Hang Together or Hang Separately: The American Revolution, 1775-1783

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – The Second Continental Congress

1.1 – Introduction

During the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress acted as the national government of the Thirteen Colonies in rebellion.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819: The resolution for independence was among the most important accomplishments of the Second Continental Congress.

The Second Continental Congress was a convention of delegates from the 13 colonies that formed in Philadelphia in May 1775, soon after the launch of the American Revolutionary War. It succeeded the First Continental Congress, which met between September and October of 1774.

The First Continental Congress petitioned King George III to repeal the Intolerable Acts (punitive measures passed by Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party) and initiated a boycott of British goods. The First Congress established that the Second Continental Congress would convene on May 10, 1775.

Many of the same 56 delegates present at the First Continental Congress were in attendance at the Second Congress. The delegates reappointed former Continental Congress president, Peyton Randolph, and secretary, Charles Thomson, to reprise their roles at the Second Congress. Randolph was soon called away by other duties and succeeded by John Hancock as president. Other notable members of the Congress included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.

By the time the Second Continental Congress met, the American Revolutionary War was already underway. For the first few months of this conflict, the Patriots had carried on their struggle in an ad-hoc and uncoordinated manner. At this point, Congress intervened and assumed leadership of the war effort.

On June 14, 1775, Congress voted to create the Continental Army from Boston militia units. Congressman George Washington of Virginia was appointed commanding general of the army. On July 6, 1775, Congress approved a Declaration of Causes outlining the rationale and necessity for taking up arms in the 13 colonies. On July 8, Congress extended the Olive Branch Petition to the British Crown as a final, unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation.

The Congress assumed all the functions of a national government, such as appointing ambassadors, signing treaties, raising armies, appointing generals, obtaining loans from Europe, and disbursing funds. In the meantime, the Second Continental Congress tried to lead the new country through the war with borrowed funds and no authority to levy taxes. The Congress relied on money, supplies, and troops from the states to support the war effort; however, individual states frequently ignored requests for support.

In September 1777, the Continental Congress was forced to relocate to York, Pennsylvania, as British troops occupied the city of Philadelphia.

1.2 – Pursuing Both War and Peace

In 1775, the colonies proposed the Olive Branch Petition to reconcile with Britain and avert war, but King George III denied the petition.

In the period of uncertainty leading up to the formal declaration of war, the Second Continental Congress attempted to pacify the British and declare allegiance to the Crown, while simultaneously asserting independence and engaging British forces in armed conflict.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, most delegates supported John Dickinson in his efforts to reconcile with George III of Great Britain. However, a small faction of delegates, led by John Adams, argued that war was inevitable.

Olive Branch Petition, 1775: The Olive Branch Petition, issued by the Second Congress, was a final attempt at reconciliation with the British.

The Olive Branch Petition was adopted by the Continental Congress in July 1775, in an attempt to avoid a war with Great Britain. The petition vowed allegiance to the Crown and entreated the king to prevent further conflict, claiming that the colonies did not seek independence but merely wanted to negotiate trade and tax regulations with Great Britain. The petition asked for free trade and taxes equal to those levied on the people in Great Britain, or alternatively, no taxes and strict trade regulations. The letter was sent to London on July 8, 1775. The petition was rejected, and in August 1775, A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition (or the Proclamation of Rebellion ) formally declared that the colonies were in rebellion.

The Proclamation of Rebellion was written before the Olive Branch Petition reached the British. When the petition arrived, it was rejected unseen by King George III, and the Second Continental Congress was dismissed as an illegal assembly of rebels. At the same time, the British also confiscated a letter authored by John Adams, which expressed frustration with attempts to make peace with the British. This letter was used as a propaganda tool to demonstrate the insincerity of the Olive Branch Petition.

The king’s rejection gave Adams and others who favored revolution the opportunity they needed to push for independence. The rejection of the “olive branch” polarized the issue in the minds of many colonists who realized that from that point forward, the choice was between full independence or full submission to British rule.

In August 1775, upon learning of the Battle of Bunker Hill, King George III issued a Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. This document declared the North American colonies to be in a state of rebellion and ordered British officers and loyal subjects to suppress this uprising.

Proclamation of Rebellion, 1775: The Proclamation of Rebellion was King George III’s response to the Olive Branch Petition.

On October 26, 1775, King George III expanded on the Proclamation of Rebellion in his Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament. The king insisted that rebellion was being fomented by a “desperate conspiracy” of leaders whose claims of allegiance to him were not genuine. King George indicated that he intended to deal with the crisis with armed force.

The Second Continental Congress issued a response to the Proclamation of Rebellion on December 6, 1775, saying that despite their unwavering loyalty to the Crown, the British Parliament did not have a legitimate claim to authority over the colonies while they did not have democratic representation. The Second Continental Congress maintained that they still hoped to avoid a “civil war.”

1.3 – The Declaration of Independence

In 1776, revolution was fomented by Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense; and by Abigail Adams, who advocated for women’s rights. Both individuals influenced the development of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a three-part resolution to Congress. His motion called upon Congress to declare independence, form foreign alliances, and prepare a plan for colonial confederation. Lee’s resolution was met with debate. Opponents of Lee’s resolution argued that although reconciliation with Great Britain was unlikely, the timing was premature to declare independence and Congress ought to focus on securing foreign aid. Proponents of Lee’s resolution, however, argued that foreign governments were unlikely to grant aid to a party to an internal British struggle, making a formal declaration of independence even more urgent. Moreover, many members of Congress already viewed the 13 colonies as de facto independent, making the declaration a mere formality rather than a revolutionary break from what already had been. The debate remained heated, with some members of Congress threatening to leave should such a resolution be adopted, so the motion was tabled for three weeks. In the meantime, it was decided that a committee should be formed to draft a document announcing and explaining colonial independence should Lee’s resolution eventually be approved.

The text of the Declaration of Independence was drafted by a “Committee of Five” appointed by Congress, which consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Jefferson was chosen by the committee as the primary author after a general outline was agreed to amongst the five, and a draft was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776. The official title given to the document was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” For two days following, the document was edited by Congress, the principal change being a moderation of Jefferson’s claim that Britain had forced slavery in the colonies.

1.4 – Notable Figures of the Revolutionary Era

Beyond the Second Congress, many colonists shared concerns about British rule and what independence would mean for the future. Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams were two distinct, populist voices upholding the cause of independence during this time.

1.4.1 – Thomas Paine

In January 1776, Thomas Paine published a pro-independence pamphlet entitled Common Sense, which became an overnight sensation. This work presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of independence was still undecided. To escape governmental censure for its treasonous content, Paine published Common Senseanonymously. The pamphlet sold as many as 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 in the first year, and went through 25 editions in the first year of publication. Paine donated his royalties from Common Sense to George Washington’s Continental Army.

Though the themes of the pamphlet were familiar to the elite who comprised Congress and the leadership cadre of the emerging nation, Common Sense was a crucial tool for increasing popular discourse concerning independence. This pamphlet was responsible for broadly disseminating the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army.

1.4.2 – Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was an advocate for married women’s property rights and greater opportunity for women, particularly in respect to education. Adams was particularly interested in what implications independence from Britain held for women and women’s rights.

Abigail Adams, by Benjamin Blythe, 1766: Abigail Adams was greatly concerned about the role of women in the new republic.

In March 1776, Adams addressed her husband, John Adams, and the Continental Congress in a letter in which she requested that they, “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” – Women and Independence

Common Sense, 1776: Thomas Paine’s widely read, 46-page pamphlet effectively argued for independence.

For the most part, revolutionary-era women’s contributions to politics were limited to the private realm and women were dependent upon male relatives to voice their concerns and opinions in the public realm through a centuries-old practice termed coverture. However, women were also increasingly put in the position of educating future generations in the ways of republicanism during this time. The ” Republican Motherhood” came to encompass the concept that women played a role in instilling civil values and morality in their husbands and children. In this way, Republican Motherhood, though still relegating women’s contributions to the domestic, or private sphere, raised the importance of women’s civic contributions on a national level and encouraged the further education of women.

2 – American Life during the Revolution

2.1 – Colonial Armed Forces

At the start of the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army, relying on locally sponsored militias.

2.1.1 – The Development of the Continental Army

When the Revolutionary War began, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army or navy. Each colony sponsored a 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. Furthermore, they lacked the training and discipline of soldiers with more experience.

Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established a regular army on June 14, 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. On July 18, 1774, Congress requested that all colonies form militias of able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 50. Due to the lack of requirements for parental consent in many colonies, it was not uncommon for men younger than 16 to enlist. Soldiers in the Continental Army were unpaid volunteers and enlistment periods varied from one to three years. Typically, enlistment periods were shorter during the beginning of the Revolutionary War due to the Continental Congress’ fear of the Continental Army evolving into a permanent standing army. Yet over time, as turnover increased, longer enlistments were approved.

The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war. Sometimes militias operated independently of the Continental Army, but for the most part, they were used to augment and support the army regulars during campaigns. Approximately 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.

George Washington, by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1850: Portrait of General George Washington, who was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775.

Minutemen were members of teams of select men from the American colonial partisan militia during the American Revolutionary War. They provided a highly mobile, rapidly deployed force that allowed the colonies to respond immediately to war threats, hence the name. The minutemen constituted about a quarter of the entire militia.

Minutemen: The Battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775. Blue-coated militiamen in the foreground flee from the volley of gunshots from the red-coated British Army line in the background. These American militias were an important supplement to the Continental Army.

The success of minutemen at Lexington and Concord is offset by the long history of failures of the colonial militia. George Washington is well-known for his scathing opinion of the shortcomings of militia forces. However, the minuteman model for militia mobilization, married with a very professional, small standing army, was the primary model for the land forces of the United States up until 1916 when the National Guard was established.

