The war that created and established the independence of the United States of America officially broke out between Britain and 13 of its North American colonies at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, and ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed. However, historians now maintain that the revolution really began during, or at least in the wake of, the Seven Years’ War, also called the French and Indian War, long before the “shot heard round the world” of April 19, 1775.
Serious political and social issues between Britain and its colonies emerged during this earlier conflict. Many colonial American men were not prepared to endure the harsh discipline of the British army or navy during the war and had an extraordinarily narrow and even legalistic perspective on their military obligations. For their part, aristocratic British military officers were unfamiliar with colonial America’s more boisterous political culture and expected colonial militiamen to obey orders without a second thought.
These problems of deference and duty grew worse in the 1760s as the British attempted to deal with issues of imperial governance over the huge territory they had won from France. The British struggled to reconcile the goals of its colonial subjects, who hungered for Indian lands between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains, with the need to foster peace, stability, and the continuation of the fur trade among the Indian tribes in the same region. As the French and Indian Wars were ending in 1763, an Indian coalition assembled by Ottawa chief Pontiac besieged British garrisons in and around the Great Lakes, killing or capturing 2,000 colonials and resulting in Britain’s Proclamation Line. This poorly conceived and expensive attempt to separate Indian and colonial claims proved hugely unpopular with American expansionists.
The greatest problem that Britain faced, however, was the doubling of its national debt resulting from the Seven Years’ War, as this conflict was known in Europe. Parliament sought to levy taxes on the colonies in order to manage the debt without raising levies on already heavily taxed British subjects. The colonists, mistrustful of parliamentary motives and quite used to being subsidized by the Crown, reacted with alarm to new taxes on items such as sugar, paper, and, later, tea. Each new tax was followed by petitions, protests, and even riots, especially in Boston, where leaders like Samuel Adams rallied opposition against parliamentary power over the colonies, and in Virginia, where Burgess Patrick Henry shocked fellow legislators by seeming to foment rebellion against King George III.
Each time resistance to a tax ensued, Parliament repealed it but introduced a new one, spawning more resistance that was often met by British shows of force. When Parliament sent in redcoats after the 1774 Boston Tea Party, the deliberate destruction by colonials of 342 chests of tea subject to the hated tax, and imposed what colonists called the Intolerable Acts, it provoked even more violence between British troops and Americans.
Colonial propagandists made the most of these incidents, creating such activist organizations as the committees of correspondence and the Sons and Daughters of Liberty. By 1774, colonists had established the First Continental Congress. Using this body, as well as traditional colonial assemblies and militias, the “Continentals” or “Patriots” soon set up a virtual shadow government that ran the countryside in each colony. The Battles of Lexington and Concord ensued when the royal governor of Massachusetts, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, sent grenadiers and Royal Marines into the countryside to try to confiscate arms and ammunition being stored by the militias.
The first year of the war entailed a land blockade of Boston by multitudes of militias that eventually coalesced into the beginnings of the Continental army under Lieutenant General George Washington. Bloodying the British at Breed’s Hill and other battles, the Continentals were strong enough to convince British troops to evacuate the city. This triumph gave the Continentals time to organize the army and for the Second Continental Congress to begin debating independence in the wake of British measures. Once the decision for independence was reached and the Declaration of Independence published in July 1776, Washington began to organize for the defense of New York, the most likely British target.
The fighting around New York in the late summer and fall of 1776 was the low point of the Revolution for the Americans. Washington committed several amateurish mistakes that cost the army most of its men by December. With his head count down tenfold to 2,000 men, Washington lost control of New York and New Jersey, although victories at Trenton and Princeton rallied the army and the Continental cause.
The year 1777 began with additional defeats, especially the loss of the capital city, Philadelphia, to the British. Yet the Americans did not give up. Congress evacuated to York, Pennsylvania, while Washington continued to train his army and learned to use the complementary strengths of the Continental army and various state militias. A key battle came that summer when the Americans prevented British general John Burgoyne’s attempt to conquer the Hudson River valley and sever New England from the rest of the country. Thanks to the “swarming” tactics of the Continental militias and the skilled leadership at Saratoga of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (later famously a traitor who defected to the British), Burgoyne’s army was forced to surrender. This victory gave U.S. ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin the opportunity that he had been waiting for. Franklin had already succeeded in getting the French to covertly supply the Continentals with small amounts of arms, munitions, and money. Once France was convinced by the victory at Saratoga that the Americans could win, a decision was made to declare war on Great Britain and actively aid the Americans.
