Revolutionary War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The American Revolution resulted from longstanding friction between Britain and its North American colonies. After its 1763 victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the British government decided to maintain a 6,000-man standing army in North America to protect its newly obtained territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The colonists, suspicious of the new army, were outraged by the prospect that they were to pay a share of its maintenance cost. American discontent continued throughout the 1760’s as the British parliament enacted laws to regulate or tax the colonies. Among the most offensive laws were the Currency Act of 1764, the Sugar Act of 1764, and the Quartering Act of 1765.

The American Revolution resulted from longstanding friction between Britain and its North American colonies. After its 1763 victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the British government decided to maintain a 6,000-man standing army in North America to protect its newly obtained territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The colonists, suspicious of the new army, were outraged by the prospect that they were to pay a share of its maintenance cost. American discontent continued throughout the 1760’s as the British parliament enacted laws to regulate or tax the colonies. Among the most offensive laws were the Currency Act of 1764, the Sugar Act of 1764, and the Quartering Act of 1765.

Colonial Protests

Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act in the spring of 1765 provoked protests and open resistance everywhere in the colonies. The law affected practically every American; it required tax stamps on newspapers, playing cards, dice, marriage licenses, and many other legal documents. The revenue from these stamp duties contributed to maintaining the British army in America. Mobs, called the Sons of Liberty, harassed the stamp distributors. The colonial assemblies and a Stamp Act Congress, held in New York in October, 1765, called for the repeal of the Stamp Act. Colonists also boycotted British goods, a strategy that proved to be more effective than the protests. British manufacturers and merchants adversely affected by the boycott called for Parliament to abolish the Stamp Act, which it did in March, 1766.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of the</sc> R<sc>evolutionary</sc> W<sc>ar</sc>Mar. 5, 1770Boston Massacre: British soldiers kill five American civilians and wound several others in a bloody encounter that symbolized colonial unrest.Dec. 16, 1773Boston Tea Party: Group of men calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty” dumped forty-five tons of tea into Boston Harbor.Apr. 19, 1775Battles of Lexington and Concord: American Minute Men confront British troops on Lexington Common. When someone fires “the shot heard round the world,” both Americans and British open fire and the war begins.May 10–11, 1775Battle of Fort Ticonderoga: Colonel Ethan Allen and co-commander Benedict Arnold lead a successful, bloodless victory against a surprised British garrison.June 17, 1775Battle of Bunker Hill: Americans engage British at Breed’s Hill near Boston; British win but sustain heavy losses.Dec. 31, 1775Battle of Quebec: Americans mount two offensives against British Canada but are defeated.Mar. 17, 1776British evacuate Boston, retreating to Halifax, Nova Scotia.July 4, 1776Declaration of Independence approved by Congress.Aug. 27–30, 1776Battle of Long Island: Leading the British, General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe enter New York harbor, land twenty thousand troops on Long Island, and establish a base of operations. General George Washington retreats to Manhattan Island. British occupy New York City by September.Sept. 6–7, 1776Submarine experiments.Oct. 11, 1776Battle of Valcour Bay: British commander Guy Carleton attacks American General Benedict Arnold at Lake Champlain, routing the American flotilla.Oct. 28, 1776Battle of White Plains: British defeat Americans, who take heavy losses. Washington’s troops retreat to Peekskill, Ft. Lee, and Trenton, New Jersey.Dec. 26, 1776Battle of Trenton: Washington defeats the British after crossing the icy Delaware River in a surprise attack.Jan. 3, 1777Battle of Princeton: Washington routs British near Princeton, New Jersey, and then establishes headquarters in Morristown.June-July, 1777British advance from Lake Champlain: General John Burgoyne leads British forces up the Hudson River, taking strategic points at Fort Ticonderoga, Mt. Defiance, and Fort Anne.Aug. 6, 1777Battle of Oriskany Creek: Southeast of Lake Ontario and Fort Stanwix, an Indian force fighting for the British under Chief Joseph Brant ambushes Americans under General Nicholas Herkimer. Native American losses and renewed American efforts force the British to retreat.Aug. 16, 1777Battle of Bennington: In Vermont, a German contingent fighting for the British under the orders of Burgoyne is routed by the Americans under General John Stark.Sept. 11, 1777Battle of Brandywine: In Pennsylvania, the British force Washington and his men to retreat to Philadelphia, occupying that city by September 26.Oct. 4, 1777Battle of Germantown: Washington’s attack on British forces fails when fog confuses his troops. Americans retreat to Valley Forge, where they will spend a harsh winter.Oct. 8–17, 1777Battle of Saratoga: Burgoyne’s campaign to capture Albany, New York, is foiled when Benedict Arnold assaults British forces at Bemis Heights; Burgoyne retreats. One week later, Burgoyne and his British forces surrender.Nov., 1777Articles of Confederation submitted to the states: After a year of debate, the Continental Congress devises a plan of government and submits it to the states for ratification, achieved in March, 1781.Feb. 6, 1778Franco-American Treaties: France agrees to assist Americans against British.June 28, 1778Battle of Monmouth: After a severe winter at Valley Forge, George Washington and the Americans pursue General Henry Clinton, who had commanded the British campaign in Philadelphia. Under General Charles Lee, the Americans rout the British; Washington later engages Clinton in an ensuing battle, forcing a British retreat.July-Aug., 1778Attack at Newport: In Rhode Island, combined American and French forces are repelled after attempting to take a British garrison.July 15, 1779Battle of Stony Point: American General Anthony Wayne takes Stony Point, on the Hudson River, from Clinton.Aug. 29, 1779Battle of Newtown: At modern-day Elmira, New York, Americans under General John Sullivan defeat British loyalists and Indians who had been terrorizing frontier settlements of Pennsylvania and New York.Sept. 23-Oct. 18, 1779Siege of Savannah: In Georgia, American and French forces fail to take Savannah from the British, suffering heavy casualties.Apr. 1,-May 12, 1780Siege of Charleston: General Clinton assaults Charleston, South Carolina, capturing the American garrison and four ships–the greatest American losses of the war.Aug. 16, 1780Battle of Camden: In South Carolina, Americans under General Horatio Gates move against the British under Lord Cornwallis but are routed, opening the way for a British advance into North Carolina.Sept., 1780Treason of Benedict Arnold: After supplying the British with information for more than a year, Arnold is exposed in a plot to hand over the American garrison at West Point. He becomes a British officer and conducts British assaults on Virginia and Connecticut in 1781.Oct. 7, 1780Battle of King’s Mountain: British troops are repelled by Carolina backwoodsmen, forcing Cornwallis to retreat to Winnsborough.Jan. 17, 1781Battle of Cowpens: In South Carolina, American General Daniel Morgan repels the British forces of General Banastre Tarleton.Mar. 15, 1781Battle of Guilford Courthouse: American General Nathanael Greene engages Cornwallis in North Carolina; Americans are defeated but seriously weaken the British, forcing their retreat.Oct. 19, 1781Surrender at Yorktown: Having abandoned the Carolinas for Virginia, Cornwallis and the British establish a base at Yorktown but French ground and naval forces join with the Americans to hem him in, forcing surrender. Despite General Clinton’s remaining forces in New York, the British are essentially defeated.Sept. 3, 1783Treaty of Paris: British and Americans negotiate a peace settlement.

