In 1774, as a response to the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament passed a series of acts, called the Coercive Acts. These acts crushed many of the chartered rights of colonial Massachusetts and infringed on the rights of the other colonies. Americans reacted with trade boycotts, and they also began to slowly unite and take political power into their own hands. Americans were not yet calling for independence, but formation of the First Continental Congress, combined with the colonists’ reactions to the Coercive Acts, led King George III to believe the colonies were in a state of rebellion.
In April 1775 on orders from the Crown, British soldiers, or redcoats as Americans referred to them, marched west from their station in Boston to Lexington and Concord. They were to confiscate colonial weapons and gunpowder and capture John Hancock and Sam Adams, the leaders of the “rebel militia.” When local Patriots heard the purpose of the British troops, they sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous rides to alert the countryside and warn Hancock and Adams that the British were coming.
The Massachusetts Patriots, as they were calling themselves, had been accumulating arms and training “Minute Men,” so named because they were said to be ready to fight in a minute. When the redcoats arrived at Lexington, about 70 Minute Men refused the British solders’ orders to disperse, and a shot was fired. No one knows which side fired the shot, but it was, in the often quoted phrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the shot heard 'round the world."
A flurry of gunfire ensued, leaving several Minute Men dead and wounded. The British troops pushed on to Concord, destroyed whatever supplies the Patriots had not removed, and were forced to retreat by a growing number of American militiamen. At the end of what many consider the first day of the Revolutionary War, the British troops had suffered over 250 casualties, while the Americans had fewer than 100 casualties. A British General reported to London that the rebels had earned their respect.
The Second Continental Congress met the next month, on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia, with representatives from all 13 colonies in attendance. Congress first dealt with the disorganized military. The assembly organized the troops who had gathered around Boston into the Continental Army, appointing George Washington Commander-in-Chief.
Although Washington had never commanded more than twelve hundred men, his participation in the French and Indian War made him one of the most experienced officers in America. The choice of Washington as Commander-in-Chief was also a shrewd political compromise. Many representatives were wary of the rebellious spirit coming from the northeastern colonies. Washington had great leadership skills, was wealthy, aristocratic, and from Virginia, which appeased everyone.
Once the Continental Congress dealt with the military crisis, the delegates drafted an appeal to King George and Parliament hoping to reach a compromise settlement. In July 1775, the Continental Congress issued two major documents. The first was the “Olive Branch Petition” professing American loyalty and advancing one last plea to the King to prevent further hostilities. The second, the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” traced the history of the controversy, condemned the British for everything they had done since 1763, and rejected independence but affirmed the colonists’ purpose to fight for their rights. King George III refused to even look at the Olive Branch Petition, and in August 1775 declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. The King ended all hopes of reconciliation when he hired thousands of German troops, called Hessians, to help defeat the rebellious Americans. The colonists felt the king was going “outside the family” by hiring Hessians mercenaries, which only increased the hostilities and pushed them further from British rule.
Meanwhile, both British and colonial forces around Boston had been building. The Patriots seized Breed’s Hill on the high ground of Charlestown peninsula, overlooking Boston. Breed’s Hill has erroneously been called Bunker Hill and was actually closer to Boston than Bunker Hill—the source of the battle’s name. British General Thomas Gage launched a frontal attack on June 17, 1775, with over 2,000 soldiers. Twice the redcoats marched up Breed’s Hill toward the strongly entrenched, sharp shooting Americans, only to be driven back after suffering heavy losses. On the redcoats’ third attempt, the colonists ran out of gunpowder and were forced to abandon the hill. More than 1,000 redcoats had fallen, with colonial losses around 400, making it a morale-boosting experience for the newly formed Continental Army.
The Battle of Bunker Hill greatly affected both the British and American forces. After the excessive losses the British suffered, they entered subsequent battles with greater caution. On the other hand, the American Congress realized that they needed more support and encouraged all able-bodied men to enlist in the militia.
