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The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was a global war that began as a conflict between Great Britain and her Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America.[N 1]
After 1765, growing philosophical and political differences strained the relationship between Britain and its colonies. Following the Stamp Act, Patriot protests against taxation without representation escalated into boycotts, which culminated in the Sons of Liberty destroying a shipment of tea in Boston Harbor. Britain responded by closing Boston Harbor and passing a series of punitive measures against Massachusetts colony. Massachusetts colonists responded with the Suffolk Resolves, and they established a shadow government which wrested control of the countryside from the Crown. Twelve colonies formed a Continental Congress to coordinate their resistance, establishing committees and conventions that effectively seized power.
British attempts to disarm the Massachusetts militia at Concord in April 1775 led to open combat. Militia forces then besieged Boston, forcing a British evacuation in March 1776, and Congress appointed George Washington to command the Continental Army. Concurrently, an American attempt to invade Quebec and raise rebellion against the British decisively failed. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence, issuing its declaration on July 4. Sir William Howe launched a British counter-offensive, capturing New York City and leaving American morale at a low ebb. However, victories at Trenton and Princeton restored American confidence. In 1777, the British launched an invasion from Quebec under John Burgoyne, intending to isolate New England. Instead of assisting this effort, Howe took his army on a separate campaign against Philadelphia, and Burgoyne was decisively defeated at Saratoga in October 1777.
Burgoyne's defeat had drastic consequences; France formally allied with the Americans and entered the war in 1778, and Spain joined the war the following year as an ally of France but not as an ally of the United States. In 1780, the Kingdom of Mysore attacked the British in India, and tensions between Britain and the Netherlands erupted into open war. In North America, the British mounted a "Southern strategy" led by Charles Cornwallis which hinged upon a Loyalist uprising, but too few came forward. Cornwallis suffered reversals at King's Mountain and Cowpens. He retreated to Yorktown, Virginia, intending an evacuation, but a decisive French naval victory deprived him of an escape. A Franco-American army led by the Comte de Rochambeau and Washington then besieged Cornwallis' army and, with no sign of relief, he surrendered.
Whigs in Britain had long opposed the pro-war Tories in Parliament, and the surrender gave them the upper hand. In early 1782, Parliament voted to end all offensive operations in North America, but the war continued in Europe and India. Britain remained under siege in Gibraltar but scored a major victory over the French navy. On September 3, 1783, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Paris in which Britain agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the United States and formally end the war. French involvement had proven decisive, but France made few gains and incurred crippling debts. Spain made some minor territorial gains but failed in its primary aim of recovering Gibraltar. The Dutch were defeated on all counts and were compelled to cede territory to Great Britain. In India, the war against Mysore and its allies concluded in 1784 without any territorial changes.
In 1651, the Parliament of England sought to regulate trade in America by passing the Navigation Acts, ensuring that trade only enriched Britain. The economic effects were minimal, but they triggered serious political friction. The American colonists had fought King Philip's War without significant assistance from the Crown, and this contributed to a growing sense of American identity separate from that of Britain. Britain continued to assert control into the 1680s, culminating in the abrogation of colonial charters and the establishment of the Dominion of New England in 1686. Colonists, however, felt that the Dominion was undermining their democratic liberty and they overthrew it in 1689; the Crown made no attempt to restore it.
The British government continued to pursue trade control, however, passing acts that taxed wool, hats, and molasses. The Molasses Act of 1733 was especially egregious to the colonists, as a significant part of colonial trade relied on the product. The taxes severely damaged the local economy, and consequently they were rarely paid. Smuggling, bribery, piracy, and intimidation of customs officials became commonplace. Colonial wars were also a contributing factor. The return of Louisbourg to France in 1748 following the War of the Austrian Succession caused considerable resentment in New England, the colonists having expended great effort in subduing the fortress only to have it returned to their erstwhile enemy.
Britain triumphed over France and Spain in the Seven Years' War, but this led to a financial crisis, as the national debt had doubled to £130 million, and the annual cost of the British civil and military establishment in America had quintupled when compared to 1749. Smuggling had been tacitly accepted, but now the British began to consider that it blunted their revenue, so Whitehall decided to ensure that customs duties were unavoidable by passing the Stamp Act in 1765. Colonists condemned the tax because their rights as Englishmen protected them from being taxed by a Parliament in which they had no elected representatives. Parliament argued that the colonies were "represented virtually", an idea that was criticized throughout the Empire. Parliament did repeal the act in 1766; however, it also affirmed its right to pass laws that were binding on the colonies. From 1767, Parliament began passing legislation to raise revenue for the salaries of civil officials, ensuring their loyalty while inadvertently increasing resentment among the colonists, and opposition soon became widespread.
Enforcing the acts proved difficult; the seizure of the sloop Liberty on suspicions of smuggling triggered a riot. In response, British troops occupied Boston, and Parliament threatened to extradite colonists to face trial in England. Tensions rose after the murder of a teen by a customs official in 1770 and escalated into outrage after British troops fired on civilians in the Boston Massacre. In 1772, colonists in Rhode Island boarded and burned a customs schooner. Parliament then repealed all taxes except the one on tea, passing the Tea Act in 1773, attempting to force colonists to buy East India Company tea on which the Townshend duties were paid, thus implicitly agreeing to Parliamentary supremacy. The landing of the tea was resisted in all colonies, but the governor of Massachusetts permitted British tea ships to remain in Boston Harbor—so the Sons of Liberty destroyed the tea chests.
Parliament then passed punitive legislation. It closed Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for and revoked the Massachusetts Charter, taking upon themselves the right to directly appoint the Massachusetts Governor's Council. Additionally, the royal governor was granted powers to undermine local democracy. Further measures allowed the extradition of officials for trial elsewhere in the Empire, if the governor felt that a fair trial could not be secured locally. The act's vague reimbursement policy for travel expenses left few with the ability to testify, and colonists argued that it would allow officials to harass them with impunity. Further laws allowed the governor to billet troops in private property without permission. The colonists referred to the measures as the "Intolerable Acts", and they argued that both their constitutional rights and their natural rights were being violated, viewing the acts as a threat to all of America. The acts were widely opposed, driving neutral parties into support of the Patriots and curtailing Loyalist sentiment.
The colonists responded by establishing the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, effectively removing Crown control of the colony outside Boston. Meanwhile, representatives from twelve colonies convened the First Continental Congress to respond to the crisis. The Congress narrowly rejected a proposal which would have created an American parliament to act in concert with the British Parliament; instead, they passed a compact declaring a trade boycott against Britain. Congress also affirmed that Parliament had no authority over internal American matters, but they were willing to consent to trade regulations for the benefit of the empire, and they authorized committees and conventions to enforce the boycott. The boycott was effective, as imports from Britain dropped by 97% in 1775 compared to 1774.
Parliament refused to yield. In 1775, it declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion and enforced a blockade of the colony. It then passed legislation to limit colonial trade to the British West Indies and the British Isles. Colonial ships were barred from the Newfoundland cod fisheries, a measure which pleased Canadiens but damaged New England's economy. These increasing tensions led to a mutual scramble for ordnance and pushed the colonies toward open war. Thomas Gage was the British Commander-in-Chief and military governor of Massachusetts, and he received orders on April 14, 1775 to disarm the local militias.
On April 18, 1775, 700 troops were sent to confiscate militia ordnance stored at Concord. Fighting broke out, forcing the regulars to conduct a fighting withdrawal to Boston. Overnight, the local militia converged on and laid siege to Boston. On March 25, 4,500 British reinforcements arrived with three senior generals; William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. On June 17, the British seized the Charlestown peninsular after a costly frontal assault, leading Howe to replace Gage. Many senior officers were dismayed at the attack which had gained them little, while Gage wrote to London stressing the need for a large army to suppress the revolt. On July 3, George Washington took command of the Continental Army besieging Boston. Howe made no effort to attack, much to Washington's surprise. After a plan to assault the city was rejected, in early March 1776, the Americans fortified Dorchester Heights with heavy artillery captured from a raid on Fort Ticonderoga. On March 17, the British were permitted to withdraw unmolested, sailing to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Washington then moved his army to New York.
Meanwhile, British officials in Quebec began lobbying Native American tribes to support them, while the Americans attempted to maintain their neutrality. Fearing an Anglo-Indian attack from Canada, Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec. Quebec, with a largely Francophone population, had only been under British rule for twelve years, and the Americans expected that liberating them from the British would be welcomed. After an arduous march, the Americans attacked Quebec City on December 31, which was decisively defeated. After a loose siege, the Americans withdrew on May 6. 1776. A failed counter-attack on June 8 ended American operations in Quebec. However, the British could not conduct an aggressive pursuit, due to the presence of American ships on Lake Champlain. On October 11, the British defeated the American squadron, forcing the Americans to withdraw to Ticonderoga, ending the campaign. The invasion cost the Patriots their support in British public opinion, while aggressive anti-Loyalist policies diluted Canadien support. The Patriots continued to view Quebec as a strategic aim, though no further attempts to invade were ever realized.
