The close of the Seven Years' War in 1763 saw Great Britain triumphant in driving the Kingdom of France from North America, but heavily in debt. Britain's national debt at the end of the war had doubled to £130,000,000 and the annual cost of the British civil and military establishment in America in 1764 was £350,000, five times the cost of 15 years earlier. In part due to the policy of Salutary Neglect, whereby smuggling in the colonies had for over a century been tacitly accepted, the British government's expenditure in the colonies was four times higher than the total taken in revenues. London therefore decided upon a more vigorous approach by clamping down on avoidance of customs duties. It also passed a number of new taxes.
Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, which imposed direct taxes on the colonies for the first time. This was met with strong condemnation among American spokesmen, who argued that their "Rights as Englishmen" meant that there could be "no taxation without representation"—that is direct taxes could not be imposed on them by Parliament because they lacked representation in Parliament. Civil resistance prevented the Act from being enforced, and organized boycotts of British goods were instituted. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act as inexpedient, but also passed the Declaratory Act, which stated, "the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain." In 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Act in order to demonstrate its supremacy. It imposed duties on various British goods exported to the colonies. The Americans quickly denounced this as illegal as well, since the intent of the act was to raise revenue and not regulate trade.
In 1768 violence broke out in Boston over attempts to suppress smuggling and 4000 British troops were sent to occupy the city. Parliament threatened to try Massachusetts residents for treason in England. Far from being intimidated, the colonists formed new associations to boycott British goods. In March 1770 five colonists in Boston were killed by panicky soldiers in the Boston Massacre, sparking outrage. That same year Parliament agreed to repeal all taxes except the one on tea. The landing of this tea was resisted in all the colonies and, when the royal governor of Massachusetts refused to send back the tea ships in Boston, Patriots destroyed the tea chests.
Nobody was punished for the "Boston Tea Party" and in 1774 Parliament ordered Boston Harbor closed until the destroyed tea was paid for. It then passed the Massachusetts Government Act to punish the rebellious colony. The upper house of the Massachusetts legislature would be appointed by the Crown, as was already the case in other colonies such as New York and Virginia. The royal governor was able to appoint and remove at will all judges, sheriffs, and other executive officials, and restrict town meetings. Jurors would be selected by the sheriffs and British soldiers would be tried outside the colony for alleged offenses. These were collectively dubbed the "Intolerable Acts" by the Patriots.
Although these actions were not unprecedented (the Massachusetts charter had already been replaced once before in 1692), the people of the colony were outraged. Town meetings resulted in the Suffolk Resolves, a declaration not to cooperate with the royal authorities. In October 1774 an illegal "provincial congress" was established which took over the governance of Massachusetts outside of British-occupied Boston and began training militia for hostilities.
Meanwhile, in September 1774 representatives of the other colonies convened the First Continental Congress in order to respond to the crisis. The Congress rejected a "Plan of Union" to establish an American parliament that could approve or disapprove of the acts of the British parliament. Instead, they endorsed the Suffolk Resolves and demanded the repeal of all Parliamentary acts passed since 1763, not merely the tax on tea and the "Intolerable Acts". They stated that Parliament had no authority over internal matters in America, but that they would "cheerfully consent" to trade regulations, including customs duties for the benefit of the empire. They also required Britain to acknowledge that unilaterally stationing troops in the colonies in a time of peace was "against the law". Although the Congress lacked any legal authority, it ordered the creation of Patriot committees who would enforce a boycott of British goods starting on December 1, 1774.
This time, however, the British would not yield. While Edmund Burke introduced a motion to repeal all the Acts of Parliament the Americans objected to and waive any rights of Britain to tax for revenue, it was defeated 210–105. Parliament voted to restrict all colonial trade to Britain, prevent colonists from using the Newfoundland fisheries, and to increase the size of the army and navy by 6,000. In February 1775 Prime Minister Lord North proposed not to impose taxes if the colonies themselves made "fixed contributions". This would safeguard the taxing rights of the colonies from future infringement while enabling them to contribute to maintenance of the empire. This proposal was nevertheless rejected by the Congress in July as an "insidious maneuver", by which time hostilities had broken out.
During this time the British did not present a united front toward the American Patriots. The Parliament of Great Britain at this time was informally divided between conservative (Tory) and liberal (Whig) factions. The Whigs generally favored lenient treatment of the colonists short of independence while the Tories staunchly upheld the rights of Parliament. The Whigs felt that the Tory policies were pushing Americans to rebel, while the Tories thought Whig leniency (such as repealing the Stamp Act) was doing the same. Many Whigs freely associated themselves with the American Patriot cause, which Tories thought were encouraging the Americans in their resistance. The result was that, although Lord North's Tory government usually had a Parliamentary majority, a large Whig minority opposed it and constantly criticized its policies. Meanwhile, Whig commanders in America such as Sir William Howe and his brother Admiral Howe came under the suspicion of Tories and Loyalists for not vigorously prosecuting the war effort.
In February 1775 Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British North American commander-in chief, commanded four regiments of British regulars (about 4,000 men) from his headquarters in Boston, but the countryside was in the hands of the Revolutionaries. On April 14, he received orders to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders.
On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord, Massachusetts. Riders including Paul Revere alerted the countryside, and when British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found 77 Minutemen formed up on the village green. Shots were exchanged, killing several Minutemen. The British moved on to Concord, where a detachment of three companies was engaged and routed at the North Bridge by a force of 500 minutemen. As the British retreated to Boston, thousands of militiamen attacked them along the roads, inflicting many casualties before timely British reinforcements prevented a total disaster. With the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the war had begun.
The militia converged on Boston, bottling up the British in the city. About 4,500 more British soldiers arrived by sea, and on June 17, 1775, British forces under General William Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British mounted a costly frontal attack. The Americans fell back, but British losses totaled over 1,000 men. The siege was not broken, and Gage was soon replaced by Howe as the British commander-in-chief. General Gage wrote to the Secretary at War in London:
These people show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French….They are now spirited up by a rage and enthusiasm as great as ever people were possessed of and you must proceed in earnest or give the business up. A small body acting in one spot will not avail, you must have large armies making diversions on different sides, to divide their force. The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear. Small armies cannot afford such losses, especially when the advantage gained tends to do little more than the gaining of a post.
In July 1775, a newly appointed General Washington arrived outside Boston to take charge of the colonial forces and to organize the Continental Army. Realizing his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. Arsenals were raided and some manufacturing was attempted; 90% of the supply (2 million pounds) was imported by the end of 1776, mostly from France. Patriots in New Hampshire had seized powder, muskets and cannons from Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor in late 1774. Some of these munitions were used in the Boston campaign.
The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter. During this time Washington was astounded by the failure of Howe to attack his shrinking, poorly armed force. In early March 1776, heavy cannons that the Patriots had captured at Fort Ticonderoga were brought to Boston by Colonel Henry Knox, and placed on Dorchester Heights. Since the artillery now overlooked the British positions, Howe's situation was untenable, and the British fled on March 17, 1776, sailing to their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia, an event now celebrated in Massachusetts as Evacuation Day. Washington then moved most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City.
Three weeks after the siege of Boston began, the Green Mountain Boys, a group of militia volunteers led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga, a strategically important point on Lake Champlain between New York and the Province of Quebec. After that action they also raided Fort St. John's, not far from Montreal, which alarmed the population and the authorities there. In response, Quebec's governor Guy Carleton began fortifying St. John's, and opened negotiations with the Iroquois and other Native American tribes for their support. These actions, combined with lobbying by both Allen and Arnold and the fear of a British attack from the north, persuaded the Congress, on June 27, 1775, to authorize an invasion of Quebec, with the goal of driving the British military from that province. (Quebec was then frequently referred to as Canada, as most of its territory included the former French Province of Canada.)
