The American Revolutionary War
The story of the American Revolution begins and ends with a peace treaty being signed in Paris. The 1763 Treaty of Paris brought an end to the Seven Years War and saw Britain gain large amounts of French territory in North America, though at a great expense. Seeking to recoup some of the financial losses incurred in defending the Thirteen Colonies, a series of taxes were levied, which the colonists were not very happy about.
There became such an unrest in Boston that British troops were dispatched to restore order, but their presence only ignited tensions further and led to violence between troops and colonists. This was met with a series of punitive measures by the British Parliament and in turn prompted delegates from the thirteen colonies to gather in Philadelphia to discuss plans. In October 1775, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress was issued which included a petition to King George III and a commitment to meet again the following year. Before that could happen, fighting broke out between British regulars and colonial militia.
Around 700 British soldiers were organized to conduct an expedition to capture ammunition and supplies stored in Concord. On the night of April 18th, 1775, the Redcoats set out on what would become a fateful journey. Their movements were reported by Paul Revere and word of the arrival of British soldiers spread rapidly across the area. The British were confronted by a contingent of local militia around 80 strong at Lexington Green led by John Parker. They were not able to effectively block the path of the British forces, and Parker, knowing he was heavily outnumbered, was understandably not keen to pick a fight. If Parker is to be believed, his men were gathered as a show of political unity and defiance. It is not clear which side shot first but the confrontation would be the first skirmish of the war.
Parker’s militia were quickly scattered by the British but reinforcements were pouring in across the countryside and the Redcoats were forced into a fighting retreat all the way back to Boston. The pursuing militia began a siege which lasted until the following March.
It was under these circumstances that the Second Continental Congress met in May of 1775. Even at that point, all-out war and separation were not inevitable; many of the delegates still considered themselves loyal British subjects whose dispute was with Parliament, not the crown. Others believed separation was preferable but were not yet convinced there was enough popular support for independence. Regardless, the first order of business for the Congress was to organize the war effort.
The Continental Army was established on June 14th, and George Washington was chosen to be its leader. Washington was an ideal candidate, having been a colonel in the British Army during the French and Indian War less than two decades earlier. The ranks of his army swelled with men on one-year enlistments. Funding and supplying the army would be a continuing source of difficulty as the Second Continental Congress did not even have the authority to levy taxes.
On June 17th, 1775, the bloodiest battle of the Revolution was fought at Bunker Hill as the British forces attempted to break the siege of Boston. The British Army held a low opinion of fighting prowess of the colonials. It was widely believed that militia could not stand up to the disciplined ranks of regulars and would wilt under pressure. It should be remembered that in the eighteenth century, soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder and the ability to maintain discipline and keep up a high rate of fire was usually the deciding factor of a battle. To the surprise of the British, the American forces fended off a succession of fierce frontal assaults until finally giving way.
The British Army paid a heavy price for the victory and failed to achieve the greater strategic objective of breaking the siege. The battle showed the unexpected resilience of the colonial forces and drove home the message that the war would be a good deal more difficult than anticipated. The British had to support a campaign several thousand miles away. At a time of very limited communications and when a journey across the Atlantic took several weeks, losses would be difficult to replace.
There was still some hope among the members of the Second Continental Congress of reaching a settled peace with Britain and a restoration of relations. A final overture for peace, the Olive Branch Proposal, was drafted by Delaware delegate John Dickinson and sent to King George III. Around the same time a letter expressing doubts over the peace process by Samuel Adams was intercepted, leading the king to view Dickinson’s proposals as insincere.
An American invasion of Quebec began in the summer of 1775 led by Benedict Arnold. Arnold is much better known today for his defection to the British in 1780 but he was a key figure on the American side in the first half of the war. The march through Maine made slow progress and many soldiers were lost to disease and desertion until a fraction of the initial force arrived in Canada in October. The weakened army was defeated at the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775. The importance of the expedition was not in the British victory but in the diversion of British resources away from the colonies.
In March 1776, Boston was abandoned by the British and momentum for independence gathered pace. Common Sense, an influential pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, made the case for American independence and was circulated widely across the colonies. On July 2nd, the final draft of the American Declaration of Independence was approved by the Congress and ratified two days later.
