UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


The American Revolution
First War for Independence

There are several levesl of explantion for the American Revolution. Some scholars have argued that economics and class conflicts caused the American Revolution. Charles Beard asked of the Founding Fathers "Did they represent distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or were they working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?"

The traditional theory is that the Revolution was a political conflict, caused by irreconcilable differences about how the American colonies should be governed. By 1776, the British were committed to the view that Parliament must exercise unchallenged authority in all parts of the empire, including the power to tax Americans without their consent. Americans believed that they were entitled to certain fundamental rights, the "rights of Englishmen," which put certain activities beyond the reach of any government.

The boilerplate 4th of July oratorical explanation claims that 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.

But the seeds of the American Revolution were planted in the French and Indian War. British policy-makers in London decided to draw a line down the Appalachian Mountains and reserve the land between the line and the Mississippi River for the American Indians. This action angered many British colonists, who were eager to colonize the lands west of the Alleghenies, but now faced the challenge of doing so without the protection of the British Army. Britain correctly concluded that freehold farmers west of the Alleghenies brought little revenue to the imperial coffers, and were a drain on imperial military resources. Land-hungry Americans correctly concluded that they could dispense with an empire that would not support their westward expansion.

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.

1776 - Early Defeats

Although the Americans suffered severe setbacks for months after independence was declared, their tenacity and perseverance eventually paid off. During August 1776, in the Battle of Long Island in New York, Washington’s position became untenable, and he executed a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore. British General William Howe twice hesitated and allowed the Americans to escape. By November, however, Howe had captured Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. New York City would remain under British control until the end of the war.

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.

In December 1776, Washington’s forces were near collapse, as supplies and promised aid failed to materialize. Howe again missed his chance to crush the Americans by deciding to wait until spring to resume fighting. 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.

1777 - Victory at Trenton and Princeton

On Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey. After marching to Trenton, Washington's troops surprised the Hessian mercenaries who were in position there. In the early morning hours of December 26, his troops surprised the British garrison there, taking more than 900 prisoners. 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.

A week later, on January 3, 1777, Washington attacked the British at Princeton, regaining most of the territory formally occupied by the British. The victories at Trenton and Princeton revived flagging American spirits.

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.

In September 1777, however, Howe defeated the American army at Brandywine in Pennsylvania and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee. 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.

Washington had to endure the bitterly cold winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lacking adequate food, clothing, and supplies. Farmers and merchants exchanged their goods for British gold and silver rather than for dubious paper money issued by the Continental Congress and the states.

1777 - Victory at Bennington and Saratoga

In 1777 the Americans cut short a British plan to divide and conquer the colonies. The British surrendered a large force to the Continental Army after the battles of Saratoga in New York, but were able to capture the patriot capital at Philadelphia. In December, an optimistic, but weary Continental Army marched into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Valley Forge was the lowest ebb for Washington’s Continental Army, but elsewhere 1777 proved to be the turning point in the war. British General John Burgoyne, moving south from Canada, attempted to invade New York and New England via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He had too much heavy equipment to negotiate the wooded and marshy terrain. On August 6, at Oriskany, New York, a band of Loyalists and Native Americans under Burgoyne’s command ran into a mobile and seasoned American force that managed to halt their advance. In one of the bloodiest actions of the war, Mohawk war chief, Joseph Brant and British-allied Indians ambush and engage New York militia outside Fort Stanwix at Oriskany, New York.

On 16 August 1777 at Bennington, Vermont, more of Burgoyne’s forces, seeking much-needed supplies, were pushed back by American troops. On August 11, Burgoyne sent out a mixed force of some 800 Canadians, Loyalists, Indians, British, and Hessian (German) mercenaries on a foraging expedition. This mostly-German force was harassed by small bands of militia, and its Hessian commander sent for reinforcements; he stopped to await them a few miles from Bennington. With the enemy force position on and around a large hill, General John Stark decided to use his 2,000 militiamen to surround them. "Yonder are the Redcoats," Stark is supposed to have said. "We will defeat them or Molly Stark will sleep a widow tonight." American victory was assured when the militiamen drove off the Hessian reinforcements.

Moving to the west side of the Hudson River, Burgoyne’s army advanced on Albany. The Americans were waiting for him. Led by Benedict Arnold — who would later betray the Americans at West Point, New York — the colonials twice repulsed the British. Having by this time incurred heavy losses, Burgoyne fell back to Saratoga, New York, where a vastly superior American force under General Horatio Gates surrounded the British troops. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army — six generals, 300 other officers, and 5,500 enlisted personnel.