Tensions between the Loyalists and Patriots continued to build. In the fall of 1775, the rebels planned an attack on British troops in Quebec, thinking a successful assault would add a fourteenth colony to their cause. This was in direct conflict with the idea that they were fighting a defensive war, which is what most Americans felt to this point. Troops under command of Richard Montgomery advanced by way of the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain, while troops under Benedict Arnold struggled northward through the Maine woods. Their attack was unsuccessful, Montgomery was killed, and Arnold was wounded and retreated with the remainder of his army down the St. Lawrence River.
Fighting persisted throughout the thirteen colonies. Virginia’s governor raised British Loyalist forces who set fire to the town of Norfolk in January 1776. In March, the British were finally forced to evacuate Boston and move their base of operation to New York as they felt they needed to be more centrally located in the colonies for a sustained war effort. In the south, redcoats attacked Charleston harbor, but the Patriot militia built a fort to protect them from British fire. They inflicted over 200 redcoat casualties and forced the British fleet to retire. While these small battles continued throughout the colonies, Americans drew closer to declaring their independence.
In 1776, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense, in which he discussed the wavering American loyalty to the crown as contrary to “common sense.” One key idea in Paine’s pamphlet was that an island should not rule a continent. Paine’s pamphlet, coupled with the desire of more and more colonists to make a clean break from England, led to the creation of the Declaration of Independence, which was formally approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
Meanwhile, British soldiers led by General William Howe landed on the undefended Staten Island. By mid-August 1776, over 30,000 men had gathered there—the largest single force assembled by the British in the eighteenth century. In response, General Washington led his forces out of Boston south toward New York, but still could only gather about 18,000 Continentals and militiamen.
General Howe crossed from Staten Island to Brooklyn, and in the Battle of Long Island he inflicted heavy losses and forced Washington to evacuate. At that point, General Howe could have crushed the American forces, but he did not move quickly enough. A timely rainstorm enabled Washington’s troops to escape Manhattan Island northward across the Hudson River and they then marched south through New Jersey to the Delaware River.
General Howe established outposts at Trenton, Princeton and other strategic points and settled in at New York to wait out the winter. Washington seized the initiative, and on Christmas night 1776, he crossed the ice-clogged Delaware River and surprised and captured nearly 1,000 Hessian soldiers at the British Trenton garrison who were sleeping off the effects of too much Christmas rum. A few days later, Washington defeated a smaller British detachment led by General Cornwallis at Princeton. The campaigns of 1776 left the British with a central stronghold at New York. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, however, revealed Washington at his military best. This boosted American morale and convinced many men whose enlistments were up at the end of the year to continue fighting with the Continental Army.
In the spring of 1777, the British devised an intricate scheme for capturing the Hudson River Valley and cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies, crushing the rebellion. General Burgoyne was to lead his army from Canada down Lake Champlain toward Albany. General Howe’s troops in New York were to advance up the Hudson River to meet Burgoyne near Albany. A third force was to come in from the west by way of Lake Ontario down the Mohawk River Valley and meet up with Howe and Burgoyne.
General Burgoyne began his invasion with over 7,000 troops. Accompanied by a huge baggage train full of his personal belongings and the wives and children of many of his men, his troops quickly became bogged down in the dense woods north of Saratoga.
Meanwhile, General Howe disregarded the plan for capturing the Hudson River Valley and instead took the bulk of his army south to attack Philadelphia, the Patriot capital. Washington, sensing Howe’s purpose, took his army from New Jersey to meet the new threat. In September 1777, Howe pushed Washington’s forces back in two battles at Brandywine Creek and Germantown, and proceeded to occupy Philadelphia. General Howe and his troops settled into the comfort of Philadelphia for the winter, thinking that capturing the capital would surely crush the colonial spirit. Benjamin Franklin jested that General Howe had not taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia took him. Washington’s Continental Army retreated into winter quarters at Valley Forge.
In the meantime, disaster was about to befall General Burgoyne who had finally made it just North of Albany. The American militia forces under Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold began to build up around Albany. The militia struck two serious blows against the British, one west of Albany at Oriskany, New York and another east at Bennington, Vermont. American reinforcements continued to gather, and soon militia in every direction pinned down Burgoyne. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates at Saratoga, and over 5,000 British prisoners were marched off to Virginia.