In Virginia, the Royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had attempted to disarm the militia as tensions increased, although no fighting broke out. After war broke out, Dunmore issued a proclamation on November 7, 1775, promising freedom for slaves who fled their Patriot masters to fight for the Crown. After Dunmore's troops were overwhelmed by Patriots at Great Bridge, Dunmore fled to naval ships anchored off Norfolk. After negotiations broke down, Dunmore ordered the ships to destroy the town. In South Carolina, fighting broke out on November 19 between Loyalist and Patriot militias, and the Loyalists were subsequently driven out of the colony. Loyalists recruited in North Carolina to reassert colonial rule in the South were decisively defeated, subduing Loyalist sentiment. An expedition of British regulars to reconquer South Carolina launched a failed attack on Charleston on June 28, 1776, effectively leaving the South in Patriot control until 1780.
The shortage of gunpowder had led Congress to authorize an expedition against the Bahamas Colony in the West Indies, in order to secure ordnance there. On March 3, 1776, the Americans landed after a bloodless exchange of fire, and the local militia offered no resistance. For two weeks, the Americans confiscated all the supplies they could load, and sailed away on March 17. After a brief skirmish with the Royal Navy frigate HMS Glasgow on April 6, the squadron reached New London on April 8.
After fighting began, Congress launched a final attempt to avert war, which Parliament rejected as insincere. King George III then issued a Proclamation of Rebellion on August 23, 1775, leading to an emboldening of hitherto weak support for independence in the colonies. After a speech by the King, Parliament rejected to oppose coercive measures on the colonies by 170 votes. British Tories refused to compromise, while Whigs argued current policy would drive the colonists towards secession. Despite opposition, the King himself began micromanaging the war effort.[vague] The Irish Parliament pledged to send troops to America, and Irish Catholics were allowed to enlist in the army for the first time. Irish Protestants favored the Americans, while Catholics favored the King.
Militarily, the initial hostilities was a sobering lesson for the British, causing them to rethink their views on colonial military capability. The weak British response gave the Patriots the advantage; the British lost control over every colony. The army had been kept deliberately small since 1688 to prevent abuses of power by the King. Parliament secured treaties with small German states for additional troops, and, after a year, were able to send an army of 32,000 men to America, the largest it had ever sent outside Europe at the time.
In the colonies, the success of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense had boosted public support for independence. On July 2, Congress voted in favor of independence with twelve affirmatives and one abstention, issuing its declaration on July 4. Washington read the declaration to his men and the citizens of New York on July 9, invigorating the crowd to tear down a lead statue of the King, melting it to make bullets. British Tories criticized the signatories for not extending the same standards of equality to slaves. Patriots followed independence with the Test Laws, requiring residents to swear allegiance to the state in which they lived, intending to root out neutrals or opponents to independence. Failure to do so meant possible imprisonment, exile, and, in some cases, death. American Tories were barred from public office, forbidden from practising medicine and law, forced to pay increased taxes, barred from executing wills or becoming guardians to orphans. Congress enabled states to confiscate Loyalist property to fund the war, and offered them a choice between swearing loyalty to the republic, or either face exile, or forfeit the right to protection. Quakers, who remained neutral, had their property confiscated. States later prevented Loyalists from collecting any debts they were owed.
After regrouping at Halifax, William Howe determined to take the fight to the Americans. Howe set sail in June 1776, and began landing troops on Staten Island on July 2. Due to poor intelligence, Washington split his army to positions across the city. An informal attempt to negotiate peace was rejected by the Americans. On August 27, Howe defeated Washington and forced him back to Brooklyn Heights. Had Howe chose to land on Manhattan, Washington could have been encircled and his army destroyed. Howe restrained his subordinates from pursuit, opting to besiege Washington instead. Washington managed to withdraw to Manhattan without any losses in men or ordnance. Following the withdrawal, a second attempt to negotiate peace failed, as the British delegates did not possess authorization to grant independence. Howe then seized control of New York on September 15, and unsuccessfully engaged the Americans the following day. Howe attempted encirclement of Washington again, but the Americans successfully withdrew. On October 28, the British fought an indecisive action against Washington, in which Howe declined to attack Washington's army, instead concentrating his efforts upon a hill that was of no strategic value.
Washington's retreat left the remnants of his forces isolated, and, on November 16, the British captured an American army, taking 3,000 prisoners, amounting to the worst American defeat to date. Washington fell back four days later. Henry Clinton then captured Newport, an operation which he opposed, feeling the 6,000 troops assigned to him could have been better employed in the pursuit of Washington. The American prisoners were then sent to the infamous "prison ships", in which more American soldiers and sailors died of disease and neglect than died in every battle of the war combined. Charles Cornwallis pursued Washington, but Howe ordered him to halt, and Washington escaped unmolested. The outlook of the American cause was bleak; the army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men, and would be reduced further when the enlistments expired at the end of the year. Popular support wavered, morale ebbed away, and Congress abandoned Philadelphia. Loyalist activity surged in the wake of the American defeat, especially in New York.
News of the campaign was well received in Britain; festivities took place in London, and public support reached a peak. William Howe was awarded the Order of the Bath by the King. The successes led to predictions that the British could win within a year. The American defeat revealed Washington's strategic deficiencies, such as dividing a numerically weaker army in the face of a stronger one, his inexperienced staff misreading the situation, and his poorly-trained troops, who fled in disorder when fighting began. In the meantime, the British entered winter quarters, and were in a good place to resume campaigning.
On December 25, 1776, Washington stealthily crossed the Delaware, and overwhelmed the Hessian garrison at Trenton the following morning, taking 900 prisoners. The decisive victory rescued the army's flagging morale, and gave a new hope to the cause for independence. Cornwallis marched to re-take Trenton, though his efforts to this end were repulsed on January 2. Washington outmanoeuvred Cornwallis that night, and defeated his rearguard the following day. The victories proved instrumental in convincing the French and Spanish that the Americans were worthwhile allies, as well as recovering morale in the army. Washington entered winter quarters at Morristown on January 6, though a protracted guerrilla conflict continued. While encamped, Howe made no attempt to attack, much to Washington's amazement.
In December 1776, John Burgoyne returned to London to set strategy with Lord George Germain. Burgoyne's plan was to establish control of the Champlain-George-Hudson route from New York to Quebec, isolating New England. Efforts could then be concentrated on the southern colonies, where it was believed Loyalist support was in abundance. Howe instead argued capturing Philadelphia and defeating Washington was a priority. Germain approved this plan, leaving Howe unable to assist Burgoyne. Washington himself was baffled by Howe's choices. Alden argues Howe was influenced by the idea that, upon success, he would not receive credit, but Burgoyne. Controversy persists over whether Germain approved Burgoyne's plan after reading Howe's, and whether he shared this information with his subordinates. Howe was not given any explicit orders to assist Burgoyne, however, a copy Germain sent to Quebec explicitly stated Howe was to assist Burgoyne's efforts. Another letter stated Howe should launch his campaign against Philadelphia as intended, while allowing enough time to assist Burgoyne. Black argues Germain either left his generals too much latitude, or without a clear direction.
Burgoyne's plan was to lead an army along Lake Champlain, while a strategic diversion advanced along the Mohawk River, and both would rendezvous at Albany. Burgoyne set out on June 14, 1777, quickly capturing Ticonderoga on July 5. The hasty withdrawal of the Continental Army after little resistance outraged the American public. Burgoyne's pursuit ran into stiff resistance at Hubbardton and Fort Anne. Leaving 1,300 men behind as a garrison, Burgoyne continued the advance. Progress was slow; the Americans blocked roads, destroyed bridges, dammed streams and denuded the area of food. Meanwhile, Barry St. Ledger's diversionary column laid siege to Fort Stanwix. St. Ledger withdrew to Quebec on August 22 after his Indian support abandoned him. On August 16, a British foraging expedition was soundly defeated at Bennington, and more than 700 troops were captured. As a result of the defeat, the vast majority of Burgoyne's Indian support abandoned him. Meanwhile, Howe informed Burgoyne he would launch his campaign on Philadelphia as planned, and would be unable to render aid.
Having considered his options, Burgoyne decided to continue the advance. On September 19, he attempted to flank the American position, and clashed at Freeman's Farm. The British won, but at the cost of 600 casualties. Burgoyne then dug in, but suffered a constant haemorrhage of deserters, and critical supplies were running low. Henry Clinton did capture two key forts on October 6 to divert American resources, though he turned back ten days later. Meanwhile, the American army was growing in size daily, swelling to some 15,000 men. On October 7, a British reconnaissance in force against the American lines was repulsed with heavy losses. Burgoyne then withdrew with the Americans in pursuit, and by October 13, he was surrounded. With no hope of relief and supplies exhausted, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17. 6,222 soldiers became prisoners of the Americans. The decisive success spurred France to enter the war as an ally of the United States, securing the final elements needed for victory over Britain, that of foreign assistance.
