The American Revolution


Causes & Motivations

Tea was dumped!


George III was king and peace had been won (at great cost to Britain) in Québec. However, the British victories in the Seven Years' War so widely celebrated in Britain were not without cause for concern in America. Significantly, Britain imposed the close regulation and scrutiny demanded by parliament, but which had previously been largely absent in these colonies. The series of military viceroys sent to implement the fall of French Canada were poorly selected to deal with colonial attitudes and problems. The military Commanders-in-Chief looked down upon the 'mere colonials' and junior British officers were considered senior to even colonial general officers. By demanding 15,000-20,000 provincials per year as militia and labourers, the British created a large reservoir of skilled colonial fighters who nursed smoldering grievances. By making further demands (at colonial costs) for garrisons, food, horses, wagons, boats, and additional men to move the supplies through dangerous Indian lands the British ensured that the offence was felt by provincial governments, taxpayers, and families.[1]

The colonial economy may have been the most significant factor in the colonials' unhappiness. The War had provided both demand for colonial supplies and the wealth to pay for them and then it all evaporated. For the next ten years the end of the War meant the end of financial security, unemployment, and massive depression. Jobs and wealth disappeared as quickly as the previous commercial orders in the post-wartime colonial economy. Businessmen went broke and unemployed colonial soldiers nursed grievances. Boston was the major New England centre and British victories over the French were celebrated - until 1764 when the British parliament decided that it was time to pay for the War. Parliament did not want to offend British voters and decided on a series of bills over the next ten years to raise money from the colonies. The new prime minister was George Grenville, Earl Temple, who relied on the colonial experience of the Earl of Halifax for a strategy. Halifax decided that some of the army should remain in America to administer the peace: that was a bad mistake. The army was dispersed from Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, to Fort Augustine in Florida, while a huge wave of settlers and land speculators poured into the areas the parliament had reserved for the Indians. The settlers were also quick to murder peaceful Indians to retaliate for the earlier Indian attacks by other Indians. It was too late! The last glue that had held the colonies to Britain might have been British army protection from the French and Indian threats to the colonies. The French threat had been removed, and colonial good-will for the mother-county evaporated with the lack of trust generated by the debt-financing Acts.



The colonists had tasted freedom from remote regulations and became angry because of the insistent imposition of British taxes in the face of the perceived lack of need for further British protection.[2] There were, however, other motivations: greed, ambition, and envy were high among them. There was a wide spread of wealth in colonial America and 10% of the people owned 60% of the wealth and the merchant and landowning classes were poised to lose by the Intolerable Taxes. Like Washington himself many of these wealthy people, invariably men, were land speculators and saw the western Indian lands as 'ripe for the picking'. Colonial fortunes were made in land deals after the Revolution wound down and the Indians were the inevitable losers. Ambitious men evidently saw a chance to gain personal power and prestige as feelings were whipped up (often deliberately) against the British. With the distance from Britain supporting a characterisation of foreigners to describe the British establishment the wealthy colonials were naturally vulnerable to envy. These factors together created motives for the wealthy to exploit the opportunity for disaffection created by the clumsy British regulations.

King George III had chosen George Grenville as a new prime minister to pay for the debts that Pitt had incurred during the Seven Years' War. Grenville was a good choice, because he was experienced in financial matters, but he was entirely ignorant of colonial attitudes. That was a pity. The colonists had been established in America for over a century and had developed their own procedures for governance: many had left Britain to find an end to privilege. Taken together, the imperial attitude of the commanders-in-chief, the war-time colonial demands for men and money, and the severe depression created a dangerous mixture for Grenville's colonial fund-raising. Grenville proposed not one, but a complex series of inter-related Acts to relieve the British parliament of its debts. Naturally, the self-interested parliamentary members supported the government plan, since local British voters would not have to pay. Of the several Acts, that known as the Stamp Act was the most invasive. The Stamp Act required that any official paper required a stamp to be legal and this included newspapers, wills, contracts, etc. The Act required stamps to prove legality and the stamps were to be sold at a fixed rate, which the colonists came to see as a tax and thus 'taxation without representation', since the colonies were not represented in the British parliament.

After fierce riots in the colonies, the intended colonial stamp-collectors were hounded out of office and Massachusetts called for a Stamp Act Congress to be held in New York. Although the formal results of the three-week Congress were limited to carefully chosen words, the colonists had tasted the power to force change. The widespread discussion of the issues had clarified colonial opinions and the colonies agreed to forego any purchases from Britain until the Stamp Act was withdrawn. British businessmen were hit hard and complained loudly, Grenville was fired, and in the end the Act was repealed, but the debt remained along with Parliament's intention to force the colonials to pay. Grenville was replaced as prime minister by the Duke of Cumberland, who was hardly known as an apostle of appeasement after Culloden. The result, of course, was disaster. Cumberland soon died under the stress and he was replaced by the weak government of the Marquis of Rockingham. Sadly for Rockingham, his careful negotiation to withdraw the Stamp Act was too little and too late. Internal colonial divisions erupted in Québec, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Florida - each for different reasons, but collectively disrupting government. The illegal settlers continued to ignore Major General Sir Thomas Gage and his few troops and pushed the Indians aside, trampling over British government directives and regulations as well as colonial boundaries. In short, the 1770's were a period filled with tension and near anarchy in some areas; and certainly a challenge to the parliament's concept of good order.

