The American Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783 was also known as the American War of Independence. It had begun as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and former 13 united British colonies under the North American continent. However, this war had ended in a global war between several European great powers.
The war was the completion stage of the political American Revolution whereas the colonists had denied the rights of the Parliament of Great Britain in governing them without any representation. In 1775, revolutionaries had gained control of the thirteen colonial governments. They set up the Second Continental Congress and formed a Continental Army. Petitions to the king to intercede with the parliament on their behalf resulted in being declared as traitors by the Congress and the states went on for the rebellion the following year.
The Americans responded formally by declaring their independence as a new nation, which is the United States of America. They claimed sovereignty and denied any allegiance with the British monarchy. In 1777, the Continentals captured a British army that resulted France to enter the war on the side of the Americans. In early 1778, the military had strengthened with Britain. Over the next two years, Spain and the Dutch Republic also went to war with Britain as French allies.
Throughout the war, the British had use their nautical predominance in capturing and occupying coastal cities. They had also have the control of the countryside wherein 90% of the population living in the areas has largely avoided them because of their relatively small land army.
The French involvement proved to be determined. In 1781, a French nautical victory takes place in Chesapeake that resulted to the surrender of the second British army in Yorktown. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris had ended the war and recognized the sovereignty of the United States over the territory bounded by what is currently Canada to the north, Florida to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west.
Combatants before 1778
American Armies and Militias
In the beginning of the war, the Thirteen Colonies lacked the needed professional army and navy. Each of the colonies had provided its own defenses through the use of local militia. The militiamen were lightly armed, slightly trained, and do not have the usual uniforms. Their units only served for few weeks or months at a time since they are unwilling to go very far from home. In addition, militiamen generally unavailable for any extended operations. Militiamen lacked the training and discipline as soldiers but they are more experienced in training and more numerous and could overwhelm any regular troops such as battles of Concord, Bennington and Saratoga, and even the siege of Boston. Both sides of the American armies and militiamen used partisan warfare however the Americans were particularly more effective in abolishing the Loyalist activities whenever the British regulars were not present in the area.
Searching for coordination with the military efforts, the Continental Congress established a regular army in June 1775, and appointed George Washington as the commander-in-chief. It was established in paper. Apparently, the development of the Continental Army had always been a work in progress, and Washington used both his regular and state militia throughout the war. The United States Marine Corps traces its institutional roots to the Continental Marines of the war and settled at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. The date of November 10, 1775 had been regarded and celebrated as the birthday of the Marine Corps. This was a resolution made by the Continental Congress.
In the beginning of 1776, the army of Washington had 20,000 men wherein two-thirds of them were enlisted in the Continental Army and the other third were in the various state militias. When the American Revolution in 1783 ended, both the Continental Navy and Continental Marines were disbanded. There are about 250,000 men who served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause during the eight years of the war. However, there were never more than 90,000 total men under arms in one single time.
By European standards of the era, the American armies were relative small. The largest number of men that Washington had personally commanded in the field at any one time was lesser than 17,000. This could be attributed as tactical preferences by Washington, but it also could be because of the lack of powder on the American side. This was compared by Duffy on his notes that Frederick the Great usually commanded from 23,000 to 50,000 in a single battle.
According to historians’ estimations, there is an approximate of 40-45% colonists that actively support the rebellion. Meanwhile, there is about 15-20% of the population from the thirteen colonies that remained loyal to the British Crown. In addition, the remaining 35-45% had attempted to remain neutral. There are at least 25,000 Loyalists who fought on the British side and thousands had served in the Royal Navy. In land areas, there Loyalist forces who fought alongside with the British in most battles in North America. Plenty of Loyalists have fought in partisan units most particularly in the Southern theater.
The British military had encountered plenty of obstacles in maximizing the use of their Loyalist groups. Jeremy Black, a British historian, wrote, “In the American war it was clear to both royal generals and revolutionaries that organized and significant Loyalist activity would require the presence of British forces.”