Two Quebec-bound expeditions were undertaken. On September 28, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen, besieging and capturing Fort St. Jean on November 2 and then Montreal on November 13. General Carleton escaped to Quebec City and began preparing that city for an attack. The second expedition, led by Colonel Arnold, went through the wilderness of what is now northern Maine. Logistics were difficult, with 300 men turning back, and another 200 perishing due to the harsh conditions. By the time Arnold reached Quebec City in early November, he had but 600 of his original 1,100 men. Montgomery's force joined Arnold's, and they attacked Quebec City on December 31, but were defeated by Carleton in a battle that ended with Montgomery dead, Arnold wounded, and over 400 Americans taken prisoner. The remaining Americans held on outside Quebec City until the spring of 1776, suffering from poor camp conditions and smallpox, and then withdrew when a squadron of British ships under Captain Charles Douglas arrived to relieve the siege.
Another attempt was made by the Americans to push back towards Quebec, but they failed at Trois-Rivières on June 8, 1776. Carleton then launched his own invasion and defeated Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion had begun. While the invasion ended as a disaster for the Americans, Arnold's efforts in 1776 delayed any full-scale British counteroffensive until the Saratoga campaign of 1777.
The invasion cost the Americans their base of support in British public opinion, "So that the violent measures towards America are freely adopted and countenanced by a majority of individuals of all ranks, professions, or occupations, in this country." It gained them at best limited support in the population of Quebec, which, while somewhat supportive early in the invasion, became less so later during the occupation, when American policies against suspected Loyalists became harsher, and the army's hard currency ran out. Two small regiments of Canadiens were recruited during the operation, and they were with the army on its retreat back to Ticonderoga. Even after their retreat, the Patriots continued to view Quebec as a part of their cause and made specific provisions for it to join the U.S. under the 1777 Articles of Confederation.
At the onset of war, the British had a significant force only in Boston, though this force would evacuate by the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Patriots in all 13 colonies were quick to establish new revolutionary governments based around various committees and conventions that they had created in 1774 and early 1775. Royal governors and officials found themselves powerless to stop the rebellion and in many places were forced to flee. In many places the Patriots were energetic and were backed by angry mobs while the Loyalists were too intimidated or poorly organized to be effective without the British army. The term "lynching" originated when Virginia Patriots held informal courts and arrested Loyalists (the term did not suggest execution).
Loyalist writings throughout the conflict persistently claimed that they were the majority, and influenced London officials to believe that it would be possible to raise many Loyalist regiments. As late as 1780 the Loyalists were deceiving themselves and top London officials about their supposedly strong base of support.
Patriots overwhelmed Loyalists in the Snow Campaign in South Carolina in late 1775. Virginia's governor Lord Dunmore attempted to rally a loyalist force but was decisively beaten in December 1775 at the Battle of Great Bridge. In February 1776 British General Clinton took 2,000 men and a naval squadron to assist Loyalists mustering in North Carolina, only to call it off when he learned they had been crushed at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge. In June he tried to seize Charleston, South Carolina, the leading port in the South, but the attack failed as the naval force was repulsed by the Patriot forts.
Apart from the thirteen, no other British North American colony joined the rebellion.
King George III issued a Proclamation of Rebellion in August 1775, and addressed Parliament on October 26, 1775. He denounced "the authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy" who had "labored to inflame my people in America ... and to infuse into their minds a system of opinions repugnant to the true constitution of the Colonies, and to their subordinate relation to Great Britain ..." He detailed measures taken to suppress the revolt, including "friendly offers of foreign assistance". The King's speech was endorsed by both Houses of Parliament; a motion in the House of Commons to oppose coercive measures was defeated 278–108. The British received an Olive Branch Petition written by the Second Continental Congress dated July 8, 1775, imploring the King to reverse the policies of his ministers. However, by this time the invasion of Canada was already well under way, and Parliament debated on whether to accept the petition, but after a lengthy debate rejected it by 53 votes, viewing it as insincere. Parliament then voted to impose a blockade against the Thirteen Colonies. Operations were overseen by Lord George Germain, who was Secretary of State for the American Department from November 1775 to 1782. He set strategy, was in charge of logistics, and selected and supervised the generals. He reported to Prime Minister North. Lord Sandwich controlled the Royal Navy.
The popularity of war in Britain reached a peak in 1777. The king himself took greater control as he micromanaged the war effort, despite the opposition of top officials including the prime minister North and the civilian heads of the army and the navy. The king vehemently rejected independence and demanded the use of Indians to distress the Americans.
Separately, the Irish Parliament pledged its loyalty and agreed to the withdrawal of troops from Ireland to suppress the rebellion in America. Most Irish Protestants were against the war and favored the Americans, but the Catholic establishment supported the king. The American Revolution was the first war in which Irish Catholics were allowed to enlist in the army.
Militarily, the weak British response to the rebellion in 1775 and early 1776 around Boston was a losing cause; the British lost control of every colony. The peacetime British army had been deliberately kept small since the Glorious Revolution to prevent an abuse of power by the King. To muster a force, the British had to launch recruiting campaigns in Britain and Ireland and hire mercenaries from the small German states such as Hesse. Russia refused to rent out soldiers. The king wanted to save money, and the administration of the army was inefficient. After a year the British were able to ship Sir William Howe an army of 32,000 officers and men to open a campaign in summer 1776. It was the largest force the British had ever sent outside of Europe at that time.
Having withdrawn his army from Boston to Halifax, General Howe now focused on capturing New York City, which then was limited to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Howe's force captured Staten Island across the harbor from Manhattan after arriving on June 30, 1776. To defend the city, General Washington spread his forces along the shores of New York's harbor, concentrated on Long Island and Manhattan. While British and Hessian troops were assembling, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence read to his men and the citizens of the city.
Washington's position was extremely precarious because he had divided his smaller force between two islands (Manhattan and Long Island), with the Royal Navy in control of the waters around them . Military critics note that Howe could have trapped and destroyed Washington's entire army if he had landed on Manhattan, but instead Howe decided to mount a frontal assault against Long Island. The British landed 22,000 men on Long Island in late August and badly defeated the Continental army in the war's largest battle, taking over 1,000 prisoners and driving them back to Brooklyn Heights. Instead of continuing his pursuit, Howe decided to lay siege to the heights, claiming he wanted to spare his men's lives from an assault on the Patriot fortifications. He actively restrained his subordinates from landing what could have been the finishing blow against Washington's forces. Washington initially reinforced his exposed position, but then personally directed the withdrawal of his entire remaining army and all their supplies across the East River on the night of August 29–30 without loss of men or materiel. The unfavorable direction of the wind had prevented British warships from blocking Washington's escape.
A peace conference took place on September 11 to explore the possibility of a negotiated solution. The British advanced Lord North's "fixed contribution" formula of the preceding year and indicated that other laws could be revised or repealed so long as the authority of Britain was acknowledged. The American negotiators insisted they would not give up the Declaration of Independence.
Howe then resumed the attack. On September 15, Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City. The Americans withdrew north up the island to Harlem Heights, where they battled the next day repulsing a British advance. On September 21 a devastating fire broke out in the city which the Patriots were widely blamed for, although no proof ever existed. On October 12 the British made an attempt to encircle the Americans, which failed because of Howe's decision to land on an island that was easily cut off from the mainland. The Americans evacuated Manhattan, and on October 28 fought the Battle of White Plains against the pursuing British. During the battle Howe declined to attack Washington's highly vulnerable main force, instead attacking a hill that was of no strategic significance.
Washington retreated, and Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November, taking about 3,000 prisoners. Thus began the infamous "prison ships" system the British maintained in New York for the rest of the war, in which more American soldiers and sailors died of neglect and disease than died in every battle of the entire war, combined.
Howe then detached Sir Henry Clinton with 6,000 men to seize Newport, Rhode Island for the British fleet, which was accomplished without encountering any major resistance. Clinton objected to this move, believing the force would have been better employed up the Delaware River, where they might have inflicted irreparable damage on the retreating Americans.