Meanwhile, Howe launched his campaign against Washington, though his initial efforts to bring him to battle in June 1777 failed. Howe declined to attack Philadelphia overland via New Jersey, or by sea via the Delaware Bay, even though both options would have enabled him to assist Burgoyne if necessary. Instead, he took his army on a time-consuming route through the Chesapeake Bay, leaving him completely unable to assist Burgoyne. This decision was so difficult to understand, Howe's critics accused him of treason.
Howe outflanked and defeated Washington on September 11, though he failed to follow-up on the victory and destroy his army. A British victory at Willistown left Philadelphia defenceless, and Howe captured the city unopposed on September 26. Howe then moved 9,000 men to Germantown, north of Philadelphia. Washington launched a surprise attack on Howe's garrison on October 4, which was eventually repulsed. Again, Howe did not follow-up on his victory, leaving the American army intact and able to fight. Later, after several days of probing American defences at White Marsh, Howe inexplicably ordered a retreat to Philadelphia, astonishing both sides. Howe ignored the vulnerable American rear, where an attack could have deprived Washington of his baggage and supplies. On December 19, Washington's army entered winter quarters at Valley Forge. Poor conditions and supply problems resulted in the deaths of some 2,500 troops. Howe, only 20 miles (32 km) away, made no effort to attack, which critics observed could have ended the war.
The Continental Army was put through a new training program, supervised by Baron von Steuben, introducing the most modern Prussian methods of drilling. Meanwhile, Howe resigned, and was replaced by Henry Clinton on May 24, 1778. Clinton received orders to abandon Philadelphia and fortify New York following France's entry into the war. On June 18, the British departed Philadelphia, with the reinvigorated Americans in pursuit. The two armies fought at Monmouth Court House on June 28, with the Americans holding the field, greatly boosting morale and confidence. By July, both armies were back in the same positions they had been two years prior.
The defeat at Saratoga caused considerable anxiety in Britain over foreign intervention. The North ministry sought reconciliation with the colonies by consenting to their original demands, although Lord North refused to grant independence. No positive reply was received from the Americans.
French foreign minister the Comte de Vergennes was strongly anti-British, and he sought a casus belli to go to war with and weaken their perennial foe following the conquest of Canada in 1763. The French had covertly supplied the Americans through neutral Dutch ports since the onset of the war, proving invaluable throughout the Saratoga campaign. The French public favored war, though Vergennes and King Louis XVI were hesitant, owing to the military and financial risk. The American victory at Saratoga convinced the French that supporting the Patriots was worthwhile, but doing so also brought major concerns. The King was concerned that Britain's concessions would be accepted, and that she would then reconcile with the Colonies to strike at French and Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. To prevent this, France formally recognized the United States on February 6, 1778 and followed with a military alliance. France aimed to expel Britain from the Newfoundland fishery, end restrictions on Dunkirk sovereignty, regain free trade in India, recover Senegal and Dominica, and restore the Treaty of Utrecht provisions pertaining to Anglo-French trade.
Spain was wary of provoking war with Britain before she was ready, so she covertly supplied the Patriots via her colonies in New Spain. Congress hoped to persuade Spain into an open alliance, so the first American Commission met with the Count of Aranda in 1776. Spain was still reluctant to make an early commitment, owing to a lack of direct French involvement, the threat against their treasure fleets, and the possibility of war with Portugal, Spain's neighbor and a close ally of Britain. However, Spain affirmed its desire to support the Americans the following year, hoping to weaken Britain's empire. In the Spanish-Portuguese War (1776-77), the Portuguese threat was neutralized. On 12 April 1779, Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez with France and went to war against Britain. Spain sought to recover Gibraltar and Minorca in Europe, as well as Mobile and Pensacola in Florida, and also to expel the British from Central America.
Meanwhile, George III had given up on subduing America while Britain had a European war to fight. He did not welcome war with France, but he believed that Britain had made all necessary steps to avoid it and cited the British victories over France in the Seven Years' War as a reason to remain optimistic. Britain tried in vain to find a powerful ally to engage France, leaving it isolated, preventing Britain from focusing the majority of her efforts in one theater, and forcing a major diversion of military resources from America. Despite this, the King determined never to recognize American independence and to ravage the colonies indefinitely, or until they pleaded to return to the yoke of the Crown. Mahan argues that Britain's attempt to fight in multiple theaters simultaneously without major allies was fundamentally flawed, citing impossible mutual support, exposing the forces to defeat in detail.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, Britain had appealed to her ally, the neutral Dutch Republic, to loan her the use of the Scots Brigade for service in America, but pro-American sentiment among the Dutch public forced them to deny the request. Consequently, the British attempted to invoke several treaties for outright Dutch military support, but the Republic still refused. Moreover, American troops were being supplied with ordnance by Dutch merchants via their West Indies colonies. French supplies bound for America had also passed through Dutch ports. The Republic maintained free trade with France following France's declaration of war on Britain, citing a prior concession by Britain on this issue. Britain responded by confiscating Dutch shipping, and even firing upon it. Consequently, the Republic joined the First League of Armed Neutrality to enforce their neutral status. The Republic had also given sanctuary to American privateers and had drafted a treaty of commerce with the Americans. Britain argued that these actions contravened the Republic's neutral stance and declared war in December 1780.
Soon after France declared war, French and British fleets fought an indecisive action off Ushant on 27 July 1778. On 12 April 1779, Spain entered the war, with a primary goal of capturing Gibraltar. On June 24, Spanish troops under the Duc de Crillon laid siege to the Rock. The naval blockade, however, was relatively weak, and the British were able to resupply the garrison. Meanwhile, a plan was formulated for a combined Franco-Spanish invasion of the British mainland. A combination of poor planning, disease, logistical issues and high financial expenditures resulted in the expedition's failure. However, a diversionary Franco-American squadron under John Paul Jones did meet with some success on 23 September. On 16 January 1780, the Royal Navy under George Rodney scored a major victory over the Spanish, weakening the naval blockade of Gibraltar.
On 9 August, a Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Luis de Córdova intercepted and decisively defeated a large British convoy off The Azores, led by John Moutray, bound for the West Indies. The defeat was catastrophic for Britain; losing 52 merchant ships, 5 East Indiamen, 80,000 muskets, equipment for 40,000 troops, 294 guns and 3,144 men, making it one of the most complete naval captures ever made. The loss was valued at some £1.5 million, or £180 million in today's money, dealing a severe blow to British commerce.
In the Caribbean, intending to damage British trade, the French blockaded the lucrative sugar islands of Barbados and Jamaica. In order to improve communication among French Caribbean islands, and to strike a blow to privateering, French troops led by the Marquis de Bouillé captured Dominica on 7 September 1778. To monitor the French naval base on Martinique, the British defeated a French naval force on 15 December, and captured St. Lucia on 28 December. Though both fleets received reinforcements through the first half of 1779, the French under the Comte d'Estaing soon enjoyed superiority in the Caribbean, and began capturing British territories; seizing St. Vincent on 18 June, and Grenada on 4 July. On July 6, having pursued d'Estaing from Grenada, the British fleet under John Byron was tactically defeated, the worst loss the Royal Navy had suffered since 1690. Naval skirmishes continued until 17 April 1780, when British and French fleets clashed indecisively off Martinique.
On the mainland, Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana, had intercepted intelligence the British were planning to invade New Orleans, and decided to strike first. Gálvez intended to conquer West Florida, and set out with 670 men on August 27, 1779, though his force was soon swollen to 1,400 by local Native Americans. On 7 September, Fort Bute fell to the Spanish, who then marched on to Baton Rouge, arriving on September 12. After a nine-day siege, the town fell. Leaving a garrison behind, Gálvez returned to New Orleans to recruit additional troops. In early 1780, Gálvez mounted an expedition to take Mobile, setting off with 750 troops on 11 January. Joined by reinforcements from Havana, siege operations commenced on March 1, and the town fell after a 14-day siege. Gálvez had hoped to push on to Pensacola, the British capital of West Florida, however, a hurricane devastated his expedition, stalling it till 1781.
In Central America, the defence of Guatemala was a priority for Spain. The British intended to capture the key fortress of San Fernando de Omoa and drive the Spanish from the region. After inadequate first attempts, 1,200 British troops led by William Dalrymple arrived on 16 October, and captured the fort on 20 October. However, the British suffered terribly due to disease, and were forced to abandon the fort on 29 November, and Spanish troops subsequently reoccupied the fort. In 1780, John Dalling, governor of Jamaica, planned an expedition to cut New Spain in two, by capturing Granada, which would subsequently allow them full control of the San Juan River. The British expedition, led by John Polson and Horatio Nelson, set out on 3 February 1780. On 17 March, the expedition reached Fort San Juan and laid siege, capturing it on 29 April. The British were ravaged by disease, and were running low on food due to poor logistics. The British withdrew on 8 November, the expedition having suffered a decisive defeat; some 2,500 troops had perished, making it the costliest British disaster of the war.