In the South, the use of Loyalists had presented the British with “major problems of strategic choice” since it was necessary to widely distribute troops enable to defend the Loyalist areas. In addition, it was identified that there was a need for “the maintenance of large concentrated forces able” in order to counter the major attacks from the American forces. Because of this, the British armies were forced to ensure that their military actions would not “offend their Loyalist opinions”, eliminating the options of attempting to “live off the country”, destroy the property for threatening purposes, or menacing payments from the colonists.
British Armies and Auxiliaries
In the beginning months of 1775, the British Army was comprised of about 36,000 men worldwide. However, the wartime recruitment had continuously increased the quantity. Because of this, Great Britain had difficult times in appointing the general officers in the army. When the rebellion started, General Thomas Gage who commanded the British forces in North America was criticized for being too lenient probably because he was influenced by his American wife. General Jeffrey Amherst, commander in chief of the 1st Baron Amherst had turned down the appointment due to his reluctantcy of taking sides in the conflict. Just the same, Admiral Augustus Keppel turned down his appointment as he commanded “I cannot draw the sword in such a cause.” William Howe and John Burgoyne were both members of the parliament who opposed the military solutions to the American rebellion. Howe and Henry Clinton both made the statements that they were not willing to participate in the war but there were willing in following the orders.
During the events of the war, Great Britain had signed treaties with several German states that supplied the British armies with more than 30,000 soldiers. To overwhelm the North American troops, the Germans made up about one-third of the British troops. Compared to other German states, the Hesse-Kassel had contributed more soldiers and because of this the German soldiers came to be known as the “Hessians” to the Americans. The rebel advocates called the German soldiers as “foreign mercenaries”. Because of that, the German soldiers were rejected in the Declaration of Independence. In 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America grew to over 60,000. The troops were scattered from Canada to Florida. There are about 10,000 Loyalist Americans included in this figure who are under arms for the British.
Both slave and free African Americans had served on both sides during the war. The British had actively recruited slaves that belong to the good-citizen masters. In January 1776, George Washington had lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army because of manpower shortages. Many small all-black units were formed in the Rhode Island and Massachusetts wherein from these units plenty of slaves were promised with freedom for serving. Another all-black unit came from Haiti along with other French forces. There is at least 5,000 black soldiers who fought for the Revolutionary cause and over 20,000 black soldiers who fought for the British side.
Most of the Native Americans in the east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war. Because of this many communities were divided over the question of how to respond to the happening conflict. There are few tribes who were on friendly terms with the Americans, however most of the Native Americans opposed to the United States because their native lands were being threatened by the expansion of American settlement. Estimatedly, there are 13,000 warriors who fought for the British side whereas the largest group is the Iroquois Confederacy, which is supplied with 1,500 men.
War in the north, 1775-1780
Before the beginning of the war, Boston had been the setting for many revolutionary activities, which resulted to the Massachusetts Government Act. The Act had become a home rule punishment in 1774. With these measures, a popular resistance compelled the newly appointed royal officials in Massachusetts in resigning or seeking refuge to Boston. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British North American commander-in chief had commanded four regiments of British regulars of about 4,000 men. From Cage’s headquarters in Boston, it shows that the countryside was in the hands of the Revolutionaries.
On the evening of April 18, 1775, General Gage had sent 700 men to fasten the explosives stored by the colonial militia in Concord, Massachusetts. The riders with Paul Revere had alerted the countryside. The British troops entered Lexington in the morning of April 19 and they found 77 minutemen forming up on the green village. Exchanging of shots happened that killed many of the minutemen. The British moved towards Concord wherein the separation of three companies was engaged and routed to the North Bridge through a force of 500 minutemen. As the British refuge back to Boston, thousands of militiamen had attacked them along the roads that resulted to great damages prior to the timely prevention of the British reinforcements on the disaster. Initially, the war had begun with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The militia men combined n Boston and bottled up the British in the city. The are about additional 4,500 British soldiers that arrived in the city by sea. In June 17, 1775, British forces that are under the command of General William Howe have captured the Charlestown Peninsula in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans had drawn back, however British losses were so burdensome thus the attacks were not followed up. The blockade was not broken, and Gage was soon replaced by Howe as the British commander-in-chief.