General Lord Cornwallis continued to chase Washington's army through New Jersey, but Howe ordered him to halt and Washington escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7. Howe refused to order a pursuit across the river, even though the outlook of the Continental Army was bleak. "These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine, who was with the army on the retreat. The army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty, and would be reduced to 1,400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Congress moved inland and abandoned Philadelphia in despair, although popular resistance to British occupation was growing in the countryside.
Howe proceeded to divide his forces in New Jersey into small detachments that were vulnerable to defeat in detail, with the weakest forces stationed the closest to Washington's army. Washington decided to take the offensive, stealthily crossing the Delaware on the night of December 25–26, and capturing nearly 1,000 surprised and unfortified Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. Cornwallis marched to retake Trenton but was first repulsed and then outmaneuvered by Washington, who successfully attacked the British rearguard at Princeton on January 3, 1777, taking around 200 prisoners. Howe then conceded most of New Jersey to Washington, in spite of Howe's massive numerical superiority over him. Washington entered winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, having given a morale boost to the American cause. Throughout the winter New Jersey militia continued to harass British and Hessian forces near their three remaining posts along the Raritan River. In April 1777 Washington was amazed that Howe made no effort to attack his weak army.
The Declaration of Independence was followed by the Test Laws, which required all colonists to swear allegiance to the state in which they lived. The Test oath was intended to identify those who were indifferent to or were secret enemies of the Revolution. They prescribed loyalty to the patriot cause, disloyalty to the British government and a promise not to aid and abet the enemy. A record was kept of those who took the oath and they were issued a certificate for safety from arrest. Failure to take the oath meant possible imprisonment, denial of civil liberties, banishment and in some instances, death. Loyalists were expelled from all public offices and forced to pay double or triple taxes. A loyalist who was a professional such as a doctor or lawyer was often denied the right to practice. They were not allowed to act as an executor of a person's will or be a guardian to an orphaned child. They could not be the administrator or executor of a person's estate and if they were owed money they had no legal redress. The loyalist sentiment was particularly strong in New York, where the prominent DeLancey and Philips families overtly aided the British and suffered as a result.
The early Test Laws were followed by more repressive measures. By November 1777 the treasury of the Continental Congress was empty, and to provide funds for the war Congress instructed the states to pass Confiscation Acts which allowed for the appropriation of property belonging to loyalists. Tories were offered a choice of either swearing loyalty to the revolutionary cause or exile, the alternative being to forfeit 'the right to protection' by the revolutionary government. Quakers who refused to join either side also had their property taken away. Later states passed the Citation Acts which prevented Loyalists collecting their debts.
When the British began to plan operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America: an army in Quebec (later under the command of John Burgoyne), and Howe's army in New York. In London, Lord George Germain approved a campaign for these armies to converge on Albany, New York and divide the American colonies in two, but did not give any express orders to Howe, who was developing his own plans. In November 1776 Howe requested large reinforcements so he could launch attacks against Philadelphia, New England, and Albany. These reinforcements were not granted so Howe modified his plan to launch an attack against Philadelphia only. Germain gave his approval to this, believing that Philadelphia could be taken in time for Howe to coordinate with the northern army. Howe, on the other hand, opted to send his army to Philadelphia by sea via the Chesapeake Bay instead of taking shorter routes either overland through New Jersey or through the Delaware Bay. This left him completely incapable of assisting Burgoyne.
The first of the 1777 campaigns was an expedition from Quebec led by General John Burgoyne. The goal was to seize the Lake Champlain and Hudson River corridor, effectively isolating New England from the rest of the American colonies. Burgoyne's invasion had two components: he would lead about 8,000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York, while a second column of about 2,000 men, led by Barry St. Leger, would move down the Mohawk River Valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany.
Burgoyne set off in June, and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. Thereafter, his march was slowed by the Americans who knocked down trees in his path, and by his army's extensive baggage train. A detachment sent out to seize supplies was decisively defeated in the Battle of Bennington by American militia in August, depriving Burgoyne of nearly 1,000 men.
Meanwhile, St. Leger—more than half of his force Native Americans led by Sayenqueraghta—had laid siege to Fort Stanwix. American militiamen and their Native American allies marched to relieve the siege but were ambushed and scattered at the Battle of Oriskany. When a second relief expedition approached, this time led by Benedict Arnold, St. Leger's Indian support abandoned him, forcing him to break off the siege and return to Quebec.
Burgoyne's army had been reduced to about 6,000 men by the loss at Bennington and the need to garrison Ticonderoga, and he was running short on supplies. Despite these setbacks, he determined to push on towards Albany. An American army of 8,000 men, officially commanded by General Horatio Gates (but effectively being led by his subordinate Benedict Arnold), had entrenched about 10 miles (16 km) south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne tried to outflank the Americans but was checked at the first battle of Saratoga in September. Burgoyne's situation was desperate, but he now hoped that help from Howe's army in New York City might be on the way. It was not: Howe had instead sailed away on his expedition to capture Philadelphia. American militiamen flocked to Gates' army, swelling his force to 11,000 by the beginning of October. After being badly beaten at the second battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17.
British General Clinton in New York City attempted a diversion in favor of Burgoyne in early October, capturing two key forts but withdrawing after hearing of the surrender.
Saratoga was the turning point of the war. Revolutionary confidence and determination, suffering from Howe's successful occupation of Philadelphia, was renewed. What is more important, the victory encouraged France to make an open alliance with the Americans, after two years of semi-secret support. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated.
The Americans held the British prisoners taken at Saratoga until the end of the war, in direct violation of the agreed surrender terms, which specified they would be repatriated immediately.
Howe began his campaign in June by making a series of maneuvers in New Jersey, which failed to engage Washington's greatly inferior force. He then loaded his troops onto transports and slowly sailed to the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, landing 15,000 troops on August 25 at the head of the Elk River. Washington positioned his 11,000 men in a strong position along the Brandywine River, between the British and Philadelphia, but Howe outflanked and defeated him on September 11, 1777. French observers noted that Howe failed to follow up on his victory, which could have destroyed Washington's army.
The Continental Congress again abandoned Philadelphia, and on September 26, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington and marched into the city unopposed. A part of Howe's army was then split off to reduce rebel forts blocking his communications up the Delaware River. Hoping to bring about another Trenton-like victory while the British were divided, on October 4 Washington mounted a surprise assault against the British at Germantown. Howe had failed to alert his troops there, despite being aware of the impending attack the previous day. The British were in danger of a rout, but faulty American decisions resulted in Washington being repulsed with heavy losses.
The armies met at White Marsh in December, where after some skirmishing Howe decided to retire, ignoring the vulnerability of Washington's rear, where an attack could have cut off Washington from his baggage and provisions. Washington and his army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, about 20 miles (32 km) from Philadelphia, where they stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure and the army was reduced to 4,000 effectives. During this time Howe's army, comfortable in Philadelphia, made no effort to exploit the weakness of the American army. The next spring the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, who introduced the most modern Prussian methods of organization and tactics.
Historians speculate that the British "forfeited several chances for military victory in 1776–1777 ..." and "if General Howe had violated military tradition by advancing in December on the Continental troops quartered [at Valley Forge], he might have readily overwhelmed them and possibly ended the war."
Howe submitted his resignation in October 1777; until it was accepted he spent his time in Philadelphia preparing his arguments for an expected parliamentary inquiry. Although he had twice as many men as Washington, the bitter memory of Bunker Hill made him highly reluctant to attack entrenched American forces. General Clinton replaced Howe as British commander-in-chief on May 24, 1778.