After word of hostilities with France reached India, the British East India Company moved quickly to capture French possessions, and took Pondicherry after a two-week siege on 19 October 1778. The Company resolved to drive the French out of India entirely, capturing the Malabar port of Mahé in 1779. Mahé had been under the protection of Mysore, as French ordnance passed through the port to the Mysorean ruler, Hyder Ali. Tensions were already inflamed due to British support for Malabar rebels against Ali, and the fall of Mahé precipitated war. In July 1780, Ali invaded the Carnatic, and laid siege to Tellicherry and Arcot. A 7,000-strong Company relief force under William Baille was intercepted and destroyed by the Tipu Sultan on 10 September; thus far the worst defeat suffered by a European army in India. Instead of pressing on for a decisive victory against a second Company army at Madras, Ali renewed the siege at Arcot, capturing it on 3 November. The delay allowed British forces to regroup for campaigning the following year.
Following the British defeat at Saratoga, and the entry of France into the war, Henry Clinton withdrew from Philadelphia, consolidating in New York. French admiral the Comte d'Estaing had been dispatched to North America in April 1778 to assist Washington, arriving shortly after Clinton withdrew into New York. Concluding New York's defences were too formidable for the French fleet, the Franco-American forces opted to attack Newport. This effort, launched on August 29, failed after the French opted to withdraw, greatly angering the Americans. The war then ground down to a stalemate, with the majority of actions fought as large skirmishes, such as those at Chestnut Neck and Little Egg Harbor. In the summer of 1779, the Americans captured British posts at Stony Point and Paulus Hook.
In July, Clinton's attempts to coax Washington into a decisive engagement with a major raid into Connecticut failed. That month, a large American naval operation to retake Maine resulted in the worst American naval defeat until Pearl Harbor in 1941. The high frequency of Iroquois raids on the locals compelled Washington to mount a punitive expedition, destroying a large number of Iroquois settlements, but the effort ultimately failed to stop the raids. During the winter of 1779–80, the Continental Army suffered greater hardships than at Valley Forge. Morale was poor; public support was being eroded by the long war, the national currency was virtually worthless, the army was plagued with supply problems, desertion was common, and, in early 1780, whole regiments mutinied over the conditions.
In 1780, Clinton launched an attempt to re-take New Jersey. On June 7, an invasion of 6,000 men under Hessian general Wilhelm von Knyphausen met stiff resistance from the local militia. Though the British held the field, Knyphausen feared a general engagement with Washington's main army, and withdrew. A fortnight later, Knyphausen and Clinton decided upon a second attempt, which was soundly defeated at Springfield, effectively ending British ambitions in New Jersey. Meanwhile, American general Benedict Arnold had grown disenfranchised with the war, and conspired with the British to surrender the key American fortress of West Point. Arnold's plot was foiled upon the capture of his contact, John André, and he escaped to British lines in New York. Though Arnold's reasoning reflected Loyalist opinion, Patriots strongly condemned him.
West of the Appalachians, the war was largely confined to skirmishing and raids. In February 1778, an expedition of militia to destroy British military supplies in settlements along the Cuyahoga River was halted due to adverse weather. Later in the year, a second campaign was undertaken to seize the Illinois Country from the British. The Americans captured Kaskaskia on July 4, and then secured Vincennes, although the latter was quickly recaptured by Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit. In early 1779, the Americans counter-attacked by undertaking a risky winter march, and secured the surrender of the British at Vincennes, taking Hamilton prisoner.
On May 25, 1780, the British launched an expedition into Kentucky, as part of a wider operation to clear resistance from Quebec to the Gulf coast. The expedition met with only limited success, though hundreds of settlers were killed or captured. The Americans responded with a major offensive along the Mad River in August, which met with some success, but did little to abate the Native American raids on the frontier. An attempt by French militia to capture Detroit ended in disaster when Miami Indians ambushed and defeated the gathered troops on November 5. The war in the west had become a stalemate; the Americans did not have the manpower to simultaneously defeat the Indian tribes and occupy their land.
In 1778, despite the defeat at Saratoga, the British turned their attention to reconquering the South. Prominent Loyalists with great influence in London had convinced the British that Loyalist support was high in the South, and that a campaign there would inspire a popular Loyalist uprising. The British centred their strategy upon this thinking. A southern campaign also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where it would be needed to defend lucrative colonies against the Franco-Spanish fleets.
On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from New York captured Savannah. British troops then moved inland to recruit Loyalist support. Despite a promising initial turnout in early 1779, a large Loyalist militia was defeated at Kettle Creek on February 14, demonstrating their vulnerability when operating away from British regulars. The British recovered their loss, defeating Patriot militia at Brier Creek on March 3. The British then launched an abortive assault on Charleston, South Carolina. The operation was noted for a high degree of looting by British troops, enraging both Loyalists and Patriot colonists. In October, a combined Franco-American effort to capture Savannah failed. In 1780, Henry Clinton moved against Charleston, capturing it on May 12. With few losses of their own, the British took 5,266 prisoners, effectively destroying the Continental Army in the south. Organized American resistance in the region collapsed when Banastre Tarleton defeated the withdrawing Americans at Waxhaws on May 29.
Clinton returned to New York, leaving Charles Cornwallis in command in Charleston to oversee the southern war effort. In the interim, the war was carried on by Patriot militias, whom effectively suppressed Loyalists by winning victories in Fairfield County, Lincolnton, York County, Stanly County, and Lancaster County. Congress appointed Horatio Gates, victor at Saratoga, to lead the American effort in the south. Soon after arriving, on August 16, Gates suffered a major defeat at Camden, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina. While Patriot militia continued to interfere in attempts to pacify the countryside, Cornwallis dispatched troops to raise Loyalist forces to cover his left flank as he moved north. This wing of Cornwallis' army was virtually destroyed on October 7, irreversibly breaking Loyalist support in the Carolinas. Cornwallis subsequently aborted his advance and retreated back into South Carolina. In the interim, Washington replaced Gates with his trusted subordinate, Nathanael Greene.
Unable to confront the British directly, Greene dispatched a force under Daniel Morgan to recruit additional troops. Morgan then defeated the cream of the British army under Tarleton on January 17, 1781, at Cowpens. As after the defeat of the Loyalists at King's Mountain, Cornwallis was criticized for his decision to detach a substantial part of his army without adequate support. Despite the setbacks, Cornwallis proceeded to advance into North Carolina, gambling that he would receive substantial Loyalist support. Greene evaded combat with Cornwallis, instead wearing his army down through a protracted war of attrition. By March, Greene's army had grown enough where he felt confident in facing Cornwallis. The two armies engaged at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, and, though Greene was beaten, Cornwallis' army had suffered irreplaceable casualties. Compounding this, far fewer Loyalists were joining as expected due to effective Patriot suppression. Cornwallis' casualties were such that he was compelled to retreat to Wilmington for reinforcement, leaving the interior of the Carolinas, and Georgia, wide open to Greene.
In Cornwallis' absence, Greene proceeded to reconquer the South. Despite suffering a reversal at Hobkirk's Hill on April 25, American troops continued to dislodge strategic British posts in the area, capturing Fort Watson, and Fort Motte. Augusta, the last major British outpost in the South outside of Charleston and Savannah, fell on June 6. In an effort to stop Greene, a British force clashed with American troops at Eutaw Springs on September 8. Despite inflicting a tactical defeat on Greene's army, the casualties suffered by the British were such that they withdrew to Charleston. While minor skirmishes in the Carolinas continued till the end of the war, British troops were effectively confined to Charleston and Savannah for the remainder of the conflict.
Cornwallis had discovered that the majority of the American's supplies in the Carolinas were passing through Virginia, and had written to both Lord Germain and Clinton detailing his intentions to invade. Cornwallis believed a successful campaign there would cut supplies to Greene's army and precipitate a collapse of American resistance in the South. Clinton strongly opposed the plan, instead favoring conducting a campaign further north in the Chesapeake region. Lord Germain wrote to Cornwallis approving his plan, neglecting to include Clinton in the decision-making entirely, despite him being Cornwallis' superior officer. Cornwallis then decided to move into Virginia without informing Clinton. Clinton, however, had failed to construct a coherent strategy for British operations in 1781, owing to his difficult relationship with his naval counterpart, Marriot Arbuthnot.
Following the calamitous operations at Newport and Savannah, French planners realized closer cooperation with the Americans was required to achieve success. The French fleet, led by the Comte de Grasse, had received discretionary orders from Paris to assist joint efforts in the north if naval support was needed. Washington and his French counterpart, the Comte de Rochambeau, discussed their options. Washington pushed for an attack on New York, while Rochambeau preferred a strike in Virginia, where the British were less well-established and thus, easier to defeat. Franco-American movements around New York caused Clinton a great deal of anxiety, fearing an attack on the city. His instructions to Cornwallis during this time were vague, rarely forming explicit orders. However, Clinton did instruct Cornwallis to establish a fortified naval base, and transfer troops to the north to defend New York. Cornwallis dug in at Yorktown, and awaited the Royal Navy.
