Book Review

Saberton, Ian. The American Revolutionary War in the South: A Re-Evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers. Tolworth, Surrey: Grosvenor House Publishing Co., 2018.

Clever blending of differing perspectives and strong opinions is a recipe for exciting and thought-provoking reading. Ian Saberton in his new book on the American War of Independence in the south engagingly delivers this combination. Saberton is the editor of an impressive, previously published six-volume compendium of the Lord Charles Cornwallis Papers covering the period of his command of British forces in the southern colonies.  To orient the reader to this immense piece of historical scholarship, Saberton has added this new work consisting of eight essays on various aspects of the 1780-1 British southern military campaigns.

In this new woek, the author provides both conventional and controversial opinions on the British conduct of the war. Best of the eight, the first essay analyzes Cornwallis’s and other British commander’s planning and execution of the southern strategy. In Saberton’s opinion, with several changes in tactics and better decision making, the British could have won the southern campaign and potentially forced the colonists to accept a negotiated peace short of full national independence.

By focusing on personality and decision making Saberton makes a compelling case that due to his aggressive nature, Cornwallis made fatal mistakes by bringing the war to Virginia and by not waging a war of attrition in the Carolinas and Georgia. While this alternative decision might have avoided the Yorktown surrender, Saberton overlooks the fact that the British could not re-establish Royal governments governing any significant areas in the south. Without civilian governments, the British military victories and occupation were not durable.

Whatever your views on Saberton’s conclusions, I strongly recommend this quick read to both students of the southern campaigns as well as budding historians for an example of offering and supporting provocative findings. Further, Saberton provides excellent historiography to support his analysis which produces guides for researchers to form their conclusions. Although at sometimes appearing a bit self-serving, these short essays are an excellent overview and provide a “so-what” summary (which is lacking for many edited papers) for the six-volume set of the Cornwallis Papers. Lastly, in the author’s introduction, he offers that there are many parallels between the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland and the American War of Independence. I hope that Saberton further explores these intriguing comparisons in his next book.