Winston Churchill described the subsequent events as a revolution by Englishmen against a German king: others have referred to a continuation of the earlier English civil war. These explanations missed a significant point: the American colonials had the world's highest GDP at the time and John Hancock was both a Revolutionary leader and highly motivated to protect his own wealth. Colonials like John Hancock did not pay much in the way of taxes and had no inclination to pay the Stamp tax, Tea tax, or any other similar tax. The birth of government for the individual had incentive from this issue. Certainly many of the leading colonists were not interested in helping Britain pay for the Seven Years' War, much of the cost of which was incurred in Europe, or outside the colonial sphere.

Sir William Pitt became Prime Minister again and more tax bills were passed. In 1768 British troops were sent to Boston to enforce these laws and, in 1770, the inevitable clash resulted in five dead Boston citizens. The taxes were lifted and replaced by another tax on tea, combined in a cheaper price made possible by direct shipment from India. Surely they wouldn't mind? The royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, was determined to get the taxes. In December 1773 disguised Bostonians dumped the tea overboard and Major General Sir Thomas Gage had soon arrived to take charge as both Commander-in-Chief and Royal Governor. Gage stemmed the tide but only just. In 1774, Provincial and Continental Congresses were formed to enable the colonists to decide what to do. Then with the theft of gunpowder the colonials were armed. It was only a short step to idealism, the inevitable exaggerated rumours, and inflamed tempers.

General Gage was informed that colonial arms were cached at nearby Concord and he ordered his troops to seize the weapons. Secrets being hard to keep, Paul Revere warned the local Americans and, on 19 April 1775, the colonials met the British army with musket-fire at Lexington. The British continued on to Concord where they were met by an even larger militia - and more dead. At this point the British wisely decided to return to Boston, but they were harassed all the way back in classic guerrilla style. The war was definitely on. The Continental Congress at Philadelphia was told of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. On 14 June the new Continental Congress took the first steps to creating a continental army by ordering militia companies to move to Boston and by selecting George Washington (from the powerful and populous key Dominion of Virginia) to command the continental forces. (Washington didn't actually lobby for the position, he just turned up at the Congress wearing his old military uniform!) The adjacent map shows the Thirteen Colonies in red and the area for a projected new Indian country in pink. The Spanish claim is shown in orange. Washington was faced with several problems simultaneously including Indian and Spanish land claims, as well as the British. Future Americans would seize the Indian lands, and after the Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish land.

The colonies were populous, but the cities did not then resemble today's teeming places. The first American capital city in 1776 was Philadelphia. The largest populations are shown estimated below. David McCullough notes that Brooklyn '...amounted to no more than seven or eight houses and an old Dutch church...'.[3] Philadelphia was the de-facto federal capital, as the site of the initial colonial congressional meetings. The British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777 forced a series of temporary moves, the first to the nearby town of York. In 1789, New York was picked as capital, but the location reverted in 1790 back to Philadelphia. In 1800, President John Adams moved the capital to Washington, DC.

  • Philadelphia 28,000
  • New York 22,000
  • Boston 15,000
  • Charles Towne 12,000

General Washington and the Continental Army might have tracked the army from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet.'

 George Washington, 1778

George Washington had been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was a revolutionary leader at the outset of the American Revolution. He attended both the first and second Continental Congresses. Although no military genius (he lost more battles than he won), Washington was a proven leader, an able planner, and an inspirational commander. Washington was appointed a Major General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), by the new Congress at Philadelphia. He led the Americans to complete victory over the British, and may be the only General ever to have achieved this feat.

After the war Washington served as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. His gift was that he understood that he had only to persevere: he did not have to win but only not lose. The British had very long lines of supply back across the Atlantic, and parliament would only tolerate a finite war. To win, the British Howe brothers had also understood their need for clear results and they had offered several amnesties to the rebels. He saw that the British had to deal with costs and their long logistical supply system, plus an ambivalent home electorate. His claim to a special place is perhaps based on his willingness to step away from power, which he did on several occasions; he specifically refused an offer to become king of his new country.

Washington's Continental army began with few troops, fewer weapons and almost no collective training; however, they defied and beat the world power in a stunning upset. British over-confidence, distance, and American adaptation of Indian guerrilla tactics are part of the explanation, but it was also because American colonials felt they had right on their side. Washington started with the New England Army, that he re-named the Continental Army on 1 January 1776. Like Napoleon, Washington created an army by appealing to citizen responsibility, but it was an evolving process. Development of a constitution, which focused on freedom and hard-won individual liberties, paralleled a military victory. The constitution is in stark contrast to the residual British colonial views, which framed the British North America Act one hundred years later. The Dominion of Canada was predicated on the concept of the public good, in direct opposition to American individualism. American colonials who supported George III decamped and migrated to the future Dominion of Canada. These 'Loyalists' brought 100,000 new settlers, wealth, and opinions.