Washington still favored an assault on New York, but was essentially overruled when the French opted to send their fleet to their preferred target of Yorktown. In August, the combined Franco-American army moved south to cooperate with de Grasse to defeat Cornwallis. Lacking sufficient naval resources to effectively counter the French, the British dispatched an inadequate fleet under Thomas Graves to assist Cornwallis and assume naval dominance. On September 5, the French fleet decisively defeated Graves, giving the French control of the seas around Yorktown, cutting Cornwallis off from reinforcements and relief. Despite the continued urging of his subordinates, Cornwallis made no attempt to break out and engage the Franco-American army before it had established siege works, instead expecting reinforcements would arrive from New York.
On September 28, the Franco-American army laid siege to Yorktown. Believing relief from Clinton was imminent, Cornwallis prematurely abandoned all of his outer defences, which were then occupied by the Franco-American troops, serving to hasten his subsequent defeat. A British attempt to break out of the siege across the river at Gloucester Point failed when a storm hit. Under increasing bombardment and with dwindling supplies, Cornwallis and his subordinates agreed their situation was untenable, and negotiated a surrender on October 17. Some 7,685 soldiers became prisoners of the Franco-American army. The same day as the surrender, 6,000 troops under Clinton had departed New York, sailing to relieve Yorktown.
Following British successes at Newport and Charleston, the North government had gained support in Parliament. However, the government's decision to allow Irish Catholics to enlist in the army was deeply unpopular, triggering a massive protest in London in 1780, culminating in widespread rioting. The riots were the most destructive in London's history, damaging the prestige of the government. On 25 November 1781, the situation worsened when news of the surrender at Yorktown arrived in London. Prime Minister Lord North is said to have repeatedly exclaimed; "Oh, God! It's all over!" King George III received the news with dignity, though later became depressed and considered abdication. The Whig opposition gained traction in Parliament, though a motion proposed on December 12 to end the war was defeated by only one vote.
Lord Germain, who had overseen strategic matters in the war effort, was dismissed from office in early 1782. Soon after, a no confidence motion in the Prime Minister was passed, forcing the resignation of North and leading to the collapse of his ministry. The Rockingham Whigs came to power soon after and began opening negotiations for peace. Prime Minister the Marquess of Rockingham died in office on 1 July 1782, and was succeeded by the Earl of Shelburne, forcing the resignations of prominent Whigs Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, with whom Shelburne had an icy relationship. Shelburne was initially hesitant to granting full American independence, instead preferring the colonies accept Dominion status, though such intentions were never realized.
Despite the defeats in America, the British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned there, occupying New York, Charleston and Savannah. Henry Clinton was recalled to London after the defeat at Yorktown, and departed America in March 1782. He was replaced by Guy Carleton, who was under orders to suspend offensive operations in America.
After hostilities with the Dutch began in late 1780, Britain had moved quickly, enforcing a blockade across the North Sea. Within weeks, the British had captured 200 Dutch merchantmen, and 300 more were holed up in foreign ports, though political turmoil within the Republic and peace negotiations by both sides helped keep conflict to a minimum. The majority of the Dutch public favored a military alliance with France against Britain, however, the Dutch Stadtholder impeded these efforts, hoping to secure an early peace. To restore diminishing trade a Dutch squadron under Johan Zoutman escorted a fleet of some 70 merchantmen from the Texel. Zoutman's ships were intercepted by Sir Hyde Parker, who engaged Zoutman at Dogger Bank on 5 August 1781. Though the contest was tactically inconclusive, the Dutch fleet did not leave harbor again during the war, and their merchant fleet remained crippled.
On 6 January 1781, a French attempt to capture Jersey to neutralize British privateering failed. Frustrated in their attempts to capture Gibraltar, a Franco-Spanish force of 14,000 men under the Duc de Mahon met with more success in August; invading Minorca on 19 August. After a long siege of St. Philip's, the British garrison under James Murray surrendered on 5 February 1782, securing a primary war goal for the Spanish. At Gibraltar, a major Franco-Spanish assault on 13 September 1782 was repulsed with heavy casualties. On 20 October 1782, following a successful resupply of Gibraltar, British ships under Richard Howe successfully refused battle to the Franco-Spanish fleet under Luis de Córdova, denying Córdova dominance at sea. On 7 February 1783, after 1,322 days of siege, the Franco-Spanish army withdrew, decisively defeated.
In the West Indies, on 29–30 April 1781, a Royal Navy squadron under Samuel Hood was narrowly defeated by the French, led by the Comte de Grasse. de Grasse continued seizing British territories; Tobago fell on 2 June, Demerara and Essequibo on 22 January 1782, St. Kitts and Nevis on 12 February, despite a British naval victory on 25 January, and Montserrat on 22 February. In 1782, the primary strategic goal of the French and Spanish was the capture of Jamaica, whose sugar exports were more valuable to the British than the Thirteen Colonies combined. On 7 April 1782, de Grasse departed Martinique to rendezvous with Franco-Spanish troops at Saint Domingue, and invade Jamaica from the north. The British under Hood and George Rodney pursued and decisively defeated the French off Dominica between 9–12 April. The Franco-Spanish plan to conquer Jamaica was in ruins, and the balance of naval power in the Caribbean shifted to the Royal Navy.
After the fall of Mobile to Spanish troops under Bernardo de Gálvez, an attempt to capture Pensacola was thwarted due to a hurricane. Emboldened by the disaster, John Campbell, British commander at Pensacola, decided to recapture Mobile. Campbell's expeditionary force of around 700 men was defeated on 7 January 1781. After re-grouping at Havana, Gálvez set out for Pensacola on 13 February. Arriving on 9 March, siege operations did not begin until 24 March, owing to difficulties in bringing the ships into the bay. After a 45-day siege, Gálvez decisively defeated the garrison, securing the conquest of West Florida. In May, Spanish troops captured the Bahamas, although the British bloodlessly recaptured the islands the following year on 18 April.
In Guatemala, Matías de Gálvez led Spanish troops in an effort to dislocate British settlements along the Gulf of Honduras. Gálvez captured Roatán on 16 March 1782, and then quickly took Black River. Following the decisive naval victory at the Saintes, Archibald Campbell, the Royal governor of Jamaica, authorized Edward Despard to re-take Black River, which he did on 22 August. However, with peace talks opening, and Franco-Spanish resources committed to the siege of Gibraltar, no further offensive operations took place.
Few operations were conducted against the Dutch, although several Dutch colonies were captured by the British in 1781. Sint Eustatius, a key supply port for the Patriots, was sacked by British forces under George Rodney on 3 February 1782, plundering the island's wealth.
Following Dutch entry into the conflict, East India Company troops under Hector Munro captured the Dutch port of Negapatam after a three-week siege on 11 October 1781. Soon after, British Admiral Edward Hughes captured Trincomalee after a brief engagement on 11 January 1782.
In March 1781, French Admiral Bailli de Suffren was dispatched to India to assist colonial efforts. Suffren arrived off the Indian coast in February 1782, where he clashed with a British fleet under Hughes, winning a narrow tactical victory. After landing troops at Porto Novo to assist Mysore, Suffren's fleet clashed with Hughes again Providien on 12 April. There was no clear victor, though Hughes' fleet came off worse, and he withdrew to the British-held port of Trincomalee. Hyder Ali wished for the French to capture Negapatam to establish naval dominance over the British, and this task fell to Suffren. Suffren's fleet clashed with Hughes again off Negapatam on 6 July. Suffren withdrew to Cuddalore, strategically defeated, and the British remained in control of Negapatam. Intending to find a more suitable port than Cuddalore, Suffren captured Trincomalee on 1 September, and successfully engaged Hughes two days later.
Meanwhile, Ali's troops loosely blockaded Vellore as the East India Company regrouped. Company troops under Sir Eyre Coote led a counter-offensive, defeating Ali at Porto Novo on 1 July 1781, Pollilur on 27 August, and Sholinghur on 27 September, expelling the Mysorean troops from the Carnatic. On 18 February 1782, Tipu Sultan defeated John Braithwaite near Tanjore, taking his entire 1,800-strong force prisoner. The war had, by this point, reached an uneasy stalemate. On 7 December 1782, Hyder Ali died, and the rule of Mysore passed to his son, Tipu Sultan.
Sultan advanced along the west coast, laying siege to Mangalore on 20 May 1783. Meanwhile, on the east coast, an army under James Stuart besieged the French-held port of Cuddalore on 9 June 1783. On 20 June, key British naval support for the siege was neutralized when Suffren defeated Hughes' fleet off Cuddalore, and though narrow, the victory gave Suffren the opportunity to displace British holdings in India. On 25 June, the Franco-Mysorean defenders made repeated sorties against British lines, though all assaults failed. On 30 June, news arrived of a preliminary peace between the belligerent powers, and the siege was effectively over when the French abandoned the siege. Mangalore remained under siege, and capitulated to Sultan on 30 January 1784. Little fighting took place thereafter, and Mysore and Britain made peace on 11 March.
Following the surrender at Yorktown, the Whig party came to power in Britain and began opening negotiations for a cessation of hostilities. While peace negotiations were being undertaken, British troops in America were restricted from launching further offensives. Prime Minister the Earl of Shelburne was reluctant to accept American independence as a prerequisite for peace, as the British were aware that the French economy was nearly bankrupt, and reinforcements sent to the West Indies could potentially reverse the situation there. He preferred that the colonies accept Dominion status within the Empire, though a similar offer had been rejected by the Americans in 1778. Negotiations soon began in Paris.