While waiting for this promised aid to materialize, supporters of independence endured a difficult interlude. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–78, Continental soldiers were camped just miles from British forces who were comfortably housed in Philadelphia. The Continental army faced hunger, freezing temperatures, and outbreaks of deadly smallpox. Some 3,000 died and another thousand deserted.
Nevertheless, Washington continued to train the Continental army for line-of-battle confrontations with the British, with the help of such European military offi- cers as Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian army veteran. Evidence that this training was making progress was the good showing of the Continental army in combat with British lieutenant general Henry Clinton’s regular forces at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1779 as the British evacuated Philadelphia and withdrew to New York. Yet when the army was led poorly, as it was in battles in the South at Savannah and Charleston by officers like Horatio Gates, the results could be disastrous.
Faced with defeats or stalemates in the North and increased opposition to the war at home and in Parliament, the British cabinet decided to strike at the South in 1779 and 1780 in the hope of mobilizing Loyalists. Loyalists—opponents of American independence, many of whom eventually fled to Britain or Canada—were present in all 13 colonies, though it was not always clear in what numbers. Loyalists tended to be wealthier, Anglican, and, in the South, slaveholders, but, fearing Patriot militias, they were reluctant to show themselves unless British military supremacy was demonstrated in their local areas. What followed was a brutal military struggle in the South from 1780 to 1782 that epitomized the multiple dimensions of this war.
The American Revolution was not just a colonial rebellion against an imperial power. It was the first modern war of national liberation in which a people mobilized themselves with revolutionary nationalism to establish a republican form of government. Yet estimates are that only about 40 percent of the American population was Continental or “Patriot,” with Loyalists comprising another 20 percent, and neutrals, many of them of non-British origin, the remaining 40 percent of the population. The war, therefore, at times deteriorated in all areas of the country into guerrilla fighting between Continentals and Loyalists. Encouraged by British leaders, including former Virginia royal governor Lord Dunmore, tens of thousands of slaves escaped from bondage to British lines, although many others chose to or were forced to serve in the Continental forces. At times, a wartime decline of law and order led to wide-scale banditry by armed groups who owed loyalty to no one except themselves.
The war in the South especially aggravated these tensions and brutalities. When the Americans lost control of the southern coastline and cities, Major General Nathaniel Greene took command in the South and proceeded to employ unconventional strategies and tactics to ruin Major General Charles Cornwallis’s army. Greene employed large guerrilla forces under leaders like Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, as well as local militia and Continental army units to lure Cornwallis into the southern countryside, fighting when it was advantageous and retreating when it was not.
With subordinate generals like Daniel Morgan at battles like Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, Greene was able to damage Cornwallis’s army severely. Heading to Yorktown, Virginia, Cornwallis hoped to be evacuated by the British navy to New York. Instead, since the French navy had by now gained temporary control of Chesapeake Bay, he found himself trapped by a French and American force led by Washington and French lieutenant general Comte de Rochambeau. The victory at Yorktown in October 1781 convinced the British government to begin peace negotiations with the United States.
While negotiations went on for 18 months, fighting by both guerrilla and regular units continued, especially in the South. When the war ended in April 1783, the Americans rejoiced at their victory but also had much reconstruction to perform. The fighting had taken placed entirely on U.S. soil. Both national and state governments were heavily in debt from the war, inflation was rampant, and America’s agricultural economy was so heavily damaged by the British naval blockade that it would not regain 1774 production levels until 1799.
Yet the Revolution changed American society and the world permanently. The European system of social deference made way for a new sense of individualism. African-American slaves drank deeply of revolutionary rhetoric and language, and the war began the slow process of abolishing slavery. So, too, did women and men commoners begin to advocate for revolutionary political rights that most Patriot leaders thought would be reserved for elites. By creating the first large-scale republic in the world, the American experience would become the model for revolutions and wars of national liberation for the next 200 years, starting with the French and Haitian Revolutions in the late 1700s, Latin American and central European revolutions in the 1800s, and the Marxist-Leninist revolutions in the 20th century.
- Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986;
- Shy, John. A People Numerous & Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990;
- Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992.