What if British had won at Yorktown 1781?

http://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-50845sy0oct15,0,6720993.story?track=rss
2006-10-18

British Gen. Charles Earl Cornwallis' surrender to Gen. George Washington after the siege of Yorktown marked the end of the Revolution's decisive battle and effectively ended the war. But what if the general's roles had been reversed? As we prepare to celebrate the battle's 225th anniversary Wednesday, the Daily Press asks five local historians, "What if the British had won?"

Ron Hoffman, College of William and Mary professor: France would have bowed out of the war

A defeat at Yorktown could have led France to withdraw from the American Revolution, according to Ron Hoffman.

"That would have been catastrophic for the revolutionaries," said Hoffman, a history professor at the College of William and Mary.

Besides providing troops, warships and military expertise to the American side, France's jump into the fray brought the British worldwide worries. The British had to start guarding against a French invasion of their country and focus more on protecting Jamaica and their other interests in the West Indies.

The American Revolution became their third concern, and that helped the rebels, said Hoffman, who heads the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg.

Hoffman also said a British victory at Yorktown - and then in the war - would have made for no Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and no American Civil War in the 1860s.

That's because France wouldn't have sold land to its longtime enemy, and Britain abolished slavery in its possessions in the 1830s.

Chris Bryce, Yorktown Battlefield park ranger: A U.S. of New England - and a British South

A British victory could have provided the Redcoats "a springboard for at least retaking the South," said Chris Bryce, a National Park Service ranger at Yorktown Battlefield.

The British could have tried to get all 13 Colonies back, or they could have been content with just the South. Bryce said the original United States could have been only the New England Colonies.

But other British colonies around the world have become independent over time, so all American Colonies probably would have gained independence from Britain eventually, he said.

Before Yorktown, the American and French alliance hadn't borne fruit, and the two allies were locked in a stalemate with the British, Bryce said. Yorktown's outcome would provide valuable momentum, he said.

"It lost the war for the British. It probably would have done the same thing for the Americans," Bryce said.

"To say this would have been devastating is an understatement."

Patrick Hannum, Joint Forces Staff College: British from Md. to N.Y. - and a Spanish West

If they had won at Yorktown, the tired British still would have negotiated for peace within a few years - but from a stronger position.

They could have ended up with a firm grip on an area from Maryland to New York, said Patrick Hannum of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. He earmarked the South and New England for the revolutionaries.

Hannum, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, said there would have been no U.S. Constitution and, later, no 50 states. He said Spain would have played a larger role in the American West.

Hannum stressed that for a victory at Yorktown, Britain's navy needed to defeat a French fleet at the Chesapeake Bay's entrance in September 1781. The French actually won the Battle of the Capes, and their fleet's control of the bay was critical, Hannum said.

"Yorktown is a very good example of the synergy that you get from maritime and land forces working together," he said. Hannum developed Yorktown-related coursework taught regularly at the college, where he's an education program analyst and former faculty member.

Ed Ayres, Yorktown Victory Center historian: In the end, the result would have been same

Even without a victory at Yorktown, the Americans and French still would have defeated the British, Ed Ayres said.

"Sooner or later, they would have been able to bloody the British noses somewhere," said Ayres, a historian at the state-run Yorktown Victory Center. He said that's "not a really exciting answer," but "it wouldn't have been some huge difference."

He likened Britain's experience in the American Revolution to the United States' experience in the Vietnam War. He said the British initially planned for just a police action, then the fighting didn't go as planned and people at home stopped supporting the war.

"They were incurring more and more debt, taxpayers were grumbling about it and what were they getting for it?" Ayres asked.

He also emphasized that the British couldn't have managed a victory at Yorktown - just an inconclusive battle or an escape to fight another day.

Kevin P. Kelly, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation historian: More like Canada, but maybe more revolutions

With a British victory at Yorktown and in the war, the American Colonies could have "become more 'Canadized,' " Kevin P. Kelly said.

By "Canadized," the Colonial Williamsburg research historian means a resemblance to British colonies such as Canada or Australia. Kelly said, "They become increasingly self-governed ... but always with the allegiance to the British crown."

British rule also could have meant slower industrialization, Kelly said. Before the Revolutionary War, British leaders kept some machinery secret from Americans, he said.

But if the British tried to stop industrialization, they could have faced another revolution, Kelly said.

In addition, they would have struggled in dealing with settlement west of the original 13 Colonies, he said. And the issue of slavery - which ended in British colonies in the 1830s - also could have sparked a revolution.

"All those things would still have to be dealt with, and it would be increasingly difficult for England to deal with them at a distance," Kelly said.


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