The American Revolution
The History Cat Classroom
In 1775, it still wasn't clear to most colonists what was going on up in Massachusetts. The battle of Lexington could have been yet another skirmish between the British army and a handful of rebel hotheads or the first shots of the Revolutionary War. Patriot newspapers were quick to paint the whole thing as a bloodbath; while loyalists newspapers blamed the rebels for breaking the law and stirring up trouble. In the end, it was the Patriot propaganda that won the most hearts and minds.
News that British soldiers were bayoneting innocent people did more to unite the colonies than any other single event, that is until the Declaration of Independence was written one year later.
The rebels had their work cut out for them. They had no government, no money, no army, no navy, no allies, and no game plan. All they had was fiery passion and few thousand farmers with muskets. Not the sort of thing that inspires great confidence for winning a revolution.
But there was no turning back now. King George III made it clear that rebellion wasn’t going to be tolerated. If the British could catch them it was very likely that the troublemakers-- the Adam's cousins, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, George Washington and John Hancock would be making a one-way trip to London, rope free of charge.
In the spring of 1775, 15,000 American militiamen from as far away as Virginia took up the call and raced to Boston to lay siege to the 3,000 British soldiers and loyalists trapped inside. Boston sits on a peninsula jutting out into Boston Harbor connected to the mainland by a narrow ribbon of land called the Roxbury Neck, which the rebels controlled. But General Gage wasn’t worried. The Americans didn’t have a navy and so would be as helpless against British warships which controlled the harbor. With unlimited access to supplies and reinforcements, the Brits could wage war indefinitely. What the Americans needed was cannon to bombard the British position from the surrounding hills. And they knew exactly where to find it.
In upstate New York situated on Lake Champlain, lies Fort Ticonderoga which was under British control. Inside are a dozen cannons and enough powder to light Boston up like Times Square. Patriot General Benedict Arnold (the man who would one day turn traitor) is about to become an American hero. Although Arnold's troops aren't much to brag about, a few hundred militia and regulars, they are more than enough to deal with the sorry sots that are guarding Ticonderoga. The British, confident that the Americans are too disorganized to mount an attack, left a few dozen men-- half of whom are invalids-- to defend the place.
Too Late to Apologize. A Declaration
On May 10, 1775, the Americans stormed the fort. The two guards on duty were so surprised that they tried to run back into the fort but weren’t quick enough to shut the gates. Without firing a shot, Fort Ticonderoga was in American hands. So were the 78 cannon, six mortars, and three howitzers needed to send the British at Boston packing. But, now the hard work begins: hauling those iron guns back to Boston through one hundred and fifty miles of thick forests and mud.
The Battle of Bunker Hill
Meanwhile, back in Boston. The British— bulked up with fresh reinforcements, decided to undermine the American siege by taking the unoccupied hills surrounding the city. Capture and holding the high ground is the basic rule in any army‘s playbook. When the Americans got word of this plan, every man was ordered to dig trenches and build earthen fortifications throughout the night. The Americans were supposed to occupy the larger Bunker Hill but instead chose to make their stand at Breed’s Hill because it was closer to Boston to serve as an “in your face” to the British army. The next morning, on June 17th,1775, the British awoke to find the Americans deeply entrenched at Breed’s Hill. Naval guns from warships in the harbor pounded the Patriot position to soften them up before the main assault. The British were confident that their well-trained regulars could easily defeat “the American rabble”
The British plan was to attack from four sides; defeating the rebels in one pitched battle. Game over. British Empire saved. Howe sent 3000 troops fully loaded with their 100-pound backpacks in the blazing 90-degree heat to dislodge the rebels. The Americans waited until the British got within 50 yards and opened fire, mowing down the enemy stupidly marching in tight formation.
The British beat a quick retreat only to regroup and try again. The second attempt ended like the first. But the third charge did the job (thanks to the rebels running out of ammo). The British jumped over the walls of the fortifications and stabbed the retreating colonists with their bayonets. The Brits won the battle. But both sides claimed victory. The British flag flew over Bunker Hill, but at a cost of over 1,000 casualties compared to only 400 on the American side. By March of 1776, Boston was back in American hands when the British realized that New York, with its much larger loyalist population, would make a better headquarters than Boston.