The Patriot triumph at Saratoga changed the course of the war. It revived the faltering colonial cause, and it also convinced France to give the colonists urgently needed foreign aid.
As early as 1776, the Comte de Vergennes, France’s foreign minister, convinced King Louis XVI to send munitions to America. They secretly sent military supplies not out of sympathy for the Revolution, but for reprisal against Britain for France’s defeat in the French and Indian War. Most of the Continental soldiers’ arms in the first year came from France through a fake supply company, in order to keep their support confidential. The Spanish government also added a donation and eventually established its own supply company.
When news of the victory at Saratoga reached France, it was celebrated as if it were a French victory. The Americans’ causes of freedom and liberty rang familiar with many in France who had been influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of Jean Jaqcues Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu, two of the most forward-thinking leaders during the Enlightenment in France. In early 1778, the French and Americans signed two treaties. The first was a Treaty of Amity and Commerce that strengthened trade between France and America. The second, a Treaty of Alliance, contained several stipulations. First, if France entered the war, neither country would stop fighting until America won its independence. Second, neither France nor America could conclude peace with Britain without the consent of the other. And finally, both were responsible for guaranteeing the other’s possessions in America against all other powers.
The American people did not accept the French alliance with open arms. They were aware that they were allying themselves to a historical foe that was also a Roman Catholic power. Since some of the colonists had settled in America to escape religious persecution, this was a concern. However, while the Americans felt good about holding together the colonial forces to this point, they also clearly understood that in order to win the war, they were going to need some help.
In March 1778, the British Parliament passed a measure that granted all of the American demands prior to 1775. Both the Coercive Acts and the Tea Act would be repealed and Parliament would never tax the colonies, but these offers came too late. By summer 1778, the colonial war became a world war when British ships fired on French vessels. Also wanting to step out of the British shadow looming over Europe, Spain and Holland both entered the war against Britain in 1779, and the fighting continued to spread to the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.
As the scope of the battle changed, British and American colonial forces regrouped. To this point, England blockaded the colonial coast, but now that the French had a powerful fleet in American waters the British decided to evacuate Philadelphia and concentrate their efforts in New York City.
Washington’s Continental Army spent the winter at Valley Forge. The army’s supply system began to collapse, and the men suffered through a winter of unrelenting cold, hunger, and disease. Many wanted to make Washington the scapegoat for the Patriots’ dilemma, but there was never a serious effort to replace him. As the winter wore on, Washington sent two of his generals on foraging expeditions. They confiscated cattle and livestock, telling the colonists they would be repaid by the Continental Congress. The troops gradually regained their strength, and Washington began a military training program, since very few had ever been part of a formal military unit. The soldiers who remained became a strong, professional fighting force.
In June 1778, Washington followed the British General Clinton as he evacuated the troops from Philadelphia. The Americans attacked the British at Monmouth, New Jersey. The battle was inconclusive, and the British escaped to New York, while Washington’s troops remained in the area. From that point forward, the British strategy changed. They concentrated their efforts in the south, where they felt they would gain the support of many Loyalists who only needed encouragement from their British brethren.
In 1779, the British forces overran Georgia. Then in the spring of 1780, they led a massive campaign against Charleston, South Carolina. When the city surrendered, more than 5,000 defenders were captured, the greatest single American loss of the war. Warfare intensified in the Carolinas, with guerrilla-style civil conflicts between Patriots and their Loyalist neighbors.
British General Cornwallis was close to having South Carolina under control, when two of this subordinates overreached themselves in an effort to subdue the Patriots. A band of militiamen trapped this group of redcoats at King’s Mountain and forced their surrender. Additionally, General Nathanael Greene, newly appointed by the Continental Congress to the southern theatre, distinguished himself in the Carolina campaign of 1781. He was a man of infinite patience and used a strategy of delay. By fighting and retreating, he allowed the British to follow his army, which both exhausted General Cornwallis’ troops and slowed the war. He lost some battles but won the campaign, eventually clearing most of Georgia and South Carolina of British troops. This was the turning point of the war in the south as colonial forces prolonged the British campaign and generated more support among the local populous as they retreated northward.