2.1.2 – Equipment, Training, and Tactics

Continental Army: This illustration depicts uniforms and weapons used during a period (1779–1783) of the American Revolution. These soldiers would have been a part of the Continental Army rather than militiamen.


Most colonial militia units were not provided weapons or uniforms and were required to equip themselves. Many simply wore their own farmer’s or workman’s clothes, and in some cases, they wore cloth hunting frocks. Most used fowling pieces, though rifles were sometimes used where available. Neither fowling pieces nor rifles had bayonets. Ammunition and supplies were scarce and were constantly being seized by British patrols. As a precaution, these items were often hidden or left behind by minutemen in fields, wooded areas, or private residences. Some colonies purchased muskets, cartridge boxes, and bayonets from England, and maintained armories within the colony.

The Continental Army was troubled by poor logistics, inadequate training, short enlistments, interstate rivalries, and Congress’s inability to compel the states to finance or equip its troops with food and supplies. Through its many trials and errors, army leadership was crucial to preserving unity and discipline throughout the war. In the winter of 1777–1778, with the addition of Prussian Baron von Steuben, army regulars began to receive European-style military training, which vastly improved training and discipline. Members of the militias, however, were not included in this new mode of training. Rather than fight formal battles in the traditional dense lines and columns, militiamen proved a better resource when used as irregulars, primarily as skirmishers and sharpshooters.

Their experience suited irregular warfare. Most were familiar with frontier hunting. The Indian Wars, and especially the recent French and Indian War, had taught both the men and officers the value of irregular warfare, while many English troops fresh from Europe were less familiar with this type of combat. The long rifle was also well suited to this role. The rifling (grooves inside the barrel) gave it a much greater range than the smooth-bore musket, although it took much longer to load. Because of the lower rate of fire, rifles were not used by regular infantry, but were preferred for hunting. When performing as skirmishers, the militia could fire and fall back behind cover or other troops before the British could get into range. The wilderness terrain that lay just beyond many colonial towns, very familiar to the local minuteman, favored this style of combat. In time, however, loyalists like John Butler and Robert Rogers mustered equally capable irregular forces. In addition, many British commanders learned from experience and effectively modified their light infantry tactics and battle dress to suit conditions in North America.

Through the remainder of the revolution, militias moved to adopt the minuteman model for rapid mobilization. With this rapid mustering of forces, the militia proved its value by augmenting the Continental Army on a temporary basis. This was seen at the Battles of Hubbardton and Bennington in the north and at Camden and Cowpens in the south.

2.2 – Smallpox

Smallpox broke out in army camps in 1775, during an epidemic that lasted for most of the war.

16th-century smallpox: This 16th-century Aztec drawing depicts smallpox victims. A new epidemic of smallpox would ravage North America during the Revolutionary War.

The North American smallpox epidemic of 1775–1782, when the fatal infectious disease spread across the continent, coincided with the American Revolutionary War. It is not known how or where the outbreak began, but by 1775, it was raging through British-occupied Boston. During Washington’s siege of the city, the disease broke out among both Continental and British camps. At the same time, smallpox was also rampant in the Continental Armies that had invaded Canada.

The epidemic was not limited to the colonies on the Eastern seaboard, nor to the areas affected by hostilities. The outbreak spread deep into the South; many escaped slaves who had fled to the British lines in the South contracted the virus and died. From 1778 to 1779, New Orleans was hit especially hard due to its densely populated urban areas. By 1779, the disease had spread to Mexico, where it would cause the deaths of tens of thousands.

Evacuating Boston: In 1775, American militias surrounded Boston, forcing British troops to evacuate the city. British troops evacuated in 1776 (depicted here) in part because of smallpox outbreaks within the city.

The epidemic then spread through the Great Plains, likely due to the travels of the Shoshone Indian tribes. By 1780, it had reached the Pueblos of the territory comprising present-day New Mexico. It also showed up in the interior trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1782. It is estimated to have killed nearly 11,000 Native Americans in the western lands of present-day Washington, reducing the population from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.

By its end, the smallpox epidemic had reached as far west as the Pacific Coast and as far north as Alaska, infecting virtually every part of the vast continent of North America. Though no certain statistics exist, it is estimated to have killed more than 145,000 people.

2.3 – Women in the Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, colonial women supported the revolution by boycotting British goods and raising money.

2.3.1 – Patriot Women

Edenton boycott: A British cartoon satirizing the Edenton Tea Party participants. The Edenton Tea Party was a women-led boycott of British products. Because women ran the household, their purchasing power was vital; boycotts such as this supported the war effort.

In the Revolutionary Era, women were responsible for managing the domain of the household. Nonimportation and nonconsumption became major weapons in the arsenal of the American resistance movement against British taxation without representation. Women played a major role in this method of defiance by denouncing silks, satin, and other imported luxuries in favor of homespun clothing, generally made in spinning and quilting bees. This sent a strong message of unity against British oppression. As a result of nonimportation, many rural communities that were previously only peripherally involved in the political movements of the day were brought “into the growing community of resistance” because of the appeal “to the traditional values” of rural life. In 1769, Christopher Gadsden made a direct appeal to colonial women, saying, “our political salvation, at this crisis, depends altogether upon the strictest economy, that the women could, with propriety, have the principal management thereof.”

Housewives did their part to support the Patriot cause by refusing to purchase British manufactured goods. The tea boycott is one example of how Patriot women identified themselves as part of the war effort. In fact, Patriot women were boycotting tea for years before the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. After the Boston Tea Party, a group of women in North Carolina decided to make their boycott official. A total of 51 women in Edenton, North Carolina, signed an agreement promising to boycott tea and other English products and sent it to British newspapers. The Edenton Tea Party was one of the first coordinated and publicized political actions by women in the colonies. Similar boycotts extended to a variety of British goods with women opting to purchase or make American goods instead. Even though these “nonconsumption boycotts” depended on national policy (formulated by men), it was women who enacted them in households.

2.3.2 – The Homespun Movement

As part of their boycott of British goods, Patriot women participated in the “Homespun Movement.” Instead of purchasing clothing made of imported British materials, these women practiced the long tradition of weaving and spinning their own cloth. They used this cloth to make clothing for their families, as well as blankets and clothing for the Continental Army.

The practices of the Homespun Movement extended beyond cloth goods. For example, Benjamin Franklin ‘s youngest sister, Jane Mecom, was called on for her soap recipe and instructions on how to build soap-making forms. While male suppliers of such services were exempted from military service in exchange for their goods, women providing the same services received no compensation. Spinning, weaving, and sewing were seen as ways women could contribute to the Patriot cause.

Colonial era spinning: Many women supported the war effort by producing homespun clothing.

Women actively engaged in the economy in other ways as well. In 1778, a group of women marched down to a warehouse, where it was rumored that a merchant was hoarding coffee. The women opened the warehouse and confiscated the coffee. Women also used frugality (a longtime feminine virtue ) as a political statement as households were asked to contribute to the wartime efforts. Women were also asked to put their homes into public service by quartering American soldiers and legislators as the republic took shape.

2.3.3 – The Republican Motherhood

During the Revolutionary Era, women were increasingly placed in positions to educate future generations in the ways of republicanism. The “Republican Motherhood” came to encompass the concept that women played a role in instilling civil values and morality in their husbands and children. The concept borrowed from Christian teachings that women should pass down religious values and morality to their children. In this way, the Republican Motherhood, though still relegating women’s contributions to the domestic sphere, raised the importance of women’s civic contributions on a national level and allowed them greater influence in the public sphere. The belief also encouraged increasing access to education for women to ensure their abilities to instruct their children. In the longer term, the Republican Motherhood contributed to women’s involvement in abolitionism and women’s rights.

2.3.4 – Women’s Organizations

Women further helped the Patriot cause by creating organizations such as the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, which was founded by Esther de Berdt, wife of the Pennsylvania governor. The organization recognized the capacity of every woman to contribute to the war effort. The Association went door-to-door, collecting funds to assist in the war effort, which Martha Washington then took directly to her husband, General George Washington. Other states subsequently followed the example set by de Berdt Reed and Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin), an active member and leader in the organization. In 1780, in the midst of the war, the colonies raised over $300,000 through these female-run organizations.

2.3.5 – Women in the Army

A handful of women felt so strongly about the Revolution, they hid their gender and enlisted in the Continental Army. These women included Hannah Snell, Sally St. Claire, and Deborah Samson, who was discovered after 17 months of service and honorably discharged. Some years later, Samson was awarded a veteran’s pension for her service. Other women involved themselves in military activities by concealing and delivering dispatches and letters through enemy territory for the Continental Army. Notable Patriots who served in this manner include Deborah Champion, Sara Decker Haligowski, Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall, and Lydia Darraugh. Regardless of how they served, women who fought or otherwise involved themselves in military activities were met with a range of responses, from admiration, to ambivalence, to contempt.

2.3.6 – Loyalist Women


Many Loyalist women actually left the country during the Revolutionary War rather than stay to live among those they viewed as enemies. For some women, this was a personal choice and done in defiance of their husbands or other male family members. For others who remained loyal to their husbands and families, and their political allegiances, there was a constant risk of falling victim to mobs or vigilante groups that deemed them guilty of treason by association. Of those women who left their communities, many did so without any of their personal or family possessions.

Others actively contributed to the Loyalist cause by engaging in acts of resistance. Many were vocal about their refusal to swear loyalty to the new colonial government and encouraged others to resist as well. Some of these women also aided Loyalist soldiers or hid their male family members from authorities seeking traitors. Others hid important papers, supplies, and even money from the authorities.

2.3.7 – Native American Women

The Revolutionary period was an intensely disruptive one for indigenous women. In many indigenous societies in North America, women were responsible for farming and trading, making wartime destruction particularly devastating for them and their ways of life. Following the Revolutionary War, the American government took an active role in prescribing new roles for American Indian men and women, encouraging women to work in textiles and forcing men to engage in agricultural tasks and trade. The disruption of gender roles caused severe problems within American Indian communities and marked a major break with their previous cultural customs.

