Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The American Revolution (2) The War of Independence

George Washington

Lexington and Concord

Events were now moving towards war as the ‘patriots’ seized the initiative, intimidating loyalists and training the militia into a serious fighting force.  As the protests mounted, the British authorities tried to stamp out unrest. On the night of 18 April 1775 General Thomas Gage, the commander in Boston, sent seven hundred redcoats from Boston to seize an arms depot at nearby Concord. Hearing of the plan, Boston’s Committee of Safety sent Paul Revere and William Dawes ahead on horseback, by separate routes, to warn of the British approach. This famous ride later became immortalised in Longfellow’s poem of 1861

Revere reached Lexington about midnight and then rode on towards Concord. 

At dawn on 19 April the British advance guard were confronted by about seventy Minute Men at Lexington. In the shooting that followed, eight colonists died. The battle of Lexington (‘the shot that rang around the world’) was followed by the engagement at Concord in which ‘Minute Men’ forced British troops back to Boston. 
Statue of a Minute Man, thought
to be Colonel John Parker
on Lexington Green, Massachusetts

In a European setting these would have been minor skirmishes, but the effect in America was enormous.  For the first time American blood had been deliberately shed by British hands.

The Second Continental Congress

On 10 May the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia and assumed the role of a de facto government.  It issued its Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking up Arms
‘Our cause is just. Our Union is perfect.’ 
This was an optimistic statement, assuming a unity that did not really exist. The potential for disunity could be seen in the resolution put forward by Richard Henry Lee, the member of an elite Virginia family: 
‘These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.’  
On 15 June the Congress elected George Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He accepted the post on condition that he received no pay.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On 17 June after receiving reinforcements Gage attacked the American entrenchments at Bunker Hill outside Boston, taking it on the third attempt after heavy losses. The colonists suffered more than 300 casualties and the British more than 1,000. The British had won but at a very heavy cost to morale. The myth of British invincibility had been dented.

The battle had two results. It made the British more cautious in subsequent encounters with the Continental Army; and it led Congress to recommend that all able-bodied men enlist in the militia. The population was forced to divide into Patriots and Loyalists.

On July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Washington took command of his ill-trained troops.  On 23 August 1775 the Patriots issued a Proclamation of Rebellion. 

Common Sense

As the situation moved towards all-out war, in January 1776, the Englishman Thomas Painea recent immigrant published an inflammatory pamphlet, Common Sense
‘Everything that is right and reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries ’tis time to part. The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.…We have it in our power to begin the world over.’ 

On 4 March 1776 Washington occupied Dorchester Heights commanding Boston Harbour and the British evacuated to Halifax.

The Declaration of Independence

On 4 July 1776 the Declaration of Independence was endorsed in Philadelphia (and signed on 2 August), based on an original draft by a Continental Congress committee. You can read the complete text hereIts principal author was the Virginia planter, Thomas Jefferson and the document was both an (overstated) indictment of the 'tyranny' of George III, and an expression of John Locke's view of the right of the people to overthrow an unjust ruler. In its first official act of diplomacy, Congress despatched Benjamin Franklin to Paris.

The start of the war

Although war had now become inevitable, the American colonies were by no means united. Neither the Canadians nor the Caribbean planters joined the war. About 20 per cent of the three million people of the thirteen colonies were Loyalists (‘Tories’) with no desire to break the link with Britain. In the course of the conflict many thousands fled to Canada. 

At the outset of the war few foreign observers thought the colonists could win a war against the world’s greatest empire.  Britain had certain advantages that seemed important: a strong navy, a capable First Lord of the Admiralty in Sandwich and an efficient war minister in Lord George Germain. Gage’s victory at Bunker Hill seemed to outweigh the humiliation of Lexington. They faced a poorly paid army of citizen-soldiers, but the colonists had the advantage of fighting on their own territory, and in George Washington they had a commander of great ability. From the start the colonists had support from Britain’s European rivals.