The Americans initially demanded that Quebec be ceded to them as spoils of war, a proposal that was dropped when Shelburne accepted American demands for recognition of independence. On April 19, 1782, the Dutch formally recognized the United States as a sovereign power, enhancing American leverage at the negotiations. Spain initially impeded the negotiations, refusing to enter into peace talks until Gibraltar had been captured. The Comte de Vergennes proposed that American territory be confined to the east of the Appalachians; Britain would have sovereignty over the area north of the Ohio River, below which an Indian barrier state would be established under Spanish control. The United States fiercely opposed the proposal.
The Americans skirted their allies, recognizing that more favorable terms would be found in London. They negotiated directly with Shelburne, who hoped to make Britain a valuable trading partner of America at the expense of France. To this end, Shelburne offered to cede all the land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Quebec, while also allowing American fishermen access to the rich Newfoundland fishery. According to one historian, Shelburne was hoping to facilitate the growth of the American population, creating lucrative markets that Britain could exploit at no administrative cost to London. As Vergennes commented, "the English buy peace rather than make it".
Throughout the negotiations, Britain never consulted her American Indian allies, forcing them to reluctantly accept the treaty. However, the subsequent tension erupted into conflicts between the Indians and the young United States, the largest being the Northwest Indian War. Britain continued trying to create an Indian buffer state in the American Midwest as late as 1814 during the War of 1812.
Britain negotiated separate treaties with Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic. Gibraltar proved to be a stumbling block in the peace talks; Spain offered to relinquish their conquests in West Florida, Minorca, and the Bahamas in exchange for Gibraltar, terms which Shelburne steadfastly refused. Shelburne instead offered to cede East Florida, West Florida, and Minorca if Spain would relinquish the claim on Gibraltar, terms which were reluctantly accepted. However, in the long-term, the new territorial gains were of little value to Spain. France's only net gains were the island of Tobago in the Caribbean and Senegal in Africa, after agreeing to return all other colonial conquests to British sovereignty. Britain returned Dutch Caribbean territories to Dutch sovereignty, in exchange for free trade rights in the Dutch East Indies and control of the Indian port of Negapatnam.
Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris on 30 November 1782, while preliminaries between Britain, Spain, France, and the Netherlands continued until September 1783. The United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784. Copies were sent back to Europe for ratification by the other parties involved, the first reaching France in March 1784. British ratification occurred on April 9, 1784, and the ratified versions were exchanged in Paris on May 12, 1784. The war formally concluded on September 3, 1783.
The total loss of life throughout the conflict is largely unknown. As was typical in wars of the era, diseases such as smallpox claimed more lives than battle. Between 1775 and 1782, a smallpox epidemic broke out throughout North America, killing 40 people in Boston alone. Historian Joseph Ellis suggests that Washington's decision to have his troops inoculated against the disease was one of his most important decisions.
Between 25,000 and 70,000 American Patriots died during active military service. Of these, approximately 6,800 were killed in battle, while at least 17,000 died from disease. The majority of the latter died while prisoners of war of the British, mostly in the prison ships in New York Harbor. If the upper limit of 70,000 is accepted as the total net loss for the Patriots, it would make the conflict proportionally deadlier than the American Civil War. Uncertainty arises due to the difficulties in accurately calculating the number of those who succumbed to disease, as it is estimated at least 10,000 died in 1776 alone. The number of Patriots seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000.
The French suffered approximately 7,000 total dead throughout the conflict; of those, 2,112 were killed in combat in the American theaters of war.
The Dutch suffered around 500 total killed, owing to the minor scale of their conflict with Britain.
British returns in 1783 listed 43,633 rank and file deaths across the British Armed Forces. A table from 1781 puts total British Army deaths at 9,372 soldiers killed in battle across the Americas; 6,046 in North America (1775–1779), and 3,326 in the West Indies (1778–1780). In 1784, a British lieutenant compiled a detailed list of 205 British officers killed in action during the war, encompassing Europe, the Caribbean and the East Indies. Extrapolations based upon this list puts British Army losses in the area of at least 4,000 killed or died of wounds. Approximately 7,774 Germans died in British service in addition to 4,888 deserters; of the former, it is estimated 1,800 were killed in combat.
Around 171,000 sailors served in the Royal Navy during the war; approximately a quarter of whom had been pressed into service. Around 1,240 were killed in battle, while an estimated 18,500 died from disease (1776–1780). The greatest killer at sea was scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. It was not until 1795 that scurvy was eradicated from the Royal Navy after the Admiralty declared lemon juice and sugar were to be issued among the standard daily rations of sailors. Around 42,000 sailors deserted during the war. The impact on merchant shipping was substantial; an estimated 3,386 merchant ships were seized by enemy forces during the war; of those, 2,283 were taken by American privateers alone.
At the start of the war, the economy of the colonies was flourishing, and the free white population enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world. The Royal Navy enforced a naval blockade during the war to financially cripple the colonies, however, this proved unsuccessful; 90% of the population worked in farming, not in coastal trade, and, as such, the American economy proved resilient enough to withstand the blockade.
Congress had immense difficulties throughout the conflict to efficiently finance the war effort. As the circulation of hard currency declined, the Americans had to rely on loans from American merchants and bankers, France, Spain and the Netherlands, saddling the young nation with crippling debts. Congress attempted to remedy this by printing vast amounts of paper money and bills of credit to raise revenue. The effect was disastrous; inflation skyrocketed, and the paper money became virtually worthless. The inflation spawned a popular phrase that anything of little value was "not worth a continental".
By 1791, the United States had accumulated a national debt of approximately $75.5 million. The United States finally solved its debt and currency problems in the 1790s, when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton secured legislation by which the national government assumed all of the state debts, and, in addition, created a national bank and a funding system based on tariffs and bond issues that paid off the foreign debts.
Britain spent around £80 million and ended with a national debt of £250 million, (£27.1 billion in today's money), generating a yearly interest of £9.5 million annually. The debts piled upon that which it had already accumulated from the Seven Years' War. Due to wartime taxation upon the British populace, the tax for the average Briton amounted to approximately four shillings in every pound.
The French spent approximately 1.3 billion livres on aiding the Americans, accumulating a national debt of 3.315.1 billion livres by 1783 on war costs. Unlike Britain, which had a very efficient taxation system, the French tax system was highly unstable, eventually leading to a financial crisis in 1786. The debts contributed to a worsening fiscal crisis that ultimately begat the French Revolution at the end of the century. The debt continued to spiral; on the eve of the French Revolution, the national debt had skyrocketed to 12 billion livres.
Spain had nearly doubled her military spending during the war, from 454 million reales in 1778 to over 700 million in 1779. Spain more easily disposed of her debts unlike her French ally, partially due to the massive increase in silver mining in her American colonies; production increased approximately 600% in Mexico, and by 250% in Peru and Bolivia.
The population of Great Britain and Ireland in 1780 was approximately 12.6 million, while the Thirteen Colonies held a population of some 2.8 million, including some 500,000 slaves. Theoretically, Britain had the advantage, however, many factors inhibited the procurement of a large army.
In 1775, the standing British Army, exclusive of militia, comprised 45,123 men worldwide, made up of 38,254 infantry and 6,869 cavalry. The Army had approximately eighteen regiments of foot, some 8,500 men, stationed in North America. Standing armies had played a key role in the purge of the Long Parliament in 1648, the maintenance of a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the overthrow of James II, and, as such, the Army had been deliberately kept small in peacetime to prevent abuses of power by the King. Despite this, eighteenth century armies were not easy guests, and were regarded with scorn and contempt by the press and public of the New and Old World alike, derided as enemies of liberty. An expression ran in the Navy; "A messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a stranger, a stranger before a dog, a dog before a soldier".
Parliament suffered chronic difficulties in obtaining sufficient manpower, and found it impossible to fill the quotas they had set. The Army was a deeply unpopular profession, one contentious issue being pay. A Private infantryman was paid a wage of just 8d. per day, the same pay as for a New Model Army infantryman, 130 years earlier. The rate of pay in the army was insufficient to meet the rising costs of living, turning off potential recruits, as service was nominally for life.
To entice people to enrol, Parliament offered a bounty of £1.10s for every recruit. As the war dragged on, Parliament became desperate for manpower; criminals were offered military service to escape legal penalties, and deserters were pardoned if they re-joined their units. After the defeat at Saratoga, Parliament doubled the bounty to £3, and increased it again the following year, to £3.3s, as well as expanding the age limit from 17–45 to 16–50 years of age.
Impressment, essentially conscription by the "press gang", was a favored recruiting method, though it was unpopular with the public, leading many to enlist in local militias to avoid regular service. Attempts were made to draft such levies, much to the chagrin of the militia commanders. Competition between naval and army press gangs, and even between rival ships or regiments, frequently resulted in brawls between the gangs in order to secure recruits for their unit. Men would maim themselves to avoid the press gangs, while many deserted at the first opportunity. Pressed men were militarily unreliable; regiments with large numbers of such men were deployed to garrisons such as Gibraltar or the West Indies, purely to increase the difficulty in successfully deserting.