After a promising start, the fortunes of the revolution took a sharp downward turn as a series of military disasters brought the Continental Army on the brink of annihilation. A British landing at Staten Island resulted in a pitched battle in modern-day Brooklyn. The disciplined ranks of the British Army soundly defeated the Washington’s forces on August 22nd 1776. A night-time evacuation on August 29-30 allowed the remainder of Washington’s army to escape and fight another day. Defeat had been narrowly avoided by the thinnest of margins.
A series of follow-up victories by the British saw the capture of Forts Washington and Lee and pushed the Continental Army out of New York and New Jersey. Morale plummeted as the one-year enlistment period of the men neared its end. Thomas Paine eloquently described the winter of 1776-7 as the “times which try men’s souls.”
Understanding the need for a victory to stem the tide of defeats and restore the spirits of his men, Washington crossed the Delaware River and attacked the Hessian Regiment at Trenton on December 26th 1776. The scene of Washington crossing the Delaware would be immortalized in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting.
Normally at the time, owing to the enormous difficulty of moving men and supplies in winter, armies tended to suspend military campaigns until spring. The German regiment was caught completely by surprise and suffered a decisive defeat. Two further victories at Princeton brought much-needed good news and renewed belief.
Congress approved a measure to extend enlistment periods to three years or the end of the war, whichever came first. In the meantime, the British spent the winter devising a plan to bring the Revolution to an end. The plan called for three armies in Canada and New York to link up, surround, and crush the American forces. The great distances involved and limitations of 18th century communications meant the armies were never able to meet up and the army led by John Burgoyne was trapped by a larger American force led by Horatio Gates. Burgoyne’s men technically won the first battle on September 19th but suffered heavy losses, followed by little-to-no support or reinforcements. A second battle took place on October 7th, resulting in further heavy British losses. Following the American victory, the surrounded British army surrendered to the Americans on October 17th.
Not only had the British lost an entire army, the news of the defeat convinced the French to get involved. Still feeling the loss of the Seven Years War, France was a natural ally in the war against Britain. Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris in 1776 to lobby for assistance in the struggle. Franklin’s efforts to charm the French court ultimately paid off and along with news of Saratoga, France signed a treaty with the United States in early 1778. Spain and the Netherlands would also get involved to a lesser extent. The French enthusiasm was such that the state almost bankrupted itself extending loans and military aid to the Americans.
The entry of the French into the war further stretched British resources, and the Royal Navy no longer had complete mastery of the sea. This greatly reduced the ability of the British to move troops and supplies across the Atlantic as well as restricted how many men and ships could be sent to America.
Following the disaster at Saratoga, the British focus shifted to the Southern states in the latter part of the war. Fighting had been nearly continuous in this area but without a deep-water port, the British could not sustain a large army there until the fall of the coastal city Savannah, Georgia in 1778. After a successful defense of the port in 1779, the British launched a major campaign in the South. Charleston fell in March 1780 and the southern Continental Army led by Benjamin Lincoln was lost with it. This was followed by a crushing American loss at Camden on August 16th 1780.
The last major campaign took place in 1781. A combined French and American force set out to confront the army led by General John Cornwallis in Virginia, and a French naval victory at Chesapeake Bay on September 5th, 1781 allowed reinforcements to land and cut off Cornwallis’ escape route. Trapped on all sides at Yorktown and blockaded from the sea, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19th. This campaign effectively ended the American Revolutionary War. Parliament, unwilling to waste any more lives and money on a doomed cause entered into peace negotiations following the surrender of Cornwallis.
In 1783 another treaty was signed in Paris, this time confirming the independence of the United States from Great Britain. The French got very little out of the treaty and the alliance with America quickly dissolved after the war and would not be revived again until the 20th century. The serious financial losses incurred by supporting the American Revolution helped pave the way for the French Revolution, which ensued ten years later.
Overall, the American victory in the Revolutionary War was a product of resilience, some luck, and more than a little outside help. The British Army often got the better of the Continental Army on the battlefield but could not subdue the surrounding countryside. Victory at Saratoga convinced the French to get involved and the military and financial support provided was vitally important. The surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 was the final straw that convinced the British to give up the fight.
Now, before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions:
1. The British Army under John Burgoyne was lost after which battle?
- Long Island
The answer is B, Saratoga.
2. Which of the following nations provided support to the American side?
- The Netherlands
- All of the above
The answer is D, all of the above.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!