Washington commanded nothing at the begriming of the Revolution and had to create an army (while Congress created a state) and while also seeking powerful allies to help him and to supply gunpowder and professionalism. That meant his immediate job was not to lose his militiamen before they decided to go home - which happened too often. Few of them received their promised pay and many received nothing. Colonial America had no training, no uniforms, no weapons, no artillery, no logistical train, no staff, and no weapons industry. Washington's brilliance was that he ensured that his army survived until the major victories at Saratoga in 1777, and Yorktown in 1781.

Major General Sir John (Gentleman Johnny) Burgoyne was defeated at Saratoga in 1777 by the daring attacks of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and Colonel Daniel Morgan, under the (weak) command of Major General Horatio Gates. Burgoyne had greatly underestimated the difficulties of his plan (to advance from Canada, meet reinforcements, attack in lower New York, and seize the Hudson River to cut off New England), and found himself alone with no support. The Americans won a set piece battle and it was over. That success brought Washington his necessary ally, the French and with their navy, artillery and experience victory was finally assured. It was a long way to Yorktown but success was inevitable because Washington got his men to work together. On 6 February 1778, as proof of their success, Benjamin Franklin moved the French Louis XVI to sign a treaty of "Amity and Commerce" with those North Americans in rebellion against the British Crown. French support was the real fruit of Saratoga.

The Opening

British strategy


 After the 19 April 1775 affair at Lexington and Concord, the Americans blocked the British in Boston in a siege that led to the 17 June Battle of Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill was part of an American line and the British Major General Sir William Howe made four attacks and widened the rebellion (as the British then termed it). There were 1,054 British casualties against 440 for the Americans at Bunker Hill.[4] Howe had arrived with Major Generals Sir Henry Clinton and Sir John Burgoyne in May 1775 and he termed the action 'A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.'[5] Howe later embarked on a strategy of trading time for space as the British gained ground in Canada, New York, the Hudson River, New Jersey, and Philadelphia; however Washington was more astute and realised that the only target of value was the army itself. He protected and nursed the army throughout the war and his soldiers recognised his loyalty and gave him key victories at Trenton (1776), Saratoga (1777), and finally Yorktown (1781).

The British remained static anticipating reinforcements the following year, while the Americans reinforced their siege. Washington arrived and took command, but with little powder and no artillery. He accepted an offer by Colonel Henry Knox to bring the French cannons and mortars from the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga. Washington was keen to attack Howe and by the time the guns arrived a plan had been made to fortify and occupy the local Dorchester Heights to gain a commanding field of fire over the British. The work was all done in secret and the position occupied in a single night. When the British awoke on 5 March 1776, the operation was a fait accompli and the British were forced out of Boston to Halifax for a clear American victory.

While the Bunker Hill Battle (at Breed's Hill) was taking place in June the Congress had decided to invite the Canadian provinces to join in their Revolution. Despite negative responses, and pushed by Arnold and Ethen Allen (a militia leader), Congress authorised aggressive action, meaning an invasion to win a fourteenth colony. This neutralised Colonel Guy Johnson who worked with the Indians against the Colonials.[6]

Invasion plans were developed in July under Major General Philip van Schuyler at Fort Ticonderoga.[7] Americans moved up Lake Champlain under Brigadier General Richard Montgomery at the end of July, while Schuyler was at a war council. But despite three attacks on the British Fort St John on the Richelieu River, the Americans failed and Schuyler gave command to the younger Montgomery. With 300 sympathetic Canadians, Montgomery besieged Fort St John, which surrendered on 2 November, and captured Fort Chambly. Meanwhile, Ethan Allen and 300 men moved to seize Montréal.  Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada, gathered a militia who fired one volley and fled. Although Allen was captured, Montgomery was able to exploit Allen's success at Montréal.  Carleton evacuated the town and Montréal surrendered on 14 November 1775.

While Montgomery was gaining glory at Montréal, Arnold was advancing up another river route to seize Québec. The route was a disaster and critical time was lost in pushing through swamps and forests. Nonetheless, by eating their moccasins when they ran out of food Arnold brought 600 men to Point Lévis across the St Laurence River from Québec on 9 November. Carleton was known to be able to produce 1,000 British regulars and naval gunfire support. However, Arnold was determined and less than a month later Montgomery arrived with an additional 300 men from Montréal.  They decided on a two-pronged attack for New Year's Eve. Carleton captured 400 and there were about 100 additional casualties, against eighteen British. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded but the Americans stayed in the area, being reinforced by over 2,000 men in the spring. Spring also brought a naval squadron and 2,500 more troops to give the British power to push the Americans from Canada.[8]

Building an Army

The colonies had no permanent military structure or administration and were inclined to authorise a militia call-out for only a specified and limited period. Since many units had been called out since mid 1775, by the end of the summer of 1776 and the loss of New York to the British, whole units returned home. The men often cited the need for harvest manpower on their farms. Additionally some local governments insisted that their units remain in a local area to protect local governments and were denied to General Washington. The loss of manpower was extreme and the future of the Revolution was in question.