In July 1775, newly appointed General Washington had arrived outside of Boston to take charge of the colonial forces as well as to organize the Continental Army. Washington had realized his army’s desperate shortage of gunpowder therefore he asked for new sources. The armories were raided and some manufacturing lots were attempted. By the end of 1776, 90% of the supply which is equivalent to 2 million pounds was imported whereas mostly from it is from France.
Throughout the fall and winter season, the battle continued. In early March of 1776, heavy cannons were brought to Boston by Colonel Henry Knox and placed them on the Dorchester Heights. The cannons were the ones that the patriots had captured at Fort Ticonderoga. Since the artillery now overlooked the British positions, the situation of Howe became weak, and the British take off on March 17, 1776 and sailed to their nautical base in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Afterwards, Washington moved most of the Continental Army to strengthen New York City.
Three weeks after the blockade of Boston began, a troop of militia volunteers had captured Fort Ticonderoga. The troop was led by led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. Fort Ticonderoga was a strategically important point on Lake Champlain between New York and the Province of Quebec. After the action of capture, the troop had also raided Fort St. John’s, which is not far from Montreal. The capture had alarmed the population and the authorities there.
In response to the capture, Guy Carleton, governor of Quebec began strengthening Fort St. John’s. He had opened negotiations with the Iroquois and other Indian tribes for support. These actions along with the combined petition by both Allen and Arnold as well as the fear of a British attack from the north, eventually convinced the Congress to authorize an invasion to Quebec. The invasion also has the goal of driving the British military out of the province. In the previous times, Quebec was frequently referred to as Canada since most of its territory is included in the former French Province of Canada.
There were two Quebec-bound expeditions undertaken. In September 28, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery had marched to the north from Fort Ticonderoga along with other 1,700 militiamen. With this march, he had surrounded and captured Fort St. Jean on November 2 and eventually Montreal on November 13.
General Carleton had escaped to Quebec City and began preparing for an attack. The second expedition was led by Colonel Arnold. It went through the wilderness of what is now called the Northern Maine. With 300 men turning back, and another 200 men disappearing because of the difficult condition, the battle was a logistical nightmare. By the time that Arnold had reached Quebec City in early November, he only had 600 of the original 1,100 men.
The force of Montgomery had joined Arnold’s force. Both forces attacked Quebec City on December 31. However, they were defeated by Carleton in a battle that ended with the death of Montgomery and seriously wounded Arnold as well. In addition, there were over 400 Americans who were taken as prisoners. Until the spring of 1776, the remaining Americans were held back outside of Quebec City as the suffer from poor camp conditions and smallpox. Eventually, they just withdrew when the squadron of the British ships under the command of Captain Charles Douglas had arrived to relieve the blockade.
In June 8, 1776, another endeavor was made by the Americans in able to return to Quebec but they failed with Trois-Rivieres. Carleton began his own invasion and defeated Arnold in the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Afterwards, Arnold returned to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion had begun. Arnold’s efforts in 1776 delayed a full-scale British counteroffensive until the Saratoga campaign of 1777 while the invasion ended as a disaster for the Americans.
The invasion had cost the Americans’ base of support with the British public opinion. Because of this, the violent measures towards America are freely adopted and countenanced by a majority of individuals of all ranks, professions, or occupations in Quebec. In addition, it gained the Americans at its best limited support in the population of Quebec. Meanwhile, being supportive early in the invasion became less therefor during the occupation the American policies against the suspected Loyalists had become harsher, resulting to running out of the army’s hard currency.
There were two small regiments of Canadians that were recruited during the operation, and these were presented with army on its refuge back to Ticonderoga.
