Skip to main content

The Revolutionary War

THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR


The colonial wars were the background to the Revolutionary War. The cost of the colonial military campaigns led many in Britain to feel that the colonies should shoulder a larger share of the costs for their own administration and defense. Many of the colonials, in contrast, felt that they should be given greater freedom from a crown situated on the other side of the great ocean, too far removed from their daily lives. The colonial wars also provided the necessary military experience that many patriots, most notably Gen. George Washington, would draw on in the ensuing conflict.

It is easy in hindsight to view the conflict and its result as inevitable. Hindsight tends to find in chaos and chance events a pattern recognizable after the fact. At the time of the Revolution, events could have just as easily unfolded otherwise. The lines were rarely finely drawn as there were loyalists born in America and British liberals extremely critical of the British crown.

The War of Independence was fought on many fronts. It broke out in Boston and New England, moved to New York and New Jersey, and then encompassed parts of Virginia and the Carolinas. There were few decisive battles; the fortunes of both sides waxed and waned over the years in different places. The battle of Yorktown in 1781 was the last major military engagement. Negotiations between the two sides began in April 1782 and by February 1783 a formal treaty was signed. Britain lost its thirteen colonies and the United States came into being. The following maps note some of the more significant encounters of the War of Independence.

Boston and New England were at the center of the early conflict between the Colonials and the British. The argument had been brewing for some time over the imposition of taxes. After a two-year boycott of British goods tension was in the air. Things could have gone very differently. On 5 March 1770 the British Parliament


repealed the unpopular duties. But on the same day a brawl took place between citizens of Boston and British troops. The troops fired on the unruly mob and three people were instantly killed and two mortally wounded. The event fueled the republican cause. Three years later tea, an item still taxed by the British, was dumped into Boston harbor. The British were goaded into action, just what the radicals wanted.

The British had naval superiority and could blockade the unruly cities. The map of 1775 reproduced here (fig. 22) shows English men-of-war ships in Boston harbor. Inland, the situation differed. In 1775 Gen. Thomas Gage sent redcoats to take control of munitions at Concord and arrest radical leaders, but they had been forewarned by Paul Revere's famous ride and call that the "British are coming."

The map shows the engagements at Lexington when redcoats faced off against almost seven hundred Minutemen. The battle was not decisive, and fewer than ten people were killed; however, it signaled the start of armed resistance and open warfare in the colonies. It marked the formal beginning of the War of Independence. The map also shows the engagement at Concord where the British were forced to withdraw.

This is a complicated small map because it depicts not only the geography of the area, but also tries to show the recent military history in illustrative form as bands of soldiers are shown marching and fighting in the countryside around Boston. Battles are portrayed, military positions outlined, and army camps located. The map tells us about the local geography and recent military history of the area.

The war was not restricted to colonials and British. The French joined with the Americans against their British enemies. The French role in the war is clearly illustrated in this map of Rhode Island from 1778 (fig. 23). At the bottom of the map a substantial French fleet is shown just off the coast. Washington and the French leader Comte d'Estaing hatched a plan to attack the British at Newport in 1778. The city had a fine harbor and was under British control. The French were to attack the city from the west, the Colonials were to depart from Providence and take the ferry to Rhode Island from Tivertona and attack from the north. The attack was set for August 10th.

The French landed troops on Conannicut Island, just to the west of the city, while the Colonials moved south, their way made easy as the British had retired to Newport. The British defenses around the city are shown on the map. They were also reinforced by the arrival of British ships, also shown in the map in the "Maine Channel" and "Eastern Passage." For two days the British and French fleets eyed each cautiously, but strong winds blew them out of formation. The French fleet departed for Boston. The Colonials, under the command of Gen. John Sullivan, attacked the city on


August 14 but were resisted. Without French support the attack petered out.

Like many a battle plan the attack on Newport was characterized by many errors, mishaps, chance events, and breakdowns in communication. The French did not put ashore 4,000 troops when they could have and sailed away too soon. Sullivan was lucky to escape from Rhode Island. The day after he left a British force of 4,000 men arrived to trap him on the island. Unfavorable winds had slowed their journey enough so that Sullivan and his men could escape.

Boston was one of the storm centers of the American Revolution. Within the city and in the surrounding area there was a significant amount of anti-British sentiment. The city portrayed in this map was a crucible of patriotic resistance. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 had initiated the formal acts of defiance against British rule in the colonies.

The map (fig. 24) was drawn in 1775 by Lt. Page of the British Corps of Engineers. They were responsible for building fortifications. The map is oriented with north at the top and shows the street plan of the city. Boston was a city of the sea. It was a merchant city; the many wharfs along the shoreline tell of commercial connections with the Caribbean, Britain, and Europe. The city is packed into a constricted land mass with a tightly congested street pattern. The British mapmaker has selected significant hills in the city, important sites for military considerations and defensive fortifications. Overlying the street pattern the mapmaker has also identified the major public buildings as well as military installations. The key at the bottom of the map identifies military and civil sites in the left and right columns, respectively.

The map was drawn at a particularly tense time. In early 1775 minutemen were beginning to surround the city. The British commander dispatched approximately seven hundred redcoats to secure munitions at Concord and to arrest patriotic leaders. After the British forces were fired upon at Lexington and forced to withdraw at



Concord they retreated to Boston in April 1775. It was not only the sea that surrounded the city but also anti-British patriotic sentiment. In June 1775 patriots occupied the high ground on the Charlestown Peninsula, whose southernmost edge is shown at the top of this map. It was close enough to be within artillery range. The British regained the strategic location of Bunker Hill at a heavy cost. The city remained in British hands but it was effectively besieged. Although able to move ships in and out, the British were landlocked in the city. The fortifications described in the map were the British response to the rising tide of patriotic force in the region. The next year, 1776, Washington surrounded the city and British troops were evacuated by ship to Nova Scotia.

