Introduction to American Revolutionary War

Revolutionary War, American, the war in which 13 British colonies in North America won their freedom and became the United States of America. The colonies were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The war began at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. It was not formally ended until eight years later, September 3, 1783. The fighting was not continuous, however, and there were no major battles after 1781. Compared to those of 20th-century wars, casualties were light; only 4,000 American battle deaths were recorded.

Revolutionary War icons:Revolutionary War icons: General Washington with Lafayette at Valley Forge.

In the 1770's the 13 colonies had a population of 2,500,000less than one-third that of Great Britain. It has been estimated that only one-third of the colonists were active patriots, a third remained loyal to Britain, and the rest were neutral. The Americans, lacking an effective national government, had no satisfactory means of raising an army and had to rely on short-term enlistments. The Continental Army never exceeded 35,000 men at any one time and usually had fewer than 10,000 men fit for fighting. They were sometimes aided by militia, but this support was often unreliable. In battle, the Americans often faced numerical odds of four to one.

The Americans had the advantage of fighting on home ground, while the British had to transport troops and supplies across 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of ocean, a voyage of two or three months. The British government, dominated by corrupt and incompetent ministers, mismanaged the war from the beginning. American military leaders were mostly amateurs, but they were able to equal and often surpass the British professionals. British troops, although better trained, disciplined, and equipped, lacked the fighting spirit of the Americans; this was especially true of the 30,000 German soldiers (mostly Hessians) hired by Great Britain. The colonies lacked the resources to win the war without aid, but gained a powerful ally in France.

The war cost Great Britain a large part of its colonial empire, but this loss soon was offset by development of a new British empire in India, the Pacific, and Africa. Although less influential on European affairs than the French Revolution (1789), the American Revolution was nonetheless a turning point in history for it marked the beginnings of a new world power.

Early Colonial Grievances

Commerce Restricted

The policy of the British government before the Revolution was to control the commerce of the colonies for the benefit of the mother country. Various acts of Parliament, such as the Navigation Acts first enacted in the 1600's, placed restrictions on colonial trade and injured colonial commerce. Respected merchants in Massachusetts and other colonies more or less openly avoided paying the duties, and little was done for many years to stop smuggling.

In 1761 British officials planned to act drastically against smuggling. They applied for writs of assistance (general search warrants) to make it easier for them to locate smuggled goods. This move was denounced as a violation of the right of English subjects to be protected from invasion of privacy.

Western Lands Closed

In 1763 the British under Prime Minister George Grenville decided that new policies for administering the American colonies were required. A first step concerned the vast area, west of the 13 colonies, that Great Britain had acquired from France by the French and Indian War. Several of the colonies claimed this area and planned to develop it. However, by proclamation of George III, the western lands were closed to settlement by the colonists. The stated reason was that ways had to be found to cope with hostile Indians (such as those led by Pontiac). Americans who wanted to expand westward felt cheated.

Colonial Currency Restricted

In 1764 the British government forbade the payment of debts in England in colonial currency. The issuance of such money for use in the colonies was also curtailed. This policy was a hard blow to debtors. It had the effect of increasing their burden of debt.

Quartering and Stamp Acts

Parliament in 1765 passed two acts that produced even greater resentment in the colonies. The Quartering Act required the colonies to house 10,000 British troops in public and even private buildings. The Stamp Act was a form of direct taxation of the colonists.

In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities mass meetings were held in protest. It was argued that Parliament had no right to tax the colonists because they were not represented in that body. Taxation without representation is tyranny!" became the cry.

Colonial Agitation

Stamp Act Repealed

Agitation in the colonies by private citizens, with Samuel Adams and John Hancock of Massachusetts among the leaders, was soon followed by official protests. The Virginia House of Burgesses adopted fiery resolutions drafted by Patrick Henry. The Massachusetts General Court (assembly) invited the other colonial assemblies to send delegates to a meeting in New York City. This Stamp Act Congress, representing nine colonies, adopted a declaration of rights and liberties" and made separate appeals to Parliament and the king.

British tax stampsBritish tax stamps used under the Stamp Act.

In the meantime, stamp agents who arrived from England were terrorized by mobs probably directed by a secret group called the Sons of Liberty. Stamps were destroyed. So intense was the opposition that Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. But Parliament also adopted a Declaratory Act, which asserted its right to pass the Stamp Act and any other laws it chose to impose upon the colonies. The repeal was thus only a truce.