2.4 – The Revolution and Churches

Religion offered a moral sanction for opposing the British in the colonies. Nonetheless, the Revolution split some denominations.

2.4.1 – Religious Justification

Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British—an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God. As a recent scholar has observed, “by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better.”

“Obedience to God”: This is an interpretation of the proposed design for the first seal of the United States. Benjamin Franklin suggested it, but it was ultimately not used. The caption reads: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Religious beliefs were often used to justify colonial rebellion.

Ministers served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution—as military chaplains; as scribes for committees of correspondence; and as members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions, and the Continental Congress. Some even took up arms, leading Continental Army troops in battle. The Revolution split some denominations, notably the Church of England, whose ministers were bound by oath to support the king; and the Quakers, who were traditionally pacifists. Religious practice suffered in certain places because of the absence of ministers and the destruction of churches, but in other areas, religion flourished.

The Revolution strengthened millennialist strains in American theology. At the beginning of the war, some ministers were persuaded that, with God’s help, America might become “the principal Seat of the glorious Kingdom which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter Days.” Victory over the British was taken as a sign of God’s partiality for America and stimulated an outpouring of millennialist expectations—the conviction that Christ would rule on earth for 1,000 years. This attitude, combined with a groundswell of secular optimism about the future of America, helped to create the buoyant mood of the new nation that became so evident after Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801.

2.4.2 – Church of England

Jonathan Mayhew: Jonathan Mayhew was a noted American minister at Old West Church, Boston, Massachusetts. He is credited with coining the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Ministers were often supporters of the Patriot’s cause during the Revolution.

The Revolution inflicted deeper wounds on the Church of England in America than on any other denomination. This was because the English monarch was the head of the church. As a result, Church of England priests swore allegiance to the British crown at their ordination. The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers for the monarch, beseeching God “to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies.” In 1776, these enemies were American soldiers, as well as friends and neighbors of American parishioners of the Church of England. Furthermore, loyalty to the church and to its head could be construed as treason to the American cause.

Patriotic American members of the Church of England, loathing to discard so fundamental a component of their faith as The Book of Common Prayer, revised it to conform to the political realities of the time. After the Treaty of Paris (1783) documented British recognition of American independence, the church split. The Anglican Communion was created, allowing a separated Episcopal Church of the United States that would still be in communion with the Church of England.

2.5 – Economic Impacts of the Revolution

Congress and the individual colonies encountered difficulties financing the Revolutionary War.

2.5.1 – Financing the American Revolution

Congress and the individual American colonies encountered difficulties when financing the Revolutionary War. In 1775, there was at most $12 million in gold in the colonies, not nearly enough to cover current transactions, let alone a major war. At the start of the war, neither the colonies nor the Continental Congress had an established method of raising revenue through taxation. The British made the situation worse by imposing a tight blockade on every American port, which cut off almost all imports and exports. As a result, the Continental government had to devise a number of means for financing the war.

2.5.2 – During the Revolution

The 13 American states flourished economically at the beginning of the war. The colonies could trade freely with the West Indies and other European nations instead of just Britain. Due to the abolition of the British Navigation Acts, American merchants could now transport their goods in European and American ships rather than only British ships. British taxes on expensive wares such as tea, glass, lead, and paper were forfeited, and other taxes became cheaper. Plus, American privateering raids on British merchant ships provided more wealth for the Continental Army.

As the war went on, however, America’s economic prosperity began to falter. British warships began to prey on American shipping and the increasing upkeep costs of the Continental Army meant that wealth from merchant ships decreased. The government began to rely on volunteer support from militiamen and donations from patriotic citizens. The Continental Congress also delayed payments, paid soldiers and suppliers in depreciated currency, and promised to make good on payments in arrears after the war. Indeed, in 1783, soldiers and officers were given land grants to cover the wages they had earned but had not been paid during the war.

As cash flow continued to decline, the United States had to rely on European loans to maintain the war effort; France, Spain, and the Netherlands lent the U.S. over $10 million during the war, causing major debt problems for the fledgling nation. Coin circulation also began to wane. Because of this, the U.S. began to print paper money and bills of credit to raise income. This proved unsuccessful—inflation skyrocketed and the new paper money’s value diminished.

The declining value of Continental currencies hit soldiers, the poor, and individuals on fixed incomes the hardest because their wages bought less. Soldiers, for example, were already being paid in arrears due to the difficulty Congress was having financing the war, and their wages were rapidly declining in value every month. This contributed to the hardships experienced by soldiers’ families and weakened morale. Ninety percent of Americans, however, were farmers and not directly affected by inflation. Debtors also benefited from the economic situation since they were able to pay off their debts with the depreciated paper money, amounting to a discount on their previous balances.

Starting in 1776, Congress sought to raise money with loans from wealthy individuals, promising to redeem the bonds after the war. The bonds were in fact redeemed in 1791 at face value, but the scheme raised little money because Americans had little specie, and many rich merchants were supporters of the Crown. Starting in 1776, the French secretly supplied the Americans with money, gunpowder, and munitions in order to weaken their common enemy, Great Britain. When France officially entered the war in 1778, the subsidies continued, and the French government, as well as bankers in Paris and Amsterdam, loaned large sums to the American war effort. These loans were repaid in full in the 1790s.

Beginning in 1777, Congress repeatedly asked the states to provide money. But the states had no system of taxation and were of little help. By 1780, Congress was making requisitions for specific supplies of corn, beef, pork, and other necessities—an inefficient system that barely kept the army alive.

2.5.3 – Post-Revolution


[LEFT]: Alexander Hamilton: Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, who was a key player at the Constitutional Convention and established the First Bank of the United States in the 1790s.
[RIGHT]: Robert Morris: Portrait of Robert Morris, who in 1781 was named superintendent of finance of the United States, giving the national government a strong leader in financial matters.

The national debt after the American Revolution fell into three categories. The first was the $12 million owed to foreigners—mostly money borrowed from France. There was general agreement to pay the foreign debts at full value. The national government owed $40 million and state governments owed $25 million to Americans who had sold food, horses, and supplies to the revolutionary forces. There were also other debts that consisted of promissory notes issued during the Revolutionary War to soldiers, merchants, and farmers who accepted these payments on the premise that the new Constitution would create a government that would pay these debts eventually.

By 1780, the United States Congress had issued over $400 million in paper money to troops. Eventually, Congress tried to stop the inflation by imposing economic reforms. These failed and only further devalued the American currency. Late in the war, Congress asked individual colonies to equip their own troops and pay upkeep for their own soldiers in the Continental Army. When the war ended, the United States had spent $37 million at the national level and $114 million at the state level.

Not until 1781, when Robert Morris was named U.S. superintendent of finance, did the national government have a strong leader in financial matters. Morris used a French loan in 1782 to set up the private Bank of North America to finance the cost of the war. Seeking greater efficiency, Morris reduced the civil list, saved money by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightened accounting procedures, and demanded the federal government’s full share of money and supplies from the states. The U.S. finally solved its debt problems in the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton established the First Bank of the United States.

3 – Patriots and Loyalists

3.1 – The Patriots

Patriots were members of the 13 British colonies who rebelled against British control during the American Revolution.

Sons of Liberty Broadside, 1765: The Sons of Liberty were the earliest Patriots and incited the Boston Tea Party.

“Patriots,” as they came to be known, were members of the 13 British colonies who rebelled against British control during the American Revolution, supporting instead the U.S. Continental Congress. These Patriots rejected the lack of representation of colonists in the British Parliament and the imposition of British taxes.

Following the French and Indian War (1753–1763), the colonies gained much greater independence due to salutary neglect, which was the British policy of allowing the colonies to violate strict trade restrictions to encourage economic growth. During the Revolutionary War, Patriots sought to gain formal acknowledgment of this policy through independence. Confident that independence lay ahead, Patriots alienated many fellow colonists by resorting to violence against tax collectors and pressuring others to declare a position in this conflict.

Prominent early Patriots include Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and George Washington. These men were the architects of the early Republic and the Constitution of the United States, and are counted among the Founding Fathers. Prior to 1775, many of these Patriots were active in the Sons of Liberty, an organization formed to protect the rights of the colonists from usurpation by the British government. They are best known for initiating the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

The Patriot rebellion was based on the political philosophy of republicanism as expressed by the leading public figures of the time, including the Founding Fathers and Thomas Paine, author of the popular pro-revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense.” The philosophy of republicanism entailed a rejection of monarchy and aristocracy and emphasized civic virtue. Patriots were also known as American Whigs, Revolutionaries, Congress-Men, and Rebels. Though not all colonists supported violent rebellion, historians estimate that approximately 45 percent of the white population supported the Patriots’ cause or identified as Patriots; 15–20 percent favored the British Crown; and the remainder of the population chose not to take a vocal position in the conflict. Ultimately, Americans remained Loyalists or joined the Patriot cause based on which side they thought would best promote their interests. Prominent merchants in port cities and men with business or family ties to the elite class in Great Britain tended to remain loyal to the Crown, whereas Patriots were comprised largely of yeoman farmers. Nonetheless, people of all socioeconomic statuses populated both sides of the conflict.

3.2 – The Loyalists

During the American Revolutionary War, British Loyalists made up approximately 15–20 percent of the population of the 13 colonies.

“Tory Refugees on the Way to Canada” by Howard Pyle, 1901: This image from the early 20th century depicts the friction between Loyalist and Patriot sympathizers.

Loyalists, also known as Tories or Royalists, were American colonists who supported the British monarchy during the American Revolutionary War. During the war, British strategy relied heavily upon the misguided belief that the Loyalist community could be mobilized into Loyalist regiments. Expectations for support were never fully met. In all, about 50,000 Loyalists served as soldiers or militia in the British forces, 19,000 Loyalists were enrolled on a regular army status, and 15,000 Loyalist soldiers and militia came from the Loyalist stronghold of New York.