From the spring of 1776, France and Spain had informally been involved in the American Revolutionary War, with French admiral Latouche Tréville having provided supplies, ammunition and guns from France to the United States after Thomas Jefferson encouraged a French alliance. Guns such as de Valliere type were used, playing an important role in such battles as the Battle of Saratoga. After learning of the American victory at Saratoga, the French became concerned that the British would reconcile their differences with the colonists and turn on France. In particular, King Louis XVI was influenced by alarmist reports suggesting that Britain was preparing to make huge concessions to the colonies and then, allied with them, strike at French and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. To thwart this, they concluded a Treaty of Alliance with the United States on February 6, 1778, committing the Americans to seek nothing less than absolute independence. Previously France had only been willing to act in conjunction with Spain but now they were willing to go to war alone if necessary. Britain responded by recalling its ambassador, although Franco-British hostilities did not actually break out until June 17, 1778.
In 1776, the Count of Aranda met in representation of Spain with the first U.S. Commission composed by Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee. The Continental Congress had charged the commissioners to travel to Europe and forge alliances with other European powers that could help break the British naval blockade along the North American coast. Aranda invited the commission to his house in Paris, where he was acting as Spanish ambassador and he became an active supporter of the struggle of the fledgling Colonies, recommending an early and open Spanish commitment to the Colonies. However, he was overruled by José Moñino, 1st Count of Floridablanca who opted for a more discreet approach. The Spanish position was later summarized by the Spanish Ambassador to the French Court, Jerónimo Grimaldi, in a letter to Arthur Lee who was in Madrid trying to persuade the Spanish government to declare an open alliance. Grimaldi told Lee that "You have considered your own situation, and not ours. The moment is not yet come for us. The war with Portugal — France being unprepared, and our treasure ships from South America not being arrived — makes it improper for us to declare immediately." Meanwhile, Grimaldi reassured Lee, stores of clothing and powder were deposited at New Orleans and Havana for the Americans, and further shipments of blankets were being collected at Bilbao.
Spain finally entered the war officially in June 1779, thus implementing the Treaty of Aranjuez. The Spanish government had been providing assistance to the revolutionaries since the very beginning of the war, but it did not recognize the United States officially. The Dutch Republic, which also had assisted the colonists since 1776, declared war on Britain at the end of 1780, and did recognize the United States diplomatically.
Following news of the surrender at Saratoga and concern over French intervention, the British decided to completely accept the original demands made by the American Patriots. Parliament repealed the remaining tax on tea and declared that no taxes would ever be imposed on colonies without their consent (except for custom duties, the revenues of which would be returned to the colonies). A Commission was formed to negotiate directly with the Continental Congress for the first time. The Commission was empowered to suspend all the other objectionable acts by Parliament passed since 1763, issue general pardons, and declare a cessation of hostilities. The Commissioners arrived in America in June 1778 and offered to place the colonies in the condition of 1763 if they would return to the allegiance of the King. Moreover, they agreed that no troops would be placed in the colonies without their consent. The Congress refused to negotiate with the commission unless they first acknowledged American independence or withdrew all troops. On October 3, 1778, the British published a proclamation offering amnesty to any colonies or individuals who accepted their proposals within forty days, implying serious consequences if they still refused. There was no positive reply.
King George III gave up all hope of subduing America by more armies, while Britain had a European war to fight. "It was a joke," he said, "to think of keeping Pennsylvania." There was no hope of recovering New England. But the King was still determined "never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal". His plan was to keep the 30,000 men garrisoned in New York, Rhode Island, Quebec, and Florida; other forces would attack the French and Spanish in the West Indies. To punish the Americans the King planned to destroy their coasting-trade, bombard their ports; sack and burn towns along the coast and turn loose the Native Americans to attack civilians in frontier settlements. These operations, the King felt, would inspire the Loyalists; would splinter the Congress; and "would keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse" and they would beg to return to his authority. The plan meant destruction for the Loyalists and loyal Native Americans, an indefinite prolongation of a costly war, and the risk of disaster as the French and Spanish assembled an armada to invade the British Isles. The King hoped to re-subjugate the rebellious colonies after dealing with the Americans' European allies.
French entry into the war had changed British strategy, and Clinton abandoned Philadelphia to reinforce New York City, now vulnerable to French naval power. Washington shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal through New Jersey and attacked him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The battle was tactically inconclusive but Clinton successfully disengaged and continued his retreat to New York. It was the last major battle in the north. Clinton's army went to New York City in July, arriving just before a French fleet under Admiral d'Estaing arrived off the American coast. Washington's army returned to White Plains, New York, north of New York City. Although both armies were back where they had been two years earlier, the nature of the war had now changed as the British had to withdraw troops from North America to counter the French threats elsewhere.
In August 1778 the Americans attempted to capture British-held Newport, Rhode Island with the assistance of France, but the effort failed when the French withdrew their support. The war in the north then bogged down into a stalemate, with neither side capable of attacking the other in any decisive manner. The British instead attempted to wear out American resolve by launching various raiding expeditions such as Tryon's raid against Connecticut in July 1779. In that year the Americans won two morale-enhancing victories by capturing posts at Stony Point and Paulus Hook, although the British quickly retook them. In October 1779 the British voluntarily abandoned Newport and Stony Point in order to consolidate their forces.
During the winter of 1779–80 the American army suffered worse hardships than they had at Valley Forge previously. The Congress was ineffective, the Continental currency worthless, and the supply system was fundamentally broken. Washington was finding it extremely difficult to keep his army together, even without any major fighting against the British. In 1780 actual mutinies broke out in the American camp. The Continental Army's strength dwindled to such an extent that the British decided to mount two probing attacks against New Jersey in June 1780. The New Jersey militia strongly rallied, however, and the British quickly returned to their bases.
In July 1780 the American cause received a boost when a 5,500 strong French expeditionary force arrived at Newport, Rhode Island. Washington hoped to use this assistance to attack the British at New York and end the war. Events elsewhere, however, would frustrate this. Additional French reinforcements were prevented from arriving by a British blockade of French ports, and the French troops at Newport quickly found themselves blockaded as well. Moreover, the French fleet refused to visit the American coast in 1780, having suffered significant damage in actions in the West Indies.
Benedict Arnold, the American victor of Saratoga, grew increasingly disenchanted with struggle and decided to defect. In September 1780 he attempted to surrender the key American fort at West Point along the Hudson River to the British, but his plot was exposed. He escaped and continued to fight under the British army. He wrote an open letter justifying his actions by claiming he had only fought for a redress of grievances and since Britain had withdrawn those grievances (see above) there was no reason to continue shedding blood, particularly in an alliance with an ancient and tyrannical enemy like France. He led the last British attack in the north, a devastating raid against New London in September 1781.
The British held Staten Island, Manhattan, and Long Island until peace was made in 1783. These areas contained about 2% of the population of the Thirteen Colonies.
West of the Appalachian Mountains and along the border with Quebec, the American Revolutionary War was an "Indian War". Most Native Americans supported the British. Like the Iroquois Confederacy, tribes such as the Shawnee split into factions, and the Chickamauga split off from the rest of the Cherokee over differences regarding peace with the Americans. The British supplied their native allies with muskets, gunpowder and advice, while Loyalists led raids against civilian settlements, especially in New York, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and at Cherry Valley in New York in 1778 provoked Washington to send the Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779. There was little fighting as Sullivan systematically destroyed the Indians' winter food supplies, forcing them to flee permanently to British bases in Quebec and the Niagara Falls area.
During the Illinois Campaign of 1778, the Virginia frontiersman George Rogers Clark attempted to neutralize British influence among the Ohio valley tribes by capturing the colonial outposts of Kaskaskia and Cahokia and Vincennes, in the Illinois Country. When General Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit, retook Vincennes, Clark returned in a surprise march in February 1779 and captured Hamilton.
In March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen killed about a hundred neutral Native Americans in the Gnadenhütten massacre. In the last major encounters of the war, a force of 200 Kentucky militia was defeated at the Battle of Blue Licks in August 1782.