American joy over the repeal of the Stamp Act did not last long. In 1767, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend managed to obtain the enactment of duties on several items imported by the colonies. The revenue from these taxes paid the salaries of royal governors and other royal officials in America, thereby making them independent of the colonial assemblies. In order to strengthen the enforcement of the Acts of Trade, Parliament also provided for the granting of general search warrants and suspended the New York Assembly until it complied with the Quartering Act of 1765. Again the Americans resisted and although the boycott was not as extensive as that against the Stamp Act, British manufacturers once again called for a repeal of the taxes.

In 1768, the royal governor of Massachusetts requested that the British government send troops to enforce the trade regulations. On orders from London, the commander of British forces in America, Major General Thomas Gage, sent a regiment to Boston. In June, enraged Bostonians forced the customs commissioners to seek protection on a British warship. In retaliation, the British cabinet ordered two regiments from Ireland to Boston. By the spring of 1769, four British regiments occupied the city; two were withdrawn in May, but the others remained.

The Boston Massacre

The citizens of Boston, enraged because they expected the entire British force to withdraw, increased their confrontations with the soldiers. On March 5, 1770, in what is remembered as the Boston Massacre, a mob gathered at the Customs House clashed with troops; the soldiers killed five civilians and wounded several others. Fearing a general uprising, the Massachusetts royal officials ordered the troops to withdraw from Boston. Meanwhile, under pressure from the American boycott and British business interests, Parliament withdrew the duty on all American imports except tea.

Major Sites in the Revolutionary War

In the fall of 1773, the British East India Company made several shipments of low-priced tea to America. Purchase of the tea would require payment of the tea tax. In most ports, the ships were turned back, but in Boston, customs officials planned to sell some of the tea. On the night of December 16, some Bostonians, dressed as Indians, rowed out to the tea ships in the harbor and dumped their cargo overboard. King George III and Parliament’s response to the Boston Tea Party was the passage of the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts of 1774, which closed Boston’s port and reined in the government of Massachusetts.

After General Gage moved more troops to Boston to enforce the new laws, the various colonial assemblies called for a Continental Congress to draw up a redress of grievances. The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in September and October; it demanded the repeal of all objectionable laws passed since 1763 and agreed to meet in May, 1775, if Parliament did not respond favorably.

Military Action

In early 1775, King George, with the support of Parliament, decided to use military force to maintain British authority in America. General Gage moved against the insubordinate citizens in Massachusetts. He sent troops to seize the colonists’ store of powder and weapons at Concord. At Lexington (April 19, 1775), 70 militiamen confronted an advance party of the 700 British troops. In that skirmish, 8 Americans died. The British then marched quickly to Concord, where they destroyed the American supplies. At the north bridge in Concord, about 350 Americans attacked a British unit; they killed 3 and wounded 8. As the British returned to Boston, thousands of colonists fired on them from both sides of their eighteen-mile route. More than 15,000 indignant New Englanders surrounded Boston. The American Revolution had begun.

On June 12, 1775, the British major generals Henry Clinton, William Howe, and John Burgoyne arrived in Boston on the frigate Cerberus. They brought orders for Gage to move vigorously against the army of Americans surrounding the city. In response, Gage decided to occupy Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, the high points on the peninsula south of Boston. The Americans learned of the British plan and set out to occupy Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), but instead occupied Breed’s Hill. Patriots numbering 2,200 withstood two frontal attacks on Breed’s Hill but a third assault drove the patriots to Bunker Hill and then on to the mainland. The British force of 2,500 lost 271 soldiers and 783 were wounded; the hills they captured were of little military value.

George Washington taking command of the American army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, after the Battle of Bunker Hill. From a painting by M. A. Wageman. (National Archives)

After Bunker Hill, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander in chief. Washington went to Boston to organize the army. On March 17, 1776, Washington began an artillery bombardment of Boston. Howe, realizing that he could not dislodge the Americans and unwilling to see Boston leveled, took his army to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Canada

In 1775, Americans also took action to draw Canada into rebellion against the British. An American force of 83 under the command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga (May 10) and Crown Point (May 11), giving America control of Lake Champlain. In late June, Congress ordered the capture of Montreal. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery led a force to Montreal and after a three-month siege captured Fort St. John’s (November 2) and entered Montreal on November 10. He then moved on to join Arnold to prepare an attack of Quebec. Under the cover of a snowstorm, about 1,000 Americans attacked Quebec (December 30), but the 1,200 British defenders repulsed them. More than half of the American army was killed or captured; Montgomery was mortally wounded. This defeat ended the American attempts to capture Canada.

Members of the Second Continental Congress vote for independence in mid-1776. Painting by Robert Pine and Edward Savage. (National Archives)

The Americans faced an enemy that had a much greater population, a professional army, and a vastly superior navy. The British troops, however, were three thousand miles from England and had to operate in an area about one thousand by six hundred miles. After his defeat at Long Island in 1776, Washington determined that the colonies could not win by victory in a general action, a huge battle that would decide everything. He chose to fight a defensive war, avoiding a general action. He fought a war of attrition, protracting the struggle and wearing down the British will to win. Washington did strive to keep a regular, organized army in the field. He rejected a partisan war that would rely on the militias; he contended that without a trained army to support them the part-time soldiers would hesitate to fight. In 1776 and 1777, the British strategy was to isolate and defeat New England, then move on the middle and southern colonies. Between 1778 and 1781, the British attempted to conquer the south, then use it as a base from which to move northward. Both plans failed largely because of the difficulties of logistics and communication and because of friction among the British commanders.