The Townshend Acts

In 1767 Parliament caused another crisis by passing the Townshend Acts. One of these acts suspended the New York assembly because it did not fully comply with the Quartering Act. Another placed heavy duties on glass, lead, painters' colors, paper, and tea imported by the colonies, and provided that the proceeds were to be used to pay the salaries of royal officials in the colonies, including governors and judges. This provision was especially objectionable because it made royal officials independent of the colonial legislatures that had until that time provided their salaries.

A Boston town meeting voted that goods covered by the Townshend Acts should not be imported. Other communities followed Boston's lead. The Massachusetts legislature denounced the acts and asked the legislatures of the other colonies to do likewise.

The Boston Massacre

In March, 1770, a rowdy crowd in Boston threw snowballs and sticks at a British sentry. Five civilians died from shots fired into the crowd by soldiers. Although the shooting was contrary to orders, the incident helped to increase anti-British sentiment.

Parliament, pressured by British merchants who were losing colonial trade, attempted to conciliate the colonists by repealing the Townshend Acts. The duty on tea was retained, however, to show the colonists that Parliament had not given up its right to impose such taxes. A boycott on tea from England was kept up, along with agitation against the Quartering Act.

Beginning in 1772, committees (called Committees of Correspondence) were formed in various Massachusetts towns to organize the agitation. Soon central Committees of Correspondence existed in nearly all the colonies.

The Boston Tea Party

In 1773 Parliament passed an act permitting the British East India Company to sell tea in the colonies at prices so low that the cry was raised that the colonists were being bribed to accept the duty on tea. Colonists in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston prevented the unloading of ships carrying tea. In December, Boston colonists disguised as Indians dumped three shiploads of the tea into the harbor. This was the Boston Tea Party.

The Intolerable Acts

Parliament, angered by the Boston incident, ordered the port of Boston closed until the tea was paid for and passed several other measures intended to punish the people of Massachusetts by depriving them of existing rights. The colonists referred to this legislationand to the Quebec Act of 1774as the Intolerable Acts.

The Quebec Act gave the western land taken from France to the Province of Quebec, and also recognized the Roman Catholic Church there. This policy was pictured as a step toward setting up an established church in all the colonies.

First Continental Congress

Many colonists viewed the action against Massachusetts as a threat to all the colonies, and in each the sentiment grew to retaliate against the British with economic sanctions. Several colonies suggested an intercolonial congress to chart a common policy toward Great Britain. The official call for such a meeting came from the Massachusetts assembly. The first Continental Congress, as it became known, met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. There were delegates from all colonies except Georgia.

On September 9, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, adopted resolves" (resolutions) that declared the Intolerable Acts un-constitutional, recommended stopping all trade with Britain, and called for armed resistance. At the Continental Congress, the majority of the delegates voted to endorse the resolves. The delegates then signed the Association, a compact in which the colonies pledged not to import British goods after December 1. To ensure enforcement, the Association provided for the establishment of county and town committees.

The War Begins

In October, 1774, Massachusetts leaders, meeting as a Provincial Congress, voted to resist violation of colonial rights. This determination was secretly backed up by the formation of Committees of Safety in key communities of the colony. Their task was to collect munitions, persuade members of the militia to join the cause, and organize a force known as Minutemen to answer a call to arms at a minute's notice.

The Shot Heard Round the World

General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British forces in the colonies and royal governor of Massachusetts, brought matters to the shooting stage in April, 1775. He ordered 700 soldiers to march from Boston to seize munitions stored at nearby Concord by the Massachusetts patriots. Paul Revere, William R. Dawes, and Samuel Prescott spread the alarm on the night of April 18.

About 70 Minutemen met the British troops the next day as they moved into Lexington on the way to Concord. In the shooting that followed, 8 Minutemen were killed and 10 were wounded. The others retreated. At Concord the Minutemen, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, fired the shot heard round the world." The Revolution had begun.

After the British returned from Concord, they were fired upon all along the way to Boston by Minutemen concealed behind fences, trees, and buildings. This combat was followed immediately by mobilization of militia throughout New England. Within a few weeks, 16,000 armed colonials had gathered in the area near Boston, threatening the British troops in the city.

In May, 1775, the British forts at Ticonderoga, which controlled the best invasion route from Canada, and at Crown Point were captured by other New England forces under Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and Seth Warner.