During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the north, although some attempts to organize Loyalists were defeated, a British attempt at Charleston, South Carolina failed, and a variety of efforts to attack British forces in East Florida failed. After French entry into the war, the British turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting large numbers of Loyalists. This southern strategy also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where the British needed to defend economically important possessions against the French and Spanish.
On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from Clinton's army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. An attempt by French and American forces to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779. Clinton then besieged Charleston, capturing it and most of the southern Continental Army on May 12, 1780. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South's biggest city and seaport, providing a base for further conquest.
The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina but were pursued by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who defeated them at the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. With these events, organized American military activity in the region collapsed, though the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion. Cornwallis took over British operations, while Horatio Gates arrived to command the American effort. On August 16, 1780, Gates was defeated at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina. Georgia and South Carolina were thus both restored to Britain for the time being.
Cornwallis' efforts to advance into North Carolina were frustrated. A Loyalist wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, which temporarily aborted his planned advance. He received reinforcements, but his light infantry under Tarleton was decisively defeated by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. In spite of this, Cornwallis decided to proceed, gambling that he would receive substantial Loyalist support. General Nathanael Greene, who replaced General Gates, evaded contact with Cornwallis while seeking reinforcements. By March, Greene's army had grown to the point where he felt that he could face Cornwallis directly. In the key Battle of Guilford Court House, Cornwallis drove Greene's much larger army off the battlefield, but in doing so suffered casualties amounting to one-fourth of his army. Compounding this, far fewer Loyalists were joining up than expected because the Patriots put heavy pressure on them and their families, who would become hostages. Cornwallis decided to retreat to coastal Wilmington, North Carolina for resupply and reinforcement, leaving the interior of the Carolinas and Georgia open to Greene. He then proceeded north into Virginia (see below).
American troops in conjunction with Patriot partisans then began the process of reclaiming territory in South Carolina and Georgia. Despite British victories at Hobkirk's Hill and at the Siege of Ninety-Six, by the middle of the year they had been forced to withdraw to the coastal lowlands region of both colonies. The final battle (Battle of Eutaw Springs) in September 1781 was indecisive but by the end of the year the British held only Savannah and Charleston.
Cornwallis proceeded from Wilmington north into Virginia, on the grounds that Virginia needed to be subdued in order to hold the southern colonies. Earlier, in January 1781, a small British raiding force under Benedict Arnold had landed there, and began moving through the countryside, destroying supply depots, mills, and other economic targets. In February, General Washington dispatched General Lafayette to counter Arnold, later also sending General Anthony Wayne. Arnold was reinforced with additional troops from New York in March, and his army was joined with that of Cornwallis in May. Lafayette skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a large-scale battle while gathering reinforcements.
Cornwallis' Virginia campaign was strongly opposed by his superior, General Clinton, who did not believe such a large and disease-ridden area, with a hostile population, could be pacified with the limited forces available. Clinton instead favored conducting operations further north in the Chesapeake region (Maryland, Delaware, and southern Pennsylvania) where he believed there was a strong Loyalist presence. Upon his arrival at Williamsburg in June, Cornwallis received orders from Clinton to establish a fortified naval base and a request to send several thousand troops to New York to counter a possible Franco-American attack. Following these orders, he fortified Yorktown, and, shadowed by Lafayette, awaited the arrival of the Royal Navy.
The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. The French fleet became available for operations, which could either move against Yorktown or New York. Washington still favored attacking New York, but the French decided to send the fleet to their preferred target at Yorktown. Learning of the planned movement of the French fleet in August, Washington began moving his army south to cooperate. The British fleet, not realizing that the French had sent their entire fleet to America, dispatched an inadequate force under Admiral Graves, though the underlying reason for this was a lack of naval resources. Since the entry of France and Spain into the war, the British lacked the necessary ships to match their opponents' every move.
In early September, French naval forces defeated the British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis' escape. Cornwallis, still expecting to receive support, failed to break out while he had the chance. When Washington's army arrived outside Yorktown, Cornwallis prematurely abandoned his outer position, hastening his subsequent defeat. The combined Franco-American force of 18,900 men began besieging Cornwallis in early October. For several days, the French and Americans bombarded the British defenses, and then began taking the outer redoubts. The British attempted to cobble together a relief expedition, but encountered numerous delays. Cornwallis decided his position was becoming untenable and he surrendered his entire army of over 7,000 men on October 19, 1781, the same day that the British fleet at New York sailed for his relief.
News of the surrender at Yorktown arrived in Britain in November 1781. King George III took the news calmly and delivered a defiant address pledging to continue the war; a majority of the House of Commons endorsed it. In the succeeding months news arrived of other reverses, however. The French and Spanish successfully took several West Indian islands and appeared to be on the verge of completely expelling the British there. Minorca also surrendered to a Franco-Spanish force on February 5, 1782 and Gibraltar seemed to be in danger of falling as well. In light of this, Parliament on February 27, 1782 voted to cease all offensive operations in America and seek peace. Threatened with votes of no confidence, on March 20 Lord North resigned and his Tory government was replaced by the Whigs. Ironically, shortly after North resigned the British won the Battle of the Saintes, putting an end to the French threat in the West Indies, and they successfully relieved Gibraltar. Had the North government held out for a few more months they would have been considerably strengthened and could have continued the war in spite of Yorktown.
The new Whig administration accepted American independence as a basis for peace. There were no further major military activities in North America, although the British still had 30,000 garrison troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah. The war continued elsewhere, including the siege of Gibraltar and naval operations in the East and West Indies, until peace was agreed in September 1783.
When the war began, the British had overwhelming naval superiority over the American colonists although their fleet was old and in poor condition, a situation that would be blamed on Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty. During the first three years of the war, the Royal Navy was primarily used to transport troops for land operations and to protect commercial shipping. The American colonists had no ships of the line, and relied extensively on privateering to harass British shipping. The privateers caused worry disproportionate to their material success, although those operating out of French channel ports before and after France joined the war caused significant embarrassment to the Royal Navy and inflamed Anglo-French relations. About 55,000 American sailors served aboard the privateers during the war. The American privateers had almost 1,700 ships, and they captured 2,283 enemy ships. The Continental Congress authorized the creation of a small Continental Navy in October 1775, which was primarily used for commerce raiding. John Paul Jones became the first great American naval hero, capturing HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters.
During the second period, the successive interventions of France, Spain, and the Netherlands extended the naval war until it ranged from the West Indies to the Bay of Bengal. This second period lasted from the summer of 1778 to the middle of 1783, and it included operations already been in progress in America or for the protection of commerce, and naval campaigns on a great scale carried out by the fleets of the maritime powers.
Spain entered the war as a French ally with the goal of recapturing Gibraltar and Minorca, which had been captured by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704. Gibraltar was besieged for more than three years, but the British garrison stubbornly resisted and was resupplied twice: once after Admiral Rodney's victory over Juan de Lángara in the 1780 "Moonlight Battle", and again by Admiral Richard Howe in 1782. Further Franco-Spanish efforts to capture Gibraltar were unsuccessful. One notable success took place on February 5, 1782, when Spanish and French forces captured Minorca, which Spain retained after the war. Ambitious plans for an invasion of Great Britain in 1779 had to be abandoned.
There was much action in the West Indies, especially in the Lesser Antilles. Although France lost St. Lucia early in the war, its navy dominated the West Indies, capturing Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, Montserrat, Tobago, St. Kitts and the Turks and Caicos between 1778 and 1782. Dutch possessions in the West Indies and South America were captured by Britain but later recaptured by France and restored to the Dutch Republic. At the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, a victory by Rodney's fleet over the French Admiral de Grasse frustrated the hopes of France and Spain to take Jamaica and other colonies from the British.
