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The American Revolution
First War for Independence

The thirteen American colonies wanted to be free from rule by Great Britain. Freedom would make it possible to create a new kind of government without a king. In the democracy envisioned by the country's earliest leaders, Americans would govern themselves based on certain principles or ideals.

Had the radical Whigs won the British election, the colonists would have gotten the vote and would all be living in a giant Canada [benefiting from their excellent health care system]. Not to be, the authoritarians of the right won. They believed the colonists should do as they were told because they enjoyed Britain's protection. Perhaps patience would have resolved the issue. But there was little time for patience with France waiting in the wings to settle old scores, particularly its reversals in India. The web of global politics (and its uncertainty) can catch even the most wary.

Few people at the time thought that the American Revolution would succeed and the Americans could win a war against the world's greatest empire. At the beginning of the war, there was no regular American army, just a militia made up of civilians-and most of them were farmers. Naturally, they were not used to long campaigns or battles with British Regulars, and thousands quit. General Washington begged the Continental Congress to provide a regular army of men enlisted for a long term, but Congress felt that step would violate civil liberties. It was only after so many American defeats threatened the war effort that Congress agreed to offer extra pay to officers and privates and pledged to see the war to an end.

By 1775, tension between the colonies and the mother country had reached the breaking point. General Gage, who was in charge of the British troops in Boston, learned that the colonists had hidden a large collection of weapons in nearby Concord. Gage sent a detachment of soldiers to seize the rebel leaders and destroy the stores of ammunition. Sons of Liberty Paul Revere and William Dawes rode to warn of the impending British attack by way of the Charles River; the most direct route. Just as the sun was rising on April 19, 1775, British soldiers reached Lexington. A straggling line of colonists was already waiting on the green--armed with muskets. Eight Minutemen were killed and several others wounded in the first skirmish on Lexington Green which signaled the beginning of the American Revolution.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, war had already broken out in Massachusetts. Battles had been fought between Massachusetts soldiers and British military forces in the towns of Lexington and Concord. Yet war had not been declared. Even so, citizen soldiers in each of the thirteen American colonies were ready to fight.

This was the first question faced by the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Who was going to organize these men into an army? Delegates to the Congress decided that the man for the job was George Washington. He had experience fighting in the French and Indian War. He was thought to know more than any other colonist about being a military commander. Washington accepted the position. But he said he would not take any money for leading the new Continental Army. Washington left Philadelphia for Boston to take command of the soldiers there.

Delegates to the Second Continental Congress made one more attempt to prevent war with Britain. They sent another message to King George. They asked him to consider their problems and try to find a solution. The king would not even read the message. Most members of the Congress -- and most of the colonists -- were not yet ready to break away from Britain. They continued to believe they could have greater self-government and still be part of the British empire.

Two days after the Congress appointed George Washington as army commander, colonists and British troops fought the first major battle of the American Revolution. It was called the Battle of Bunker Hill, although it really involved two hills: Bunker and Breed's. Both are just across the Charles River from the city of Boston. The Americans had very little gunpowder. They were forced to wait until the British had crossed the river and were almost on top of them before they fired their guns. Their commander reportedly told them: Do not fire until you see the whites of the British soldiers' eyes. The British captured Breed's Hill. More than one-thousand had been killed or wounded in the attempt. The Americans lost about four-hundred. That battle greatly reduced whatever hope was left for a negotiated settlement. King George declared the colonies to be in open rebellion.

The British decided to use Hessian soldiers to fight against the colonists. Hessians were mostly German mercenaries who fought for anyone who paid them. The colonists feared these soldiers and hated Britain for using them.

At about the same time, Thomas Paine published a little document that had a great effect on the citizens of America. He named it, "Common Sense." It attacked King George, as well as the idea of government by kings. It called for independence. About 150,000 copies of "Common Sense" were sold in America. Everyone talked about it. As a result, the Continental Congress began to act. It opened American ports to foreign shipping. It urged colonists to establish state governments and to write constitutions.

On 07 June 1776 delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a resolution for independence. The resolution was not approved immediately. Declaring independence was an extremely serious step. Signing such a document would make delegates to the Continental Congress traitors to Britain. The Continental Congress approved a declaration condemning everything the British had done since 1763. Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write a document explaining why the colonies should be free from British rule. On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Congress.

Jefferson's document was divided into two parts. The first part explained the right of any people to revolt. It also described the ideas the Americans used to create a new, republican form of government. The second part of the Declaration lists twenty-seven complaints by the American colonies against the British government. The major ones concerned British taxes on Americans and the presence of British troops in the colonies.

By December 1776 British General William Howe had decided to stop fighting during the cold winter months. The general was in New York where he had already established control of a few areas near the city, including Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey. General George Washington and the Continental Army were on the other side of the Delaware River. The Americans were cold, hungry, and had few weapons. Washington knew that if Howe attacked, the British would be able to go all the way to Philadelphia. They would then control two of America's most important cities.

Washington decided to attack. His plan was for three groups of troops to cross the Delaware River separately. All three would join together at Trenton. Then they would attack Princeton and New Brunswick. Washington wanted to surprise the enemy early in the morning the day after the Christmas holiday, 26 December 1776. On Christmas night, 2,400 soldiers of the Continental Army got into small boats. They crossed the partly-frozen Delaware River, though the crossing took longer than Washington thought it would and the troops were four hours late.

