Revolution: Military History

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Revolution: Military History

The American War for Independence (1775–1783) began more than a year before the self-designated leaders of colonial political resistance to Britain could bring themselves to take the much more radical—and more revolutionary—step of declaring independence to be their goal. This fact had important implications for the progress and outcome of the Revolution. After resistance was abandoned as the only admissible objective of intercolonial organization, the tension between war-making imperatives and political operations assumed a life of its own and shaped the rest of the Revolution.

new england

Each colonial region had its own military experience and culture, significant variations of a common British heritage. This complexity preoccupied Patriot leaders long before it landed in George Washington's lap when he accepted command of the projected Continental Army in June 1775. The war, if not the Revolution itself, began in New England, where communal solidarity, ethnocentrism, and a Puritan-derived variation of republican ideology colored its origin and influenced its character. Century-old traditions of town-based militia training, galvanic popular responses to external military threats, and what Fred Anderson has called a "contractual" approach to defense obligations shaped the region's behavior when British commander Thomas Gage sent redcoats from Boston into the nearby countryside on 19 April 1775. Regular British troops and minutemen unexpectedly and indecisively clashed several times that day at the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. Then the British withdrawal into Boston became a small calamity as waves of militia responders from southern New England harassed their movements, obstructed their retreat, and spontaneously besieged the town.

The Second Continental Congress, convening in Philadelphia in early May, hardly welcomed news of colonists and redcoats fighting near Boston. After taking steps to affirm their commitment to a political solution of the imperial crisis, the delegates faced up to the implications of Lexington and Concord and voted to adopt New England's "army of observation" and mold it into a continental army that could be kept under political control. George Washington, a forty-three-year-old Virginian with a mixed service record in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), seemed the likeliest delegate to accomplish that objective. He left Philadelphia in mid-June and arrived near the lines around Boston on 2 July.

New plans by British ministers in London changed the situation in America. Three British generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and Charles Cornwallis—arrived in Boston to take charge of the army from the discredited Gage. On 18 June an effort to drive American forces from Breed's and Bunker Hills on the north shore of Boston Harbor ended inconclusively, with the redcoats controlling the battlefield but suffering heavy casualties. Yankee troops

surrendered the ground but gained a new regard for their own abilities. Washington, arriving at Cambridge, Massachusetts, two weeks later, made a fumbling start at the task of remodeling the army. He conceived, and imprudently disclosed, a distaste for New England's insular communal culture and the kinds of fractious, self-directed soldiers that it produced. He also was uncomfortable with the large number of blacks serving in the militia.

new york and canada

During 1775 other military actions—spontaneous and planned—spread from New England to the north and west. On 10 May, as the Second Congress convened, an awkward amalgam of irregular New England troops led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold (separately commissioned by regional authorities acting privately) seized the isolated British garrison at Ticonderoga in New York. They captured some old artillery, inflamed latent tensions between New England and New York, and embarrassed a Congress which still insisted that peace was its goal. In late June, Congress authorized an effort to seize Canada and bring it into the Revolutionary coalition. Adopting a pattern from late colonial-era wars, American forces advanced through the Hudson RiverLake Champlain corridor to Montreal and across the wilderness of northern Massachusetts (modern Maine) against Quebec. General Richard Montgomery, a veteran British officer in the Seven Years' War, commanded the force from New York. Arnold led the expedition across Maine. Montgomery seized Montreal in November. In a blizzard on 31 December, the combined forces attacked Quebec but were repelled with heavy casualties. Montgomery was killed, becoming America's first tragic hero of the Revolution.

Near Boston, Washington trained the New England troops while Congress struggled to make the army truly continental. In March 1776 the arrival of cannon from Ticonderoga broke the stalemate. Washington placed the guns on hills overlooking Boston harbor. General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, in command of British naval forces, decided to abandon Boston rather than expose their forces to bombardment. They evacuated the city on 17 March and went to Nova Scotia to await reinforcements while the ministry in London forged better plans to crush the rebellion.

middle colonies

Both commanders eagerly moved the seat of war from New England to the mid-Atlantic region. That area was the economic engine of late colonial America, but its political complexity and social pluralism made it most resistant to independence and for both sides a difficult place in which to fight.

Washington placed his army in Brooklyn on western Long Island. The British, arriving by sea in July and August 1776, landed thirty-two thousand men on Staten Island. On 22 August, the redcoats crossed New York harbor to Long Island. Howe outmaneuvered Washington and on the evening of 26 August flanked his forces and badly defeated the Americans. Washington withdrew the survivors to Manhattan, then conducted a month-long retreat north into Westchester County. After the British won a less decisive clash at White Plains on 28 October, the Continentals crossed the Hudson River and retreated into New Jersey. On 16 November, Howe captured almost three thousand rebel troops at Fort Washington in northern Manhattan, then slowly pushed the Continentals southward across New Jersey toward the Delaware River. The Howe brothers had commissions as peace negotiators, and—hoping to avoid casualties or political bitterness—offered pardons to civilians who would swear allegiance to the crown. Thousands of Jerseyans emerged to declare their loyalty.