In the Gulf Coast campaign, Count Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, quickly removed the British from their outposts on the lower Mississippi River in 1779 in actions at Manchac and Baton Rouge in British West Florida. Gálvez then captured Mobile in 1780 and stormed and captured the British citadel and capital of Pensacola in 1781. On May 8, 1782, Gálvez captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas; it was ceded by Spain after the Treaty of Paris and simultaneously recovered by British Loyalists in 1783. Gálvez' actions led to the Spanish acquisition of East and West Florida in the peace settlement, denied the British the opportunity of encircling the American forces from the south, and kept open a vital conduit for supplies to the American frontier. The Continental Congress cited Gálvez in 1785 for his aid during the revolution and George Washington took him to his right during the first parade of July 4.
Central America was also subject to conflict between Britain and Spain, as Britain sought to expand its informal trading influence beyond coastal logging and fishing communities in present-day Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Expeditions against San Fernando de Omoa in 1779 and San Juan in 1780 (the latter famously led by a young Horatio Nelson) met with only temporary success before being abandoned due to disease. The Spanish colonial leaders, in turn, could not completely eliminate British influences along the Mosquito Coast. Except for the French acquisition of Tobago, sovereignty in the West Indies was returned to the status quo ante bellum in the peace of 1783.
When word reached India in 1778 that France had entered the war, the British East India Company moved quickly to capture French trading outposts there, capturing Pondicherry after two months of siege. The capture of the French-controlled port of Mahé on India's west coast motivated Mysore's ruler, Hyder Ali (who was already upset at other British actions, and benefited from trade through the port), to open the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1780. Ali, and later his son Tipu Sultan, almost drove the British from southern India but was frustrated by weak French support, and the war ended status quo ante bellum with the 1784 Treaty of Mangalore. French opposition was led in 1782 and 1783 by Admiral the Baillie de Suffren, who recaptured Trincomalee from the British and fought five celebrated, but largely inconclusive, naval engagements against British Admiral Sir Edward Hughes. France's trading posts in India were returned after the war.
The Dutch Republic, nominally neutral, had been trading with the Americans, exchanging Dutch arms and munitions for American colonial wares (in contravention of the British Navigation Acts), primarily through activity based in St. Eustatius, before the French formally entered the war. The British considered this trade to include contraband military supplies and had attempted to stop it, at first diplomatically by appealing to previous treaty obligations, interpretation of whose terms the two nations disagreed on, and then by searching and seizing Dutch merchant ships. The situation escalated when the British seized a Dutch merchant convoy sailing under Dutch naval escort in December 1779, prompting the Dutch to join the League of Armed Neutrality. Britain responded to this decision by declaring war on the Dutch in December 1780, sparking the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. The war was a military and economic disaster for the Dutch Republic. Paralyzed by internal political divisions, it could not respond effectively to British blockades of its coast and the capture of many of its colonies. In the 1784 peace treaty between the two nations, the Dutch lost the Indian port of Negapatam and were forced to make trade concessions. The Dutch Republic signed a friendship and trade agreement with the United States in 1782, becoming the second country to formally recognize the United States.
In London, as political support for the war plummeted after Yorktown, British Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris (for the U.S.) and the Treaties of Versailles (for the other Allies) were signed on September 3, 1783. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783, and the United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the Paris treaty on January 14, 1784.
Britain negotiated the Paris peace treaty without consulting her Native American allies and ceded all Native American territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States. Native Americans reluctantly confirmed these land cessions with the United States in a series of treaties, but the fighting would be renewed in conflicts along the frontier in the coming years, the largest being the Northwest Indian War. The British sought to establish a buffer Indian state in the American Midwest, and continued to pursue that goal as late as 1814 in the War of 1812.
The United States gained more than it expected, thanks to the award of western territory. The other Allies had mixed-to-poor results. France made some gains over its nemesis, Great Britain, but its material gains were minimal and its financial losses huge. It was already in financial trouble and its borrowing to pay for the war used up all its credit and created the financial disasters that marked the 1780s. Historians link those disasters to the coming of the French Revolution. The Dutch clearly lost on all points. The Spanish had a mixed result; they did not achieve their primary war goal (recovery of Gibraltar), but they did gain territory. However, in the long run, as the case of Florida shows, the new territory was of little or no value.
The population of Great Britain and Ireland in 1780 was approximately 12.6 million while the population of the thirteen colonies for the same year has been estimated at 2.8 million including over 500,000 slaves. Theoretically this gave Britain a 4.5:1 manpower advantage. By comparison the Union's manpower advantage over the Confederacy in the American Civil War was only 2.5:1. In practice, the British army never had more than a slight numerical advantage over the Continental Army due to a number of factors, including the need to maintain significant numbers of troops outside of North America. Conscription outside of naval impressment did not exist in Britain at that time, and the proportion of Americans willing to serve in their own country's defense was believed to be considerably larger than the proportion of Britons willing to serve overseas. One pre-war estimate claimed that the Patriots could mobilize 100,000 men in a matter of months, but substantial loyalist or neutralist sentiment would keep Patriot forces much smaller than their potential.
Historians continue to debate whether the odds for American victory were long or short. John E. Ferling says the odds were so long that the American victory was "Almost A Miracle." On the other hand, Joseph Ellis says the odds favored the Americans, and asks whether there ever was any realistic chance for the British to win. He argues that this opportunity came only once, in the summer of 1776 and the British failed that test. Admiral Howe and his brother General Howe, "missed several opportunities to destroy the Continental Army....Chance, luck, and even the vagaries of the weather played crucial roles." Ellis's point is that the strategic and tactical decisions of the Howes were fatally flawed because they underestimated the challenges posed by the Patriots. Ellis concludes that once the Howe brothers failed, the opportunity for a British victory "would never come again." The U.S. Army's official textbook argues that while the British difficulties were great, they were hardly insurmountable. "The British forfeited several chances for military victory in 1776–1777, and again in 1780 they might have won had they been able to throw 10,000 fresh troops into the American war."
The Americans began the war with significant disadvantages compared to the British. They had no national government, no national army or navy, no financial system, no banks, no established credit, and no functioning government departments, such as a treasury. The Congress tried to handle administrative affairs through legislative committees, which proved inefficient. The state governments were themselves brand new and officials had no administrative experience. In peacetime the colonies relied heavily on ocean travel and shipping, but that was now shut down by the British blockade and the Americans had to rely on slow overland travel.
However, the Americans had multiple advantages that in the long run outweighed the initial disadvantages they faced. The Americans had a large prosperous population that depended not on imports but on local production for food and most supplies, while the British were mostly shipped in from across the ocean. The British faced a vast territory far larger than Britain or France, located at a far distance from home ports. Most of the Americans lived on farms distant from the seaports—the British could capture any port but that did not give them control over the hinterland. They were on their home ground, had a smoothly functioning, well organized system of local and state governments, newspapers and printers, and internal lines of communications. They had a long-established system of local militia, previously used to combat the French and Native Americans, with companies and an officer corps that could form the basis of local militias, and provide a training ground for the national army created by Congress.
Motivation was a major asset. The Patriots wanted to win; over 200,000 fought in the war; 25,000 died. The British expected the Loyalists to do much of the fighting, but they did much less than expected. The British also hired German mercenaries to do much of their fighting.
At the onset of the war, the Americans had no major international allies. Battles such as the Battle of Bennington, the Battles of Saratoga and even defeats such as the Battle of Germantown proved decisive in gaining the attention and support of powerful European nations such as France and Spain, who moved from covertly supplying the Americans with weapons and supplies, to overtly supporting them militarily, moving the war to a global stage.