Yet, after marching to Trenton, Washington's troops did surprise the Hessian mercenaries who were in position there. The enemy soldiers ran into buildings to get away. The Americans used cannons to blow up the buildings. Soon, the enemy surrendered, and Washington's army captured Trenton. A few days later, he marched his captured prisoners through the streets of the city of Philadelphia.

Washington's victory at Trenton changed the way Americans felt about the war. Before the battle, the rebels had been defeated in New York. They were beginning to lose faith in their commander. Now that faith returned. Congress increased Washington's powers, making it possible for the fight for independence to continue. Another result of the victory at Trenton was that more men decided to join the army. It now had ten-thousand soldiers. This new Continental Army, however, lost battles during the summmer to General Howe's forces near the Chesapeake Bay. And in August 1777 General Howe captured Philadelphia.

Following these losses, Washington led the army to the nearby area called Valley Forge. They would stay there for the winter. His army was suffering. Half the men had no shoes, clothes, or blankets. They were almost starving. They built houses out of logs, but the winter was very cold and they almost froze. Many suffered from diseases such as smallpox and typhus. Some died. General Washington and other officers were able to get food from the surrounding area to help most of the men survive the winter. By the spring of 1778 they were ready to fight again.

General Howe was still in Philadelphia. Historians say it is difficult to understand this British military leader. At times, he was a good commander and a brave man. At other times, he stayed in the safety of the cities, instead of leading his men to fight. General Howe was not involved in the next series of important battles of the American Revolution, however. The lead part now went to General John Burgoyne. His plan was to capture the Hudson River Valley in New York state and separate New England from the other colonies. This, the British believed, would make it easy to capture the other colonies. The plan did not succeed. American General Benedict Arnold defeated the British troops in New York. General Burgoyne had expected help from General Howe, but did not get it. Burgoyne was forced to surrender at the town of Saratoga.

The American victory at Saratoga was an extremely important one. It ended the British plan to separate New England from the other colonies. It also showed European nations that the new country might really be able to win its revolutionary war. This was something that France, especially, had wanted ever since being defeated by the British earlier in the French and Indian War.

The French government had been supplying the Americans secretly through the work of America's minister to France, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was popular with the French people and with French government officials. He helped gain French sympathy for the American cause.

After the American victory at Saratoga, the French decided to enter the war on the American side. The government recognized American independence. The two nations signed military and political treaties. France and Britain were at war once again. The British immediately sent a message to America's Continental Congress. They offered to change everything so relations would be as they had been in 1773. The Americans rejected the offer. The war would be fought to the end.

In 1779 Spain entered the war against the British. And the next year, the British were also fighting the Dutch to stop their trade with America. The French sent gunpowder, soldiers, officers, and ships to the Americans. However, neither side made much progress in the war for the next two years.

By 1780 the British had moved their military forces to the American South.They quickly gained control of South Carolina and Georgia, but the Americans prevented them from taking control of North Carolina. After that, the British commander moved his troops to Yorktown, Virginia. The commander's name was Lord Charles Cornwallis. Both he and George Washington had about 8,000 troops when they met near Yorktown. Cornwallis was expecting more troops to arrive on British ships.

What Cornwallis did not know was that French ships were on their way to Yorktown, too. Their commander was Admiral Francois Comte de Grasse. De Grasse met some of the British ships that Cornwallis was expecting, and he defeated them. The French ships then moved into the Chesapeake Bay, near Yorktown. The Americans and the French began attacking with cannons. Then they fought the British soldiers and-to-hand. Cornwallis knew he had no chance to win without more troops. He surrendered to George Washington on 17 October 1781.

The war was over. American and French forces had captured or killed one-half of the British troops in America. The surviving British troops left Yorktown playing a popular British song called, "The World Turned Upside Down."

How were the Americans able to defeat the most powerful nation in the world? Historians give several reasons:

The Americans were fighting at home, while the British had to bring troops and supplies from across a wide ocean. British officers made mistakes, especially General William Howe. His slowness to take action at the start of the war made it possible for the Americans to survive during two difficult winters.

Another reason was the help the Americans received from the French. Also, the British public had stopped supporting the long and costly war. Finally, historians say America might not have won without the leadership of George Washington. He was honest, brave, and sure that the Americans could win. He never gave up hope that he would reach that goal.

The peace treaty ending the American Revolution was signed in Paris in 1783. The independence of the United States was recognized. Western and northern borders were set. Thirteen colonies were free. Now, they had to become one nation.

The American Revolution raised many questions about the role of government and the place of the military within it. There was no President until 1789, and no Congress as today. A nation was in the making - and it might have failed. But with energy and sense of common purpose, Americans eventually forced the British to sue for peace and grant America its independence.

Frederick Douglass, in his famous speech in New York on July 5, 1852 (he was asked to speak at an event celebrating Independence Day), paid homage to those ideas and the men who gave birth to them:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Nevertheless, he also gave voice to the conflict that was still raging in the hearts of many blacks in America at the time. He voiced the dissent of those voiceless ones whose stories for far too many years and far too many times, had gone untold:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

Sources and Resources

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