New York and New Jersey
After having withdrawn his army from Boston, General Howe had now focused on capturing the New York City. In defending the city, General Washington had divided his 20,000 soldiers between the Long Island and the Manhattan. While the British troops were gathering and assembling at the Staten Island for campaign, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence and he read this to his men. There was no longer any possibility for compromise. In August 27, 1776, after the landing of about 22,000 men on Long Island, the British had driven the Americans back to Brooklyn Heights that resulted into the biggest battle of the entire Revolution.
Eventually, Howe had led the blockade to strengthen there. In a feat considered by many historians to be one of his most impressive actions as Commander in Chief. The withdrawal of Washington on his entire remaining army and all their supplies across the East River in one night without the discovery of the British or losing any single man from the army was considered by most historians as one of the most impressive actions done by Washington as a Commander in Chief.
On September 15, Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan. He quickly took control of the New York City. The Americans retreat to Harlem Heights wherein they fought the followingt day but remained on their ground. When Howe moved to surround the Washington’s army in October, the Americans again retreat, and a battle at White Plains was fought on October 28. Once more Washington retreated, and Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November. He took about 2,000 prisoners with an additional of 1,000 that have been captured during the battle for Long Island. This began the infamous “prison ships” system that the British maintained in New York for the entire duration of the war wherein more American soldiers and sailors had died and neglected after death.
The stylized depiction of Emanuel Leutze in Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)
General Lord Cornwallis continued to chase the army of Washington throughout New Jersey, until the Americans move back across the Delaware River towards Pennsylvania in early December. With the campaign of the visible conclusion of the season, the British entered the winter quarters. Though Howe had missed various opportunities of crushing down the decreasing quantity of American army, he had killed or captured more than 5,000 Americans.
The standpoint of the Continental Army was gloomy. Thomas Paine wrote that: “These are the times that try men’s souls,”. He was with the army on the retreat. The army had decrease to less than 5,000 men that were fit for duty and even get reduced to 1,400 after their registrations have expired at the end of the year. Because of despair, the Congress had abandoned Philadelphia but the popular resistance to British occupation continues to grow in the countryside.
Washington had decided to take the offensive and stealthily crossed the Delaware on Christmas night as they capture almost 1,000 Hessians in the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. Cornwallis marched to recover the Trenton but was outwitted by Washington, who successfully attacked the British rearguard in Princeton on January 3, 1777. Afterwards, Washington entered the winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey since he was given a morale boost to the American cause. Throughout the winter, the New Jersey militia continued to harass British and Hessian forces as they forced the British to withdraw to their base in and around the New York City.
In every stage, the British strategy undertook a huge base of the Loyalist supporters and they rallied to the King with provided some military support. In February 1776, Clinton took 2,000 men and a nautical squadron in invading North Carolina. However, he called off the invasion when he learned that the Loyalists had been crushed in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. In June, he tried seizing the Charleston in South Carolina, which is the leading port in the South. He had hoped for a simultaneous rising in South Carolina. It seemed an inexpensive way of waging the war but it had failed as the nautical force was defeated by the forts. In addition, there were no local Loyalists that attacked the town from behind. One reason for this is that the loyalists were too poorly organized to be effective. Apparently, in late 1781, the senior officials in London had placed their confidence in their rising as they were misled by the Loyalist exiles.
Saratoga and Philadelphia
When the British began planning the operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America namely the Carleton’s army in Quebec and the Howe’s army in New York. In London, Lord George Germain approved campaigns for these armies due to miscommunication, poor planning, and rivalries between commanders. However, the campaigns did not work in conjunction. Though Howe had successfully captured the Philadelphia, the northern army was lost in a disastrous surrender in Saratoga. After the 1777 campaign, both the armie of Carleton and Howe have resigned.
The first among of the 1777 campaigns was a journey from Quebec and led by General John Burgoyne. The goal was to capture the Lake Champlain and Hudson River corridor as it effectively isolates the New England from the rest of the American colonies. The invasion of Burgoyne had two components. The first component is that he would lead about 10,000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York and the second component is to build a column of about 2,000 men that will be led by Barry St. Leger and would move down the Mohawk River valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany, New York.