There was not unanimous support among members of the 13 colonies for the Patriot Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775–March 17, 1776). Widespread corruption among local authorities, many who later became Revolutionary leaders, alienated colonists from the Patriot cause. Colonists in New York, New Jersey, and parts of North and South Carolina were ambivalent about the revolution. Historians estimate that between 15 and 20 percent of European-American colonists supported the Crown; some historians estimate that as much as one third of the population was sympathetic to the British, if not vocally.

Americans either remained Loyalists or joined the Patriot cause based on which side they thought would best promote their interests. Prominent merchants in port cities and men with business or family ties to elites in Great Britain tended to favor the Loyalist cause. Nonetheless, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds could be found on both sides.

Loyalism was particularly strong in the Province of Quebec. Although some Canadians took up arms in support of the Patriots, the majority remained loyal to the King. Slaves also contributed to the Loyalist cause, swayed by the promise of freedom following the war. A total of 12,000 African Americans served with the British from 1775 to 1783. The Patriots mirrored this tactic by offering freedom to slaves serving in the Continental Army. Following the war, both sides often reneged on these promises of freedom.

By July 4, 1776, Patriots controlled most of the territory within the 13 colonies and had expelled all royal officials. Colonists who openly proclaimed their loyalty to the Crown were driven from their communities. Loyalists frequently went underground and covertly offered aid to the British. New York City and Long Island were the British military and political bases of operations in North America from 1776 to 1783 and maintained a large concentration of Loyalists, many of whom were refugees from other states.

In limited areas where the British had a strong military presence, Loyalists remained in power. For example, during early 1775 in the South Carolina backcountry, Loyalist recruitment outpaced that of the Patriots. Also, from 1779 to 1782, a Loyalist civilian government was re established in coastal Georgia.

When the Loyalist cause was defeated, however, many Loyalists fled to Britain, Canada, Nova Scotia, and other parts of the British Empire. The departure of royal officials, rich merchants, and landed gentry destroyed the hierarchical networks that thrived in the colonies. Key members of the elite families that owned and controlled much of the commerce and industry in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston left the United States, undermining the cohesion of the old upper class and transforming the social structure of the colonies. The Loyalist exodus also included Ohio Valley farmers who had relied on British military security against Pontiac ‘s armies. Recent non-Anglophone immigrants (especially Germans and Dutch), uncertain of their fate under the new regime, also fled. African American slaves and much of the Mohawk Nation joined the Loyalist migration north and northeast.

3.3 – Slavery during the Revolution

African American slaves and freedmen fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War; many were promised their freedom in exchange for service.

African Americans—slave and free—served on both sides during the Revolutionary War. Many African Americans viewed the American Revolution as an opportunity to fight for their own liberty and freedom from slavery. The British recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and promised freedom to those who served.

In fact, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation was the first mass emancipation of enslaved people in United States history. Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who would fight for the British during the Revolutionary War. Hundreds of slaves escaped to join Dunmore and the British Army. Five hundred such former slaves from Virginia formed Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, which is most likely the first black regiment to ever serve for the British crown. African Americans also served extensively on British vessels and were considered more willing and able than their British counterparts on the deck.

Other revolutionary leaders, however, were hesitant to utilize African Americans in their armed forces due to a fear that armed slaves would rise against them. For instance, in May 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety stopped the enlistment of slaves in colonial armies. The action was then adopted by the Continental Congress when it took over Patriot forces to form the Continental Army. George Washington issued an order to recruiters in July 1775, ordering them not to enroll “any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond.” This order, however, was eventually reneged when manpower shortages forced the Continental Army to diversify their ranks.

George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776, in response to a need to fill manpower shortages in America’s fledgling army and navy. Many African Americans, believing that the Patriot cause would one day result in an expansion of their own civil rights and even the abolition of slavery, had already joined militia regiments at the beginning of the war. Recruitment to the Continental Army following the lifted ban on black enlistment was equally positive, despite remaining concerns from officers, particularly in the South. Small all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and many slaves were promised freedom for serving. African Americans piloted vessels, handled ammunition, and even served as pilots in various state navies. Some African Americans were captured from the Royal Navy and used by Patriots on their vessels. Another all-black unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause. Many former slaves who were promised freedom in exchange for their service in the Continental Army, however, were eventually returned to slavery.

Tens of thousands of slaves escaped during the war and joined British lines; others simply escaped on their own to freedom without fighting. Many who escaped were later enslaved again. 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, now freedmen. Altogether, the British were estimated to have evacuated nearly 20,000 freedmen (including families) with other Loyalists and their troops at the end of the war. More than 3,000 freedmen were resettled in Nova Scotia while others were transported to the West Indies of the Caribbean islands. Others traveled to Great Britain. Many African Americans who left with Loyalists for Jamaica or St. Augustine after the war never gained their freedom.

3.4 – Native Americans and the Revolution

American Indian tribes were divided over whether to support Great Britain or the Patriots during the American Revolution.

During the American Revolution, the newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for the allegiance of American Indian nations east of the Mississippi River. Most American Indians who joined the struggle sided with the British, based both on their trading relationships and hopes that colonial defeat would result in a halt to further colonial expansion onto American Indian land. Other native communities were divided over which side to support in the war and others wanted to remain neutral. The first American Indian community to sign a treaty with the new United States government was the Lenape. For the Iroquois Confederacy, based in New York, the American Revolution resulted in civil war. The only Iroquois tribes to ally with the colonials were the Oneida and Tuscarora.

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians by Benjamin West, painted in 1771

Frontier warfare during the American Revolution was particularly brutal and numerous atrocities were committed by settlers and native tribes alike. Noncombatants suffered greatly during the war. Military expeditions on each side destroyed villages and food supplies to reduce the ability of people to fight, as in the frequent raids by both sides in the Mohawk Valley and western New York. The largest of these expeditions was the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, in which American colonial troops destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages to neutralize Iroquois raids in upstate New York. The expedition failed to have the desired effect, as American Indian activity became even more determined.

The British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), through which they ceded vast American Indian territories to the United States without informing or consulting with the American Indians. The Northwest Indian War was led by American Indian tribes trying to repulse American colonists. The United States initially treated the American Indians, who had fought as allies with the British as a conquered people who had lost their lands. Although most members of the Iroquois tribes went to Canada with the Loyalists, others tried to stay in New York and western territories to maintain their lands. The state of New York made a separate treaty with Iroquois nations and put up for sale 5 million acres of land that had previously been their territories. The state established small reservations in western New York for the remnant peoples.

4 – The First Year of the War, 1775-1776

4.1 – The American Military Forces

The Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army in June 1775 and elected George Washington as commander-in-chief.

Continental Army, 1779-1783 by Henry Ogden, ca. 1897: This painting depicts the Infantry of the Continental Army.

On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army, raising 22,000 troops from the Boston area and 5,000 from New York. Many of these troops had little training or military experience; the minimum enlistment age was 16. On June 15, 1775, George Washington was elected as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

As the Continental Congress increasingly adopted the responsibilities and posture of a legislature for a sovereign state, the role of the Continental Army was the subject of considerable debate. Though the war against the British required the discipline and organization of a modern military, many Patriots objected to maintaining a standing army. Washington was never financially compensated for his service as Army commander. The financial responsibility for providing pay, food, shelter, clothing, arms, and other equipment to army units was given to the 13 states by Congress. Unfortunately, the states frequently failed to fulfill these obligations. In 1776, Congress passed the “Eighty-eight Battalion Resolve,” ordering each state to contribute regiments in proportion to their population.

American soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger: This watercolor features several Continental foot soldiers, including an African American soldier from the first Rhode Island Regiment.

Lack of funds for the war effort was a major concern for Congress and resulted in poor conditions for soldiers. Standard conditions for the Continental Army included low pay, hard work, freezing winters, hot summers, poor clothing and shelter, little food, harsh discipline, and a strong likelihood of becoming a casualty. Recruitment depended on the voluntary enlistment of Patriots from each of the 13 states. Early in the war, rising patriotism contributed to high rates of enlistment, however, as the war dragged on, bounties and other incentives became increasingly commonplace. Two major mutinies late in the war drastically diminished the reliability of two of the main units, and officers were faced with constant discipline problems. High turnover was a consistent issue, particularly in the winter of 1776–1777.

Congress’ hesitance to establish a standing army resulted in short, one-year enlistment periods in the beginning of the war. In 1777, enlistment terms were extended to three years or “the length of the war.” In the later years of the war (1781–1782), Congress was bankrupt and it was difficult to replace the soldiers whose three-year terms had expired. Popular support for the war was at an all-time low, and Washington had to put down mutinies both in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey lines.

George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1850: George Washington served as commander-in-chief for the duration of the Revolutionary War without compensation.

Congress also created a Continental Navy in 1775. The main goal of naval operations was to intercept shipments of British supplies and disrupt British maritime commerce. The initial fleet consisted of converted merchantmen; later in the war Congress commissioned several warships. Ultimately, the naval effort contributed little to the overall outcome of the rebellion. Following the war, Congress dissolved the navy due to lack of funds.

4.2 – Britain’s War

For the British, maintaining effective leadership was a greater challenge than raising troops, leading them to crippling losses.

George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville by Nathaniel Hone the Elder, 1766: As secretary of state for the American department, Germain was largely responsible for British strategy in the Revolutionary War.

Lord George Germain served as secretary of state for America during the Revolutionary War. He was the primary architect of British strategy in the Revolutionary War, working closely with British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North. In addition to strategic planning, Germain was responsible for promoting and relieving generals and distribution of provisions and supplies. Germain’s poor understanding of the geography of the colonies and the terrain of North America were great disadvantages. Germain and North also underestimated the strength of the colonists. Following the war, Germain’s ministry received much of the blame for Britain’s loss of the 13 American colonies.

