American Revolutionary War

Disaffected American colonists, deciding to wrest their independence from Great Britain, held their own against numerically superior British forces and were able to garner alliances and assistance from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. After more than six years of fighting, the revolutionaries compelled the British government to negotiate the Treaty of Paris of 1783, recognizing the United States of America as an autonomous nation.

Summary of Event

The pent-up frustrations of at least a dozen years were unleashed on April 19, 1775, when the American Revolutionary War began with three skirmishes over the course of a single day. General Thomas Gage—the commander of British forces in North America—ill-advisedly dispatched a small British expeditionary force from Boston into the countryside of Middlesex County, igniting an unexpectedly forceful reaction from the Minutemen Minutemen militia groups. What had been intended as a quick strike aimed at capturing dissident leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington and seizing a store of gunpowder at Concord turned into fiasco as Paul Revere, William Dawes, Samuel Prescott, and others raised the alarm. At Lexington Green, the British under the command of Colonel Francis Smith confronted a crowd of Minutemen and dispersed them, but they were later defeated at Concord Bridge and forced to turn back to Boston. On the march back, the Minutemen waged guerrilla warfare, ambushing and harassing the British all the way back to the Massachusetts capital until, at nightfall, Boston was invested by an estimated sixteen thousand militia. [kw]American Revolutionary War (Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781)
[kw]War, American Revolutionary (Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781)
[kw]Revolutionary War, American (Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781)
American independence
Army, U.S.[Army, US]
American Revolution (1775-1783)
[g]American colonies;Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781: American Revolutionary War[2170]
[g]United States;Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781: American Revolutionary War[2170]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781: American Revolutionary War[2170]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 19, 1775-Oct. 19, 1781: American Revolutionary War[2170]
Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;American Revolution
Cornwallis, first marquess
Gage, Thomas
Howe, William
Clinton, Sir Henry
Arnold, Benedict
Greene, Nathanael
Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;American Revolutionary War
Rochambeau, comte de
Grasse, count de

As news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord Lexington and Concord, Battle of (1775) spread through the colonies, irregular military units began assuming control over much of the countryside, and a state of rebellion materialized. On the night of May 10, 1775, a Vermont militia called the Green Mountain Boys Green Mountain Boys under the command of Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen Allen, Ethan seized the strategic outpost of Fort Ticonderoga in New York. The fait accompli of hostility was recognized by the Second Continental Congress, Continental Congress, Second (1775) which convened at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. The Congress was to give political expression and direction to the uprising and attempted to consolidate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies Thirteen Colonies through the appointment on June 15 of George Washington, a colonel in the Virginia militia, to command all the colonial forces. Washington’s task was to organize and command a single Continental army. Though there were several officers of higher rank, Washington’s choice was strongly dictated by the perceived political advantages of placing a southerner over what were at this stage mainly northern (New England) forces, so as to more readily coax the southern colonies into support for the revolutionary cause.

Before Washington had a chance to assume direction of the Siege of Boston (he would not arrive until July 3), Continental forces under general Israel Putnam fortified the high ground at Breed’s Hill overlooking the city. Considering Breed’s Hill too strategically important to allow the Continentals to occupy, the British launched a determined assault on June 17, 1775. Two uphill charges were repelled, until a third attempt, launched at a moment when the Continentals had expended their gunpowder, succeeded in dislodging them. The misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill Bunker Hill, Battle of (1775) (nearly all the fighting took place on neighboring Breed’s Hill) was a very costly and demoralizing British victory. In the end, the noose remained tied around Boston.

General Gage, who seemed to have been rendered ineffectual by the swift-moving events of the revolution, was relieved of his command and replaced by Major-General William Howe on October 10, 1775, although at first there was no measurable change in policy. From August to December, 1775, however, a two-pronged American invasion of Canada was launched under the command of Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery. After enjoying initial success, the expedition ended in disaster at the Battle of Quebec Quebec, Battle of (1775) (December 8-31), where Montgomery was killed and Arnold was severely wounded. In May of 1776, the remaining American forces were compelled to leave Canada.

On the political front, the Second Continental Congress at first proposed reconciliation and a negotiated cease-fire. This so-called Olive Branch Petition was rejected out of hand by King George III, and further overtures to Parliament by Benjamin Franklin likewise met with rebuff. These diplomatic setbacks and the publication of Thomas Paine’s influential pamphlet Common Sense
Common Sense (Paine) (1776) dramatically shifted public opinion in the colonies. Rather than try to find a basis for compromise, most Americans now began to favor a complete break with Britain.

This tendency was further strengthened by Washington’s first military triumph. The American commander had sent General Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga Fort Ticonderoga, New York to transport the powerful cannon housed there to Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. This remarkable engineering feat was accomplished and, faced with destruction, Howe had no choice but to withdraw the British garrison from Boston on March 17, 1776. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress finalized the document (shortly to be dubbed the Declaration of Independence) Declaration of Independence, U.S. officially separating the colonies from Britain and creating the United States of America.

