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Exhibitions

CURRENT EXHIBITION

Homeland Defense: Protecting Britain during the American War

October 3, 2014 — March 14, 2015

"What shall we have to answer for if we are taken unprepared?"
John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty

By the beginning of 1778, British hopes of an easy victory over the American rebels had vanished. The British army had seized New York City and Philadelphia, but American resistance had proven far more tenacious than anyone in Britain had expected. The costs of prosecuting the war were mounting. Shipping losses were increasing. Parliamentary opposition to the war was growing. The defeat at Saratoga had destroyed British confidence that the colonies could be conquered. Even Lord North, the prime minister, had lost hope of total victory in what he called "this damned war."

Then in February, France completed an alliance with the rebels. For the first time in a generation, Britain faced the threat of invasion. With most of the regular army in North America, the ministry recruited militia "for the internal defence of this Country." The army established special camps in southeastern England to train the militia along with regular soldiers, to protect the coastline, and to provide for the defense of London. A distant and increasingly unpopular war suddenly reached the British homeland.

Contemporary novels and plays about military themes, new songs and poems celebrating British strength, and popular prints depicting the camps reflected public anxiety about the threat of invasion. They also reflected contemporary British opinion about the army at a moment when failure in America exposed it to satire and ridicule. The camps had a wide–ranging influence on popular culture. Fashionable ladies, for whom visiting the camps was a part of the social whirl, sported riding habits modeled on regimental uniforms. Cartoonists, meanwhile, took delight in poking fun at preparations for a foreign invasion that never came.

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