Friday, July 31, 2009

Thinking Outside the Box: Lessons in Military History, Part II

In Part I, we looked at how thinking outside the box enabled the Romans to defeat rival Carthage at its own game in the First Punic War. Instead of facing the vastly more experienced Carthaginian navy on their own terms, the newbie Romans figured out, in essence, how to stage a land battle at sea.

In Part II, we investigate a mirror opposite, how the American Revolution’s best general (on both sides) took on the British Royal Navy deep in the American wilderness.

The Battle of Valcour Island, 1776

Washington forced the British garrison out of Boston in the spring of 1776, but they returned with a vengeance several months later, with a huge fleet bearing a large army weighing anchor in New York and another armada sailing up the St Lawrence into Quebec.

The British had no problem routing Washington’s army just outside New York City and reducing it to a remnant as it occupied the city and asserted itself in New Jersey. In Canada, they easily swept aside the badly outnumbered Americans there. A British invasion from the north and into New York would bring a swift end to the ill-fated colonial rebellion.

One of the American commanders in Canada, Benedict Arnold, fought a brilliant delaying action, destroying British ships, fortifications, and sawmills as he retreated south.

The British Army followed to the northern shore of Lake Champlain, deep in what was then impenetrable wilderness, while the Americans regrouped on the southern end. This set the stage for one of the strangest campaigns in military history.

The key to transporting the British Army south to New York City was via the waterways, first Lake Champlain, then Lake George, then down the Hudson. But first the British needed to build a fleet, and so did the Americans, if they intended to stop the British.

The Americans had already commandeered a sloop or two, but were at a decided disadvantage, lacking the necessary shipwrights and sailors, as well as supplies and resources.

The British, in the meantime, came well prepared, with 10 prefabricated ships, plus a 180-ton warship that they took apart in Canada, carted overland, and reassembled on Lake Champlain, not to mention the necessary shipwrights to build more boats. By the end of the summer, the British had a fleet of 25 heavily-armed vessels, commanded by a captain of the Royal Navy, together with a full complement of officers and sailors.

More boats were equipped to transport 9,000 British Army regulars.

The Americans, under the leadership of Benedict Arnold, proved extremely resourceful in knocking out their own boats - some little more than wooden platforms - to bring their roster to 15. These were built by mostly carpenter labor, manned in large part by ragged soldiers turned sailors. Arnold was a general who happened to have experience as captain of his own merchant ship.

In mid-October, as the nearby mountains turned white with snow, Arnold headed north with his strange flotilla of 500 “sailors” to meet the British. His intention was to lure the British into the narrow rocky strip of water between Valcour Island and the western shore of Lake Champlain. Here, the British would have difficulty bringing their superior firepower and sailing skills to bear.

The disadvantage was the Americans were backed into a corner, with nowhere to run.

The inferior American fleet held up under a withering British bombardment at extremely close range, managing to inflict serious damage in the process, but as the sun set it was clear the day belonged to the British. Virtually every American boat was ready for salvage. The British, meanwhile, were sitting pretty with ships that had not yet joined battle.

Facing the certainty of total annihilation, Arnold effected a brilliant escape in the dead of night, but with the British in hot pursuit. Under hellish weather conditions, one ship was captured while others had to be scuttled. The remnants of his fleet managed to make it to a refuge, where the boats were torched.

Arnold succeeded in leading the 200 remaining men under his command overland to an American fortification at Crown Point, thence (with the Crown Point garrison) to Ticonderoga, where a large contingent of American irregulars were dug in.

After that, the only thing standing between the British advance down the Hudson (and inevitable victory) was the oncoming winter. It turned out in losing the battle, Arnold had in fact set the scene for winning the war. By forcing the enemy to engage in an arms race way out in the middle of nowhere and then join battle, Arnold had run out the clock, delaying the British offensive by a good three months.

The Brits' only option was to retire to winter quarters in Quebec and try again next spring. This bought the American cause a precious year, time for Washington to rebuild his ragtag remnant of an army into a highly-trained fighting force. Time to assemble a strong regular army on the northern front.

When the British attempted a second invasion a year later, the Americans were ready, with an overwhelming force at Saratoga. The outstanding commander in the field was Benedict Arnold.

Arnold’s extraordinary military achievement is a shining example of thinking outside the box, of reframing issues and coming up with solutions where none seemingly exist. Unfortunately, by shifting his allegiance to the British later in the war and thus betraying his country, Arnold is much better known as a sober object lesson in thinking far too far outside the box.

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