An additional problem was that General Washington had not inspired confidence with the early losses in New York and New Jersey and inevitably there were suggestions that other men might replace him as commander in chief. Both generals Charles Lee and Horatio Gates began lobbying to replace Washington. General Lee actively denied coming to General Washington for coordinated operational deployment despite several requests from Washington. On 1 December General Lee had 7,540 men in northern New Jersey. Lee delayed moving to Washington's command and was ultimately captured by the British as a consquence of remaining isolated.

With such manpower and loyalty problems General Washington was clearly motivated to take effective operational action by the end of the year. The result of Washington's own planning was his successful attacks at Trenton and Princeton under his personal command. With those successes both army and civilian morale improved and serious proposals to replace Washington were no longer entertained in congress. The British were suprised because of their earlier easy victories at New York. By 1777, with some men missing shoes, coats, food, etc critical supplies began to arrive from the Netherlands, France, and Spain. The British navy was unable to blockade the entire eastern seaboard and the growing American navy delivered shipments to the army.

The army problems had been anticipated and the Congress had authorised a new Continental army whose manpower would no longer be controlled by the individual colonies/states. The impact was that longer periods of engagement would be assured and commanders could plan on avaiable units. The following numbers are taken from David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, Appendix A. Note that the numbers are heavily caveated; however, they clearly show that the gross numbers available to Washington fell at harvest time (the end of the Continentals' enlistments), and that large numbers of troops had been dissipated.

Continental Army Strength:
27 July 1776 - 15 March 1777




27 July 1776 21,882 reported men; 16,010 effective men. New Jersey (still then East and West Jersey) with General Washington. Excluded men deployed away to the New York Highlands, South Carolina, New England, etc.
27 August 1776 28,500 estimated officers & men; 19,000 effective men. Estimated by Henry P Johnston for 71 regiments, of which 25 regiments were Continentals.
2 September 1776 20,000(-) reported fit for duty by Washington. Reported by General Washington to Congress.
28 September 1776 31,748 reported men; 20,435 effective men. Included garrisons at FortsLee and Washington. Excluded men deployed away to the New York Highlands, South Carolina, New England, etc.
28 November 1776 3,000(-) estimated men. Eye witness count of the Continental army at Newark, New Jersey under General Washington's command.
1 December 1776 3,000(-) estimated men. Reported strength leaving Brunswick, New Jersey by General Greene.
1 December 1776 3,765 reported effective men in New Jersey. Reported by General Washington to Congress.
4 December 1776 5,000(-) estimated men. Reported strength at Trenton, New Jersey by General Greene.
22 December 1776 11,423 reported men; 6,104 effective men. Deployed by General Washington along the Deleware River.
26 December 1776 6,500 officers & men reported committed to the 25 December Delaware river crossing at four separate locations. General Washington personally planned and commanded the Delaware river crossing and 26 December operational attack on Trenton. Of the 6,500 only c2,500 and 18 x guns crossed the river due to river-ice and weather. Washington defeated Cornwallis on 2 January in a second battle at Trenton and escaped certain defeat by a night-march to Princeton.
3 January 1777 7,559 estimated men in New Jersey. Enlistments were due, but General Washington paid a bonus to extend six weeks. He gained another victory on 3 January at the Battle of Princeton with an estimated 4,500 men & 35 guns. The defeat eliminated a potential British local threat.
7 January 1777 12,000(-) estimated men in New Jersey. Included 500 new men from Pennsylvania.
15 March 1777 3,870 reported effective men in New Jersey. This included continentals and militia (the latter rushed from Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey.

Army Detachments

c15 November 1776 c8,900 reported effective men in Northern army. Commanded by General Gates.
1 December 1776 4,089 reported effective men in New York Highlands. Commanded by General Heath.
c15 December 1776 c2,000 men at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. Commanded by Colonel Wayne.
c1 December 1776 7,540 reported effective men in northern New Jersey. Commanded by General Lee
December 1776 Additional separate detachments in: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Ohio; Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

With successes at Trenton and Princeton, Washington's credibility soared and the militias bulged with volunteers. Citizens took up their own arms and harrassed the British 'invaders' out of the western Jersey. The earlier apparent successes due to the Howe brothers' cautious and gentle approach had failed. The spontaneous militias killed, or drove out, many of those colonists who had accepted British promises of support, only to be deserted as the British army recoiled from the rebels' punishment. The American army's winter results changed the dynamics of the war and showed a growing capability and confidence of the citizen soldiers.

In 1776, while a 10,000 man British force formed at Québec, time was wasted in contesting control of Lake Champlain and Ticonderoga was not taken. Meanwhile, in June, Rear Admiral Lord Richard Howe sailed nearly 400 ships into New York harbour and built up his brother's army to 32,000 men. On 27 August, General William Howe outflanked the Americans on Long Island, by Major General Henry Clinton's earlier night march through woods, and on gained New York. But he did not push hard to maintain the momentum and he allowed Washington to escape. Again in December, Howe had Washington outnumbered and was within reach across the Delaware but decided to quit for the winter. Washington did not quit but defeated and captured almost one thousand German Hessians on 26 December at the First Battle of Trenton, defeated Cornwallis at a second Battle of Trenton, and took another 353 British prisoners at Princeton on 3 January. The Jersey results were instrumental to changing the colonies' morale, while putting the British on the defensive.