However, the war was just getting warmed up. Bunker Hill taught the Americans that they could hold their own against the best-trained army in the world. At the same time, it showed the British that they weren’t going to crush the rebellion as easily as they thought. British troops began mobilizing across the empire to converge on the rebellious colonies. To sweeten the deal, the British enlisted 30,000 German mercenary troops known as Hessians.
Later that summer the Continental Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition telling King George that there was still time for compromise. It arrived in London too late to do any good, but we doubt that George would have backed down anyway.
With those first boatloads of colonists to Jamestown and Plymouth had come more than just a ragged group of colonials; new ideas were brought along as well that would sow the seeds of the American Revolution. In the 1500s and 1600s, Europe was being swept up in an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Men like John Locke wrote that humans were born with natural, God-given rights to life, liberty, and property that not even the king himself could take away. This was a clear break from the medieval thinking that the king had the right the of life and death over his subjects. In this new enlightened era, Parliaments and elected governments could check the power of a king who got too power-crazy. The people would have a say in how their government ran.
Now that the Americans were at war, they needed to justify their war if they hoped to win over any colonists still on the fence, not mention trying to convince other countries to send money and troops (France and Spain perhaps?). The Founding Fathers set quill to paper explaining exactly why they were doing what they were doing.
Inspired by John Locke, Thomas Paine, and other enlightenment thinkers, the founding fathers met at a Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and got to work drafting a document that would express the reasons it was breaking all ties with Great Britain. The task of writing this Declaration of Independence fell on five delegates at the Congress- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. However, most of the original draft was written by Jefferson. It took Jefferson only two days, and the Congress cast their votes on July 2, 1776. Jefferson's draft (minus the part attacking the slave trade) was adopted.
Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially (friendly) loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.
—Thomas Jefferson, November 29, 1775
The tone of the Declaration of Independence was clear. Men were born free by God with certain rights that could not be taken away–– even by the king himself. The Declaration of Independence attacked the crown and Parliament for its abuses against the American colonies. The conflict may have its beginnings in taxation without representation, but taxes were not the issue. One Patriot soldier who was interviewed 50 years after the Revolution stated that he experienced neither oppression nor heavy taxes on the part of the British. In fact, he had never even seen the stamps that had started the whole mess. The real issue was that "we had always governed ourselves, and we had always meant to..."
The Second Continental Congress, based in Philadelphia, was now the government of the thirteen very loosely organized colonies. The colonists still didn’t think of themselves as Americans, but rather they identified with their home state. The Continental Congress had the difficult task of forging a new government out of colonists who were suspicious of big government. Money had to be printed; a national army had to be recruited and trained. Diplomats had to win foreign support.
The Second Continental Congress made the most important decision of the entire war when it selected George Washington, a Virginia plantation owner with minimal military experience, as the command-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington's first and most challenging task was to whip a ragged bunch of farmers into a disciplined fighting force. Good luck with that George.
The Fighting Spirit of 1776
In New York City, on the same day that the Continental Congress was vote to the Declaration of Independence, the British—led by General Howe, were landing 32,000 men on Staten Island (a small farming community outside of New York City). Defending the city was General Washington's Continental Army, made up of 19,000 (mostly untrained) volunteers. Washington knew he did not have a chance.
However, Congress badly needed this win. A loss of New York City would divide New England from the rest of the colonies, which is what the British planned to do.
Washington decided to make his stand at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island. As General Howe made his way down Long Island, British warships were busy pounding Brooklyn Heights. The Americans were trapped between the East River behind them and General Howe ahead. Washington may have been inexperienced, but he wasn't stupid. He knew that his men had little chance of beating the British in open formation combat. However, the Americans had a secret weapon— luck. Howe, known for being cautious, did not attack right away. Instead, he waited to see what the rebels would do. This delay allowed a massive rainstorm to blow in, which further slowed Howe's attack. Using the storm for cover, Washington and 6,000 men retreated across the East River using any boats they could find. General Howe now held New York City, which remained in British hands throughout the war. After crossing into New Jersey, Washington caught another stroke of luck that would prove critical to the Patriot cause. Washington happened to stumble across a band of Hessians camped at Trenton, NJ. Washington immediately began drawing up a plan for a surprise attack.