The new Continental Army suffered significantly from a lack of an effective training regime, and largely inexperienced officers and sergeants. The inexperience of its officers was compensated for in part by its senior officers; officers such as George Washington, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Richard Montgomery and Francis Marion all had military experience with the British Army during the French and Indian War. The Americans solved their training dilemma during their stint in Winter Quarters at Valley Forge, where they were relentlessly drilled and trained by General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of the famed Prussian General Staff. He taught the Continental Army the essentials of military discipline, drills, tactics and strategy, and wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual. When the Army emerged from Valley Forge, it proved its ability to equally match the British troops in battle when they fought a successful strategic action at the Battle of Monmouth.
When the war began, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army or navy. Each colony sponsored local militia. Militiamen were lightly armed, had little training, and usually did not have uniforms. Their units served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to travel far from home and thus were unavailable for extended operations, and lacked the training and discipline of soldiers with more experience. If properly used, however, their numbers could help the Continental armies overwhelm smaller British forces, as at the battles of Concord, Bennington and Saratoga, and the siege of Boston. Both sides used partisan warfare but the Americans effectively suppressed Loyalist activity when British regulars were not in the area.
Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established a regular army on June 14, 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war.
The United States Marine Corps traces its institutional roots to the Continental Marines of the war, formed by a resolution of the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, a date regarded and celebrated as the birthday of the Marine Corps. At the beginning of 1776, Washington's army had 20,000 men, with two-thirds enlisted in the Continental Army and the other third in the various state militias. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, both the Continental Navy and Continental Marines were disbanded. About 250,000 men served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, but there were never more than 90,000 men under arms at one time.
Armies were small by European standards of the era, largely attributable to limitations such as lack of powder and other logistical capabilities on the American side. It was also difficult for Great Britain to transport troops across the Atlantic and they depended on local supplies that the Patriots tried to cut off. By comparison, Duffy notes that Frederick the Great usually commanded from 23,000 to 50,000 in battle. Both figures pale in comparison to the armies that were fielded in the early 19th century, where troop formations approached or exceeded 100,000 men.
Historians have estimated that approximately 40 to 45 percent of the colonists supported the rebellion, while 15 to 20 percent remained loyal to the Crown. The rest attempted to remain neutral and kept a low profile.
At least 25,000 Loyalists fought on the side of the British. Thousands served in the Royal Navy. On land, Loyalist forces fought alongside the British in most battles in North America. Many Loyalists fought in partisan units, especially in the Southern theater.
The British military met with many difficulties in maximizing the use of Loyalist factions. British historian Jeremy Black wrote, "In the American war it was clear to both royal generals and revolutionaries that organized and significant Loyalist activity would require the presence of British forces." In the South, the use of Loyalists presented the British with "major problems of strategic choice" since while it was necessary to widely disperse troops in order to defend Loyalist areas, it was also recognized that there was a need for "the maintenance of large concentrated forces able" to counter major attacks from the American forces. In addition, the British were forced to ensure that their military actions would not "offend Loyalist opinion", eliminating such options as attempting to "live off the country", destroying property for intimidation purposes, or coercing payments from colonists ("laying them under contribution").
Britain entered the war with confidence; it had the world's most powerful navy, a well-trained professional army, a sound financial system that could pay the costs, a stable government, and experienced leadership. However they were beset with major challenges. Compared to the Americans, the British had no major allies, and only had troops provided by small German states to bolster the small British Army. At the onset of the war, the British Army was less than 48,000 strong worldwide, and suffered from a lack of effective recruiting. By 1778, the army was pardoning criminals for military service and had extended the age range for service to be from 16 to 50. Although its officer and non-commissioned officer corps were relatively professional and experienced, this professionalism was diluted because wealthy individuals lacking military experience could purchase commissions and promotions. As a consequence, inexperienced officers sometimes found their way into positions of high responsibility.
Distance was also a major problem for the British. Although the Royal Navy was the largest and most experienced in the world at the time, it sometimes took months for troops to reach North America, and orders were often out of date because the military situation on the ground had changed by the time they arrived. Additionally, the British had logistical problems whenever they operated away from the coast; they were vulnerable to guerilla attacks on their supply chains whenever they went far inland. On a logistical note, the flints used in British weapons also put them at a disadvantage on the battlefield. British flints could fire only 6 rounds before requiring re-sharpening, while American flints could fire 60 rounds before resharpening. A common expression ran among the redcoats; which was that "Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog." Although discipline was harsh in the army, the redcoats had little self-discipline; gambling, looting, promiscuity and heavy drinking were common problems, among all ranks alike. The army suffered from mediocre organisation in terms of logistics, food supplies were often bad and the sparse land of America offered little in the way of finding reliable substitutes.
Suppressing a rebellion in America also posed other problems. At the onset of the war, the British had around 8,000 men stationed in North America. However, these were required to cover an area that stretched from northern Canada to Florida, a distance of almost 2,000 miles (3,200 km). As the colonies had not been united before the war, there was no central area of strategic importance. In European conflicts, the capture of a capital city often meant the end of the war; however in America, when the British seized key cities such as New York, Philadelphia or Boston—or Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812 thirty years later—the war continued unabated. Furthermore, despite the fact that at its height, the British fielded some 56,000 men in the colonies exclusive of mercenaries and militia, they lacked sufficient numbers. It was not unusual for the Americans to suffer a string of defeats, only to have the British retreat because they could not occupy the captured land. Despite strong Loyalist support, these troops were often displaced by Patriot militia when British regulars were not in the area, demonstrated at battles such as Kings Mountain. As a result of the manpower shortage and Patriot control of the countryside, where the majority of the American population lived, the British often could not simultaneously defeat the Americans on the field and occupy the captured areas, evidenced by withdrawals from Philadelphia and the Carolinas after great initial success. The manpower shortage became critical when France, Spain and the Netherlands entered the war, as the British were spread across several theatres worldwide, when before they were concentrated only in America.
The British also had to contend with several psychological factors during the conflict. The need to maintain Loyalist allegiance provided setbacks, as the British could not use the harsh methods of suppressing rebellion they had used in Ireland and Scotland. Loyalists often came from the same communities as Patriots and as a result, such methods could not be employed for fear of alienating them. Even despite these limitations, neutral colonists were often driven into the ranks of the Revolutionaries due to the conflict, such as the war in the Carolinas, marked by heavy brutality on both sides. A single American victory could often reverse the impact of a string of British successes, as shown by engagements at Trenton, Bennington, King's Mountain and even defeats such as Germantown, all of which went a long way to galvanizing Patriot support for the war, and of persuading European powers such as France and Spain to support the rebellion.
Early in 1775, the British Army consisted of about 36,000 men worldwide, but wartime recruitment steadily increased this number. Great Britain had a difficult time appointing general officers, however. General Thomas Gage, in command of British forces in North America when the rebellion started, was criticized for being too lenient (perhaps influenced by his American wife). General Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst turned down an appointment as commander in chief due to an unwillingness to take sides in the conflict. Similarly, Admiral Augustus Keppel turned down a command, saying "I cannot draw the sword in such a cause." The Earl of Effingham publicly resigned his commission when his 22nd Regiment of foot was posted to America, and William Howe and John Burgoyne were members of parliament who opposed military solutions to the American rebellion. Howe and Henry Clinton stated that they were unwilling participants in the war and were only following orders. The British Parliament was also far from united in supporting military opposition to the American Patriots. Lord North held the post of Prime Minister with a Tory majority backing him, advocating military suppression of the American rebellion. However, they were constantly and vehemently opposed by a large Whig minority, with politicians such as Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke of the Rockingham Whigs fiercely voicing their derision of pursuing military solutions to the rebellion. The Whigs gained prominence in Parliament as the British suffered strategic defeats at Saratoga and later at Yorktown, resulting in the collapse of Lord North's ministry.