In 1775, British forces were sent to America to put down what was initially expected to be a short-lived rebellion. Because the British army was understaffed at the outset of the war, the British government hired the armed forces of several German states. These allies supplied roughly 30,000 soldiers, or approximately one-third of British forces in North America. These German soldiers became known as “Hessians” to the Patriots and were viewed as mercenaries. By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed from Canada to Florida was over 60,000. The ministry also sought to recruit Loyalist soldiers with limited success. The British never found the amount or quality of Loyalist support in the colonies they had anticipated.

Maintaining capable leadership was a challenge for the British throughout the war. General Thomas Gage, in command of British forces in North America during the early rebellion, suffered criticism for his leniency.

Many speculated that he harbored sympathies for the Patriots due to the influence of his American wife. Several senior British officers turned down appointments or publicly resigned commissions because they chose not to take sides in the conflict, including General Jeffrey Amherst and Admiral Augustus Keppel. William Howe and Henry Clinton, officers with prominent roles in the war, publicly declared that they were unwilling participants and merely following orders.

In general, Whig politicians were vehemently opposed to the Tory plan for militarily suppressing the colonial rebellion, causing great divisions within Parliament. As the British army suffered strategic defeats in battles such as Saratoga and Yorktown, the Whigs gained prominence within Parliament and Lord North’s ministry began to collapse.

Though the British defeated the colonists in a majority of the battles of the Revolutionary War, these victories rarely achieved decisive results. Conversely, the British defeats at the Battle of Saratoga and Siege of Yorktown had a strongly negative impact on British morale, prestige, and manpower.

Aside from the problems inherent in the understaffing of their troops and logistical distance from the battlefields of North America, there were other strategic and psychological factors that prevented the British from achieving outright victory. First, there was no central area of strategic importance necessary to gain victory in the colonies, unlike many of the European conflicts the British army was accustomed to fighting. So, although the British were able to capture large cities such as New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, none of these strategic victories were enough to decisively end the war in British favor. The colonies had not been centralized prior to the war and British forces on the ground were not sufficient to both occupy captured land and cover territories not yet subdued stretching from Canada to Florida. Therefore, many Patriot defeats were quickly reversed on the ground when Patriot militia occupied formerly captured land because British regulars could not sufficiently cover the area. The manpower shortage became even more critical when France, Spain, and the Netherlands entered the war on the side of the colonies.

The British were also hindered by the need to maintain Loyalist allegiance on the ground, which prevented them from utilizing harsh methods for suppressing the Patriot rebellion as they had already done in similar situations that had arisen in Ireland and Scotland. Because Loyalists came from the same communities as Patriots, extreme measures could not be taken on the ground for fear of alienating local support for the British crown. Nonetheless, many neutral colonists were driven to the Patriot cause as a result of heavy brutality, making a single American victory on the battlefield more psychologically significant to Patriot morale and support than a string of British successes in the long term.

4.3 – Quebec, New York, and New Jersey

In the early stages of the American Revolution, battles over Quebec, New York, and New Jersey played an important role in the war.

4.3.1 – Quebec

The invasion of Canada in 1775 was the first major military initiative by the newly formed Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The objective of the campaign was to gain military control of the British Province of Quebec and to persuade the French-speaking Canadiens to support the revolution.

Forces under Major General Richard Montgomery captured Fort St. Johns, the main defensive point south of Montreal, in November 1775. British General Guy Carleton quickly abandoned Montreal, fleeing to Quebec City, and Montgomery took control of Montreal.

A simultaneous expedition left Cambridge, Massachusetts, under Benedict Arnold and traveled with great difficulty through the wilderness of Maine to Quebec City. This arduous trek left Arnold’s surviving troops starving and lacking in basic supplies and equipment. Montgomery joined Arnold outside of Quebec with an army much reduced in size due to expiring one-year enlistment terms.

In December 1775, Montgomery and Arnold’s combined forces were defeated at the Battle of Quebec. The battle was a disastrous defeat for the Patriots. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded. Arnold then conducted an ineffectual siege on the city, but was driven over the border, back to Fort Ticonderoga. The Patriot forces were disorganized and weakened by smallpox by this point. Meanwhile, Loyalist sentiments in Canada were boosted by successful propaganda campaigns launched by the British.

4.3.2 – New York and New Jersey

General George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton, by William Ranney, 1848: Washington’s victory at Princeton bolstered Patriot morale.

In the summer of 1776, General William Howe and 30,000 British troops attacked and defeated General George Washington ‘s Continental forces in the Battle of Long Island. Washington skillfully managed a narrow escape, retreating across the East River to Manhattan Island. In September, General Howe landed about 12,000 men in lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City.

The failure of the Continental Army to hold New York strengthened Loyalist sentiment in the region. Spirits were low among the Continental troops and popular support for the war was wavering. Washington’s army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty and would be significantly reduced after enlistments expired at the end of the year.

News of the capture of New York was favorably received in London, and General Howe was awarded the Order of the Bath for his work. Combined with news of the recovery of Quebec, circumstances suggested to British leaders that the war could soon be won. Britain maintained control of New York City until the war ended in 1783, using it as a base for operations elsewhere in North America.

Meanwhile, Washington’s army organized attacks on British outposts already battling ongoing militia and army raids as he was repulsed from New York by the British. In mid-December, Washington planned a two-pronged attack on an outpost in Trenton, including a third diversionary attack in Bordentown. On the evening of December 25, 1776, Washington led 2,400 of his men across the treacherous Delaware River to ambush Hessian soldiers guarding the British fort at Trenton. The German soldiers were completely caught off guard and the Continental Army quickly triumphed at the Battle of Trenton, killing or capturing nearly 1,000 Hessians. This victory increased Patriot morale and recruitment.

The victory also drew General Charles Cornwallis from New York. Cornwallis reassembled an army of more than 6,000 men and marched most of them against a position Washington was holding south of Trenton. He then stationed a garrison of 1,200 at Princeton and attacked Washington and his men on January 2, but was repulsed three times before darkness set. That night, Washington stealthily moved his troops again, intending to attack the garrison Cornwallis left at Princeton. The British lost more than a quarter of their forces in the battle and convinced General Howe to withdraw most of his army from New Jersey, with only outposts at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy remaining. Though the Americans suffered significant casualties and lost important supplies, Washington retained the core of his army and had successfully retaken most of the state from the British.

After both British and Continental Army troops entered their winter quarters in early January, Continental Army forces from New Jersey and Pennsylvania engaged in numerous scouting and harassing operations against British and German troops quartered in New Jersey. Cornwallis’ troops were attacked as they attempted to forage for provisions and the Continental Army employed scorched earth tactics to further deny supplies to the British. The Continental Army was bolstered during these skirmishes by a large number of militia from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Though both armies laid elaborate traps for each other, the Patriots held an advantage due to their superior knowledge of the regional geography. Northern and coastal New Jersey continued to be the site of skirmishing and raiding by the British forces that occupied New York City for the duration of the war.

5 – The Campaigns of 1777-1779: The North and the West

5.1 – Philadelphia and Saratoga

The capture of Philadelphia was ultimately a setback for the British because it did not lead to the capture of the Continental Congress or end the rebellion.

The Philadelphia campaign (1777–1778) was a successful British initiative to gain control of Philadelphia, the seat of the Second Continental Congress. Following his unsuccessful attempt to draw Continental Army General George Washington into a battle in northern New Jersey, British General William Howe instead turned his attention toward Philadelphia.

William Howe, 1777: Despite his victories in New York and Philadelphia, Howe resigned in October 1777, in response to his role in the British defeat at Saratoga.

In 1777, General Howe began mobilizing his forces for an assault on the city-state. In late August, he landed 15,000 troops at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, 50 miles southwest of Philadelphia. General Washington positioned 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia, but was outflanked and driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The Continental Army suffered over 1,000 casualties in this exchange; the British lost 500. The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, relocating to York, Pennsylvania. British and Revolutionary forces skirmished west of Philadelphia for several days, but on September 26, Howe marched into Philadelphia unopposed.

Though Howe successfully captured the Patriot capital, he neglected the concurrent campaign of General John Burgoyne further north. Burgoyne believed that isolating New York and New England from the rest of the colonies would result in a decisive victory for the British and possibly even an end to the war. In June 1777, Burgoyne marched south from Quebec toward Albany with 8,000 troops severely weakened by Patriot efforts to cut off British supply lines via raids and scorched earth tactics. By September 19th, Burgoyne won a small tactical victory against Continental General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the First Battle of Saratoga. The cost to the British forces was monumental with a total of 600 casualties, or 10 percent of troops. Desertions began to further reduce the size of the British army and critical supplies, including food, were constantly in short supplies. Skirmishing continued after the battle for days while Burgoyne waited for reinforcements from New York City.

“Residence of Washington in High Street, Philadelphia” by William L. Breton, ca. 1828–30: Howe made this house his headquarters during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of Patriot militias swelled the ranks of the Continental Army to over 15,000 men. Burgoyne, who had put his army on short rations in early October, decided to launch a desperate reconnaissance mission and attack the left flank of the Continental Army with only 1,700 troops. The British were quickly defeated at the Battle of Bemis Heights, or the Second Battle of Saratoga, with nearly 900 casualties versus the mere 150 suffered by the Continental Army. Burgoyne surrendered his army to the Patriots on October 17, marking the end of British control of the North.

Howe’s decision to capture Philadelphia in late September left Burgoyne without the crucial support he needed to defeat the Patriots. As such, Burgoyne’s operation ended in disaster for the British at Saratoga and brought France into the war. General Howe resigned during the occupation of Philadelphia and was replaced by his second-in-command, General Sir Henry Clinton. In 1778, Clinton evacuated troops from Philadelphia to increase British defenses in New York City. Washington, however, managed to intercept the evacuating forces at the New Jersey Monmouth Court House, resulting in one of the largest and most infamous battles of the Revolutionary War.

