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American Revolutionary War

Washington Crossing The Delaware (1851) an iconic image of American history by Emanuel Leutze

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies on the North American continent. Foreign nations allied with the American colonists and later declared war on Britain, making the conflict international. The war was the culmination of the political American Revolution, whereby the colonists overthrew British rule. Below is an analysis by Professor Richard Holmes.

The War of Independence plays such an important part in American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone to exaggeration and oversimplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it - the fact that it was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) - are often forgotten.

Breaking the connection
The outset of war
The widening theatre of war
Formidable adversaries
Turning point
Richard Holmes

See also

Breaking the connection

In one sense it was always a war between cousins, and the long and tangled history of the 'special relationship' between Britain and America, as well as the notion of the unbreakable connections between both, bear witness to a link that at one time was very close indeed.

The war often known in Europe as the Seven Years War was known in North America as the French and Indian War. It involved several countries, with France and Britain on opposing sides, and North America was one of its many theatres of operations. It was ended by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, by which the French ceded territory to Britain in North America and elsewhere. In addition to this success, James Wolfe's victory at Quebec had helped secure Canada for the British Crown, and the 13 British colonies further south seemed safe from any threat that might once have been posed by the French and their Native American allies. Britain and her American colonies at this time seemed very close, both culturally and politically - and it is remarkable how this rosy picture changed so quickly.

In part the deterioration of relations between Britain and her American colonies - which eventually led to the War of Independence - stemmed from a logical British attempt to make the colonies contribute more to the cost of their own defence. It was also partly the result of the desire of some successful merchants in the colonies to break free of controls imposed by the pro-British elite, and from British political miscalculations that saw foreign policy oscillate between harshness and surrender. Another factor was the work of radical politicians and propagandists - such as Sam Adams and Paul Revere - who envisaged a break with Britain when many of their countrymen still hoped that it might be avoided.

The descent into armed conflict between patriot (anti-British) and loyalist (pro-British) sympathisers was gradual. Events like the Boston 'Massacre' of 1770, when British troops fired on a mob that had attacked a British sentry outside Boston's State House, and the Boston 'tea-party' of 1773, when British-taxed tea was thrown into the harbour, marked the downward steps. Less obvious was the take-over of the colonial militias - which had initially been formed to provide local defence against the French and the Native Americans - by officers in sympathy the the American patrios/rebels, rather than by those in sympathy with pro-British loyalists/Tories.

As all these elements of conflict came into play, the British commander in chief in North America was Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. He had long experience of the American continent, and had a beautiful and intelligent American wife, but he was under pressure from London to lance what seemed to be a painful boil.

The outset of war
The opening phases (opens 30KB pdf file)

In April 1775 Gage sent a small force to seize patriot militia weapons and gunpowder at Concord, not far from Boston, but his soldiers became involved in a brief firefight on Lexington Green on their way there. This event was reported far and wide, and the first shot fired there has ever since been described as 'the shot heard round the world'. There was a bigger clash at Concord, and then a fighting retreat, in which the British force was roughly handled. The militias then closed in and blockaded the British in Boston. Although newly arrived British reinforcements, under General William Howe, who was soon to replace Gage, won a costly battle at Bunker Hill, outside Boston, they could not break the siege.

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar September 13 1782 by John Singleton CopleyIn mid-1775, patriot representatives of the 13 colonies of America, meeting in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress, appointed George Washington, a well-to-do Virginia landowner, as commander in chief of its military forces. Washington, who thought militias fundamentally unreliable, set about raising a regular force, the Continental Army, and as the initial skirmishes between the patriots on the one hand and the British and their loyalist supporters on the other turned into a full-scale war, both sides were to use a mixture of regular troops, militias and other irregulars.

Washington's early fortunes were mixed. He forced the British to evacuate Boston by sea, when heavy guns taken from Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York State were hauled by patriot forces across a winter landscape and emplaced so as to fire down onto the city. But a patriot attempt to invade Canada failed miserably.

Washington could also do nothing to deny the enormous advantage that command of the sea conferred on the British. In the summer of 1776 General Howe, his army of 30,000 men carried in ships commanded by his brother Richard, landed near New York and duly captured the city, inflicting several sharp defeats on the patriots.

The widening theatre of war

Washington, fearing that his cause would inevitably collapse as short-term enlistment into the Continental Army expired, launched a risky attack on the little town of Trenton, held by a brigade of Hessians (German troops in British service) on Boxing Day 1776. He won this battle, and although the victory was small in tactical terms, it had a wider strategic impact, showing that the patriots were still in the fight.

In 1777 Howe took Philadelphia for the British, and had rather the better of fighting in the central theatre of war. But an ill-judged British attempt to invade from Canada, thrusting down the Hudson Valley towards New York and cutting off the rebellious New England, went badly wrong, and Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender with his entire army at Saratoga in October.