Joseph Brant, leader of Mohawk had led both the Native Americans and the white Loyalists in battle. Burgoyne had activated in June and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. Thereafter, his march was slowed by the Americans who literally knocked down trees in his path. A detachment was sent out to catch supplies but was decisively defeated in the Battle of Bennington by the American militia in August. It had deprived Burgoyne of almost 1,000 men.
Meanwhile, St. Leger’s half of the force of Native Americans led by Sayenqueraghta had laid siege to Fort Stanwix. American militiamen as well as their Native American allies marched to relieve the siege but were ambushed and scattered in the Battle of Oriskany. As the second relief expedition approached, St. Leger’s Indian support abandoned him, forcing him to break off the siege and moved back to Quebec. This time the expedition was led by Benedict Arnold
The army of Burgoyne had been decreased to about 6,000 men due to the loss in Bennington and the need to garrison Ticonderoga. In addition he was running short on supplies. Despite these reversals, he determined to push towards Albany. An American army of 8,000 men, under the command of General Horatio Gates, had implanted about 10 miles south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne tried to outflank the Americans but was hampered at the first battle of Saratoga in September. Burgoyne’s situation was desperate, but he now seek help from Howe’s army in New York City. However, no help came along the way, instead the army of Howe had sailed away on his expedition to capture Philadelphia. American militiamen flocked to Gates’ army, increasing his force up to 11,000 by the beginning of October. After being badly beaten in the second battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne was able to surender on October 17.
Saratoga had been the turning point of the war. The revolutionary confidence and determination that suffered from the Howe’s successful occupation in Philadelphia had been renewed. More importantly, the victory had encouraged France to make an open alliance with the Americans. It happened after two years of semi-secret support. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated.
Upon securing New York City in 1776, General Howe concentrated on capturing Philadelphia, which is the seat of the Revolutionary government in 1777. He moved slowly with landing 15,000 troops in late August at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. Washington positioned his 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia but was driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Once again, the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia. On September 26, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington and marched towards the city unopposed. Washington unsuccessfully attacked the British camp nearby Germantown in early October and then retreated to watch and wait.
After repulsing a British attack in White Marsh, Washington and his army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777. The Valley Forge is about 20 miles or 32 kilometers from Philadelphia. It is where they stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men out of the original 10,000 men had died from disease and exposure. The following spring, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order. The emergence is owed to the training program that is supervised by Baron von Steuben who introduced the most modern Prussian methods of organization and tactics.
General Clinton had replaced Howe as the British commander-in-chief. French entry into the war had changed British strategies. Clinton abandoned Philadelphia in order to reinforce New York City, which is now vulnerable to French nautical power. Washington shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal and forced a strategic victory in the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. It was the last major battle in the north. Eventually, Clinton’s army went to New York City in July, arriving just before a French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing that had arrived off the American coast. Washington’s army returned to White Plains, New York, which is north of the city. Although both armies were back where they had been two years earlier, the nature of the war had now changed.
An International War, 1778-1783
In 1778, the war over the rebellion in North America had become internationally renowned. It had spread not only to Europe but to other European colonies as well, mainly in India. After learning the American victory in Saratoga, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with the United States on February 6, 1778. Thereafter, Spain had entered the war as an ally of France in June 1779. The entry serves as a renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Compared to France, Spain had initially refused to recognize the independence of the United States since Spain was not keen on encouraging similar anti-colonial rebellions in the Spanish Empire. Both countries had quietly provided assistance to the Americans since the beginning of the war as they hope to dilute British power. In addition, Netherlands had eventually brought into open war at the end of 1780.
In London, King George III gave up on his hope of subduing America with more armies while Britain had a European war to fight. “It was a joke,” he said, “to think of keeping Pennsylvania.” There was no hope of recovering New England. But the King was determined, he said “never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal.” His plan was of keeping the 30,000 men garrisoned in New York, Rhode Island, Quebec, and Florida as well as other forces is to attack the French and Spanish in the West Indies.