By 1781, the Army numbered approximately 121,000 men globally, 48,000 of whom were stationed throughout the Americas. Of the 171,000 sailors who served in the Royal Navy throughout the conflict, around a quarter were pressed. Interestingly, this same proportion, approximately 42,000 men, deserted during the conflict. At its height, the Navy had 94 ships-of-the-line, 104 frigates and 37 sloops in service.
In 1775, Britain unsuccessfully attempted to secure 20,000 mercenaries from Russia, and the use of the Scots Brigade from the Dutch Republic, such was the shortage of manpower. Parliament managed to negotiate treaties with the princes of German states for large sums of money, in exchange for mercenary troops. In total, 29,875 troops were hired for British service from six German states; Brunswick (5,723), Hesse-Kassel (16,992), Hesse-Hannau (2,422), Ansbach-Bayreuth (2,353), Waldeck-Pyrmont (1,225) and Anhalt-Zerbst (1,160). King George III, who also ruled Hanover as a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, was approached by Parliament to loan the government Hanoverian soldiers for service in the war. Hanover supplied 2,365 men in five battalions, however, the lease agreement permitted them to only be used in Europe.
Without any major allies, the manpower shortage became critical when France and Spain entered the war, forcing a major diversion of military resources from the Americas. Recruiting adequate numbers of Loyalist militia in America proved difficult due to high Patriot activity. To bolster numbers, the British promised freedom and grants of land to slaves who fought for them. Approximately 25,000 Loyalists fought for the British throughout the war, and provided some of the best troops in the British service; the British Legion, a mixed regiment of 250 dragoons and 200 infantry commanded by Banastre Tarleton, gained a fearsome reputation in the colonies, especially in the South.
Britain had a difficult time appointing a determined senior military leadership in America. Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief of North America at the outbreak of the war, was criticized for being too lenient on the rebellious colonists. Jeffrey Amherst, who was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in 1778, refused a direct command in America, due to unwillingness to take sides in the war. Admiral Augustus Keppel similarly opposed a command, stating; "I cannot draw the sword in such a cause". The Earl of Effingham resigned his commission when his regiment was posted to America, while William Howe and John Burgoyne were opposed to military solutions to the crisis. Howe and Henry Clinton both stated they were unwilling participants, and were only following orders.
As was the case in many European armies, except the Prussian Army, officers in British service could purchase commissions to ascend the ranks. Despite repeated attempts by Parliament to suppress it, the practise was common in the Army. Values of commissions varied, but were usually in line with social and military prestige, for example, regiments such as the Guards commanded the highest prices. The lower ranks often regarded the treatment to high-ranking commissions by wealthier officers as "plums for [their] consumption". Wealthy individuals lacking any formal military education, or practical experience, often found their way into positions of high responsibility, diluting the effectiveness of a regiment. Though Royal authority had forbade the practise since 1711, it was still permitted for infants to hold commissions. Young boys, often orphans of deceased wealthy officers, were taken from their schooling and placed in positions of responsibility within regiments.
Logistical organization of eighteenth century armies was chaotic at best, and the British Army was no exception. No logistical corps existed in the modern sense; while on campaign in foreign territories such as America, horses, wagons, and drivers were frequently requisitioned from the locals, often by impressment or by hire. No centrally organized medical corps existed. It was common for surgeons to have no formal medical education, and no diploma or entry examination was required. Nurses sometimes were apprentices to surgeons, but many were drafted from the women who followed the army. Army surgeons and doctors were poorly paid and were regarded as social inferiors to other officers.
The heavy personal equipment and wool uniform of the regular infantrymen were wholly unsuitable for combat in America, and the outfit was especially ill-suited to comfort and agile movement. During the Battle of Monmouth in late June 1778, the temperature exceeded 100°F (37.8°C) and is said to have claimed more lives through heat stroke than through actual combat. The standard-issue firearm of the British Army was the Land Pattern Musket. Some officers preferred their troops to fire careful, measured shots (around two per minute), rather than rapid firing. A bayonet made firing difficult, as its cumbersome shape hampered ramming down the charge into the barrel. British troops had a tendency to fire impetuously, resulting in inaccurate fire, a trait for which John Burgoyne criticized them during the Saratoga campaign. Burgoyne instead encouraged bayonet charges to break up enemy formations, which was a preferred tactic in most European armies at the time.
Every battalion in America had organized its own rifle company by the end of the war, although rifles were not formally issued to the army until the Baker Rifle in 1801. Flintlocks were heavily dependent on the weather; high winds could blow the gunpowder from the flash pan, while heavy rain could soak the paper cartridge, ruining the powder and rendering the musket unable to fire. Furthermore, flints used in British muskets were of notoriously poor quality; they could only be fired around six times before requiring resharpening, while American flints could fire sixty. This led to a common expression among the British: "Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog".
Provisioning troops and sailors proved to be an immense challenge, as the majority of food stores had to be shipped overseas from Britain. The need to maintain Loyalist support prevented the Army from living off the land. Other factors also impeded this option; the countryside was too sparsely populated and the inhabitants were largely hostile or indifferent, the network of roads and bridges was poorly developed, and the area which the British controlled was so limited that foraging parties were frequently in danger of being ambushed. After France entered the war, the threat of the French navy increased the difficulty of transporting supplies to America. The food that could be bought in America was purchased at vastly inflated prices. Soldiers stationed in the West Indies perhaps suffered the worst; the garrison commander of Tobago, Barbados, and Antigua frequently complained of the near-total lack of regular supply from Britain, and the food that could be bought was so expensive that the pay of the troops was inadequate to cover the costs.
Food supplies were frequently in terrible condition, infested with mould, weevils, worms, and maggots. Provisions were frequently destroyed by rats, and their containers were too fragile to sustain a long ocean voyage or the rigors of campaigning. The climate was also against the British in the southern colonies and the Caribbean, where the intense summer heat caused food supplies to sour and spoil. British troops stationed in America were often on the verge of starvation.
Life at sea was little better. Sailors and passengers were issued a daily food ration, largely consisting of hardtack and beer. The hardtack was often infested by weevils and was so tough that it earned the nicknames "molar breakers" and "worm castles", and it sometimes had to be broken up with cannon shot. Meat supplies often spoiled on long voyages. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables gave rise to scurvy, one of the biggest killers at sea. Rum was issued as part of a daily ration and was a popular drink among soldiers and sailors alike, often mixed with fresh water to make grog.
Discipline in the armed forces was harsh, and the lash was used to punish even trivial offences, nor was it applied sparingly. For instance, during the Saratoga campaign, two redcoats received 1,000 lashes each for robbery, while another received 800 lashes for striking a superior officer. During the Napoleonic Wars, one soldier received 700 lashes for stealing a beehive, while another, whom had received only 175 strikes of his 400-lash sentence, spent three weeks in hospital from his injuries. The practise could often be a contentious source of resentment; during the Battle of Quatre Bras in 1815, the commander of the 92nd Foot was shot and killed by a soldier whom he had recently flogged. Flogging was a common punishment in the Royal Navy, and came to be associated with the stereotypical hardiness of sailors.
Despite the harsh discipline, a distinct lack of self-discipline pervaded all ranks. Soldiers had an intense passion for gambling, reaching such excesses that troops would often wager their own uniforms. Soldiers drank heavily, and was not exclusive to the lower ranks; William Howe was said to have seen many "crapulous mornings" while campaigning in New York. John Burgoyne drank heavily on a nightly basis towards the end of the Saratoga campaign. The two generals were also reported to have found solace with the wives of subordinate officers to ease the stressful burdens of command. During the Philadelphia campaign, British officers deeply offended local Quakers by entertaining their mistresses in the houses they had been quartered in. Despite such issues, British troops are reported to have been generally scrupulous in their treatment of non-combatants. This is contrasted by Hessian diaries, who wrote of their disapproval of British conduct towards the colonists, such as the destruction of property and the execution of prisoners.
The presence of Hessian soldiers caused considerable anxiety amongst the colonists, both Patriot and Loyalist, who viewed them as brutal mercenaries. British soldiers were often contemptuous in their treatment of Hessian troops, despite orders from General Howe that "the English should treat the Germans as brothers". The order only began to have any real effect when the Hessians learned to speak a minimal degree of English, which was seen as a prerequisite for the British troops to accord them any respect.
During peacetime, the Army's idleness led to it becoming riddled with corruption and inefficiency, resulting in a myriad of administrative difficulties once campaigning began.