In France, enthusiasm for the American cause was high: The French intellectual world was it-self stirring against feudalism and privilege. However, the Crown lent its support to the colonies for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons: The French government had been eager for reprisal against Britain ever since France’s defeat in 1763. To further the American cause, Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris in 1776. His wit, guile, and intellect soon made their presence felt in the French capital, and played a major role in winning French assistance.

France began providing aid to the colonies in May 1776, when it sent 14 ships with war supplies to America. In fact, most of the gunpowder used by the American armies came from France. After Britain’s defeat at Saratoga, France saw an opportunity to seriously weaken its ancient enemy and restore the balance of power that had been upset by the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in the American colonies).

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.

Lieutenant General John Burgoyne (known as "Gentleman Johnny"), developed a plan to separate New England, (where resistance was the strongest), from the other colonies by land and water. 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. Burgoyne, while not incompetent, did not devote the necessary attention to logistics concerns during the New York expedition, and the result was ultimately fatal for the British Empire. The main idea behind the plan was to attack the colonial forts while controlling the rivers and waterways in the area. Burgoyne's expedition left Canada on 13 June 1777, and on 07 July 1777, Burgoyne laid siege to Fort Ticonderoga. American General Benedict Arnold defeated the British troops in New York. /p>

The Battle of Saratoga was actually not one battle but two battles (Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights), when combined, known as the Battle of Saratoga. Saratoga was the first time that the Colonists had met and defeated an English Army that was larger and commanded by someone who was known and respected throughout the military world. On 19 September 1777, at the first Battle of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm), New York, Burgoyne’s army was shaken by encounter with Arnold and Morgan’s riflemen. On 07 October 1777, at the Second Battle of Saratoga (Bemis Heights) New York, Arnold defeated British again and forced them to retreat. General Burgoyne had expected help from General Howe, but did not get it. Burgoyne was forced to surrender at the town of Saratoga. On 17 October 1777 Burgoyne surrendered his trapped army to General Horatio Gates.

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.

1778 - European Intervention

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben became an officer in the Prussian military at age 16 and was aide-de-camp to King Frederick the Great, the son of Friedrich Wilhelm I, during the Seven Years War. In 1769, Steuben began using the title of baron, based on a false family history prepared by his father. While his military experience before the Revolutionary War as a Prussian officer was largely embellished, Friedrich von Steuben’s guidance upon his arrival at Valley Forge, Pa., on Feb. 23, 1778, led to major changes, some of which pervade throughout the Army to the present day. He trained Soldiers in the use of the bayonet. He established standards for camp layouts and sanitation. But Steuben’s biggest gift to the Army was the creation of the American noncommissioned officer.

By the spring of 1778 the Americans were ready to fight again.

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.

On February 6, 1778, the colonies and France signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, in which France recognized the United States and offered trade concessions. They also signed a Treaty of Alliance, which stipulated that if France entered the war, neither country would lay down its arms until the colonies won their independence, that neither would conclude peace with Britain without the consent of the other, and that each guaranteed the other’s possessions in America. This was the only bilateral defense treaty signed by the United States or its predecessors until 1949.

The Franco-American alliance soon broadened the conflict. In June 1778 British ships fired on French vessels, and the two countries went to war. In 1779 Spain, hoping to reacquire territories taken by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, entered the conflict on the side of France, but not as an ally of the Americans. In 1780 Britain declared war on the Dutch, who had continued to trade with the Americans. The combination of these European powers, with France in the lead, was a far greater threat to Britain than the American colonies standing alone.

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.

In July 1780 France’s King Louis XVI had sent to America an expeditionary force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau. In addition, the French fleet harassed British shipping and blocked reinforcement and resupply of British forces in Virginia. French and American armies and navies, totaling 18,000 men, parried with Cornwallis all through the summer and into the fall.

1781 - Victory at the Cowpens

With the French now involved, the British, still believing that most Southerners were Loyalists, stepped up their efforts in the Southern colonies. 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. A campaign began in late 1778, with the capture of Savannah, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, British troops and naval forces converged on Charleston, South Carolina, the principal Southern port. They managed to bottle up American forces on the Charleston peninsula. On May 12, 1780, General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the city and its 5,000 troops, in the greatest American defeat of the war.