General Cornwallis retreated with his troops into Virginia awaiting supplies and reinforcements at Chesapeake Bay. There he joined forces with British General Benedict Arnold, who in 1780 had sold out to the British. Arnold had a grudge against General Washington over an official reprimand he received as commander of reoccupied Philadelphia. Arnold intended to tell the British the location of American’s West Point garrison, but the scheme was foiled when the British spy carrying the information was captured. Arnold fled and joined the British troops.
General Cornwallis established a base at Yorktown. He was not concerned about the possibility of a siege, since he thought the British navy controlled American waters and Washington’s troops were preoccupied with the British in New York. What Cornwallis did not know was that a French fleet in the West Indies under the command of Admiral de Grasse was on its way to join with American forces in a strike at Yorktown. In the summer of 1781, General Washington’s troops marched more than 300 miles south to Chesapeake from New York and met up with the French land forces commanded by Comte de Rochambeau. Washington and Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis on land, while de Grasse battled the British fleet and won control of the Chesapeake, thus successfully blockading the British troops.
Cornwallis held out until October 19, 1781, when he surrendered his entire army of nearly 7,000 men. The surrender at Yorktown was as much a French conquest over the British as it was an American victory. Whatever small hopes of winning the war the British military still held were gone when Cornwallis surrendered. Still, King George III planned to continue the war, and fighting lasted for nearly a year after Yorktown.
After Yorktown, the citizens of Britain tired of the war in the American colonies. They were also greatly in debt and had suffered immense losses in India, the West Indies, Asia, and Africa. In February 1782, the House of Commons voted against continuing the war, and in March 1782 Lord North resigned, ending the rule of King George III. The new ministry included old friends of the Americans and was headed by Lord Rockingham who was prepared to negotiate a peace settlement with America. Three American peace negotiators appointed by the Continental Congress gathered at Paris: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. The representatives had explicit instructions from the Continental Congress to consult with their French allies before finalizing any peace negotiations.
Peacemaking was complicated since America and France had pledged only to make peace together, and France was allied with Spain but America was not. The French were bound to help the Spanish who were still fighting to recover Gibraltar from England, and America was bound by its alliance to fight until the French made peace. The American peacemakers were concerned that since France seemingly could not help Spain win back Gibraltar, France might try to bargain off American land west of the Appalachians instead. This option was attractive to the French, because while they wanted to crush Britain’s empire by creating an independent United States, they also did not want the new country to become too powerful. Spain also wanted to limit American expansion beyond the Appalachians because they had plans of their own for the eastern half of the Mississippi valley. Americans feared that the land bordering the colonies was up for grabs by the ambitious European powers.
John Jay did not feel that the French could satisfy the conflicting needs of both America and Spain. In November 1782, Jay and Franklin agreed to separate peace talks with the British, which produced a preliminary treaty with Great Britain. The Americans insisted on recognition of independence as the precondition for any negotiations. The treaty was in line with American hopes and objectives. The boundaries for the new nation were set as the Great Lakes to the north, the Mississippi River to the West, and roughly the northern boundary of Florida to the south. Florida was given back to Spain and Britain retained Canada. However, Britain would allow the Americans to fish off of Newfoundland and dry their catches on the unsettled beaches of the Canadian Atlantic coast. The British agreed to withdraw their troops from America as quickly as possible.
The Americans promised the British that their merchants should “meet with no legal impediment” in seeking to collect debts. The Americans also agreed that the Continental Congress would “earnestly recommend” to the states that all property that had been confiscated from Loyalists be restored. They also promised to prevent further property confiscation and persecution of Loyalists. Britain agreed to these treaty terms because the American representatives shrewdly played on existing rivalries among the European powers. While many of the terms in the treaty were clear, there were others that were vague and set the stage for new problems between Britain and America.Early in 1783, France and Spain gave up on recovering Gibraltar and reached a peace agreement with Britain. The final signing of the Peace of Paris treaty occurred on September 3, 1783. In November and December that same year the last British troops left New York City, Staten Island, and Long Island. The positive terms of the Peace of Paris left America with a priceless heritage of freedom and great amounts of land on which to build their new nation. With the land finally secured, Americans now turned within to determine what kind of government they should have. The United States’ future remained uncertain.
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