To punish the Americans the King planned to destroy their coasting-trade, bombard their ports, sack and burn towns along the coast, and turn loose the Native Americans to attack civilians in frontier settlements. With these operations, the King had believed that it would inspire the Loyalists, would splinter the Congress, and would keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse and they would beg to return to his authority.
The plan was meant for the destruction whereas the Loyalists and loyal Native Americans, and indefinite prolongation of a costly war, as well as the risk of disaster as the French and Spanish were assembling an army to invade the British isles and seize London. The British planned to re-subjugate the rebellious colonies after dealing with their European allies.
Widening of the Nautical War
When the war had began, the British had overwhelming nautical superiority over the American colonists. The Royal Navy had more than 100 ships of the line and plenty of frigates and smaller crafts. Although this fleet was old and in poor condition, the situation should be blamed to Lord Sandwich who is the First Lord of the Admiralty.
During the first three years of the war, the Royal Navy was the primary source in transporting the troops for land operations and protecting commercial shipping. The American colonists had no ships of the line, and relied extensively on the private British shipping. The privateers caused worry disproportionate on their material success though those operations from the French channel ports before and after France joined the war had caused significant embarrassments to the Royal Navy and inflamed the Anglo-French relations.
During the war, there are about 55,000 American seamen that served aboard with the privateers. The American privateers had almost 1,700 ships and they captured 2,283 enemy ships. The Continental Congress authorized the creation of a tiny Continental Navy in October of 1775, which was primarily used for commerce raiding. John Paul Jones became the first great American nautical hero and he captured HMS Drake on April 24, 1778. This is the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters.
The French entry into the war had proven that the British nautical superiority was now contested. The Franco-American alliance had began poorly and with failed operations at Rhode Island in 1778 and at Savannah, Georgia, in 1779. Part of the problem was that France and the United States had different military priorities. The France hoped to capture British possessions in the West Indies before helping to secure American independence. While French financial assistance to the American war effort was already of critical importance, French military aid to the Americans would not show positive results until the arrival in July 1780 of a large force of soldiers led by the Comte de Rochambeau.
Spain entered the war on the side of the Americans with the goal of recapturing Gibraltar and Minorca, which had been lost to the British in 1704. Gibraltar was besieged for more than three years, but the British garrison stubbornly resisted for years and was finally resupplied after Admiral Rodney’s victory in the “Moonlight Battle” (January, 1780). Further Franco-Spanish efforts to capture Gibraltar were unsuccessful. One notable success took place on February 5, 1782 when Spanish and French forces captured Minorca, which Spain retained after the war. Ambitious plans for an invasion of England had to be abandoned.
West Indies and Gulf Coast
There was much action in the West Indies, with several islands changing hands, especially in the Lesser Antilles. At the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, a victory by Rodney’s fleet over the French Admiral de Grasse frustrated the hopes of France and Spain to take Jamaica and other colonies from the British. On May 8, 1782, Count Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, captured the British nautical base at New Providence in the Bahamas. Nevertheless, except for the French retention of the small island of Tobago, sovereignty in the West Indies was returned to the status quo ante bellum in the 1783 peace treaty.
On the Gulf Coast, Gálvez seized three British Mississippi River outposts in 1779: Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Gálvez then captured Mobile in 1780 and forced the surrender of the British outpost at Pensacola in 1781. His actions led to Spain acquiring East and West Florida in the peace settlement.
India and the Netherlands
The military action in North America and the Caribbean helped spark a conflict between Britain and France over India, in the form of the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784). The two chief combatants were Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and a key French ally, and the British government of Madras.