In December 1776, Washington sat with a few thousand men in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, fearing that, as he wrote to his brother in Virginia, the "game" was "pretty near up." The Continental Congress adjourned that month to Baltimore while fleeing civilians virtually emptied Philadelphia. Then, with most Continental enlistments due to expire at year's end, Washington crossed the icy Delaware on Christmas night and surprised a garrison of Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. He followed this victory by defeating British reinforcements rushing toward Trenton at the Battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777 and then marched his evaporating army into the hills of Morris County. The reversals in New Jersey demoralized British officers and especially American Loyalists. Many New Jerseyans quietly reversed themselves and signed oaths of allegiance to the Continental side. Congress returned to Philadelphia in March and accepted Washington's plan for a permanent army, staffed by better officers and made up of economically poorer soldiers on long-term enlistments. Washington desperately tried to organize this new army while Howe again sought more reinforcements from his superiors in London.

The British strategic plan for 1777 called for an army to invade New York from Canada along the Hudson-Champlain corridor and sever radical New England from the more loyal Middle Colonies. That force was led by Howe's subordinate, General John Burgoyne. Howe acknowledged the need to support Burgoyne, if necessary, but he heeded the advice of Pennsylvania Loyalist Joseph Galloway that his province could be reclaimed if the redcoats would only go there. Howe believed that he could capture Philadelphia, install a Loyalist government, and still have time to return to New York if Burgoyne needed assistance. These plans all failed disastrously.

The 1777 campaign began awkwardly. Burgoyne packed heavily and moved slowly down Lake Champlain toward Albany. Howe tried unsuccessfully to lure Washington into a decisive action on the plains of eastern New Jersey and then in July took fourteen thousand troops to sea in his brother's fleet, leaving seven thousand redcoats in New York under Henry Clinton. In August, Washington marched his troops back and forth across New Jersey, seeking to protect both the Hudson Valley and Congress in Philadelphia.

Delegates from New England and the southern states feared that their regions were the real target. In late August, Howe appeared in Chesapeake Bay and landed his army at Head of Elk, Maryland. As he moved toward Philadelphia, Washington raced into Pennsylvania and placed his army in Chester County. On 11 September 1777, the two armies clashed along the Brandywine Creek. Howe again outflanked the Continentals and battered them badly. Washington extracted the army from destruction and retired toward Philadelphia. Two weeks later Howe outmaneuvered him and marched into the city. The Continental Congress fled again, this time to York, Pennsylvania, beyond the Susquehanna River.

On 4 October, Washington attempted a reprise of Trenton. He launched a complex overnight assault

on the main body of British troops, which was camped at Germantown, northwest of Philadelphia. The operation began well but unraveled in fog, smoke, and the confusion of inexperienced American troops. Howe secured his winter quarters. In December the Americans limped to the nearby village of Valley Forge, committed to protecting the security of Pennsylvania's radical government and Whig citizens. Meanwhile, in New York State, American general Horatio Gates and a technically independent Northern Army twice defeated Burgoyne's force at Saratoga in October with the help of Benedict Arnold. A negotiated convention required that the British troops be sent to Britain, but Congress reneged on the agreement, and they were eventually interned in Virginia for the duration of the war. The American triumph at Saratoga gave Benjamin Franklin, negotiating in Paris, the credibility to persuade France to recognize American independence and intervene in the war. In Pennsylvania, Washington labored under the widespread perception that his own campaign had failed and under criticism from rival officers and politicians.

The Continental Army spent the winter of 1777–1778 in hardship at Valley Forge, keeping eastern Pennsylvania pacified and depriving the British of the easy fruits of their victory the previous fall. France's entry into the war on the rebel side in March 1778 changed the dynamics of the rebellion. Britain went on the defensive in the mainland colonies, determined to protect the invaluable Caribbean sugar islands. Howe resigned, and his successor, Henry Clinton, abandoned Philadelphia in June 1778. Washington's retrained troops chased him into New Jersey, where the two armies fought to an intense draw at Monmouth Courthouse on 28 June. The British retreated to their garrison in New York City while the Continentals took up positions around northern New Jersey and southeastern New York. For the next five years the two sides faced each other across a noman's-land in the Lower Hudson Valley, but the war's most intense fighting was over in the North.

french alliance and southern warfare

The arrival of French land and naval forces in America and the contest over the West Indies drew the mainland war southward and toward the sea. Even after disappointments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, British strategists hoped that the South might offer a bastion of loyalism that armies could mobilize for the restoration of civilian government. In the fall of 1778, Clinton detached thirty-five hundred troops to invade Georgia and end the rebellion there. They succeeded at first, capturing Savannah in December, then turned their sights to South Carolina. In May 1780, Clinton led a siege that captured Charleston, where more than five thousand American defenders surrendered. In August a British force crushed an American relief army under Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina, and British opinion sensed victory. In 1780 the North experienced currency inflation; bitter winter cold; war weariness; mutinies in the Continental camps at Morristown, New Jersey, in May; and in September the treason of Benedict Arnold in his failed attempt to allow the British to take West Point.