Howe also returned in July, this time at New York, with a large expeditionary force transported by a war fleet under command of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. Facing a huge disadvantage once the British took control over the sea lanes and outflanked by General Howe, Washington suffered a crushing defeat at Long Island (August 27, 1776), barely avoiding the destruction of his army, and though he was able temporarily to check the British at Harlem Heights (September 16), he was heavily beaten at White Plains (October 28), Fort Washington (November 16), and Brunswick, New Jersey (December 1). His army rapidly disintegrating, Washington was forced to cede New York City and New Jersey and retreated across the Delaware River. Delaware River

Unexpectedly, Washington countered the British gains with a dangerous and audacious maneuver, transporting his army at night across the icebound and treacherous Delaware River and surprising the garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton (December 26). This morale-restoring victory was followed by an even more effective coup, as Washington slipped away from the First Marquess Cornwallis to defeat a portion of the British army at Princeton (January 3, 1777). Trenton and Princeton temporarily stabilized the military situation, and both sides retired to winter quarters.

The year 1777 witnessed significant diplomatic French-American diplomacy[French American diplomacy]
American-French diplomacy[American French diplomacy] initiatives on the part of the United States and military initiatives from the British. Benjamin Franklin was dispatched as special envoy to the court of King Louis XVI of France to elicit supplies, money, volunteers, diplomatic recognition, and even military assistance from the French government. The British grand strategy, meanwhile, revolved around severing New England from the rest of the United States along the line of the Hudson River. General Howe was to advance northward from New York City, and separate armies from Canada were to move from a southerly and westerly direction under the respective commands of John Burgoyne and Barry St. Leger. The three were to converge near Albany.

The plan began to go awry when Howe changed his mind and secured the permission of War Minister Lord George Germain to transport most of his forces to capture Philadelphia. This left in New York only a remnant under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, who was in the end unable to contribute greatly to the Hudson River expedition. St. Leger’s trek was halted at Fort Stanwix, which endured a siege from August 3 to August 22. A pitched battle at Oriskany Creek Oriskany Creek, Battle of (1777) on August 6 proved inconclusive, though the British withdrew. Energetic relief efforts by Benedict Arnold and stubborn resistance by the Fort Stanwix garrison compelled St. Leger to turn back on August 22. General John Burgoyne, marching down the Hudson Valley from Canada, sustained an initial defeat at the Battle of Bennington Bennington, Battle of (1777) (August 16) and, becoming bogged down near Saratoga, Saratoga, Battles of (1777) New York, was attacked by American forces led by Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold: A series of pitched clashes from September 19 to October 17 resulted in Burgoyne’s surrender. While Arnold was recuperating from a dangerous leg wound, Gates took most of the credit for the victory at Saratoga.

In Pennsylvania, the British were more successful. William Howe landed at Head of Elk, Maryland, and brushed off an attempt by Washington at the Battle of Brandywine Creek Brandywine Creek, Battle of (1777) (September 11) to halt the British drive on Philadelphia, which fell on September 26. Washington’s plan to surprise the British at the Battle of Germantown on October 4 was frustrated by a combination of poor coordination and an unexpectedly thick mist over the battlefield. After a few hours of intense fighting, Washington broke off the engagement, ending the campaign for the winter. The Americans wintered at Valley Forge, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and the British encamped in and around Philadelphia.

Saratoga more than offset the disasters in Pennsylvania, because Franklin, persuading King Louis’s government that the American army was a substantial military force, convinced France to enter into war against Britain on the U.S. side (February 6, 1778). At this stage, the conflict was no longer localized but became part of an international struggle known as the War of the American Revolution. On June 21, 1779, Spain joined the effort against Britain, and on December 20, 1780, after a dispute over the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, which had long been supplying American rebels, the British government opened hostilities against the Dutch, who became America’s third ally.

Washington survived a brutal winter at Valley Forge—as well as a plot by disgruntled officers, led by General Thomas Conway, to replace him with Horatio Gates—and emerged with a well-trained army that had been whipped into shape by the Prussian drillmaster Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Howe was replaced on March 7, 1778, by Sir Henry Clinton, who evacuated Philadelphia and was attacked while withdrawing to New York by Washington’s rejuvenated troops at Monmouth, Monmouth, Battle of (1778) New Jersey, on June 28. This, the war’s largest engagement, ended in a draw. Thereafter, the more intense military action shifted to the southern colonies.

On December 20, 1778, British forces captured Savannah, Georgia, Savannah, Georgia and successfully withstood determined Continental attempts to recapture the city. In the western territories, American general George Rogers Clark engaged in a seesaw struggle with British lieutenant colonel Henry Hamilton but won the ultimate victory when Hamilton was captured on February 25, 1779, at Fort Vincennes, in what later became Illinois.