In 1780, the British struck against the United Provinces of the Netherlands in order to preempt Dutch involvement in the League of Armed Neutrality, a declaration of several European powers that they would conduct neutral trade during the war. Britain was not willing to allow the Netherlands to openly give aid to the American rebels. Agitation by Dutch radicals and a friendly attitude towards the United States by the Dutch government – both influenced by the American Revolution – also encouraged the British to attack. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War lasted into 1784 and was disastrous to the Dutch mercantile economy. It effectively ended the last Dutch pretence to being a global power, and paved the way for the Batavian Republic.
During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the north. After French entry into the war, the British turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting Loyalists. This southern strategy also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where the British needed to defend their possessions against the French and Spanish.
The British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.
On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from Clinton’s army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. An attempt by French and American forces to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779. Clinton then besieged Charleston, capturing it on May 12, 1780. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, paving the way for what seemed like certain conquest of the South.
The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina but were pursued by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who defeated them at the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. With these events, organized American military activity in the region collapsed, though the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion. Cornwallis took over British operations, while Horatio Gates arrived to command the American effort. On August 16, 1780, Gates was defeated at the Battle of Camden, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.
Cornwallis’ victories quickly turned, however. One wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. Tarleton was decisively defeated at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, by American General Daniel Morgan.
General Nathanael Greene, Gates’ replacement, proceeded to wear down the British in a series of battles, each of them tactically a victory for the British but giving no strategic advantage to the victors. Greene summed up his approach in a motto that would become famous: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Unable to capture or destroy Greene’s army, Cornwallis moved north to Virginia.
In March 1781, General Washington dispatched General Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. Cornwallis was unable to trap Lafayette, and so he moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia, in July so the Royal Navy could return his army to New York.
Northern and western Frontier
George Rogers Clark’s 180 mile (290 km) winter march led to the capture of General Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec.
West of the Appalachian Mountains and along the border with Quebec, the American Revolutionary War was an “Indian War”. Most Native Americans supported the British. Like the Iroquois Confederacy, tribes such as the Cherokees and the Shawnees split into factions.
The British supplied their native allies with muskets and gunpowder and advised raids against civilian settlements, especially in New York, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley and at Cherry Valley in 1778 provoked Washington to send the Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779. There was little fighting as Sullivan systematically destroyed the Native American winter food supplies, forcing them to flee permanently to British bases in Quebec and the Niagara Falls area.
In the Ohio Country and the Illinois Country, the Virginia frontiersman George Rogers Clark attempted to neutralize British influence among the Ohio tribes by capturing the outposts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes in the summer of 1778. When General Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit, retook Vincennes, Clark returned in a surprise march in February 1779 and captured Hamilton himself.
In March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen killed about a hundred neutral Native Americans in the Gnadenhütten massacre. In one of the last major encounters of the war, a force of 200 Kentucky militia was defeated at the Battle of Blue Licks in August 1782.
Yorktown and the Surrender of Cornwallis
The northern, southern, and nautical theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. In early September, French nautical forces defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis’ escape. Washington hurriedly moved American and French troops from New York, and a combined Franco-American force of 17,000 men commenced the Siege of Yorktown in early October. For several days, the French and Americans bombarded the British defenses. Cornwallis’ position quickly became untenable, and he surrendered his entire army of 7,000 men on October 19, 1781.
With the surrender at Yorktown, King George lost control of Parliament to the peace party, and there were no further major military activities on land. The British had 30,000 garrison troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah. The war continued at sea between the British and the French fleets in the West Indies.
Treaty of Paris
In London as political support for the war plummeted after Yorktown, Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November, 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and the United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783.
Britain negotiated the Paris peace treaty without consulting her Native American allies and ceded all Native American territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States. Full of resentment, Native Americans reluctantly confirmed these land cessions with the United States in a series of treaties, but the fighting would be renewed in conflicts along the frontier in the coming years, the largest being the Northwest Indian War.
Costs of the war
The total loss of life resulting from the American Revolutionary War is unknown. As was typical in the wars of the era, disease claimed more lives than battle. Historian Joseph Ellis suggests that Washington’s decision to have his troops inoculated against the smallpox epidemic was one of his most important decisions.