The Trenton victory payoff was a surge of confidence for the Jersey and Pennsylvania militias, and the new Continentals Washington sent to join them. They spent the winter harrassing the British troops as they left their garrisons to forage for food and fodder for their horses. As the new militias were joined by the reforming Continentals (who were being enlisted for three years not one), the demoralised British created a timely learning school. The American commanders and troops learned together how to be successful soldiers. Instead of European frontal attacks they engaged in mobile, lightning, guerella warfare and ambushed foraging British parties in ever increasing numbers. By the time the winter of 1776-1777 was over the American Revolution had gained new skills and confidence; although the army had yet to learn the discipline and skills demanded for large-scale battles. Sir William Howe had lost the initiative and the colonials had proved themselves by causing 900+ British front-line unit casualties during that winter. The total British winter casualty count for killed, incapacitated, and captured was at least 2,887. Those casualties were never replaced.[9]

The Key Battle

Both Generals Howe and Burgoyne wrote to London and produced separate operational plans for 1777. In the event, the plans were badly coordinated and General Howe was replaced by Lieutenant General Henry Clinton. Instead of Clinton supporting Burgoyne with an additional diversionary force trapping the Americans, Burgoyne was quite alone at Saratoga. That Clinton remained ignorant of Burgoyne's plans illustrates what von Clausewitz called the fog of war. Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, agreed to - but did not order - Howe (replaced by Clinton) to support Burgoyne. The separate British forces were uncoordinated, but the egotistical Burgoyne may have even planned to reach Albany alone.[10]

Burgoyne at Saratoga


After spending the winter with his army still lacking basic equipment and training, let alone pay, Washington led his army out of garrison to face attacks from Howe and Burgoyne. Advancing 8,000 men down Lake Champlain from Canada to Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne used artillery to force 2,500 Americans out.[11] But the Americans escaped at night across the lake and the British faced a pursuit. Being Europeans inexperienced with American forests, they opted to go through the woods. This was a bad decision and they lost valuable time. The 1,500 man flanking force under Colonel Barry St Leger sailed up to Lake Ontario and down the Oswego River to Lake Oneida where he was blocked ten miles east by Fort Stanwix with a well supplied 750-man garrison. St Leger had the Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant's Indians successfully ambush a relieving American force, but they returned to find that the siege had been broken and the Indian camp had been destroyed. Brant left in disgust and, learning of another American relief force, St Leger retreated to Montréal. (Click on map to enlarge.)

On reaching the Saratoga area on the Hudson River in New York, Burgoyne's command had been reduced to about 7,000. An 800-man force was detached through the woods to the Bennington area to look for cavalry horses. They were perfectly ambushed by a larger Colonial militia force and despite British reinforcements, suffered another thousand casualties. Burgoyne then learned that Howe's army at New York had moved to chase Washington at Delaware and there was no sign of St Leger. Burgoyne was by then alone and in trouble, deep in Indian territory. In September 1777, after political pressure, Congress changed command of the northern Continental army from Major General Philip van Schuyler to Major General Horatio Gates: Gates took the credit for General Schuyler's earlier hard work . Gates' 7,000 men were placed on a rise of ground called Bemis Heights near Saratoga, beside the Hudson River, and with commendable initiative Arnold and Morgan inflicted another 600 casualties on the British.

Burgoyne was now in serious trouble. He had fewer than 3,500 tired men and had to break Gates' 16,000-man army. Brigadier General Simon Fraser was killed leading 1,500 British troops on a reconnaissance from fortifications at Freeman's farm, while Arnold led an American attack by three brigades, which pushed the British back. American skill in the woods began to tell and the Germans broke and the British suffered another 600 casualties. Major General Sir John Burgoyne surrendered on 8 October and his army was interned until 1783.


Washington trained his army the next winter and the pace slowed as the Americans improved, got French troops, Spanish help and Dutch gold and thereby finally forced Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown in October 1781. The French are well known as allies of the American efforts to topple the British. The French were brought into the war by Benjamin Franklin in 1777, after the American victory at Saratoga. The French general Count Rochambeau, landed with five French infantry regiments and additional French artillery in 1780 at Rhode Island. The French troops and gunners were critical to the 1781 victory at Yorktown, as was Admiral de Grasse's naval battle and blockade of the Chesapeake. Moreover, even the Americans credited Rochambeau as the architect of Cornwallis' defeat - with more French (both military and naval) than Americans involved. However, there were additional American allies including: Spain, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces), Denmark, and some German states, (although several German states had supplied troops under contract to Britain). Of the smaller allies, the Dutch were important as they traded with the colonies throughout the war and maintained a flow of basic materials.