But the reversal in fortune only emboldened the American rebels. South Carolinians began roaming the countryside, attacking British supply lines. In July 1780, American General Horatio Gates, who had assembled a replacement force of untrained militiamen, rushed to Camden, South Carolina, to confront British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis. But Gates’s makeshift army panicked and ran when confronted by the British regulars. Cornwallis’s troops met the Americans several more times, but the most significant battle took place at the Cowpens, South Carolina, in early 1781, where the Americans soundly defeated the British.

On the evening of January 16, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan planned for battle with the pursuing Tarleton. At the suggestion of his militia leaders, he chose a road junction, known as "the Cowpens," as the location to fight. Many backcountry areas first developed as open ranges where cattle roamed freely and only houses, gardens, and crop fields were fenced in. These open ranges were known as "cowpens." The field itself was some 500 yards long and just as wide, a park-like setting dotted with trees, but devoid of undergrowth, having been kept clear by cattle grazing in the spring on native grasses and peavine.

Morgan placed the militia under Andrew Pickens out front with instructions to fire two shots and then retreat behind the line of Continental regulars. In accordance with Morgan's plan, both the skirmish and militia lines fired and fell to the rear of the Continentals. Morgan ordered the retreating units to face about, and then, on order, fire in unison. The firing took a heavy toll on the British, who, by that time had sensed victory and had broken ranks in a wild charge. This event and a fierce Patriot bayonet charge in return broke the British charge.

Observing the situation turn increasingly hopeless, the British in the American center surrendered in large numbers. By the end of the engagement, the Americans captured more than 500 British Soldiers. Those who did not surrender fled hastily in retreat. In one hour of combat, American forces decisively defeated a combined arms British force unconquered as of yet in the southern theater of the American Revolution. Compared to 12 killed and 61 wounded, the Americans inflicted more than 300 casualties, including 10 officers, and captured more than 600 prisoners.

The movie "The Patriot" used elements of Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, as well as other dramatic additions.

With such an overwhelming victory and the capture of two British cannons, 800 muskets, more than 100 cavalry horses, a large store of ammunition, and two stands of British regimental colors, the Americans secured an overwhelming and thorough victory.

Following the battle at Cowpens, the American Revolution continued for an additional 10 months with both successes and failures for the young U.S. Army. The British, however, were unable to regain dominance in the southern theater. After an exhausting but unproductive chase through North Carolina, Cornwallis set his sights on Virginia.

1781 - Victory at Yorktown

In 1781 Lord Charles Cornwallis had the unenviable task of pursuing Nathaniel Greene's American army in the South. Cornwallis had limited success in a campaign that featured not only a lack of logistics assets but also a lack of understanding of basic logistics principles. By contrast, Greene had been given the Southern command of the Continental Army after serving for 2 years as Washington's Quartermaster General. This experience provided Greene with an impressive education in the importance of logistics. Although he had an inferior force, he divided it in the face of Cornwallis' greater numbers, primarily so that he could subsist off the land with greater ease. Cornwallis, conversely, kept a line of communication open to the coast so that he could maintain his resupply options. In January 1781, Cornwallis cut loose from his baggage trains in order to increase the speed of his pursuit. (He actually burned his wagons and remaining supplies!) He soon was forced to halt his chase after Greene in order to collect flour and other provisions, and over 250 men deserted rather than face the hardships of foraging. Cornwallis' gamble paid off in the short term, for he managed to catch Greene's force at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, in March 1781. However, his fundamental mistake was the one so often witnessed in the early years of the war: he wrongly assumed that a significant loyalist presence in the region would rise up and provide for his army.

Both Lord Charles Cornwallis 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. Finally, on October 19, 1781, after being trapped at Yorktown near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.

Although Cornwallis’s defeat did not immediately end the war — which would drag on inconclusively for almost two more years — a new British government decided to pursue peace negotiations in Paris in early 1782, with the American side represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. On April 15, 1783, Congress approved the final treaty. Signed on September 3, the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former colonies, now states. The new United States stretched west to the Mississippi River, north to Canada, and south to Florida, which was returned to Spain. The fledgling colonies that Richard Henry Lee had spoken of more than seven years before had finally become “free and independent states.”

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

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 07-09-2017 16:56:48 ZULU