An estimated 25,000 American Revolutionaries died during active military service. About 8,000 of these deaths were in battle; the other 17,000 deaths were from disease, including about 8,000 – 12,000 who died while prisoners of war, most in rotting prison ships in New York. The number of Revolutionaries seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000. The total American military casualty figure was therefore as high as 50,000.
About 171,000 seamen served for the British during the war; about 25 to 50 percent of them had been pressed into service. About 1,240 were killed in battle, while 18,500 died from disease. The greatest killer was scurvy, a disease known at the time to be easily preventable by issuing lemon juice to sailors. About 42,000 British sailors deserted during the war.
Approximately 1,200 Germans were killed in action and 6,354 died from illness or accident. About 16,000 of the remaining German troops returned home, but roughly 5,500 remained in the United States after the war for various reasons, many eventually becoming American citizens. No reliable statistics exist for the number of casualties among other groups, including Loyalists, British regulars, Native Americans, French and Spanish troops, and civilians.
The British spent about £80 million and ended with a national debt of £250 million, which it easily financed at about £9.5 million a year in interest. The French spent 1.3 billion livres (about £56 million). Their total national debt was £187 million, which they could not easily finance; over half the French national revenue went to debt service in the 1780s. The debt crisis became a major enabling factor of the French Revolution as the government was unable to raise taxes without public approval. The United States spent $37 million at the national level plus $114 million by the states. This was mostly covered by loans from France and the Netherlands, loans from Americans, and issuance of more and more paper money (which became “not worth a continental.”) The U.S. finally solved its debt problem in the 1790s with the arrival of Alexander Hamilton and his National Bank.
The war of American independence could be described as a civil war within the Thirteen Colonies that escalated to a major war between European powers. It has also been argued that after the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was a war between two different nations, America and Great Britain, as the Revolutionaries legitimately controlled the governments of all thirteen colonies. Whether or not people have the right to self determine territorial independence by democratic means remains a contentious issue.
During the war the Americans benefited greatly from international assistance. In addition, Britain had significant military disadvantages. Distance was a major problem: most troops and supplies had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The British usually had logistical problems whenever they operated away from port cities, while the Americans had local sources of manpower and food and were more familiar with (and acclimated to) the territory. Additionally, ocean travel meant that British communications were always about two months out of date: by the time British generals in America received their orders from London, the military situation had usually changed.
Suppressing a rebellion in America also posed other problems. Since the colonies covered a large area and had not been united before the war, there was no central area of strategic importance. In Europe, the capture of a capital often meant the end of a war; in America, when the British seized cities such as New York and Philadelphia, the war continued unabated. Furthermore, the large size of the colonies meant that the British lacked the manpower to control them by force. Once any area had been occupied, troops had to be kept there or the Revolutionaries would regain control, and these troops were thus unavailable for further offensive operations. The British had sufficient troops to defeat the Americans on the battlefield but not enough to simultaneously occupy the colonies. This manpower shortage became critical after French and Spanish entry into the war, because British troops had to be dispersed in several theaters, where previously they had been concentrated in America.
Map of campaigns in the Revolutionary War
The British also had the difficult task of fighting the war while simultaneously retaining
the allegiance of Loyalists. Loyalist support was important, since the goal of the war was to keep the colonies in the British Empire, but this imposed numerous military limitations. Early in the war, the Howe brothers served as peace commissioners while simultaneously conducting the war effort, a dual role which may have limited their effectiveness. Additionally, the British could have recruited more slaves and Native Americans to fight the war, but this would have alienated many Loyalists, even more so than the controversial hiring of German mercenaries. The need to retain Loyalist allegiance also meant that the British were unable to use the harsh methods of suppressing rebellion they employed in Ireland and Scotland. Even with these limitations, many potentially neutral colonists were nonetheless driven into the ranks of the Revolutionaries because of the war. This combination of factors led ultimately to the downfall of British rule in America and the rise of the revolutionaries’ own independent nation, the United States of America.