5.2 – The Aftermath of Saratoga

The Patriot victory at Saratoga, a major turning point in the war, effectively ended the British military presence in the North.

The Battle of Saratoga proved to be a major turning point in the American Revolution. On December 4, 1777, word reached Benjamin Franklin at Versailles that British General John Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga. Two days later, King Louis XVI agreed to enter negotiations for an alliance. The Treaty of Alliance was signed on February 6, 1778, and after learning of the treaty, England declared war on France on March 17. Hostilities began with naval skirmishes between French and British forces off of the French island of Ushant in June.

In 1779, Spain entered the war as a French ally. The strength of France’s diplomatic relations with various world powers also influenced the later entry of the Dutch Republic into the war, and declarations of neutrality on the part of other major geopolitical players, including Russia.

Frederick North, Second Earl of Guildford, by Nathaniel Dance, 1773–1774: Following the Patriot victory at Saratoga, Lord North’s government was heavily criticized for their management of the war effort.

The victory at Saratoga also effectively eliminated the British presence in the North. The British quickly withdrew their presence from the region surrounding Saratoga and by the summer of 1778, the war was concentrated in the South.

The British government of Lord Frederick North came under sharp criticism when the news of Burgoyne’s surrender reached London. General Burgoyne returned to England on parole in May 1778, where he spent the next two years defending his actions in Parliament and to the press. Eventually, Burgoyne was formally exchanged for more than 1,000 American prisoners.

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull, 1822: Burgoyne’s surrender was a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

This defeat prompted Lord North to issue a proposal for peace terms in Parliament. These terms were brought to the Second Continental Congress by the Carlisle Peace Commission in June 1778 and immediately rejected on the grounds that the British were unwilling to recognize the independence of the states. Though it was a failure, the Carlisle Peace Commission marked the first time the British government formally agreed to negotiate with the Second Continental Congress. In the same month, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered by the British government to abandon his position in Philadelphia and help defend New York City, which had become vulnerable to French naval power. By June 18, Clinton evacuated Philadelphia. General George Washington’s army shadowed Clinton’s, and Washington successfully forced a battle at Monmouth Court House on June 28, the last major battle to take place in the North during the Revolutionary War. By July, Clinton had advanced to New York City and Washington was positioned in White Plains, New York.

5.3 – The War in the West

Most battles in the West involved conflict between American Indians and civilian settlers.

The Revolutionary War in the West was fought primarily between civilian settlers and American Indians allied with the British. Geographically, the conflict was focused around Detroit, which was held by the British, and south and east of the Ohio River. When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, the Ohio River marked a tenuous border between the American colonies and the American Indians of the Ohio Country. Ohio Indians—Shawnees, Mingos, Delawares, and Wyandots—were divided over how to respond to the war. Though some Native Americans were on friendly terms with settlers, many viewed the United States as a threat to their territory. Approximately 13,000 Native Americans, representing several Indian nations, fought for the British.

Map of the Ohio Country: This map depicts the battles and massacres that occurred within the Ohio Country between 1775 and 1794.

In 1763, the British Crown issued a proclamation forbidding British colonists to settle west of the Appalachian mountain range. Settlers and land speculators in Britain and America objected to this restriction, leading to treaties with American Indians in 1768 that opened up land for settlement south of the Ohio River.

Most of the action in the West consisted of escalating series of retaliations between frontier settlers and local indigenous populations. Land disputes were common as territorial boundaries established by treaty were frequently not honored by both settlers and American Indian tribes. Shawnees, who did not take part in the treaties of 1768, organized a confederacy of western Indian nations with the intention of preventing the loss of their lands. This confederacy gained strength in 1775, with the support of the British.

Early in the war, isolated settlers and hunters became frequent targets of attack, compelling many to return to the East. By late spring 1776, fewer than 200 colonists remained in Kentucky, gathered in a few fortified settlements. The situation escalated in 1777, as the British launched a major offensive into the West from Canada. In order to provide a strategic diversion for operations in the Northeast, the British in Detroit began recruiting and arming American Indian war parties to raid American settlements.

The intensity of the conflict increased as settlers retaliated. In 1778, settlers decided that offensive operations were necessary to secure their western border. Yet the first American expedition into the Ohio Country was a disaster, ending in a blundered attack on peaceful Delaware Indians. Over the next several years of the war, both sides launched raids against each other, usually targeting settlements. Patriot efforts to move against Fort Detroit were undermined due to the lack of ready troops and because escalating raids had created more determined enemies of the American Indians.

The year 1782 was famously dubbed “The Year of Blood” due to the level of cruelty displayed in the raids conducted by both settlers and American Indian nations. In March 1782, in one notorious incident called the Gnadenhütten massacre, a peaceful community of Christian Delawares was brutally executed by militiamen. The Delawares, numbering about 100 and mostly comprised of women and children, were executed by 160 Pennsylvania militiamen with hammer blows to the head. In a subsequent campaign led by Colonel William Crawford against American Indian communities along the Sandusky River in May 1782, Crawford was captured and tortured in retaliation for the Gnadenhütten massacre. Crawford’s execution was widely publicized in the United States, which worsened the already strained relationship between American Indians and European Americans.

Indian Attack on the Village of Saint Louis, 1780: This mural depicts a British force, mostly consisting of American Indians, attacking St. Louis.

In August 1782, British General Caldwell led 300 American Indians into Kentucky in the Battle of Blue Licks, delivering a devastating defeat to 182 militiamen in the state. The Battle of Blue Licks was one of the final battles of the American Revolutionary War and occurred 10 months after Lord Charles Cornwallis’ famous surrender at Yorktown, which had effectively ended the war in the East. It was also the worst defeat Kentuckians had experienced during the frontier war. Peace negotiations between the United States and Great Britain created a temporary respite in hostilities during The Year of Blood, but in November 1782, Brigadier General George Rogers Clark delivered the final blow in The Year of Blood, destroying several Shawnee towns in the Ohio Country.

The war in the Northwest was essentially a draw. In the war’s final years, settlements were destroyed on both sides, but territory could not be held once claimed. Although American Indians had been pushed back from the Ohio River and were now settled primarily in the Lake Erie basin, settlers could not occupy the abandoned lands for fear of further raids. In the final treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the Ohio Country was granted to the United States. Great Britain did not consult American Indians during the peace process, and local tribes were not mentioned in the treaty’s terms. For the American Indians, the hostilities would continue under a different name: the Northwest Indian War. The only difference between this conflict and the previous one was that the American Indians could no longer rely upon the explicit support of the British.

5.4 – The Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge

5.4.1 – Introduction

General George Washington and his army made camp at Valley Forge from December 1777 to June 1778, to protect Pennsylvania from the British.

Following the Battle of White Marsh, the last major engagement of 1777, General George Washington ‘s troops moved to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, to wait out the winter. This location was chosen to protect the interior of Pennsylvania from the British.

5.4.2 – A Harsh Winter

Conditions at Valley Forge were extremely bleak. Due to a shortage of supplies that left approximately one in three men without shoes, many soldiers left a trail of bloody footprints behind them during the march into town. Meat and bread were also in short supply, and soldiers often supplemented or replaced meals with items such as “firecakes” (a tasteless mixture of water and flour) or “pepper pot soup” (a black pepper flavored tripe broth). The snow that collected around the camp was too sparse to be melted into water, and the damp conditions that resulted allowed disease to fester and spread easily. Undernourished, poorly clothed, and living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness.

Typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the many diseases that soldiers suffered from. Because of shortages of clothing and blankets, many soldiers injured from previous battles died from exposure. The shortages were so extensive that at one point during the encampment at Valley Forge, 4,000 men were listed as unfit for duty, and mutiny and desertions were ongoing concerns. By winter’s end, 2,500 men died as a result of the harsh conditions. The animals in the camp fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington’s Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or perished as a result of exhaustion. By the end of winter, approximately 700 horses had died.

Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Continental Congress was unable to provide supplemental supplies due to their inability to efficiently coordinate funding and war support from among the 13 states. Criticism of Washington’s leadership was at an all-time high in light of the harsh conditions experienced by the Continental Army. Anti-Washington movements arose and a few soldiers even advocated replacing Washington with General Horatio Gates, following his success at the Battles of Saratoga. Led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway and referred to as the Conway Cabal, this group of soldiers worked behind the scenes to replace Washington with Gates, damaging Washington’s political cache. Meanwhile, many in the Continental Congress began to complain that Washington had left the surrounding countryside unprotected by sequestering his troops to Valley Forge, further hurting Washington’s chances of gaining additional supplies for what was seen as a poorly executed military venture.

Regimental Camp Followers, mostly consisting of the wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers, however, offered some support where Congress could not. Camp Followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the soldiers’ uniforms. Approximately 500 women spent the winter at Valley Forge. These women gained half the rations and wages of a soldier, as well as a half pension after the war. Children received quarter rations.

5.4.3 – A Change in the Tide

Washington at Valley Forge, by Edward P. Moran: Washington’s troops endured harsh conditions at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–1778.

On February 6, 1778, the French signed an alliance treaty with the 13 colonies, which greatly enhanced the military and monetary support the Continental Army needed to continue the war effort. A celebration of the alliance pact was organized in Valley Forge on May 6, 1778. Soldiers were jubilant and performed drill formations and fired salutes in honor of the French. The celebrations were observed by Washington and other military leaders and all soldiers were provided one gill of rum at the conclusion of the festivities.

Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a skilled Prussian drillmaster, was responsible for developing and carrying out an effective training program for Washington’s troops following the winter. Many of Washington’s troops lacked proper training, a debilitating weakness in their campaigns. Von Steuben, formerly in the service of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was a masterful instructor and greatly increased the discipline and precision of the Continental Army when he arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778. Although he faced many obstacles including a language barrier and the lack of any pre-existing American military training manuals, Von Steuben proved to be an extremely valuable asset to Washington’s forces, teaching soldiers how to aim muskets accurately, charge with bayonets, and maneuver together in compact ranks.

Following France’s entry into the war, British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to leave Philadelphia and move to New York City, which was under threat by the French navy. Philadelphia was evacuated by the British on June 18, 1778. On June 19, 1778, after six months at Valley Forge, the Continental Army marched in pursuit of Clinton’s troops up toward New York.

5.5 – France and Spain in the Revolutionary War

Following the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, France openly provided arms and funding to the Americans and engaged in full-scale war with Britain.

1778 Battle of Ushant by Théodore Gudin, ca. 1848: The Battle of Ushant was the first naval engagement between Britain and France in the Revolutionary War.

Following the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was well received in France, perceived by many to be the incarnation of the Enlightenment spirit. Benjamin Franklin, dispatched to France in December 1776 to rally support, was warmly welcomed. But the French also had other reasons for supporting the Patriots. France bitterly resented their loss in the Seven Years’ War, in which they fought against Great Britain and lost a number of their territories in North America as well as favorable trading status in ports along the Indian subcontinent. The French were keen on ensuring that the British did not tip the balance of power further in their favor, and many in France perceived the American Revolution as an opportunity to strip Britain of their North American possessions in retaliation for French losses a decade previously.

Prior to France’s official involvement, King Louis XVI and the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, the comte de Vergennes, authorized merchants to covertly sell gunpowder and ammunition to the Patriots. French ports also accommodated Continental Navy warships that acted against British merchant ships. France provided significant economic aid and technical assistance in terms of military strategy. Individual French volunteers, moved by the prospect of glory in battle or animated by sincere ideals of liberty and republicanism, joined the American army. Some of these volunteers included Pierre Charles L’Enfant and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette enlisted in 1777, at the age of 20 in defiance of King Louis XVI’s orders. He became an aide to General George Washington and a combat general. Most importantly, the charming young aristocrat helped to solidify a favorable American stance toward France and gave legitimacy to the war among potential European supporters.

In 1777, news of the Patriot victory at the Battle of Saratoga was received with great enthusiasm in France. Following this victory, King Louis XVI immediately negotiated an alliance with Benjamin Franklin. France formally recognized the United States on February 6, 1778, with the Treaty of Alliance. The treaty provided open support from the French army, navy, and treasury. As a result, Britain declared war on France on March 17, 1778.

Rochambeau at Versailles: The comte de Rochambeau served as commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, which supported the Continental Army.

France was also instrumental in securing Spain’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. On April 12, 1779, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez. Under the terms of the treaty, France agreed to aid in the capture of Gibraltar, the Floridas, and the island of Minorca in return for Spain’s agreement to join in France’s war against Great Britain. In June 1779, Spain launched the unsuccessful Great Siege of Gibraltar, the first and longest Spanish action in the Revolutionary War, which lasted until February 1783. In 1781, the Spanish defeated the British at the Battle of Pensacola, giving the Spanish control of West Florida. In 1782, Minorca surrendered to a combined Franco-Spanish force, restoring the territory to Spain nearly 80 years after it had initially been captured by the British. The French navy provided valuable assistance to the Patriots and engaged British naval forces several times in 1778 and 1779, in European and North American waters. Under François-Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly, comte de Grasse, the French defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, ensuring the success of allied ground forces in the Siege of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War.

Second Battle of the Virginia Capes by V. Zveg: This painting depicts French (left) and British ships (right) at the battle of the Chesapeake.

In 1780, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, was appointed commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force. He was given command of approximately 7,000 French troops and sent to join Washington’s Continental Army. Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780, and remained there for a year to support the French fleet blockaded by the British in Narragansett Bay. In July 1781, Rochambeau’s force left Rhode Island, marching across Connecticut to join Washington on the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry, New York. In mid-August 1781, Washington and Rochambeau led the Celebrated March of combined Franco-American forces towards Virginia and the siege of Yorktown.

6 – The End of the Revolution

6.1 – Georgia and South Carolina

In the latter years of the Revolutionary War, the British shifted their strategic focus to the southern colonies, confident of their abilities to recruit support among Loyalists there.

6.1.1 – Introduction

In 1778, the British turned their attention to the South, hoping to draw upon a strong Southern Loyalist base. Expectations for this support base were fueled by accounts of Loyalist exiles in London who had direct access to American Secretary George Germain. Keen to recover their lands, exiles exaggerated the level of potential Loyalist support in the South to encourage the British to undertake a major operation in the southern colonies.

The misconception that the British would eventually find substantial support for their actions in the South held until the final days of the war. As evidence of this, British General Charles Cornwallis stated in a 1780 message to his superior officer that, “Our assurances of attachment from our poor distressed friends in North Carolina are as strong as ever.” As the British campaign in the South progressed, this assumption was shown to be incorrect.

In addition to looking for Loyalist support, Britain also hoped to “scare” Americans back to the crown by raising fear of massive slave revolts. As a part of the Southern Strategy, the British encouraged slaves to flee to their strongholds, promising them freedom. The strategy backfired, but tens of thousands of African Americans sought refuge with the British, and at the conclusion of the war, some 20,000 African Americans left with the British, preferring an uncertain future elsewhere to a return to their old masters. African Americans ended up in Canada, Britain, the West Indies, and Europe. In 1792, 1,200 black Loyalists who had settled in Nova Scotia left for Sierra Leone, a colony on the west coast of Africa established by Britain specifically for former slaves.

6.1.2 – Engagements in Savannah

On December 29, 1778, a British expeditionary corps of 3,500 men from New York, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, captured Savannah, Georgia. In October 1779, French and Revolutionary forces attempted to retake Savannah. Under the leadership of General Benjamin Lincoln, this effort was a spectacular failure with combined French-American forces suffering approximately 900 casualties compared to 50 British casualties. With Savannah secured, British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton launched a new assault on Charleston, South Carolina, which he had failed to capture in 1776.

6.1.3 – Major Operations in the South, 1780-1781

Siege of Savannah: Attack on Savannah by A. I. Keller.

Clinton moved against Charleston in 1780, blockading the harbor in March and bringing 10,000 troops to the area. His advance on the city was uncontested. Inside the city, General Lincoln commanded approximately 2,650 Continentals and 2,500 militiamen. In early March, Clinton began constructing siege lines and commenced bombardment of the town.

On May 12, 1780, General Lincoln surrendered 5,000 men—the largest surrender of U.S. troops prior to the American Civil War. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, winning perhaps the greatest British victory of the war. The loss of the city and its troops was a serious blow to the American cause because it temporarily collapsed American military operations in the South. Following the victory at Charleston, General Clinton turned over British operations in the South to his second-in-command, Lord Cornwallis.

The Continental Congress responded to the fall of Charleston by dispatching General Horatio Gates, a celebrated hero in the Battle of Saratoga, to the South with a new army. However, Gates promptly suffered one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780. This loss set the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.

The success of Cornwallis in the Carolinas was greatly undermined by Britain’s inability to raise large Loyalist armies. Too few Loyalists enlisted, and those who did were left isolated and vulnerable once the British army moved out of their territory. British attempts to raise Loyalists in North Carolina were effectively crushed when a Patriot militia defeated a large force of Loyalists in the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.

General Gates was replaced by George Washington ‘s most dependable subordinate, Continental General Nathanael Greene. Greene proceeded to wear down his opponents in a series of operations referred to as the “Race to the Dan,” named for the Dan River that flows near the border between North Carolina and Virginia. In the “Race to the Dan,” the British won many tactical victories, none of which culminated in any broad strategic advantage. In almost all cases, the “victories” strategically weakened the British army due to large numbers of casualties, leaving the Continental Army intact to continue fighting.

In the late spring of 1781, Greene led the Siege of Ninety Six in an attempt to secure the village of Ninety Six, South Carolina. Though unsuccessful, the actions of Greene and allied militia commanders led the weakened British forces to abandon Ninety Six and Camden, effectively reducing the British presence in South Carolina to the port of Charleston. The final major battle of the Carolinas took place in Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, on September 1781. Nathanael Greene, supported by 2,600 troops, engaged 2,000 British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart. Though the tactical victor of the Battle of Eutaw Springs is contested, this engagement so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene held them for the remaining months of the war.

6.2 – Surrender at Yorktown

The siege of Yorktown by combined French and American forces in the autumn of 1781 was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War.

6.2.1 – Introduction

The culminating engagement of the Revolutionary War, the Siege of Yorktown, marked the end of British power in the colonies. The combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by the comte de Rochambeau resulted in a decisive victory over the British army forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

6.2.2 – Initial Movements

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis: Depicting the British surrendering to French (left) and American (right) troops. Oil on canvas, by John Trumbull, 1820.


On May 20, 1781, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Cornwallis sent raiders into central Virginia, attacking depots and destroying supply convoys, in an attempt to cut off Continental supply lines. Cornwallis was shadowed by a force of 4,500 French forces under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton ordered Cornwallis first to Portsmouth and then to Yorktown, where he was instructed to build fortifications for a deep water port.

In 1780, over 5,000 French soldiers had landed in Rhode Island to support their American allies in operations against British-controlled New York City. In July 1781, Washington proposed a joint attack by Franco-Continental forces on the northern part of Manhattan Island, but was advised against this tactic by his comrades. Washington and French commander Rochambeau shifted attention to operations in Virginia upon receiving the support of French Lieutenant General comte de Grasse. In August 1781, in what has since become known as the Celebrated March, the combined armies of Washington and Rochambeau departed from New York to Virginia, engaging in tactics of deception to lead the British to believe a siege of New York was planned.