France clearly overshadowed Spain in the sheer weight of her direct financial and military aid to America, and she easily outdid Spain in exhibitions of friendship for the Rebels. No Spanish regiments served side-by-side with the Continentals as the French did at Newport, Savannah and Yorktown, but on 21 June 1779, Spain declared war against Great Britain as a renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Spain sent the United States hundreds of muskets, thousands of coats, clothing, blankets, shirts and shoes, and vast amounts of gunpowder, naval stores, copper, tin, brass cannons, and horse furniture. Supplies and money channeled by Spanish officials through New Orleans and St. Louis enabled George Rogers Clark to safeguard Kentucky and sweep the British from much of the 'Northwest Territory'.

Spanish at Pensacola


Smarting from her losses in the Seven Years' War, in which Spain lost much of her American Empire to Britain, Spain declared war on Britain in 1779. Her secret support of the Revolution (both financial and logistical) however, began in 1776. Then the Governor of Louisiana, General Count Bernardo de Galvez, was ordered to recover Spanish possessions in the Mississippi River Valley and then Florida. These were part of the area lost to the Britain in 1763. Galvez led a Spanish army and opened a second front against Britain. Many of his units were desperately under-strength in 1779, but in April 1780 Carlos III reinforced Galvez (promoted to Field Marshal) with Spanish regular regiments and 5,000 men; and authorised a further 2,000-man reinforcement from the Caribbean - where Spain was tying down the British fleet.

Other Spanish hostilities began immediately at sea, in West Florida, and in Central America. Greatest successes were achieved by Governor Bernardo de Gálvez of Louisiana, who captured Baton Rouge in 1779, Mobile in 1780, and Pensacola in 1781. In 1780, Spain sent an army of 10,000 men to the Caribbean to support. Her main effort, however, was in Europe where she besieged and blockaded Gibraltar; and moved to recover all the Balearic islands she had lost after the Seven Years' War.

At Pensacola in March 1781, Gálvez had 7,000 Spanish troops were supported by 1,350 Spanish sailors, put ashore to man the big guns and serve as laborers. Another 10,000 seamen in sixteen ships-of-the-line and dozens of smaller craft hovered offshore, cutting off all chances of escape or relief from the sea. Four French frigates arrived to add 725 French troops from the Regiments of Orléans, Poitou, Agenois and Gâtinais, and assorted artillerymen. Galvez also captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas on 8 May 1782, which was traded for Florida in the settlement of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Valley Forge

To achieve military victory, Washington realised that he had to create a new army identity and rather than let the men return home for the 1777-1778 winter, he elected to led them to Valley Forge. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote: "The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes. Their feet and their legs froze until they were black, and it was often necessary to amputate them." There were no barracks, supply buildings, no garrison infrastructure, not even much security from outside attack. What the army found was a protected valley, woods, and a small river. Washington directed that the men build their own cabins, hunt for their own food, chop and haul their wood for fires and survive as a group. This winter pause gave time for the news of Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga to get to France and allowed Benjamin Franklin (then American Ambassador to France) to persuade the French to declare war on Britain and help Washington with key advice, troops, money, a navy, and finally dedicated military units.

Even Americans do not regard Washington as a great military commander, but rather as a great leader. In December 1777, Washington withdrew his 11,000-man Continental army into a winter camp near the colonial capital, Philadelphia - occupied by the British as their winter quarters. The American camp was at Valley Forge, a defensible area in easy reach of supplies. Sadly those supplies were more often sold to the British for gold, than delivered up to the tattered army. About one quarter of Washington's army died that winter, without warm clothing, without food, lacking decent weapons, and certainly with little basic discipline or manoeuver skills. Moreover, Washington's arch-rival for command had defeated the British at Saratoga and Washington had lost another battle at Germantown. It was a bitter time and deserters left in droves. Not a particularly cold winter, men still froze to death and amputations were necessary to save many with frozen feet. Food was too often water and 'bread' cooked on a stick over an open fire. Some men wore only blankets, while the army built 12-man log-cabins. The army had greatly improved upon the 1776 version of untrained, poorly led, and ill-equipped, this army had begun to sense a real military capability at the admittedly lost battles of Brandywine and Germantown, but it was still no match for the British.

If a sad rabble entered Valley Forge a hardened, disciplined army of close comrades left it in May 1778. The miracle was due to several sources. Benjamin Franklin was able to use Gates' victory and Burgoyne's 17 October 1777 defeat to cajole the French to support the American Rebels and France declared war on Britain in February 1778. Washington deluged the ineffective Congress with letters pleading for better food, clothing and pay for his army and he persuaded his friend Major General Nathaniel Greene to create a logistical system out of disaster. These last efforts were successful although they developed only slowly. Benjamin Franklin had also sent a German and French-only speaking Prussian, Baron Friedrich von Steuben to help Washington as a professional soldier.

Von Steuben was appalled to find inoperative weapons and no sense of battlefield discipline; but he apparently captured the temper of the soldiers and by personally drilling (via an interpreter) trained the army, company-by-company in the art of battlefield drill and manoeuver. (The Americans had greatly feared a British bayonet charge, which they mastered with von Steuben's training and later turned on the British). Finally, Washington's critics (who had assumed an easy, quick victory over the British) were silenced by hard evidence, failures by the alternative choices, and time, leaving Washington in an unassailably strong leadership position for the remainder of the war.

