George Sackville Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville (1716-1785)

Germain, George

Lord George Germain (also occasionally spelled Germaine) recovered sufficiently from a major military scandal in the 1750s to become Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1775, which made him principally responsible for conducting the War for Independence. Many historians attribute to Germain fundamental strategic and political mistakes that cost Britain the American colonies, the most glaring of which was his support for Charles Cornwallis' independent operations in 1781 that resulted in the surrender at Yorktown and the fall of the wartime ministry.

He was born Lord George Sackville on June 16, 1716, the youngest son Lionel, Duke of Dorset, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He attended Westminster School in London and Trinity College, Dublin, earning a bachelor's degree in 1733 and a master's the following year. Sackville then entered the army and by the 1740s was a lieutenant colonel, aide-de-camp to King George II (the last British monarch to actively command an army in the field), a member of Parliament, and a member of the Irish Privy Council. He was wounded at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745 and earned the praise of George II's brother, the Duke of Cumberland, while suppressing the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1746. In the early 1750s, he served as an aide to his father in Ireland, where he attempted to bribe the Speaker of the Irish assembly and was sent back to England and a seat in the House of Commons. In 1757, Sackville made a major political mistake when he allied himself with George II's political opponents, who were aligned with the Prince of Wales (the future George III). It lead directly to Sackville's disgrace when, as a Lieutenant General in command of the combined British and German cavalry at the Battle of Minden in 1759, his delay in pressing the French retreat — and ensuring a decisive victory — earned the ire of the army's commander, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. Ferdinand was convinced that Sackville disobeyed orders and pressed that view on his cousin, George II, who left his former aide to the British press and a court martial. The King stripped him of his army commission and the court found him "unfit to serve his Majesty." Sackville was banished from George II's court, struck from the Privy Council, and had the court's finding read before every British regiment. Only the Prince of Wales, who became king the next year, stood by him.

His close ties to George III paid off, but not immediately. Not until after the last of George II's ministers left office at the end of the Seven Years War was the King in a position to return Sackville to office. He was re-appointed to the Privy Council in 1765 and returned to regular attendance on George III's court and sessions of Parliament. In 1766, he opposed repeal of the Stamp Act and supported the Declaratory Act, both of which further earned him the appreciation of the King. In 1770, Sackville became Lord George Germain when he received a substantial bequest from a distant relation, Lady Elizabeth Germain, a cousin of his father's (and a close friend of the author Jonathan Swift). Sackville received her home, Drayton House in Northamptonshire, and a substantial sum of money, with the stipulation that he take her surname. In 1774, he took to the floor of the House of Commons to reflect George III's views that the leniency shown in American policy by previous ministries — such as the repeal of the Stamp Act — explained the trouble the North ministry encountered in enforcing the Tea Act. Once news of the Boston Tea Party reached London, Germain took an even harder line, strenuously advocating a crackdown on Boston, which earned him a reputation as the ministry's most reliable and effective voice in the House of Commons on American affairs. He also let his belief be known that Lord Dartmouth, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, was not up for the job of coercing obstinate Americans into submission.

On November 10, 1775, Germain succeeded Lord Dartmouth as Secretary of State for the Colonies and was thereby given something that 15 years earlier would have sounded absurd: control of a British army from which he had been banished as unworthy of serving. The office was invested with extensive new powers to formulate and drive strategy in the war against America, such as authority to coordinate the efforts of the Admiralty, the Board of Ordnance, and the Treasury, which were given even greater strength as Lord North increasingly withdrew from military affairs, which effectively gave Germain sole responsibility within the British government for conducting the conflict.

Whether Germain's appointment to such a critical position was the first and foremost mistake made by Lord North in waging the War for Independence is a question that has occupied the minds of historians ever since. That Germain had a talent for understanding the needs of maintaining an army in the field and for developing and articulating a clear strategic vision — which were critical for waging a military conflict 3,000 miles away — were all undeniable, regardless of where one stood on his conduct at Minden. But he also had serious character flaws that undermined his considerable abilities. Germain's personal temperament engendered conflicts with a number of his leading officers, such as Guy Carleton and Sir Henry Clinton (which only exacerbated those generals' problems with each other). At the beginning of the war, he supplied Howe with a considerable army to isolate New England from rest of the colonies, but he also gave Carleton, William Howe, and other commanders, orders that left a great deal — perhaps too much — to their own discretion. A confusion of separate orders to Carleton, Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton in 1777 ended with John Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in September, which Burgoyne blamed on Germain's vague orders and Germain blamed on Burgoyne's failure to exercise proper initiative. Burgoyne's return to England and taking his seat in the House of Commons, from which he regularly attacked Germain and defended himself, added to the already considerable political problems German faced as a result of the Saratoga disaster and the consequent entry of France, Spain, and the Netherlands into the war on America's behalf. Both Lord North and the King, however, continued to support him.

Germain's next major strategy suffered from similar problems and came to a similar end, even though Clinton had replaced Howe as commander-in-chief in America. Once the West Indies were more or less secured against the French, which occupied most British strategic attention between 1778 and 1780, Germain engaged in a new strategy to end the conflict by relying on naval power and suspected loyalist support in the southern colonies. The strategy enjoyed initial success when Clinton captured Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780. Clinton then returned to New York, leaving the southern campaign in the hands of Charles Cornwallis. He, too, enjoyed initial success by destroying an American army at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. With Clinton in New York, Germain bypassed the commander-in-chief and communicated directly with Cornwallis about an independent campaign to move from the Carolinas into Virginia without the approval of, or even consultation, with Clinton. News of the subsequent surrender at Yorktown reached London on November 25, 1781. North's ministry fell when Parliament next met; Germain resigned on February 9, 1782. All offensive operations were ended in America almost immediately and peace negotiations began soon after.

The king rewarded Germain with a peerage of his own, elevating him to Viscount Sackville on February 11, 1782. He died on August 26, 1785.

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