Bunker Hill

With reinforcements from England under Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, Gage soon had a total of 6,000 British regulars in Boston. Gage called for the Americans to lay down their arms. Compliance would bring pardons, but Americans who refused would be hanged, Gage said.

The answer of the Americans, in June, 1775, was to fortify Breed's Hill near Boston. In the attack, called the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British took the hill, but lost 1,054 casualties to the Americans' 450. The Patriots were greatly encouraged because they had stood up to British regulars until their ammunition was exhausted.

Washington In Command

The second Continental Congress, which convened at Philadelphia in May, 1775, approved the New England uprising. The Congress also advised the various colonies to establish new governments free from royal officials. Royal governors began to flee.

In June, 1775, at the request of Massachusetts, the Congress voted to put the New England troops under Congressional control. This was the beginning of a national army. It was called the Continental Army of the United Colonies. George Washington of Virginia was named commander in chief and took command on July 3, 1775.

Washington found himself commanding troops who were poorly disciplined and poorly supplied with weapons and ammunition. In addition, most of the troops had enlisted in colonial regiments for only a few months. As their terms expired, whole regi-ments would depart, taking their muskets with them. Washington delayed moving against the British force in Boston until he had a more stable army.

Early Campaigns, 177576

The Boston Campaign

Congress in September, 1775, authorized direct enlistments in the Continental Army for one year, instead of depending completely on the separate colonies for regiments recruited for shorter periods. This was intended to provide Washington with an army of 20,000 men, paid and supplied by the Continental Congress. However, he had only 9,000 of the Continental Line, supplemented by 5,000 militiamen, when he moved against Boston in March, 1776.

With cannon brought from Fort Ticonderoga during the winter, Washington's troops occupied Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city. General Howe, who had succeeded Gage, felt unable to attack another fortified height, so he abandoned Boston and sailed with his troops for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fighting In the South

While Washington was preparing to liberate Boston, British ships attacked southern coastal cities. Early in 1776, a joint British military and naval expedition was organized to capture Charleston, South Carolina, as a base for conquering Virginia and the Carolinas. British sympathizers in the area were counted upon to help. However, these loyalists were put down by patriot militiamen. When British troops under General Clinton attempted to land at Charleston, they were met with such heavy fire that the expedition was abandoned.

Canadian Campaign

In the winter of 177576 an effort to capture Canada was made by American forces under General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold. Montreal was taken temporarily, but Montgomery was killed and the Americans were defeated at the city of Quebec. Washington then correctly expected the British to attack New York by way of Canada or the Atlantic coast, or both. He moved his army from Boston to New York City.

Arnold, meanwhile, withdrew to Lake Champlain to block the British there. He built a fleet of lake vessels that held the lake until October, 1776, when he was defeated at the Battle of Valcour Island. By then it was too late in the year for the British to continue their invasion.

Independence Declared, 1776

As the first year of fighting drew to a close, sentiment for proclaiming independence as the goal of the conflict grew among the rebel leaders. A pamphlet by Thomas Paine, entitled Common Sense, published in January, 1776, was widely circulated. It argued eloquently for independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress that asserted these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." The Congress then appointed a committee to draft a declaration in accord with that view. The Declaration of Independence, with its ringing phrases set down by Thomas Jefferson, was adopted on July 4, 1776.

Up to then, the war had been against Great Britian's way of administering the colonies. It now became a war for the right of free men to establish their own form of government.

New York, Trenton, and Princeton, 177677

The period immediately following adoption of the Declaration of Independence was a dark one for the Americans. In that same month of July, 1776, a large British fleet carrying 32,000 well-trained soldiers, including a force of Hessians hired from German rulers, arrived at New York City under General Howe's command. Washington, with only 20,000 men, and most of them poorly trained, had little hope of successfully defending New York City. However, he made the attempt because giving up the city without a fight would have seriously damaged American morale.

Battles during 1776 and 1777Battles during 1776 and 1777 were costly for both sides.
Struggle For New York City

Washington divided his troops between Manhattan Island and Long Island. The British landed in force on Long Island in August and attacked Washington's troops on Brooklyn Heights from both front and rear. The result was a disastrous American defeat. However, Washington prevented the capture of his entire Long Island army by getting it across the East River to Manhattan in small boats just before British warships arrived.