The significance of French support meant that Britain's access to Caribbean sugar was threatened, thus opening another remote front and draining away British military support from the American front. The French (and soon the Spanish and Dutch) needed only to deploy small forces to threaten the British sugar-cane plantations, because many of the British owners had used their new wealth to sit in parliament. The French were able to multiply the effect of von Steuben's winter training by adding specific weaponry, ammunition, units, and professional commanders. The French navy was used to threaten British positions and widen the war, and create some logistical support for the Americans. In June 1778, the new Continentals demonstrated their improved ability by fighting the British to a draw at the 28 June Battle of Monmouth.

The End



The Loyalist and Patriot forces in the South had fought a series of savage battles that had left both sides bloodied. These engagements sent Cornwallis limping into Yorktown trailed by Major General le Marquis de Lafayette. The Loyalist and Patriot forces in the South had fought a series of savage battles that had left both sides bloodied. These engagements sent Major General Lord Cornwallis limping into Yorktown trailed by General Lafayette. Throughout the war, the British had been able to use their naval superiority to capture colonial coastal cities and move their army, but control of the countryside had largely eluded them. Cornwallis clearly intended to rendezvous with the British Atlantic fleet, presumably to embark at Yorktown.

This was not a short war and few colonials knew how to deal effectively with wartime issues. Although Washington was in command, his French and Spanish allies often took un-coordinated, independent actions. Yorktown came about from a French decision that Admiral le Comte de Grasse might spare his fleet from the Caribbean for a month in the summer of 1781 and he and Lieutenant General le Comte de Rochambeau decided to send the French fleet to the Chesapeake, not New York as Washington wanted. In the event, the French were right and another Frenchman, General Layfayette (under American command), followed a retreating General Cornwallis into the dead-end James peninsula and sealed Britain's fate.

The French involvement proved decisive, with a naval victory in the Chesapeake leading to a British surrender at Yorktown. (Click on the map to enlarge.) The experienced French realised that Cornwallis, who had been bloodied by the American General Greene, was retreating to an intended rendezvous with the British fleet to take his army back to New York. The French plan was that Admiral de Grasse would block the British from supporting Cornwallis, while Rochambeau would encourage Washington to 'slip away' from New York and hurry south to destroy the British. Some delicacy was required, since the British Commander in Chief, Lieutenant Henry General Clinton had a powerful army in New York. If the British realised what was happening Clinton could reverse the odds and trap the allied American and French army.

In the late summer of 1781, Washington and his French ally General Rochambeau learned that the British Lord Cornwallis had indeed been blocked by LaFayette. The Allied armies raced southward from New York to link up with the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse in Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis had arrived at his rendezvous and set about fortifying The small town. Cornwallis was confident of the early arrival of the British fleet, since America had no fleet of its own. Washington and Rochambeau arrived in time to 'bottle-up' the British, but Cornwallis still anticipated reinforcements (that never came) from General Clinton in New York as the British fleet was held off by the distant de Grasse. (Washington had left an active rear-guard in New York, which deceived Clinton 'holding an empty bag', and denying Cornwallis until it was too late.) Too late Cornwallis saw that he was trapped.

The American and French armies divided the area surrounding the British troops and began three weeks of siege-artillery bombardment - orchestrated by the experienced French. De Grasse kept the French fleet in place, and Lord Cornwallis' finally surrendered on October 19, 1781, ending a disastrous British southern campaign. (The British army lost its weapons and went into prisoner of war camps for the remained of the war.) Cornwallis attempted to surrender over 8,000 men to the French through his second-in-command, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara. French General Comte de Rochambeau, however, directed O'Hara to General Washington, who in turn steered O'Hara to his own second in command, Major General Benjamin Lincoln. The surrender occurred while the British band played 'The World Turned Upside Down', a then-popular tune that underscored the turn of events. This battle effectively ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain although it dragged on for another two years of peace negotiations and smaller northern raids from Canada. On 20 March 1782, Lord North resigned as Britain's prime minister. British troops left New York City on 25 November 1783, on 23 December 1783, Washington resigned as Commander having won an empire.

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to draft a suitable declaration to frame the resolution:

"Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The actual declaration for the resolution was largely drafted by Thomas Jefferson, presented to Congress on 1 July 1776, Independence was adopted on 2 July 1776, and the formal United States Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House.[12] The Declaration was read to the army assembled at New York on 9 July 1776, and men realised that there was no turniing back. On 17 September 1787, the U.S. Constitution was ratified without, however, naming an official language. During both the War of Independence and the War of 1812, times when anti-English feelings were running high, Americans of German descent comprised less than 9% of the total population of the United States. And even in Pennsylvania, where the Germans had settled most densely, they amounted to only a third of that population. English-speaking colonials had fought only for their political independence, and not an anti-English language or cultural revolution.[13]


The American War of Independence was caused by British arbitrariness and attempts to pass the costs of colonial war aand policing to the colonists themselves, while retaining the profits of hegemony.[14] The Peace of Paris had removed France from North America. Britain was triumphant and backed by the Anglican Church and a supportive constitution; most colonials were proud of their heritage.[15] However, the empire won would soon be lost again as the colonial élite favoured republicanism. Some historians have also noted the vested interests of wealthy New Englanders, who escaped taxes. The independent economic power and religious views in the Thirteen Colonies exacerbated the irritations.[16]

Some historians believe that this Revolution was in fact a continuation of the earlier English Civil War, noting that the colonies enjoyed republican, economic and religious views inherited from that period. The 1770s British Parliament was then largely controlled by land and trade interests and profit was a serious concern. British efforts in America were additionally diluted by growing demands in India, and shrill cries from the Caribbean planters, many of whom sat in parliament. On the other side, the American colonials who avoided paying taxes, had amongst the world's highest incomes - and a motive for Revolution.

