(lack of) British atrocities during American Revolution

Sep 2018
37
America
#1
Remember that Mel Gibson movie, "The Patrion," when the evil British officer herds an entire town into a church, and then burns it down? This event was remarkable, in that it never happened. It actually got me thinking, "Why didn`t this happen?" As in, why did the British show as much restraint as they did to the American colonists? Counterinsurgencies have historically been grisly affairs, so why were the British show so much restraint? I know that there are a few instances of of prisoners being shot, or attempts to surrender not being honored, but there was no concerted attempt to terrorize the civilian population into submission. And it`s not like the British had historically been squeemish about crushing any opposition to the British Empire. The Irish tended to get uppity once a generation or so, and the typical British response was to scorch the earth and stack skulls.

Maybe it was the American Revolution that convinced the British that the Black Flag was the way to go, because every subsequent rebellion in a British Dominion was met with fire and steel, and it seemed to work pretty well. The Boer War, the Mau-Mau uprising, and the Malayan Emergency were some of the most successful counterinsurgencies ever waged.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,061
Dispargum
#2
During the first few years of the war the British took a 'soft war' approach, treating the rebellious colonies as errant children who had to be disciplined but ultimately were entitled to parental love. The British goal was to bring the colonies back into the empire without permanently damaging the relationship between Britain and those colonies. Later, after the departure of William Howe as commander in chief, the British did deliberately wage a harsher war. Partly this was due to frustration about the inability to win the war quickly. The war in the South, which had largely avoided the war the first few years, was perpetrated under these harsher conditions. The nastiests attrocities were probably carried out by American loyalists against American patriots and vice versa.

The attempted suppression of the rebellion was carried out on behalf of the British merchantile class. The British working classes who filled the ranks of the British Army frequently saw the Americans as kindred souls. If the British Army carried out few attrocities, it was probably because the British soldiers disliked abusing people they saw as very similar to themselves. This was a major complaint by the Americans about the British hiring German mercenaries - the Gemans did not identify with their victims and so were more likely to carry out attrocities. After capturing several hundred Germans in the Battle of Trenton Washington ordered his army to 'treat the Germans better than they have treated our men.' A quick check on my part reveals little evidence of attrocities, however.

Another source of attrocities might be the tendency of the British to use Indian allies. Since you like movies I'll mention the scene in "Last of the Mohicans" where Indian allies of the French massacred the British garrison of Fort William Henry. Europeans lost control of their Indian allies more than once. There were numerous Indian raids during the Revolutionary War, most famously in the Wyoming Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania in 1778. In 1779 Washington retaliated with Sullivan's attack on the Iroquois in which he destroyed numerous Iroquois villages and farms. After that attack the Iroquois named Washington 'Town Burner.' That attack permanently broke Iroquois power.
 
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Feb 2016
3,972
Japan
#3
Mel Gibson’s movie is a fantasy story and needs good guys and bad guys. Having your bad guys do horrible things means it’s more enjoyable for your audience when your hero scalps them or kills them when they are surrendering.

In reality there were “atrocities” in the AWI. I have vauge recollection of a case of a village simpleton/handicapped boy being hung by either Hessian or British troops on a very flimsy pretext.
But the worst outrages involved Native Americans as perpetrators and victims and or loyalist-Rebel ones. One of the biggest propaganda coups for the Rebels was the British willingness to let their native allies off the leash.... pushed a lot of potential support into the rebel camp.

Fort Grierson - British prisoners massacred by rebels.
Waxhaw - Loyalists massacre rebel prisoners
British and Hessian troops also engaged in looting of rebel towns.
 
Feb 2016
3,972
Japan
#4
The irony of the last of the Mohican massacre scene is they portrayed it as a whole sale slaughter of an army column.

In truth the redcoats suffered the least of all out of the Fort William Henry garrison and the Indians mainly went after women, Slaves and colonial militia men as they considered them not bound by any agreement between French and British troops... and they were more spread out. The movie makes into a battle, it was actually more like a prolonged harrying of the Colomn. Indians walking up robbing militia men, carrying off women or children, killing those that resist... they ignored soldiers unless they were straggling and vulnerable. less than 10% of the troops were casualties, and a good number of them were wounded hospital patients .
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#5
Remember that Mel Gibson movie, "The Patrion," when the evil British officer herds an entire town into a church, and then burns it down? This event was remarkable, in that it never happened. It actually got me thinking, "Why didn`t this happen?" As in, why did the British show as much restraint as they did to the American colonists? Counterinsurgencies have historically been grisly affairs, so why were the British show so much restraint? I know that there are a few instances of of prisoners being shot, or attempts to surrender not being honored, but there was no concerted attempt to terrorize the civilian population into submission. And it`s not like the British had historically been squeemish about crushing any opposition to the British Empire. The Irish tended to get uppity once a generation or so, and the typical British response was to scorch the earth and stack skulls.