In September, 1776, the British struck at Manhattan Island. Washington took up a defensive position on Harlem Heights. To escape another trap Washington retreated to White Plains, where he lost ground in heavy fighting. Some 6,000 of his men were stationed at Forts Washington and Lee on the Hudson River with the hope of halting a British advance. In November, 3,000 troops at Fort Washington surrendered when attacked by British warships. Fort Lee was hastily evacuated.

Washington began to retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In December, 1776, with an army that had dwindled to 3,000 men, Washington crossed the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey, just as pursuing British troops under General Charles Cornwallis drew near. General Howe called off further pursuit because of approaching winter.

Victory At Trenton

Washington's retreat created gloom among the Americans. Enlistments fell off. There were many desertions. To change this mood, Washington and his army recrossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, and attacked a British garrison, composed mainly of Hessians, at Trenton. The garrison of nearly 1,400 men was wholly broken up40 men were killed, 918 were captured, the rest fled. Cornwallis counterattacked but Washington outmaneuvered him.

Battle At Princeton

Another smashing blow against Cornwallis was struck by Washing-ton's troops near Princeton in January, 1777. American morale soared, especially as the British pulled out from most of New Jersey rather than engage in further winter fighting.

A Crucial Year1777

The year 1777 brought important developments. A British army under General Burgoyne moved south from Canada in June expecting to join General Howe's forces near Albany, New York. The British plan was to hold the Hudson River and thus separate New England from the rest of the colonies. But Howe was already committed to a move against Philadelphia before orders reached him to cooperate with Burgoyne. Washington placed an army across Howe's route at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, on Brandywine Creek. Howe outmaneuvered the Americans at the Battle of Brandywine, forcing them to retreat, and entered Philadelphia on September 26.

Hoping to force Howe out of Philadelphia, Washington ordered an attack on October 4 against 9,000 British troops at nearby Germantown. This attack seemed successful at first, but ended in another defeat. In December, Washington established winter quarters at Valley Forge, north of Philadelphia. Here his army suffered from cold and lack of sufficient food and clothesa terrible ordeal that became a symbol of American determination to refuse to accept defeat.

Saratoga Campaign

Washington's troubles were offset by events to the north. Burgoyne recaptured Ticonderoga in June, but a force under General Barry St. Leger was delayed by a savage fight with American militia led by Nicholas Herkimer at Oriskany. After failing to take Fort Stanwix (also called Ft. Schuyler) in August, St. Leger, being pursued by Benedict Arnold's forces, retreated. A group of German and Tory raiders were defeated near Bennington, Vermont, on August 16, by troops under John Stark. At the battles of Freeman's Farm (September 19) and Bemis Heights (October 7), Burgoyne's forces failed to dislodge troops under the command of General Horatio Gates. They then retreated to Saratoga. There, on October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his army of 5,000 to Gates.

General BurgoyneGeneral Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga in October 1777.
France Enters the War

For more than a year, France had been secretly helping the American cause with supplies and money. Having lost its American colonies to Great Britain, France was eager to aid any weakening of its rival, but resisted an open alliance until King Louis XVI was convinced that the Americans had a chance to win. News of Burgoyne's surrender tipped the scales. On February 6, 1778, France entered into a military alliance with the United States. Spain and the Netherlands also declared war against Great Britain, although not as allies of the United States.

France gave direct assistance to the Americans. France also joined Spain and the Netherlands in keeping British land and sea forces occupied in other parts of the world, including India, Gibraltar, the English Channel, and the West Indies.

The War In 177879

Stalemate In the North

Fearing a blockade of Philadelphia by a French fleet, the British army in June, 1778, abandoned the city to strengthen its position in New York City. With a reinforced army, Washington attacked the British near Monmouth Court House, New Jersey. This thrust was ruined by the poor generalship of Charles Lee, who did not press the attack and then ordered a retreat. Washington prevented a rout by rallying the patriots. He planned an attack for the next day, but the British slipped away and continued their march.

A French fleet under Admiral Jean Baptiste d'Estaing appeared off the Atlantic coast near New York City in July. A combined land and sea attack was planned, but abandoned for an assault on a British garrison at Newport, Rhode Island. The attack made excellent progress until a storm battered the French fleet just as it was engaging an inferior British naval force. The French withdrew, leaving the Americans without naval support and causing a near disaster. Except for a few skirmishes, the war in the north then became a stalemate.

Frontier Fighting

Although Burgoyne's defeat had ended the threat of a serious attack from Canada, the British continued to harass frontier settlements with Indian raids, usually led by Tories (loyalists). Raids were especially serious in the Mohawk Valley of New York, in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, and in Kentucky.