The battle of Trenton

In August 1776 30,000 British forces under Generals Sir William Howe  and Henry Clinton captured Long Island and in September gained control of New York City, driving a wedge between Virginia and Massachusetts. It looked as if the war might be lost.

But the British did not follow up their victories and they failed to destroy Washington’s army, allowing his force of 6,000 men to retreat across New Jersey - another British failure. On 8 December he crossed the icy Delaware River into Pennsylvania. On 25-26 December he re-crossed the river by night attacking a force of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey, taking 900 prisoners.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851),
by Emanuel Leutze.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
His role as a leader was secured and the boost to American morale was huge. The year ended with the British failing to bring the rebellion to a speedy end.


In 1777 Howe took Philadelphia. He planned to join up with General ‘Johnny’ Burgoynewho was advancing from Quebec, and bisect the colonies by cutting off New England.  However, Burgoyne was forced to surrender to Major-General Horatio Gates at Saratoga in upper New York province on 17 October 1777. 

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull, 1822;
This painting hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda.

Although not a disastrous defeat, it was a watershed in the history of the war.  Burgoyne was forced to retreat to Canada. More importantly, it secured foreign aid for the colonists. France now thought it was safe to back the winning side.

However, the war was by no means over. Washington was constantly hampered by the rivalries of the individual states, and he found it a huge struggle to create a functioning military machine.  In December 1777 he retreated to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where his army remained for six months in appalling conditions.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
John Ward Dunsmore, 1907

A European war

In February 1778 France’s unofficial help became a full-scale alliance with the United States. French troops were sent to Valley Forge to reinforce Washington and help train his army. In 1779 Spain entered the war and besieged Gibraltar. By now, with Britain isolated, there was no prospect of Congress accepting anything less than full independence. 

Military historians now believe that the British strategy was fundamentally flawed. Under a series of unimpressive commanders the British fought a series of uncoordinated campaigns. They were fighting a European style war in a vast territory. British troops, the German mercenaries and American loyalists won nearly every battle they fought but once the British left an area it reverted to American control. 

In 1779 the main battleground of the revolutionary war shifted to the South. From the British point of view the southern colonies were much more important than the northern ones because they produced valuable crops such as tobacco and indigo.  In January 1779 they captured Savannah and Augusta and threatened South Carolina. In May 1780 they captured Charleston in South Carolina, and at the battle of Camden in August 1780 General Charles Cornwallis defeated a Patriot army. But they were unable to control Carolina and in the brutal fighting in the Carolina backcountry civilians were tortured and massacred. 


In the spring of 1781 Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, Virginia, to await reinforcements and supplies. Instead, by August the British found they were trapped between Washington’s Continental army, French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayetteand the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse

On 6 September de Grasse attacked a British fleet and forced it to give up its effort to relieve Cornwallis. De Grasse then sailed down the Chesapeake and the siege began

On 17 October Cornwallis surrendered to Washington and Rochambeau.  On 19 October the British marched out of Yorktown. On 5 March the House of Commons authorised the crown to make peace. 

The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. 
The United States government commissioned John Trumbull
to paint a series of patriotic paintings,
 including this piece, for them
in 1817

The Treaty of Paris

The Americans sent John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to Paris to negotiate the end of the war. In 1783 Britain recognised American independence. 

Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace
Agreement with Great Britain

The British commissioners refused to be included
and the painting was never finished.

In retrospect the American victory seems inevitable, though it did not appear so at the time. See here for a brilliant essay on this question.  The war had been long and bloody. Over the course of the conflict between 150,000 and 200,000 had served in the revolutionary army. Of these about a third were killed or injured, more dying from diseases such as typhoid than on the battlefield. 

With the coming of peace, the Continental Army was swiftly disbanded, but a complex set of problems remained. The victors of the war were now given a new task. They had to create a new state and provide it with a government – something that had never been attempted before.

The US and its neighbours, 1783

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