When the British retreated from Concord and Lexington in April 1775, they returned to occupy the city of Boston. In order to secure the city they sought to occupy commanding heights around the city including Bunker's Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula. A patriotic group, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, got wind of the plan and decided to occupy the first site. On the night of June 16, approximately one thousand patriots marched to Breed's Hill and worked tirelessly through the night to build defenses, trenches and bales of cotton and hay. The patriots also occupied and fortified Bunker Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill is the story of how the British retook the site.

The 1775 map of the battle shown here (fig. 25) is both a geography and history. The map focuses on the Charlestown Peninsula that was a strategic location in Boston harbor. The unfolding of the battle is shown with reference to the sequence of military events noted in the key to the left of the map. The map is oriented with the north in the bottom right-hand corner of the map.

On 17 June 1775, the British assault began with a bombardment of Charlestown and the high terrain with howitzers and mortars from Boston and from the two ships, Lively and Falcon, shown on the map. British troops under the command of Gen. Richard Howe landed to the east of Bunker Hill, marked "A" on the bottom of the map. The British attacked the patriots on the hill by moving forward in two ranks. The British came to within 150 feet of the barricades before the Americans opened fire. The devastating fire caused them to withdraw. Another attack was also repulsed before the British finally captured the Hill when the Americans ran out of ammunition and fled.

Although the British won the Battle of Bunker Hill, it was a hollow victory. What the map does not show is



the immense carnage. Half of the British force of 2,500 men were casualties; an eighth of all British officers killed in the Revolutionary War died at Bunker Hill. Despite the fact that the Americans also sustained casualties, almost 450 from a total of 1,500 soldiers, they had won a psychological victory. They had demonstrated that the British were not invincible. Bunker Hill became a rallying cry for subsequent resistance to British rule and marked an end to any easy reconciliation between Britain and the patriots. A revolutionary rupture became more thinkable after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The map from 1806 shown here (fig. 26) was published long after the event in a book to celebrate Washington's life. It is a self-conscious American map. Longitude, shown as numerical values along the top and bottom of the page, takes Philadelphia as its prime meridian. Between 1790 and 1800 Philadelphia was the capital of the new nation and, in an act of cartographic patriotism, the prime meridian on many maps published in the United States during this time was Philadelphia.

The map shows the region of upstate New York and New England as far as the St. Lawrence River. The main rivers and military fortifications are illustrated. The "Hampshire Grants" depicted on the map to the east of Ticonderoga is the future state of Vermont, which had been settled by New England farmers who had organized a de facto independent state with strong patriotic sentiments.

The map depicts an area that was a major site of military engagements. In 1777 the British, under Gen. John Burgoyne, drove south through Lake Champlain and captured Fort Ticonderoga. He slowly pushed south as far as Saratoga where he encountered an army of Patriots led by Gen. Horatio Gates. On 7 October 1777 Burgoyne led another attack on the patriot army only to


be repelled. His army was surrounded, and on October 17 he surrendered and some 5,700 British troops were made prisoners of war. News of the American victory and British defeat at Saratoga persuaded the French to side with the Americans against their traditional enemy, and they officially recognized the independence of the United States and signed a commercial and military treaty with the patriots.

The title of the map refers to the exploits of Gen. Benedict Arnold who in 1775 was commanded by Washington to lead an expedition to capture Quebec. He took 700 men through what the map described as "wilderness" to attack the city. The effort was not successful and Arnold was severely wounded. Arnold distinguished himself in subsequent campaigns including Saratoga. His patriotism eventually turned to loyalist sympathies, however, and when it was revealed that he had asked the British for 20,000 pounds to give up West Point, his name became a synonym for traitorous acts. He led a British attack on New London in 1781 and later lived in London. The map describes his military campaigns while still a commander of patriotic forces.

At the Treaty of Paris in 1783 between Britain and the United States, new boundaries were established. The United States could now occupy all the land east of the Mississippi to the eastern seaboard. West of the great river lay the Spanish possession of Louisiana. In the south the boundary line with Spanish Florida ran just north of St. Augustine and south of Savannah. In the north the boundary line with British Canada started in the northwest "Lake of the Woods" and moved through the Great Lakes up to the St. Lawrence River. In its extreme northeast boundary, the British map from 1785 reproduced here (fig. 27) shows the disputed northern Maine territory as British. The Americans successfully disputed this boundary and to this day the northern part of Maine has an extended dome of territory that breaks through the straight line of Canada in the Americans' favor.

The new Republic had enlarged its boundaries from the western limit of the thirteen colonies, which is shown as a dotted line running north and south with the legend "Ancient boundary." This line was originally drawn by the British to mark the westward expansion of settlers. Worried about the conflict between Native Americans, who were important allies in the war against France and the colonials, the British sought to halt settler incursions into Native American territory. The line was often breached, however, and one important factor in the War of Independence was the patriots' wish for land development and land speculation westward beyond the British line of proclamation. On the map, west of the line, the names of Native American tribes are clearly visible. The region is identified with the label "Indian Territory" with many tribal names noted, including the Illinois and Miamis in the north and the Chickasaw and Creeks in the south.

The map shows a new nation bounded by limits. Hemmed in by the British in the north and the Spanish in the south and west, even the sea boundary is marked with a line that reads "the limited boundary of the sea coast of the United States." The map speaks to boundaries and limits and the existence of Native American lands. The people of the Republic had other plans that involved the removal of Native Americans and the extension of its own boundaries. Although the British map clearly shows limits, history tells us that these were only temporary.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The Revolutionary War." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"The Revolutionary War." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/revolutionary-war

"The Revolutionary War." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved November 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/revolutionary-war

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.