Washington, a master at using spies and deception to win battles. With the help of John Honeyman, a former British soldier turned Patriot, Washington decided to put on a little show for the Germans. Honeyman's mission was simple: get arrested by Washington's army and then escape to the German camp where he would sow disinformation to the enemy. Washington wanted to make the act look as real as possible, so he even had his guards fire at an escaping Honeyman. Once at the German camp, Honeyman told stories of how the Americans were hopelessly unprepared and near collapse. Delighted the German commander Johann Rall told his men to relax and celebrate the Christmas holiday. Little did they know that Honeyman was secretly sending back messages of details of the enemy camp, troop positions, and ammunition stores.
Hungover from too much Christmas booze, the Hessians were totally unprepared for Washington's Christmas Day attack. Under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of December 25, 1776, Washington crossed the icy Delaware River with 2,400 men shocking the Hessians who had been partying all night. Out of 1,500 Hessian soldiers, only 500 made it out alive. The Americans lost only six of their men. The victory at the Battle of Trenton was a rare win for the Patriots.
The biggest battle that Patriot leaders like George Washington faced was not the British, but keeping in their soldiers from deserting. The British had won most of the battles that mattered and were in control of nearly all of the colonial cities. American morale was at rock bottom. On December 31st, most of the Continental Army’s enlistment was up, and many of the exhausted and poorly fed soldiers weren’t planning on making the mistake of signing up for a second tour of duty. The Revolution wasn’t even a year old and was already falling apart.
1777: The Year of the Hangman.
People call 1777 “the year of the hangman,” referring to the way the sevens resembled a gallows. With the American army running out of everything, loyalists predicted that the rebel leaders would be soon swinging at the end of a rope. The British had retaken Fort Ticonderoga and chased the Americans out of New York and Pennsylvania. When General Howe captured the capital of Philadelphia on September 26th, it looked as if the cause for independence was all but dead. But, those crafty Americans still a few tricks up their sleeve.
First, The Americans used a very different style of combat that the British called “ungentlemanly.” Geography played a big part in the Americans beating the Brits. In Europe, most of the land was open farmland which allowed armies to face each other on the battlefield (marching towards the enemy while being shot at). The Americans, living in a wilderness, thought that this idea method of fighting was stupid. The enemies of the colonists were often the Indians who used guerrilla tactics of striking and then disappear back into the woods. The Americans picked up this style and used it on their new enemy. The British called the Americans cowards, but in the end, war is war, right?
The other secret weapon was time. The American strategy was to hold out long enough to wear the British down. A few years into the war and riots had begun to break out in London as the economic effects of the war began to hit home. Merchants put pressure on Parliament to end the whole thing so they could go back to trading with the Americans.
The French Weigh In
Since 1776, the French king had been sneaking supplies past the British blockade to aide the Americans, but until the Americans could prove they could hold their own, they weren’t ready to come out and declare war on Britain. However, when the American won the Battle of Saratoga in September 1777, capturing 7000 British POW’s the French decided to make it official.
On February 6, 1788, the French and the Americans signed an alliance that officially recognized the United States of America as an independent nation. In 1779, Spain entered the war as an ally of France (but not the United States because the American colonists kept trying to grab Spanish Florida.) Aside from gaining badly needed allies, the Battle of Saratoga was important for another reason. It made the British realize that there was a chance that they could lose this thing. The British Prime Minister, Lord North, urged King George to try to make peace, but he flat out refused to entertain the idea. On March 6, 1778, Parliament repealed the Townshend Act and the Intolerable Acts. But as the saying goes, it was too little, too late.
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
The British then made two decisions that would seal their defeat. First, they pulled their troops out of Philadelphia to protect New York City and decided on a “Hail Mary pass” to conquer the southern colonies. The king was convinced that the colonies of the south were still loyal and all that was needed for them to switch sides was a show of force. Only, this never happened. The royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, realized that he could use the southern colonies greatest asset against them. Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to any slaves who would join the British cause. He soon had 500 black men enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment who stormed Norfolk and converted it back into a loyalist stronghold. It might be worth noting that the Continental Congress thought of offering African-Americans the same deal but decided against it out of fear that the southern colonies would back out of the union. Rather than turning the tide of the war in favor of the British, it had the opposite effect. Many plantation owners might have been conservative and loyalist but by freeing their slaves, Lord Dunmore drove them into the patriot camp.
