to a loss of momentum which he could have easily exploited. However, General Howe must have known that another Bunker Hill would have resulted in a loss of both military and political capital, a risk which he was unwilling to take.
General Washington, for his part, fought a battle which alternated between defending and retreating. Knowing that he was fighting a losing battle and faced with both soldiers and geography which greatly limited his options, he would have been better suited by waging defense in depth. This would have meant using a series of ruses, ambushes, deceptions, and other surprise attacks to bait the British into pre-planned kill zones prior to the militiamen retreating back to prepared positions from which they could defend. This tactic would be repeated until the British forces were worn down. After slowly grinding down the British, General Washington could then have abandoned New York City entirely.
Describing General Washington’s strategy as defense in depth would be too generous. Although his men fled Gowanus and took refuge in redoubts which had been built before the campaign began, this was not a defense in depth but rather a panicked retreat which happened to include some fortified positions without which, the Americans would have been destroyed with nothing but the East River to their backs. The entire battle for New York City repeats this theme of panicked retreats and desertions. It was only through General Washington’s cunning and deceptive use of tactical withdrawals that losses were not greater than they were.
In the end, Washington’s legacy is not that he enacted a bold strategy which defeated the British, but rather that he was someone who persevered against incredible odds. Despite losing almost every battle he fought, he still somehow managed to win the war.
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