The War for Independence
Ideas and protests were not sufficient to win independence soon enough to avoid
war. India, in contrast, won independence from Britain merely through protests when the
power of the photograph could provide “truer” propaganda. American colonists
responded to the outrage of a standing army quartered in their midst by amassing
weapons and supplies rather than by staging acts of civil disobedience. British awareness
of colonial military preparations led to the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker
Hill a year before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second
Continental Congress. The War for Independence would last eight years, longer than any
other American war save Viet Nam. This war proved to be a serious challenge to the
supreme power of Great Britain in Europe; France nearly invaded England in 1779 as
they allied with the fledgling United States of America to exact revenge for the loss of
their North American empire.
The early battles proved two things to the British. They were not fighting a mere
mob, and the colonies were going to have to be conquered. England evacuated Boston,
then, and transferred their main forces to New York. There were more loyalists in New
York which also possessed the best harbor. In 1776, Sir William Howe replaced Gage as
commander in chief over an army 30,000 strong. Howe’s goals were to cut off New
England from the rest of the colonies and to defeat George Washington decisively in a
Before the shooting starts in earnest, the combatants should be compared and
contrasted. The British had several advantages. Eleven million English squared off
against only 2.5 million Americans. The Royal Navy was the largest in the world.
England eventually fielded a well-trained army of 50,000 British troops and 30,000
In contrast, the United States started from scratch in military preparation and
never possessed a navy. Washington fielded as few as 5,000 “professional” soldiers, at
times, and the rest of his forces were untrained militia with inexperienced officers. Great
Britain won by far the majority of the roughly 83 battles of the war, but the US had two
advantages. The 3,000-mile distance hampered British communication and supply.
Furthermore, while the Continental Army was perhaps conquerable, the continent itself
was too big to conquer, in the end. There was no vital center for England to crush. The
disorganization of the rebel army actually helped prevent an all-out confrontation which
would have been disastrous for the United States. Remember this aphorism for later
reference—locals fighting for their homes over known terrain with popular support make
a nearly indestructible force.
An analysis of the miracle of an eventual American victory shows that
independence meant more to Americans than keeping the colonies did to Great Britain.
Independence was a simple and clear idea unlike imperial rule and mercantilism. Even if
England did conquer the Continental Army there would not necessarily have been peace.
Many British officers did not believe as Parliament did that outright conquest of brethren
was a good goal. The first Generals kept offering peace to the Continental Congress and
did not permit plundering, which hurt the morale of British soldiers.
Fierce fighting broke out as Washington tried to harass the British in New York.
At the Battle of the Brooklyn Heights, the British fired grape shot and chain into
oncoming American troops. Grape shot consists of small iron balls and when used,
turned cannon into giant shotguns. “Chain” refers to the practice of firing two cannon
balls out of the same cannon with the balls are chained together. The result is a spinning
saw designed to cut down masts of ships. It worked well on men, too. George
Washington retreated south, and the British occupied all of New York and New Jersey.
Five thousand New Jersey citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Crown, and some of the
bitterest fighting of the war was touched off by patriot/loyalist clashes among Americans.
Washington then proved his pluck and courage by mounting a surprise attack
across the Delaware River. He moved 2,400 troops across the nearly-frozen river and
captured Trenton on Dec. 26th, 1776 and Princeton on Jan. 3rd, 1777 with the loss of only
five American casualties. These moves caused the British to withdraw and limited the
extent of military occupation. The next big British initiative proved the British army’s
capacity to do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
In 1777, England mounted a three-pronged attack to crush resistance in New
England. General John Burgoyne led the first prong of 8,000 troops south through Lake
Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga. Colonel Barry St. Leger drove east from Lake Ontario,
and General Howe came north from New York. This plan sounds like a devastating
finishing blow that would forever bury the hopes of independence, but three-pronged
attacks rarely go well. The only men who could consistently pull them off were Robert
E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and they weren’t born yet. Gen. Howe decided to act
independently and capture the capital in Philadelphia in order to draw loyalist support.
Washington tried twice to stop him but was defeated at Brandywine and Germantown.
Congress fled. But Howe bogged down in Philadelphia and wound up spending the
winter there. Meanwhile, St. Leger’s force was turned back at Oriskany, NY, by the
American General (hero!) Benedict Arnold.