Maybe it was the American Revolution that convinced the British that the Black Flag was the way to go, because every subsequent rebellion in a British Dominion was met with fire and steel, and it seemed to work pretty well. The Boer War, the Mau-Mau uprising, and the Malayan Emergency were some of the most successful counterinsurgencies ever waged.
The war in the south was a bit more savage than you give credit. And yes, I am talking about Lord Cornwallis and the British occupation forces. They were hardly passive and showed little restraint. Cornwallis ordered hangings and punishment expeditions (basically burning out the civilians) on more than three occasions in the Fall of 1780. The results were quite brutal and modern history fans seem to be in some kind of fantasy about the British officers. They were a brutal occupying force that very much put boots on the neck of the civilians. Far more than Tarleton's Legion getting out of hand at the Waxhaws. The scene in the movie Patriot did not actually occur but is a mixture of events just as Mel was a mixture of characters. (both Francis Marion and Daniel Morgan). There were church burnings at Indian Town and also during the Presbyterian uprising near York. Hangings went along in both places although there is no incident of burning women and children inside a church. There were lots of hangings. Seems almost like a favorite pastime for Tarleton, Wemyss, Brown, Cruger, Turnbull, and Rawdon. I can certainly provide examples of hangings by all of these British regimental officers along with lots of plantation burnings, etc. And yes, these events were authorized and in many cases ordered by Lord Cornwallis. This notion of a benign British army does not hold true in the southern campaigns. Quite brutal, far more examples of British brutality than Partisan brutality.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#6
Mel Gibson’s movie is a fantasy story and needs good guys and bad guys. Having your bad guys do horrible things means it’s more enjoyable for your audience when your hero scalps them or kills them when they are surrendering.

In reality there were “atrocities” in the AWI. I have vauge recollection of a case of a village simpleton/handicapped boy being hung by either Hessian or British troops on a very flimsy pretext.
But the worst outrages involved Native Americans as perpetrators and victims and or loyalist-Rebel ones. One of the biggest propaganda coups for the Rebels was the British willingness to let their native allies off the leash.... pushed a lot of potential support into the rebel camp.

Fort Grierson - British prisoners massacred by rebels.
Waxhaw - Loyalists massacre rebel prisoners
British and Hessian troops also engaged in looting of rebel towns.
Not sure what incident is being referred to at Fort Grierson. The Patriots did kill Grierson himself after the recapture of Augusta. It was very well deserved considering that he led punitive expeditions against the Patriot population to include multiple hangings and burnings of their homes. As far as prisoner massacres at Augusta, one needs to look at the first siege of Augusta to find Colonel Thomas Brown guilty of mass hangings. First group of hangings actually sparked the siege while the second set represented prisoners taken at the battle (some were hung others handed over to the Indian allies for torture and execution) and a third set came via the punishment expeditions led by Cruger and Grierson.

Again, I don't know where these myths of British behavior during the American Revolution come from. When given a chance, they were just as brutal as any other occupying army.
 
Jun 2017
2,380
Connecticut
#7
Remember that Mel Gibson movie, "The Patrion," when the evil British officer herds an entire town into a church, and then burns it down? This event was remarkable, in that it never happened. It actually got me thinking, "Why didn`t this happen?" As in, why did the British show as much restraint as they did to the American colonists? Counterinsurgencies have historically been grisly affairs, so why were the British show so much restraint? I know that there are a few instances of of prisoners being shot, or attempts to surrender not being honored, but there was no concerted attempt to terrorize the civilian population into submission. And it`s not like the British had historically been squeemish about crushing any opposition to the British Empire. The Irish tended to get uppity once a generation or so, and the typical British response was to scorch the earth and stack skulls.

Maybe it was the American Revolution that convinced the British that the Black Flag was the way to go, because every subsequent rebellion in a British Dominion was met with fire and steel, and it seemed to work pretty well. The Boer War, the Mau-Mau uprising, and the Malayan Emergency were some of the most successful counterinsurgencies ever waged.
The events of the "Patriot" being false does not mean there were not British atrocities. The British prisoner ships among other things were pretty bad. I'm typing this from a region Benedict Arnold devastated. Honestly the South was the region the British were the most friendly in because this was the region the British expected to be the most friendly(because while they did declare independence they were somewhat removed from the early events of the rebellion, and the war didn't really touch them for quite some time) in turn and while the events of "the Patriot" were quite unrealistic, to the North were the British were not expecting a positive response brutality was used, though stuff like the Church scene and violence against civilians is quite a different matter than brutality against prisoners of war and suspected rebels.

The distance and the size of the colonies versus Ireland would be two tactical reasons why putting down American insurgency's would be more difficult and why winning over the population would be crucial. Also the Irish were Catholics while the Americans were mostly Protestants and this certainly effected how the colonists were viewed. While there were many Catholics in New England, New England was liberated quite early on and the British really never got the chance to be all too brutal again, focusing their main attention to the South though this might explain Arnold's Connecticut rampage. There was also the politics of getting native,Canadian, slave and Loyalist support, I'm not sure the UK was under any delusions they could win anyone over when putting down the Irish rebellions nor was this as important given the proximity size and scale of the island they were subduing. The British especially in the South expected the population to be more supportive of the crown than they were, and it was hard to know who was or wasn't on there side and the battle for popular opinion was seen as one that could be won and thus should be fought while I'm pretty sure this wasn't the case with the Irish(The British did seriously overestimate Loyalist support, so it's not like they were necessarily correct to think this, but they thought it nonetheless). Remember most of these colonists had their families immigrate within the preceding century. There were also soldiers and generals with connections to the colonists and brutality would not have sat well with this faction(hence why General Gage was relatively easy going in the early days of the war), the British did need to run these colonies again after they won the war, and they would have wanted the victory to eventually be a hiccup in an otherwise long and healthy relationship rather than a reason for the population to hate them. The US's dispute with the UK was also quite minor and the UK had treated the colonies quite well(it was this changing that led to the rebellion and that whole change occurred within less than 15 years), it's reasonable for the UK to have seriously underestimated the amount of popular support for the rebellion and to have seen brutality as unnecessarily fanning the flames(something the character of Cornwallis seemed to be well aware of even in a propaganda piece such as the "Patriot"), especially outside of New England.
 
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