In spring, 1776, British reinforcements arrived in America. General Clinton sailed from New York with 3,000 men to strike the Carolinas in the hope that the Loyalists there would join his forces. He and Admiral Peter Parker attempted to capture Charleston. For eleven hours, the British ships exchanged cannon fire with the fort at the mouth of the harbor on Sullivan’s Island (June 28, 1776). The British suffered heavy casualties and withdrew; shortly thereafter they sailed back to New York.

The next British offensive was an attack on New York City; General Howe led 32,000 troops in a three-pronged attack against Washington’s 19,000 poorly trained soldiers at the western end of Long Island (August 27–28, 1776). The Americans did not expect this flanking maneuver, and they suffered 2,000 dead or wounded and 1,000 captured. During the night, Washington moved his troops to Manhattan. Howe landed his troops in Manhattan on September 15 and quickly moved north and west as far as Harlem Heights (September 16) where, in several encounters, the patriots halted his advance. On October 18, the British landed troops north of Washington near New Rochelle. Washington had no choice but to retreat west. The American army took up a defensive position at White Plains (October 28), but a British assault drove them to higher ground behind White Plains. On November 5, Howe marched his army back to Manhattan to establish winter quarters.

Washington Crosses the Delaware

In December, Washington crossed the Delaware River to Pennsylvania and planned a surprise attack on the British, who had settled into winter quarters in towns in New York and New Jersey. He led 2,400 Continentals back across the river into New Jersey and routed a Hessian garrison in Trenton (December 26, 1776). Washington returned to New Jersey again on December 30 and defeated the British troops in Princeton (January 3, 1777). He then established his winter headquarters in Morristown.

In the summer of 1777, Howe moved by sea from New York with a force of 15,000 men with the goal of capturing Philadelphia. They landed at the head of the Chesapeake Bay on August 25 and began the march to Philadelphia. Washington, with a force of 8,000 Continental soldiers and 3,000 militia, blocked Howe’s army twenty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia at Brandywine (September 11). Howe assaulted the center and east flank of Washington’s lines, forcing the patriots to retreat. Howe entered Philadelphia on September 25. Washington, however, was unwilling to give up Philadelphia and moved against the British rearguard of 9,000 in Germantown (October 4, 1777). The Americans had the advantage of surprise in their early-morning attack. In the fog, however, one Continental column fired on another, and in the confusion, the British drove them back.

Although Howe met success in Pennsylvania, British troops under Burgoyne suffered major losses in New York. On July 5, Burgoyne recaptured Fort Ticonderoga; however, as his army then made its way down the Hudson Valley, he was menaced by American soldiers and, by August, faced a dilemma. He sent 1,400 Redcoats and Hessians to capture supplies. Four miles northwest of Bennington (August 16), 2,600 American militia routed the British, capturing 700 and killing or wounding 200 others. This left Burgoyne weakened as he continued down the valley toward Albany. An army of 7,000 Americans under the command of General Horatio Gates met Burgoyne head on at Freeman’s Farm near Saratoga (September 19, 1777); 2,400 British troops attempted to turn the American left flank. They forced the Americans back but did not break through their lines. Burgoyne attempted the maneuver again on October 7 and suffered 700 casualties. He retreated to Saratoga, where he surrendered his army of 5,000 to Gates on October 17. This victory encouraged France to enter the war as America’s ally.

George Washington meeting with a congressional committee at Valley Forge. From a painting by W. H. Powell. (National Archives)

During the winter of 1777–1778, Washington made winter camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where his army suffered from the severe weather and a lack of basic supplies. Nevertheless, a veteran of the Prussian army, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, strengthened the troops by rigorous drilling. At the end of the winter, Clinton took Howe’s place as British commander in chief. In June, Clinton ended the occupation of Philadelphia and marched his army across New Jersey toward New York. Washington left Valley Forge in pursuit. With almost 10,000 troops, he intercepted the equal-sized British forces in New Jersey at Monmouth (June 28, 1778). After a clash with the enemy, General Charles Lee ordered his 5,000 Continental troops to retreat. Infuriated, Washington rode to the front and took command. He stopped the retreat and maneuvered his complete forces onto the field. The clash between the two armies was indecisive; the discipline of Washington’s army proved the value of Steuben’s training. Clinton protected his army by moving it to New York. After 1778, no major military campaigns took place in the north, the contest there became one of attrition and endurance. At the end of the year, Clinton moved his offensive to the south.