Over the course of the war, Great Britain signed treaties with various German states, which supplied about 30,000 soldiers. Germans made up about one-third of the British troop strength in North America. The Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel contributed more soldiers than any other state, and German soldiers became known as "Hessians" to the Americans. Revolutionary speakers called German soldiers "foreign mercenaries", and they are scorned as such in the Declaration of Independence. By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America was over 60,000, although these were spread from Canada to Florida. Initially, several German principalities offered military support to Great Britain but these offers were rejected. However, as the war dragged on it became clear that Great Britain would need the extra manpower of the German states and led to Great Britain seeking support from German principalities such as Hesse-Kassel and Ansbach-Bayreuth.
The Secretary of State at War Lord Barrington and the Adjutant-General Edward Harvey were both strongly opposed to outright war on land. In 1766 Barrington had recommended withdrawing the army from the Thirteen Colonies to Canada, Nova Scotia and Florida. At the beginning of the war he urged a naval blockade, which would quickly damage the colonists' trading activities.
African Americans—slave and free—served on both sides during the war. The British recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and promised freedom to those who served by act of Lord Dunmore's Proclamation. Because of manpower shortages, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. Small all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many slaves were promised freedom for serving. Some of the men promised freedom were sent back to their masters, after the war was over, out of political convenience. Another all-black unit came from Saint-Domingue with French colonial forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause.
Tens of thousands of slaves escaped during the war and joined British lines; others simply moved off in the chaos. For instance, in South Carolina, nearly 25,000 slaves (30% of the enslaved population) fled, migrated or died during the disruption of the war. This greatly disrupted plantation production during and after the war. When they withdrew their forces from Savannah and Charleston, the British also evacuated 10,000 slaves belonging to Loyalists. Altogether, the British evacuated nearly 20,000 blacks at the end of the war. More than 3,000 of them were freedmen and most of these were resettled in Nova Scotia; other blacks were sold in the West Indies.
Most Native Americans east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, and many communities were divided over the question of how to respond to the conflict. Though a few tribes were on friendly terms with the Americans, most Native Americans opposed the United States as a potential threat to their territory. Approximately 13,000 Native Americans fought on the British side, with the largest group coming from the Iroquois tribes, who fielded around 1,500 men. The powerful Iroquois Confederacy was shattered as a result of the conflict; although the Confederacy did not take sides, the Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga nations sided with the British. Members of the Mohawk fought on both sides. Many Tuscarora and Oneida sided with the colonists. The Continental Army sent the Sullivan Expedition on raids throughout New York to cripple the Iroquois tribes that had sided with the British. Both during and after the war friction between the Mohawk leaders Joseph Louis Cook and Joseph Brant, who had sided with the Americans and the British respectively, further exacerbated the split.
Early in July 1776, a major action in the fledgling conflict occurred when the Cherokee allies of Britain attacked the western frontier areas of North Carolina. Their defeat resulted in a splintering of the Cherokee towns and people, and was directly responsible for the rise of the Chickamauga Cherokee, bitter enemies of the Colonials who carried on a frontier war for decades following the end of hostilities with Britain.
Creek and Seminole allies of Britain fought against Americans in Georgia and South Carolina. In 1778, a force of 800 Creeks destroyed American settlements along the Broad River in Georgia. Creek warriors also joined Thomas Brown's raids into South Carolina and assisted Britain during the Siege of Savannah. Many Native Americans were involved in the fighting between Britain and Spain on the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River—mostly on the British side. Thousands of Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws fought in or near major battles such as the Battle of Fort Charlotte, the Battle of Mobile, and the Siege of Pensacola.
Pybus (2005) estimates that about 20,000 slaves defected to or were captured by the British, of whom about 8,000 died from disease or wounds or were recaptured by the Patriots. The British took along some 12,000 at the end of the war; of these 8000 remained in slavery. Including those who left during the war, a total of about 8000 to 10,000 ex-slaves gained freedom. About 4000 freed slaves went to Nova Scotia along with about 1200 blacks who remained slaves.
Baller (2006) examines family dynamics and mobilization for the Revolution in central Massachusetts. He reports that warfare and the farming culture were sometimes incompatible. Militiamen found that living and working on the family farm had not prepared them for wartime marches and the rigors of camp life. Rugged individualism conflicted with military discipline and regimentation. A man's birth order often influenced his military recruitment, as younger sons went to war and older sons took charge of the farm. A person's family responsibilities and the prevalent patriarchy could impede mobilization. Harvesting duties and family emergencies pulled men home regardless of the sergeant's orders. Some relatives might be Loyalists, creating internal strains. On the whole, historians conclude the Revolution's effect on patriarchy and inheritance patterns favored egalitarianism.
McDonnell (2006) shows a grave complication in Virginia's mobilization of troops was the conflicting interests of distinct social classes, which tended to undercut a unified commitment to the Patriot cause. The Assembly balanced the competing demands of elite slave-owning planters, the middling yeomen (some owning a few slaves), and landless indentured servants, among other groups. The Assembly used deferments, taxes, military service substitute, and conscription to resolve the tensions. Unresolved class conflict, however, made these laws less effective. There were violent protests, many cases of evasion, and large-scale desertion, so that Virginia's contributions came at embarrassingly low levels. With the British invasion of the state in 1781, Virginia was mired in class division as its native son, George Washington, made desperate appeals for troops.
The total loss of life throughout the war is largely unknown. As was typical in the wars of the era, disease claimed far more lives than battle. Between 1775 and 1782 a smallpox epidemic swept across North America, killing 40 people in Boston alone. Historian Joseph Ellis suggests that Washington's decision to have his troops inoculated against the smallpox epidemic was one of his most important decisions.
At least 25,000 American Patriots died during active military service. About 6,800 of these deaths were in battle; the other 17,000 recorded deaths were from disease, including about 8,000–12,000 who died of starvation or disease brought on by deplorable conditions while prisoners of war, most in rotting British prison ships in New York. Another estimate, however, puts the total death toll at around 70,000, which if true would make the conflict proportionately deadlier than the American Civil War. The uncertainty arises from the number of disease deaths, which were believed to be quite numerous, amounting to an estimated 10,000 in 1776 alone. The number of Patriots seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000. Proportionate to the population of the colonies, the Revolutionary War was at least the second-deadliest conflict in American history, ranking ahead of World War II and behind only the Civil War.
In 1784, a British lieutenant compiled a detailed list of 205 British officers killed in action during the war, including deaths in Europe, the Caribbean, and the East Indies. An extrapolation based on this list puts British Army losses at some 4,000 killed and died of wounds. A table from 1781 puts total British Army deaths at 6,046 in North America (from 1775 to 1779) and 3,326 in the West Indies (from 1778 to 1780). Approximately 1,800 Germans were killed in combat out of a total of 7,774 deaths. British returns in 1783 listed 43,633 rank and file deaths "in the British service".
About 171,000 sailors served in the Royal Navy during the war; about a quarter had been pressed into service. About 1,240 were killed in battle, while 18,500 died from disease (figures from 1776 to 1780 only). The greatest killer was scurvy, a disease that had been shown to be preventable by issuing lemon or lime juice to sailors but was not taken seriously. Scurvy would be eradicated in the Royal Navy in the 1790s by the chairman of the Navy's Sick and Hurt Board, Gilbert Blane. About 42,000 British sailors deserted during the war.
The British spent about £80 million and ended with a national debt of £250 million, which it easily financed at about £9.5 million a year in interest. The French spent 1.3 billion livres (about £56 million). Their total national debt was £187 million, which they could not easily finance; over half the French national revenue went to debt service in the 1780s. The debt crisis became a major factor of the French Revolution as the government could not raise taxes without public approval. The United States spent $37 million at the national level plus $114 million by the states. This was mostly covered by loans from France and the Netherlands, loans from Americans, and issuance of an increasing amount of paper money (which became "not worth a continental"). The U.S. finally solved its debt and currency problems in the 1790s when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton secured legislation by which the national government assumed all of the state debts, and in addition created a national bank and a funding system based on tariffs and bond issues that paid off the foreign debts.