These developments left Burgoyne alone. His supply line from Canada was thin,
and his flanks were harassed by New England militia. 900 British were separated and
defeated by John Stark and 2,000 Americans in Vermont. Burgoyne peeled off 900,
himself, to garrison Fort Ticonderoga. Therefore, when he marched to Saratoga, he had
only 6,200 men. When he had hoped to meet up with the other British armies, he met up
with 10,000 American troops under General Horatio Gates. By October of 1777,
Burgoyne surrendered his entire force to Gates after seeing the hopelessness of his
Saratoga is a major turning point in the war and one of the two battles you should
memorize. Britain experienced the first hint that re-conquest might be impossible. Both
sides thought France might join the war against Britain. The French wanted revenge so
badly that they had secretly been supplying the Continental Army from the beginning.
Benjamin Franklin had opened diplomatic talks with France from 1776-77. French
officers joined Washington’s army, and France had the one thing America most needed, a
navy. When France was thought to be entering the war, Great Britain offered to return
colonists to their position before the Treaty of Paris, 1763, which would have granted
everything the colonists originally wanted, minus independence, of course. Franklin
deftly used this potential reunion of the colonies with England to bluff the French king,
Louis XVI, to form a commercial alliance and then a military alliance in February of
1778. The balance of power in Europe kicked in and Spain allied with France to get back
land it had lost to the British. By 1780, even Russia had formed an Anti-British
European League. All of these events turned on the surprise victory at Saratoga.
Howe was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton redoubled England’s efforts at
sea and moved the military focus south. British forces began bombarding American ports
and raiding the countryside to break the support of the patriot cause. England thought it
would find more loyalist support in the aristocratic South, then sweep north to meet
forces from New York pushing south in a giant pincer movement. Clinton captured
Savannah late in 1778. On May 12, 1780, he dealt America its greatest loss of the war
with the surrender of 5,500 troops at the fall of Charleston. When Gates, the hero of
Saratoga, was sent south to oppose the British advance, he was defeated at Camden,
Through this fighting, the brutality of the British swayed many to support the
patriots. Guerrilla warfare broke out. Lord Cornwallis, in charge of the march north,
sought to make a big push into North Carolina. His forces were harassed by guerrilla
fighters, then, the Battle of King’s Mountain happened on Oct. 7, 1780. The
Overmountain Men were frontiersman from what would become Tennessee who
mustered near Bristol and marched across the Appalachian Mountains to meet the British
threat. These fighters were such accurate shooters that they defeated the British at King’s
Mountain even though the British held the top of the mountain at the beginning of the
battle. His left flank exposed, Cornwallis returned to South Carolina. Thomas Jefferson
would later call this battle a key to winning the war. Go Vols!
Nathaniel Greene, interestingly an ex-Quaker pacifist, led American forces in the
south. He avoided confrontation but caused the British to divide their forces. On January
17, 1781, Daniel Morgan defeated Tarleton’s forces at Cowpens. Tarleton had been the
British officer guilty of most of the atrocities on patriot families and supporters.
Cornwallis tried to chase the American forces, but he wound up giving up South
Carolina. Finding himself in Virginia, he tried to hold that.
By August of 1781 Cornwallis was isolated and picked off by Washington with
the help of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who had come to fight in
America largely because he was bored. Washington’s force worked with a French force
under the Comte de Rochambeau to corner Cornwallis at the other of the two battles you
should memorize, Yorktown. Cornwallis’s 8,000 were surrounded by land with 17,000
American and French, and the French fleet under Admiral Degrasse cut off his escape by
sea by September of 1781. On October 19, Cornwallis said, “The game is lost,” and
surrendered his force after a prolonged bombardment.
The war took a long while to wind down. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and
John Jay traveled to Paris for yet another Treaty of Paris, this time in 1783. This
document is our real birth certificate, not the Declaration of Independence, in that it
proves we had fought the most powerful military in the world and won. The treaty
spelled out our boundaries: the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River in the West to
Canada and down to Florida, which America returned to Spain (for now). The land
contained on that map was more than any European nation thought possible, and we
could hardly believe it, ourselves.