On December 29, 1778, British troops captured Savannah, Georgia, and on January 29, they captured Augusta. In the fall of 1779, the French fleet sailed to Savannah and landed 3,500 French troops to supplement the 1,500 American soldiers of General Benjamin Lincoln in a Siege of Savannah (October 9). The Americans and French suffered more than 800 casualties in their unsuccessful assault of the city. The British victory allowed them to concentrate on a conquest of the Carolinas. In December, Clinton sailed from New York with 8,000 troops and besieged Charleston (April 1-May 12, 1780). Lincoln’s more than 5,000 troops were unable to escape and endured the attack for more than six weeks until they were forced to surrender. Clinton left Lord Charles Cornwallis in command and returned to New York.

Despite the great superiority of British naval power, Americans scored some significant naval victories under the leadership of John Paul Jones, seen here directing the capture of the British ship Serapis off the east coast of England on September 23, 1779. (National Archives)

When American troops under Gates moved against British posts in northern South Carolina, Cornwallis rushed to their aid. These forces, 3,000 Americans and 2,200 British, clashed near Camden (August 16, 1780). The militia on the American left flank fled, and Gates’s army was routed, losing 750 men by death or capture. Cornwallis advanced into North Carolina until he heard of the American victory at King’s Mountain (October 7, 1780), where a body of 900 North Carolina militia fought about 1,000 loyalists, killing 225 and capturing more than 700. Deprived of these supporters, Cornwallis bivouacked for three months south of Camden.

At the beginning of 1781, Cornwallis, his troops reinforced, again planned to move against North Carolina but was diverted. The new American southern commander, Nathanael Greene, aided by Generals Daniel Morgan and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee began a series of guerrilla tactics. Cornwallis sent part of his force after Morgan, who lured the British into a devastating defeat at Cowpens (January 17, 1781). Yet, Cornwallis pursued Greene’s army until it reached Dan River in Virginia; there, too far from his base of supplies, Cornwallis withdrew to Hillsborough, North Carolina. Greene gathered an army of more than 4,500 militia and Continentals and moved against Cornwallis; he clashed with the British force of about 2,400 near Guilford Courthouse (March 15). Cornwallis attacked, forcing the Americans to withdraw, but Cornwallis suffered heavy losses for the victory, and to preserve his army, he moved it toward Virginia. With Cornwallis gone, Greene stepped up his action in South Carolina and Georgia. As the Americans advanced, they captured outpost after outpost until the remnant of the British forces withdrew to Charleston. In September, Greene moved to capture Charleston but was cut off by British troops under Colonel Alexander Stuart, who forced the Americans to retreat but at the loss of two-fifths of his force. Greene’s strategy of maintaining his army while wearing down the enemy severely weakened the British in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Cornwallis reached Virginia where he assembled 7,000 men. He moved to Yorktown and at the end of July began to build fortifications. In the spring of 1781, a French fleet of twenty warships, with orders to cooperate with Washington, arrived in the United States. Washington first planned a sea and land attack on New York, but then he accepted the advice of the French commander, the comte de Rochambeau, to trap Cornwallis in Yorktown (September 28-October 19, 1781). They marched south swiftly with 2,500 American and 5,000 French troops. Meanwhile, on September 7, the French navy landed 3,000 troops and covered Cornwallis’s lines on the land side of Yorktown. Washington’s army arrived in late September and was soon bolstered by 9,000 Maryland and Virginia militia. On September 28, Washington laid siege to Yorktown. By October 17, the Franco-American army had forced Cornwallis into his inner fortifications. The British had no hope of escape, and on October 19, Cornwallis surrendered.

Aftermath

After Yorktown, the fighting in America virtually ended. The war formally concluded on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in which Britain recognized the United States of America as an independent nation.

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