But the British forces detached from New York were already spread thin and had little hope of significant reinforcements from home. Clinton pardoned southern rebels in exchange for oaths of allegiance, which enraged Loyalists and reignited guerrilla warfare as the regular redcoats moved away. Local rebel forces crushed a small army of their Loyalist neighbors at King's Mountain in western North Carolina in October 1780. Washington detached a force of Continentals into the South under Nathanael Greene, one of his most trusted subordinates. Greene confronted the aggressive British commander, Charles Cornwallis, and outmaneuvered and outwitted him. The frontier Virginia rifleman, General Daniel Morgan, defeated Loyalists under Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina, in January 1781, and Greene and Cornwallis fought to a savage draw at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina during March. Francis Marion, a South Carolina militia officer, contributed to these successes in the South by disrupting British supply lines, supplying intelligence, and suppressing Loyalist activities.


After this point, organized British strategy broke down against a rising tide of irregular conflict, reflecting the Appalachian South's complex late colonial settlement history and ethnic composition. Benedict Arnold, finally given a command by the British, entered Virginia to support the teetering Cornwallis, who took command of Arnold's men and moved east to the Chesapeake coast, on the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Washington, still occupying the Hudson Valley and hoping for a decisive clash with the British in New York, learned that a French fleet in the West Indies would operate along the mainland coast. Seizing the initiative in August 1781, he joined with a French army in Rhode Island, under the Comte de Rochambeau, and made a forced march to the head of Chesapeake Bay. General Clinton, in New York, belatedly realized Cornwallis's jeopardy and sent a fleet to his rescue. The French fleet got there first, however, and sealed the mouth of the bay. Washington's and Rochambeau's forces were ferried down the Chesapeake to the York Peninsula, where they besieged Cornwallis's force at Yorktown. On 19 October 1781 Cornwallis surrendered, ending the last realistic hope of successfully ending the rebellion by military means.

Thus, the British Empire in mainland North America ended a few miles across the peninsula from the site of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown 174 years before. The Revolution had become a global war with France by then, however, and while that contest dragged on, the rebels remained in limbo. Occasional British successes at sea against French fleets revived hope that the colonies might be restored. Washington returned to New York and New Jersey and, with a diminishing army in chronic financial crisis, resumed watching the British headquarters in New York.

backcountry and indian warfare

Intramural conflict among civilians in the backcountry South, having been ignited by the presence of regular armies there, flared long after they departed. Some of the war's least noticed, but enduringly important, combat arenas were in the interior of both the North and the South. In 1779 Washington decided to put an end to native resistance on the northern frontier by sending General John Sullivan of New Hampshire northwest from Pennsylvania into the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Supported by other columns launched from the Mohawk and Allegheny valleys, Sullivan's forces conducted a burn-and-destroy mission aimed at native agricultural subsistence systems. Forty towns were burned and an exhaustive quantity of foodstuffs captured or destroyed. While no one could claim victory in the episode, and while raiding continued along the northern frontier, the attacks significantly weakened the ability of the Iroquois to play a meaningful part in the postwar American Republic. From Kentucky in 1778, George Rogers Clark led frontier forces west into the French-settled, but British-controlled, Illinois country, where he captured old colonial towns and harassed pro-British Indians. These and other interior campaigns and conflicts did not tip the military balance of power in the war, but they showed the direction for the American military after the war.

future issues

In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was signed and the last redcoat soldiers left America. The newly independent nation faced its first military problems in learning how to dismantle a small, poor, core Continental Army whose privates had not been paid for years and whose officers were disgruntled. That problem was solved by a combination of creative paperwork and citizen-soldier virtue, but the American government proved as reluctant as it was fiscally unable even to have a real national army. Deciding how to balance conflicting needs for security, liberty, and thrift occupied the imaginations of the best political actors and thinkers who emerged from the experience of the Revolutionary generation. Many of the same problems, in different combinations and guises, continue to haunt Americans today.

See alsoBunker Hill, Battle of; Canada; Continental Army; Continental Congresses; Lexington and Concord, Battle of; Saratoga, Battle of; Treaty of Paris; Trenton, Battle of; Valley Forge; Yorktown, Battle of .


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Wayne Bodle

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Revolution: Military History