In August, 1779, Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton defeated Indians and Tories at Newton (now Elmira), New York, and destroyed the Indian villages. In 177879 Colonel George Rogers Clark overran British posts in Illinois and Indiana, helping to curtail Indian raids in Kentucky. However, the Americans failed to capture the main British basesFort Niagara (in New York) and Detroitand militia continued to fight Indians and Tories throughout the war.

The War Moves South

For the remainder of the war the South was the main theater of action. It was British strategy to capitalize upon the loyalty of many Southerners to the crown. Late in 1778, the British captured Savannah, Georgia, and soon controlled Georgia and the interior of the Carolinas. General Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts, sent south to organize a counterattack, failed in an attempt to retake Savannah in 1779. In May, 1780, he surrendered an army of 5,000 at Charleston. General Gates was then sent south, but suffered a smashing defeat at Camden, South Carolina. American despair over these reverses was heightened by the news that Benedict Arnold, one of Washington's best generals, had turned traitor.

The War In 178081

The Tide Turns, 1780

The tide began to turn in the South when backwoodsmen of south-western Virginia and western North Carolina wiped out a force of Southerners allied with the British in a battle on Kings Mountain, in South Carolina, in 1780. British regulars were defeated in January, 1781, at Cowpens, near Kings Mountain, by militia and Continentals (Continental Army troops) under General Daniel Morgan. In March the British, under Cornwallis, attacked Nathan-ael Greene's forces at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Greene retreated but Cornwallis lost one-fourth of his army as casualties. Thus weakened, Cornwallis abandoned the interior and withdrew to Wilmington, North Carolina, and then to Yorktown, Virginia, near Chesapeake Bay.

Victory At Yorktown, 1781

In New York state, Washington mapped strategy for trapping Cornwallis with the aid of French naval forces. He had already sent the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia with 1,200 Continentals and had reinforced him with troops under Anthony Wayne and Baron von Steuben. On learning that a large French fleet, under the Comte de Grasse, would put in at Chesapeake Bay in August, 1781, Washington arranged to confront Cornwallis' army of 7,500 with a much larger force. The fleet would be used to cut off Cornwallis' escape.

Joined by 3,600 French soldiers who were at Newport, Rhode Island, under General Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, Washington marched to Virginia with 2,500 of his own men. The French fleet landed 3,000 additional soldiers. Virginia militiamen brought the total under Washington's command to some 16,000 when the siege of Yorktown began in formal European military style on October 6.

Earlier, on September 5, de Grasse had outmaneuvered a British fleet at the Battle of Chesapeake Capes to win control of Chesapeake Bay, depriving Cornwallis of reinforcements and of an escape route. On October 17, the day a British fleet left New York with 7,000 soldiers to come to his aid, Cornwallis asked for a temporary truce to arrange a surrender. He surrendered on October 19.

General CornwallisGeneral Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

The End of the War

Toward Peace

Sentiment for making peace had been growing in Great Britain. The war had proved a costly burden, more costly than many British leaders believed the colonies in revolt to be worth. There also was criticism that the war had been conducted ineptly by the British government. The victory at Yorktown, by showing the effectiveness of the France-American alliance, gave the nation an excuse to negotiate for peace.

Except for a few minor skirmishes in the South, an unproclaimed truce was in effect after Yorktown. In March, 1782, Lord Frederick North, whose ministry had direct-ed the war, was forced to resign as prime minister. He was succeeded by the Whig leader, the Marquis of Rockingham, who began negotiations for peace.

The negotiations for a final settlement were complicated by considerations involving France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The American and British peace commissioners, however, reached a secret preliminary agreement in November, 1782. Their final agreement, the Treaty of Paris, was signed September 3, 1783.

Treaty of Paris

The first article of the treaty, and the most important, recognized the former colonies to be free, sovereign, and independent states." The second article set the boundaries of the United States to include the western lands to the Mississippi River between Canada and Spanish Florida. By another provision, United States citizens were granted limited fishing rights off Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and nearby British possessions. It was agreed that neither country would set up legal barriers to the payment in sterling money of private debts contracted before the war.

The treaty provided that Congress recommend to the states that seized property of British subjects be restored. Congress was also to recommend that the same provision apply to Americans who remained loyal to the crown behind British lines but did not take up arms.