The Fight in the South
On May 12, 1780, the British scored their biggest victory in the South. Not only did the Brits capture Charleston, SC, America’s fourth-largest city, but also over 5,000 POW’s— about one-fourth of the entire continental army! Unlike in the north, the southern war for independence was about to get a whole lot meaner, uglier, and dirtier.
The southern theater of the revolution is full of tales of loyalist and patriot militias laying waste to enemy towns, traitors hung by trees, and homes burnt to the ground. Most the fighting in the south was done by the militia who carried out guerrilla-style attacks on the British troops. One of the most famous of these bands of freedom fighters were led by a South Carolina plantation owner named Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. Marion was initially given the command as a captain in the Continental Army and served as a defender at Charleston.
Dumb luck would have it that he broke his ankle and was away from the city when the British took it and its defenders captive. From then, Marion served as a militia leader who used guerrilla tactics and terror to fight the British and their loyalist allies. For the rest of the war, the only army fighting against the British in South Carolina was the Swamp Fox and maybe 50 others. With his uncanny ability to hide in the foliage and pick off the enemy, he was able to terrorize the British and their loyalist allies. Outnumbered 100 to 1 Marion was able to frustrate the British at every step of the way. Using tactics that they had learned fighting the Cherokee, the Swamp Fox became the stuff of legend. Appearing out of nowhere to pick off the enemy and then melt back into the forest like a ghost. His actions inspired loyalists to resist the British occupation.
Yorktown: An Unlikely Win
Yorktown: An Unlikely Victory In 1781, a British force of about 7,000 led by General Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold (who had been an American commander at Saratoga, but changed sides soon after) was camped out in Virginia near Yorktown. The British blockade had kept the French from providing much assistance, and the Americans were trying to figure out a way to force the British to surrender. The French managed to land about 6,000 men in Rhode Island, and Washington was planning on linking up with them for a full out assault on New York. When Washington received news that French reinforcements were headed to fight Cornwallis in Virginia, he had a change of plans. The combined American-French army, about 16,000 strong and double the size of Cornwallis, decided to try to land a knockout punch to the British resistance.
On September 28, 1781, the French-American forces began a siege of the British position. British attempts to break the siege failed. On October 14, 1781, the British tried to recapture some lost ground. When they failed, they decided to sneak out that night across the York River. In one of those moments of irony, a storm came across that was similar to the ones that allowed Washington to escape from New York back in 1776. This time the storm worked in Washington’s favor by trapping Cornwallis. On October 19, 1781, the British called for a truce. The Battle of Yorktown marked the end of the British war with America. Against all odds, the Americans with tremendous support from their French allies had beaten the biggest superpower in the colonial world. When news reached London, Lord North replied, "Oh God, it's over." Shortly after that, he resigned as Prime Minister.
After the war ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, 100,000 Loyalists fled the United States. Most went to Canada while some fled to either England or the Caribbean. Under the treaty, Loyalists were supposed to receive compensation for lost property. Those who were in New York or the Carolinas had the best chance of getting some cash. For those who owned land in New England, chances of receiving compensation were pretty slim.
The Treaty of Paris- 1783
The Battle of Yorktown marked the end of the British war with America. Against all odds, the Americans, with huge support from their French allies, had beaten the biggest superpower in the world. When news reached London, Lord North replied, "Oh God, it's over." ...Shortly after he resigned as Prime Minister.
Peace talks would strain the relationship between the former allies. The Americans feared that the French would try to negotiate with the British to reclaim the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Americans, who had been prevented from settling into their lands by the Proclamation of 1763, wanted that land for their new nation.
The Americans secretly negotiated a treaty with the British that gave the United States control the lands east of the Mississippi River. On September 3, 1783, a peace treaty was signed that recognized the sovereignty of the United States of America. By the terms of the treaty, a lot of land began to change hands. Britain got the island of Gibraltar (south of Spain), Spain regained Florida. The French got Tobago and the African colony of Senegal. Prisoners of war were to be released and the Americans were to return all property confiscated from loyalists during the war (The results of this were better upheld in some states than others).