Benedict Arnold, disaffected since he had been short-changed of the credit for Saratoga and probably influenced by his Loyalist wife, Peggy Shippen, plotted through British major John André to hand over the garrison at West Point, New York, West Point, New York but was found out by Washington (September 25, 1780). Arnold fled to become a general in the British army, and André was hanged for espionage.

The British offensive in the south began in earnest in February, 1780, when Clinton and Cornwallis besieged Charleston, South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina which fell on May 12. Thereafter, one American disaster followed another: Gates was heavily defeated at Camden, South Carolina, and murderous partisan warfare broke out in the countryside. The situation began to stabilize when the British were checked at the Battle of King’s Mountain King’s Mountain, Battle of (1780)[Kings Mountain] (October 7) and Gates was superseded as commander of the Southern Department by Nathanael Greene (October 14). General Daniel Morgan won a resounding victory over Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s “British Legion” at the Cowpens in South Carolina (January 17, 1781), and his forces joined with those of Greene. Greene and Cornwallis fought a series of running engagements throughout the Carolinas, culminating in a bloody standoff at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina (March 15, 1781). Cornwallis advanced into Virginia, while Greene set about liberating much of the Carolinas.

Cornwallis did little of importance in Virginia besides capture the state capital at Richmond, and he withdrew to winter quarters at Yorktown. Washington, encamped near New York, combined his troops with a French expeditionary force led by the comte de Rochambeau, and their consolidated armies marched to Yorktown Yorktown, Virginia, surrender (1781) to surround Cornwallis from the landward side. At the same time, a French fleet under count de Grasse cleared away the British and blocked any escape by water. Cornwallis endured a twenty-day siege before surrendering on October 19, 1781.


Yorktown was the final large clash of the American Revolution. The British then opened peace talks, which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Paris Paris, Treaty of (1783) on September 3, 1783, whereby Britain recognized the independence of the United States of America. The American Revolutionary War was the first successful colonial uprising in the Western Hemisphere and resulted in the establishment of a republic based on liberalist principles. This event, which established the United States of America, may well be counted as the most important geopolitical development of the eighteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Edgar, Walter. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution. New York: Perennial, 2001. The author believes that atrocities committed by British troops and Loyalists in South Carolina backfired, and tipped the balance in favor of the Continentals.
  • Galvin, John R. The Minute Men—The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1996. Gives a detailed account of the April 19, 1775, fighting and argues that the Minutemen were much better organized and more effective than previously thought.
  • Greenwood, John. A Young Patriot in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Edited by Isaac J. Greenwood. Tyrone, Pa.: Westvaco, 1981. Firsthand account written in 1809 by a veteran who served in both the Continental army and navy, and who was later George Washington’s dentist.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Despite what the title might indicate, Hibbert offers an impartial rather than pro-British narrative; and this he does in a highly readable style.
  • Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. The campaign is meticulously described; though Franklin’s diplomatic follow up is not presented in as much detail.
  • Liell, Scott. Forty-Six Pages: Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” and the Turning Point to Independence. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004. Makes the cogent argument that Paine’s pamphlet was an indispensable element in turning the sentiment of the rebellious colonies toward complete separation from Britain.
  • McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Actually covers the period 1775-1777, focusing on Washington’s leadership qualities—and weaknesses—during what was arguably the time of his greatest challenge.
  • Mitchell, Broadus. The Road to Yorktown: Climax of the American Revolution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. Though the Carolina campaigns are deemed important, the greater degree of importance is laid on the maneuvers occurring in Virginia in 1781.
  • Randall, William Sterne. Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A refreshingly impartial study of one of the revolution’s more controversial figures. Cites new financial and personal records to offer insights behind Arnold’s baffling shift in allegiance.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. An internationally renowned historian focuses on the importance of the little-known factors of rivalry among the major European states, and the crucial role of seapower in the final stages of the war.

Stamp Act Crisis

Townshend Crisis

Boston Massacre

Boston Tea Party

Lord Dunmore’s War

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

France Supports the American Revolution

Indian Delegation Meets with Congress

Declaration of Independence

First Test of a Submarine in Warfare

Battle of Oriskany Creek

Battles of Saratoga

Franco-American Treaties

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Loyalists Migrate to Nova Scotia

Treaty of Paris

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Samuel Adams; Ethan Allen; Benedict Arnold; Sir Henry Clinton; First Marquess Cornwallis; Benjamin Franklin; Thomas Gage; George III; Nathanael Greene; John Hancock; Richard Howe; William Howe; Louis XVI; Paul Revere; Comte de Rochambeau; George Washington. American independence
Army, U.S.[Army, US]
American Revolution (1775-1783)