In 1763, after defeating France in the Seven Years' War, Britain extended Québec south to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. However, the French and Indian War (as termed by the Americans) had given Americans the military experience required for revolution: economic depression and imperial attitudes provided the motive. Speculation remains today about these results had Sir William Johnson lived.[17] In 1775, only winter and a stubborn Québecois resistance at Québec City defeated the Americans in the attempt to conquer Canada.[18] The 1783 Treaty of Versailles bounded the United States of America by the Great Lakes and Mississippi. Canada was not traded to France for the sugar-island of Guadaloupe and thus Canada remained a British possession with a heavily French population.

The British recognised that administrators should have both military and political skills. British colonial policy had begun to create a new nation, which was both English and French and which did not join the southern colonists in revolution.[19] Canada was beginning to emerge as a new country, soon to be based on a colonial mixture of the former French voyageurs and settlers, British colonists and American Loyalists like James William Lurgan Black. France was joined by Spain in declaring war on Britain and sending material aid to help the Americans. (The British fleet was preoccupied by a French and Spanish fleet carrying an intended Jamaica Invasion army and together totaling 40,000 men! They were finally defeated at the 12 April 1782 naval Battle of The Saints.)


1          See Fred Anderson, Crucible of War, and Robert Leckie, "A Few Acres of Snow". Both authors describe the overbearing, superior attitudes that offended the colonists. Moreover, like Braddock at the Monongahela, none of these commanders-in-chief understood how to fight the Indians or Canadians in the back woods. Most of these commanders insisted that junior British regular officers out-ranked the most senior colonials. All of the commanders-in-chiefs made significant military manpower demansd on the colonies (up to 20,000 men, some for periods of up to several years at colonial cost). Moreover, Philiadelphia and New York were expected to garrison permanent garrison battalions and smaller towns were expected to garrison temporay units all without reimbursement - until Pitt intervened and undertook to pay for colonial costs. Anderson identifies the intrusion of metropolitan interference in colonial affairs as being an underlying cause for the Revolution, however, he notes that Lord Halifax's decision to leave the army in charge of the Peace was a poor choice, which inevitably led to a loss of control as the over-stretched and untrained troops were swamped by settlers and Indians. Brigadier Murray was hounded out of Canada for not pandering to the New England merchants and for supporting the Catholic French residents.

2          See Stephenson, RS, Clash of Empires, the British, French & Indian War, 1754-1763, and Alexander Canduci, The Greatest Lies in History, pp. 276-289.

3          David McCullough, 1776, p. 126.

4          Craig Symonds, A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution, p. 19.

5          Ibid.

6          Guy Johnson was Sir William's son-in-law who was married in 1763 to Mary, Sir William's daughter by Catherine Weisenberg. Guy happened to be Sir William's nephew from Ireland. He had inherited the family responsibility for supervising Indian affairs, but he handed responsibility over to his cousin Sir John who acted with Joseph Brant to bring the war to his father's Mohawk valley.

7          Seized by Allen and Arnold 10 May 1775, Craig Symonds, op. cit. p. 21.

8          George Stanley, Canada's Soldiers, pp. 110-115.

9          David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, pp. 350-360.

10        Rupert Furneaux, The Battle of Saratoga, p. 28.

11        Ibid, p. 19 notes the British grand strategy to have Howe and Burgoyne meet to carve the rebellious New England from the more docile colonies.

12        Ibid, p. 14 notes no taxation without representation.

13       See John Hancock at,

14       See United States Declaration of Independence at,

15       Richard Middleton, Colonial America, p. 384.

16       Ibid, notes Thomas Paine asked "is it natural for a man to remain a child all his life?"

17       James Flexner, Mohawk Baronet; A Biography of Sir William Johnson, pp. 352-356.

18       R eaders' Digest, Heritage of Canada, p 116-118 provides the dramatic description. George Stanley, Canada's Soldiers 1604-1954, pp. 106-113 provides the historical context. In following Washington's orders and the Congress wishes 'being determined on the reduction of Québec', Generals Schuyler, Montgomery and Thomas all tried and failed to take Québec. Malaria, French resistance, the British army and winter contributed to their defeat. Revolution and republicanism were not popular in French Canada. General Sullivan tried again in the spring of 1776 at Trois Rivières, but suffered 200 prisoners and 25 dead. (Nova Scotia and 15,000 New Englanders, ripe targets for revolt by their cousins.) An unsuccessful attempt was made in the autumn of 1776, Ibid. p 118.

19       Laurier LaPierre, 1759.

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