Defeat at Saratoga was not necessarily a military cataclysm for the British, but it encouraged the French, anxious to obtain revenge for the humiliations of the Seven Years War, to go beyond the covert support they had offered the patriots thus far, and join the war. Spain and Holland were to follow suit, and in 1780 a wider League of Armed Neutrality was formed, to resist British attempts to stop and search merchant shipping. The American war was now a world war, which meant that British resources could no longer be concentrated on North America alone.

Saratoga did not improve Washington's position instantly, however, and his army spent a miserable winter at Valley Forge. But in the spring of 1777 Howe's replacement, General Sir Henry Clinton, withdrew from Philadelphia (American Continentals fought creditably when they took on his rearguard at Monmouth), retaining New York as his base in the central theatre, and switching his main effort elsewhere.

There had already been fighting in the south. The British had failed in an attack on Charleston, although from Savannah they had repulsed a powerful French force, sent by sea from the West Indies. In spring 1780, Clinton reopened the campaign in the south, moving by sea to take Charleston in the biggest British victory of the war. He then returned to New York and left Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis in charge.

Formidable adversaries

Troop MovementsIn August Major General Horatio Gates, patriot victor of Saratoga, was roundly defeated by Cornwallis at Camden. British regulars now had an impressive combination of discipline and tactical skill, which made them formidable adversaries even in the difficult country of the south. But their loyalist allies fared less well. That September Major Patrick Ferguson, with a well-organised loyalist force was routed at King's Mountain, and in January the following year the dashing and controversial Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton ('Bloody Ban' to his enemies) was badly beaten by the unconventional Daniel Morgan at Cowpens.

Cornwallis, although his army was now in tatters, was still a doughty adversary. In March 1781 he won a magnificent victory over Nathanael Greene, Gates's successor, at Guilford Courthouse. But like so many British victories it was won at disproportionate cost, and Cornwallis could not mint strategic currency from tactical success. Exhausted, he fell back towards the coast, and eventually established himself at Yorktown, to the south of the Chesapeake Bay, where he hoped to be supplied or, if the worst came to the worst, to be evacuated, by sea.

In the New York area there had been no developments of real military significance. However, the ambitious Major General Benedict Arnold, one of the patriot heroes of Saratoga, had become embittered, and entered into secret negotiations with Clinton to betray the fort at West Point on the Hudson.

The scheme failed at the last moment and Arnold escaped to enter British service: Major John André, Clinton's adjutant-general, was captured in civilian clothes carrying letters to Arnold, and Washington had him hanged. Washington was badly rattled by the Arnold affair, and he still faced unrest amongst his tired soldiers. And although a substantial French force under the Comte de Rochambeau had landed in Rhode Island, it was hard to see how the war could be won.

Turning point

Surrender of YorktownIn the spring of 1781 the picture changed at a stroke. Admiral de Grasse, commanding the French fleet in the West Indies, made a bold attempt to secure control of the sea off the Chesapeake Bay. Immediately Washington heard what was afoot, he moved south with the bulk of his army and Rochambeau's Frenchmen. The British could not prevent de Grasse from entering the Chesapeake Bay, and when they brought him to battle in early September the result was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the French.

They still controlled the bay, and Cornwallis was still trapped in Yorktown. Another French squadron brought in heavy guns from Rhode Island, and the French and Americans mounted a formal siege against the outnumbered and ill-provisioned Cornwallis. Although Clinton and the admirals mounted a relief expedition, it arrived too late: Cornwallis had surrendered. When the British prime minister, Lord North, so firmly associated with Britain's war effort, heard the news, he staggered as if shot and cried out: 'Oh God! It is all over'.

Although the war was not formally ended until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, it was clear after Yorktown that the British, with their world-wide preoccupations, no longer had any realistic chance of winning. There had, however, been some moments that might have led to victory.

Howe, probably hoping to reach a compromise settlement with Washington, showed little killer instinct in his New York campaign. But in this sort of war the British were in any case eventually likely to lose, unless they could strike the patriots such a telling blow as to win the war at a stroke, and it is hard to see how this could have been achieved.

Signing of The Declaration of IndependenceConversely, the patriots had always been likely to win, provided they struggled on and avoided outright defeat.

It is unlikely that George Washington would much like being compared with General Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded the North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam war.

But both shared the same recognition that a militarily-superior opponent with worldwide preoccupations can be beaten by an opponent who avoids outright defeat and remains in the field. It is an old truth, and 21st-century strategists, whatever their political differences, should be well aware of it.

Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes is professor of military and security studies at Cranfield University. His books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French and Riding the Retreat, and he is general editor of The Oxford Companion to Military History. He enlisted into the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of Director of Reserve Forces and Cadets in the Ministry of Defence, until he retired in 2000.

See also
HMS Ontario
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