Lieutenant General comte de Grasse sailed from the West Indies and arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in late August 1781. British Admiral Sir Thomas Graves led a fleet from New York to meet de Grasse but underestimated the strength of the French fleet. In early September, the British were defeated by de Grasse in the Battle of the Chesapeake and forced to fall back to New York. As a result of this victory, de Grasse established a naval blockade of Yorktown.

On September 14, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the revolutionary allies’ army and naval forces surrounded Cornwallis. Soon after, the allies built their first parallel (earthworks to support a siege) and began the bombardment of British forces. On September 26, transports with artillery, siege tools, and French infantry and assault troops arrived from the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, giving Washington command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. On September 28, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown.

Cornwallis initially relied on a chain of seven redoubts and batteries linked by earthworks along with batteries that covered the narrows of the York River at Gloucester Point. However, the British general soon pulled back from all of his outer defenses. While anticipating the arrival of a relief force of 5,000 men within one week, the British forces occupied three defenses: Fusilier’s Redoubt on the west side of the town and Redoubts 9 and 10 in the east.

The Americans and the French took possession of the abandoned British defenses and began to establish their own batteries there. With the British outer defenses in their hands, allied engineers began to lay out positions for the artillery and Continental forces, improved their works, and deepened their trenches.

Washington fired the first gun on October 9. With the British defense weakened, Washington sent two columns to attack the last major remaining British outer defenses, on October 14, 1781. A French column took Redoubt 9 and an American column took Redoubt 10. Following these successes, the allies were able to complete their second parallel.

On October 16, Cornwallis made an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. With the American artillery closing in, the British situation began to deteriorate rapidly, and Cornwallis asked for terms of capitulation on the 17th. After two days of negotiation, Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and enlisted men in Yorktown and a further 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River to Washington and Rochambeau. Cornwallis did not attend the surrender ceremony, claiming illness.

6.2.3 – The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown

The articles of capitulation were signed on October 19, 1781. Signatories included Washington; Rochambeau; St. Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent; the comte de Barras (on behalf of the French Navy); Cornwallis; and Lieutenant Thomas Symonds, the senior Royal Navy officer present. Cornwallis’ men were declared prisoners of war and promised good treatment in American camps. Officers were permitted to return home after taking their parole.

6.3 – The Treat of Paris

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 ended the American Revolutionary War, granting additional territory to the U.S. and its allies, France and Spain.

6.3.1 – Introduction

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, ended the American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States and its allies. The terms of the Treaty of Paris greatly enlarged the boundaries of the United States, enabling the young nation to rapidly become a major international trading partner. The treaty was signed at the Hotel d’York by U.S. representatives John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, as well as David Hartley, a member of the British Parliament who represented King George III in negotiations. The treaty was made up of 10 articles that addressed territorial rights, treatment of Loyalists, and rights to bodies of water, property, and debt. The American Congress of the Confederation ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784, and copies were sent back to Europe for ratification by all other parties, reaching the French first in March. The British ratified the treaty on April 9, 1784.

6.3.2 – Treaty Terms

The 10 articles of the Treaty of Paris are as follows. Of these articles, only the first remains in effect to the present day.

  1. Acknowledgment that the United States is free, sovereign, and independent, and that the British Crown, including all heirs and successors, relinquish claims to the government as well as proprietary and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.
  2. Establishment of the boundaries between the U.S. and British North America.
  3. Granting of fishing rights to U.S. fishermen in the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
  4. Recognition of lawful contracted debts to be paid to creditors on either side.
  5. Duty of the Congress of the Confederation to “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures recognition of the rightful owners of all confiscated lands and provisions for “restitution of all estates, rights, and properties which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects” (i.e., Loyalists).
  6. Prevention of future confiscations of Loyalist property by the U.S.
  7. Release of prisoners of war on either side, and for all property left in the U.S. by the British government to be left unmolested, including slaves.
  8. Perpetual access rights to the Mississippi River by both Great Britain and the U.S.
  9. Return of territories captured by the U.S. during the war without compensation.
  10. Ratification of the treaty within six months of signing by contracting parties.

6.3.3 – Other Territorial Cecessions and Gains

On September 3, Britain signed separate agreements with France and Spain and, provisionally, with the Netherlands. The territories of East and West Florida were ceded to Spain, as was the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Meanwhile, the Bahama Islands, Grenada, and Montserrat, captured by the French and Spanish, were returned to Britain.

The treaty with France primarily focused on exchanges of captured territory, but also reinforced earlier treaties guaranteeing French fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland. France’s only territorial gains were the island of Tobago and Senegal in West Africa. Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured by the British in 1781, were returned by Britain in exchange for trading privileges in that region.

In the Great Lakes region, the British adopted a very generous interpretation of the stipulation that they should relinquish control “with all convenient speed.” The British argued that they needed time to negotiate with the American Indians, who had defended the region from the United States but had been utterly ignored in the treaty. Even after these negotiations were concluded, Britain retained control of the region as leverage in order to gain recompense for confiscated Loyalist property. This matter was finally settled by the Jay Treaty in 1794, and America’s ability to bargain on all these points was greatly strengthened by the creation of a new constitution in 1787.

6.3.4 – Violations

Treaty of Paris: Benjamin West’s painting of the delegations at the Treaty of Paris: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

Several of the articles of the Treaty of Paris were violated by all sides in the chaotic aftermath of the war. Individual states ignored federal recommendations to restore confiscated Loyalist property, as required by Article 5 of the Treaty, and also continued the practice of confiscating Loyalist property for “unpaid debts,” in violation of Article 6. Some, notably the state of Virginia, also maintained laws against payment of debts to British creditors, defying Article 4. Individual British soldiers ignored the provision of Article 7, which required them to abandon their property in the United States, particularly in respect to their relinquishment of slaves.

The treaty between Spain and Great Britain did not establish any clearly defined northern boundary to Spanish-controlled Florida. Spain used its control of Florida to block American access to the Mississippi in defiance of Article 8 of the Treaty of Paris. The resulting territory dispute between Spain and the United States was resolved with the Treaty of Madrid, or Pinckney’s Treaty, in 1795.

6.4 – The Changed Role of Women

Though the American Revolution brought hope for greater liberties to many, most of the gains made by women during the Revolution did not remain permanent or lead to further freedoms immediately following the Revolutionary period.

6.4.1 – Introduction

The American Revolution had a deep effect on the philosophical underpinnings of American society. One such effect the Revolution and its democratic ideals had was on the roles American women played in society.

The Republican Motherhood evolved as a concept during this period, reflecting the importance of republicanism as a dominant American ideology. Because the concept of republicanism required a virtuous citizenry on which a successful republic could then rest, women were perceived as fulfilling an essential role in the household, instilling children with values conducive to a healthy republic. Republicanism also affected a wife’s relationship with her husband, with virtues such as love and affection becoming more essential to the ideal marital relationship than obedience and subservience.

Because of women’s roles during the Revolution, whether they contributed to the war effort via fundraising or stepped in to run a family business in the absence of a male relative, many historians argue that an ongoing debate on the rights of women was begun. Indeed, the 1787 U.S. Constitution does not mention the term “man,” but rather “persons” or “people.” Due to the increased emphasis placed on women’s civic duties within the home, the environment was also more favorable to their participation in politics as well as their further education. For example, The Gleaner, a three-volume book of political essays and plays self-published in 1798 by Judith Sargent Murray, became a minor classic and was read by George Washington and John Adams. Historian Rosemarie Zagarri argues that in the post-Revolutionary period, a “comprehensive transformation in women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable.”

Nonetheless, many of the gains made by women during the war did not remain permanent or lead to further strides in women’s rights in the immediate follow-up to the war. Women still found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands. Furthermore, the opening of possibilities also engendered a backlash that some argue set back the cause of women’s rights and led to greater marginalization of women within the realm of politics.

6.4.2 – Native American Women

The American Revolution was particularly disruptive to American Indian women who found themselves displaced from traditional social roles as a result of war-related upheavals and American policy. Post-Revolutionary guidelines called for the “civilization” of American Indian people, which, according to the American government, entailed shifting American Indian societies from hunting-based to agricultural-based. The irony in this stated policy was the American government’s ignorance as to American Indian societal practices in which agriculture was a widely spread practice, mostly spearheaded by American Indian women. However, the American government overlooked American Indian women’s contributions to the socioeconomic sphere completely due to the belief held by many policymakers that farming could not be significant enough within American Indian society if women were the main contributors to its operation. As a result, American policy focused on encouraging American Indian women to take up spinning and weaving and forcing men to farm, reversing gender roles and causing severe social problems.

6.4.3 – African-American Women

The period directly following the Revolutionary War was one of great hope and indecision for African Americans. Many hoped that independence from Great Britain would bring with it the abolition of slavery, but instead, slavery was written into the new Constitution. A massive migration, not unlike the Great Migration many years later, took place at the close of the war with primarily African American women moving to urban areas in the North. Prior to the Revolution, urban populations in the North were overwhelmingly male, but by 1806, women outnumbered men four to three in New York City. Most free African Americans in northern urban centers were employed in “service trades” such as cooking and catering, cleaning stables, cutting hair, or driving coaches.

As with many families, African American family life was disrupted heavily in the aftermath of war, especially as slavery became more entrenched and expanded westward. For example, in the Chesapeake region, agricultural and economic patterns changed after the war with many planters moving away from labor-intensive tobacco as a cash crop and diversifying their plantings. Many slaves were sold in the process, usually to the Lower South or West where slave agriculture was expanding. Additionally, many employers in the North refused to house whole families of free African Americans, preferring only to board domestic laborers, who tended to be women. African American women made efforts to continue to support and maintain ties to their kin in these situations, but obstacles remained ever-present and challenging.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless U.S. History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.