The British leadership soon discovered it had overestimated the capabilities of its own troops, while underestimating those of the colonists, causing a sudden re-think in British planning. The ineffective initial response of British military and civil officials to the onset of the rebellion had allowed the advantage to shift to the colonists, as British authorities rapidly lost control over every colony. A microcosm of these shortcomings were evident at the Battle of Bunker Hill. It took ten hours for the British leadership to respond following the sighting of the Americans on the Charlestown Peninsula, giving the colonists ample time to reinforce their defenses. Rather than opt for a simple flanking attack that would have rapidly succeeded with minimal loss, the British decided on repeated frontal attacks. The results were telling; the British suffered 1,054 casualties of a force of around 3,000 after repeated frontal assaults. The British leadership had nevertheless remained excessively optimistic, believing that just two regiments could suppress the rebellion in Massachusetts.
Debate persists over whether a British defeat was a guaranteed outcome. Ferling argues that the odds were so long, the defeat of Britain was nothing short of a miracle. Ellis, however, considers that the odds always favored the Americans, and questions whether a British victory by any margin was realistic. Ellis argues that the British squandered their only opportunities for a decisive success in 1777, and that the strategic decisions undertaken by William Howe underestimated the challenges posed by the Americans. Ellis concludes that, once Howe failed, the opportunity for a British victory "would never come again". Conversely, the United States Army's official textbook argues that, had Britain been able to commit 10,000 fresh troops to the war in 1780, a British victory was within the realms of possibility.
Historians such as Ellis and Stewart have observed that, under William Howe's command, the British squandered several opportunities to achieve a decisive victory over the Americans. Throughout the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, Howe made several strategic errors, errors which cost the British opportunities for a complete victory. At Long Island, Howe failed to even attempt an encirclement of Washington, and actively restrained his subordinates from mounting an aggressive pursuit of the defeated American army. At White Plains, he refused to engage Washington's vulnerable army, and instead concentrated his efforts upon a hill which offered the British no strategic advantage. After securing control of New York, Howe dispatched Henry Clinton to capture Newport, a measure which Clinton was opposed to, on the grounds the troops assigned to his command could have been put to better use in pursuing Washington's retreating army. Despite the bleak outlook for the revolutionary cause and the surge of Loyalist activity in the wake of Washington's defeats, Howe made no attempt to mount an attack upon Washington while the Americans settled down into winter quarters, much to their surprise.
During planning for the Saratoga campaign, Howe was left with the choice of committing his army to support Burgoyne, or capture Philadelphia, the revolutionary capital. Howe decided upon the latter, determining that Washington was of a greater threat. The decision left Burgoyne precariously isolated, and left the Americans confounded at the decision. Alden argues Howe may have been motivated by political opportunism; if Burgoyne was successful, he would receive the credit for a decisive victory, and not Howe. However, the confusion was further compounded by the lack of explicit and contradictory instructions from London. When Howe launched his campaign, he took his army upon a time-consuming route through the Chesapeake Bay, rather than the more sensible choices of overland through New Jersey, or by sea through the Delaware Bay. The move left him unable to assist Burgoyne even if it was required of him. The decision so confused Parliament, that Howe was accused by Tories on both sides of the Atlantic of treason.
During the Philadelphia campaign, Howe failed to pursue and destroy the defeated Americans on two occasions; once after the Battle of Brandywine, and again after the Battle of Germantown. At the Battle of White Marsh, Howe failed to even attempt to exploit the vulnerable American rear, and then inexplicably ordered a retreat to Philadelphia after only minor skirmishes, astonishing both sides. While the Americans wintered only twenty miles away, Howe made no effort to attack their camp, which critics argue could have ended the war. Following the conclusion of the campaign, Howe resigned his commission, and was replaced by Henry Clinton on May 24, 1778.
Contrary to Howe's more hostile critics, however, there were strategic factors at play which impeded aggressive action. Howe may have been dissuaded from pursuing aggressive manoeuvres due to the memory of the grievous losses the British suffered at Bunker Hill. During the major campaigns in New York and Philadelphia, Howe often wrote of the scarcity of adequate provisions, which hampered his ability to mount effective campaigns. Howe's tardiness in launching the New York campaign, and his reluctance to allow Cornwallis to vigorously pursue Washington's beaten army, have both been attributed to the paucity of available food supplies.
During the winter of 1776–1777, Howe split his army into scattered cantonments. This decision dangerously exposed the individual forces to defeat in detail, as the distance between them was such that they could not mutually support each other. This strategic failure allowed the Americans to achieve victory at the Battle of Trenton, and the concurrent Battle of Princeton. While a major strategic error to divide an army in such a manner, the quantity of available food supplies in New York was so low that Howe had been compelled to take such a decision. The garrisons were widely spaced so their respective foraging parties would not interfere with each other's efforts. Howe's difficulties during the Philadelphia campaign were also greatly exacerbated by the poor quality and quantity of available provisions.
In 1780, the primary British strategy hinged upon a Loyalist uprising in the south, for which Charles Cornwallis was chiefly responsible. After an encouraging success at Camden, Cornwallis was poised to invade North Carolina. However, any significant Loyalist support had been effectively destroyed at the Battle of Kings Mountain, and the British Legion, the cream of his army, had been decisively defeated at the Battle of Cowpens. Following both defeats, Cornwallis was fiercely criticized for detaching a significant portion of his army without adequate mutual support. Despite the defeats, Cornwallis chose to proceed into North Carolina, gambling his success upon a large Loyalist uprising which never materialized. As a result, subsequent engagements cost Cornwallis valuable troops he could not replace, as at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, and the Americans steadily wore his army down in an exhaustive war of attrition. Cornwallis had thus left the Carolinas ripe for reconquest. The Americans had largely achieved this aim by the end of 1781, effectively confining the British to the coast, and undoing all the progress they had made in the previous year.
In a last-ditch attempt to win the war in the South, Cornwallis resolved to invade Virginia, in order to cut off the American's supply base to the Carolinas. Henry Clinton, Cornwallis' superior, strongly opposed the plan, believing the decisive confrontations would take place between Washington in the North. London had approved Cornwallis plan, however they had failed to include Clinton in the decision-making, despite his seniority over Cornwallis, leading to a muddled strategic direction. Cornwallis then decided to invade Virginia without informing Clinton of his intentions. Clinton, however, had wholly failed to construct a coherent strategy for British campaigning that year, owing to his fractious relationship that he shared with Mariot Arbuthnot, his naval counterpart.
As the Franco-American army approached Cornwallis at Yorktown, he made no attempt to sally out and engage before siege lines could be erected, despite the repeated urging of his subordinate officers. Expecting relief to soon arrive from Clinton, Cornwallis prematurely abandoned all of his outer defences, which were then promptly occupied by the besiegers, serving to hasten the British defeat. These factors contributed to the eventual surrender of Cornwallis' entire army, and the end of major operations in North America.
Like Howe before him, Clinton's efforts to campaign suffered from chronic supply issues. In 1778, Clinton wrote to Germain complaining of the lack of supplies, even after the arrival of a convoy from Ireland. That winter, the supply issue had deteriorated so badly, that Clinton expressed considerable anxiety over how the troops were going to be properly fed. Clinton was largely inactive in the North throughout 1779, launching few major campaigns. This inactivity was partially due to the shortage of food. By 1780, the situation had not improved. Clinton wrote a frustrated correspondence to Germain, voicing concern that a "fatal consequence will ensue" if matters did not improve. By October that year, Clinton again wrote to Germain, angered that the troops in New York had not received "an ounce" of that year's allotted stores from Britain.
Suppressing a rebellion in America presented the British with major problems. The key issue was distance; it could take up to three months to cross the Atlantic, and, subsequently, orders from London were often outdated by the time they arrived. As the colonies had never been united in a homogeneous manner prior to the conflict, there was no centralized area of ultimate strategic importance. Traditionally, the fall of a capital city often signalled the end of a conflict, yet after the fall of major settlements such as New York, Philadelphia (which was the Patriot capital), and Charleston, the war continued unabated. Britain's ability to project its power overseas lay chiefly in the power of the Royal Navy, allowing her to control major coastal settlements with relative ease, and enforce a strong blockade of colonial ports. However, the overwhelming majority of the American population was agrarian, not urban. As a result, the American economy proved resilient enough to withstand the blockade's effects.
The need to maintain Loyalist support prevented the British from using the harsh methods of suppressing revolts they had used in Scotland and Ireland. For example, during an aborted attack on Charleston in 1779, British troops looted and pillaged the locals, enraging both Patriots and Loyalists. Neutral colonists were often driven into the ranks of the Patriots when brutal combat broke out between Tories and Whigs across the Carolinas in the later stages of the war. Conversely, Loyalists were often emboldened, or at the very least sympathies to the Patriots dulled, when Patriots resorted to intimidating suspected Tories, such as destroying property, or tarring and feathering. The vastness of the American countryside, and the limited manpower available, meant the British could never simultaneously defeat the Americans, and occupy captured territory. One British statesman described the attempt as "like trying to conquer a map".
Wealthy Loyalists wielded great in influence in London, and were successful in convincing the British that sympathies to the Crown was the majority view in the colonies. Consequently, British planners pinned the success of their strategies on popular uprisings of Loyalists, which never transpired on the scale required. Historians have estimated that Loyalists made up only 15–20% of the population, and that they continued to deceive themselves on their level of support as late as 1780. The British soon discovered that any significant level of organized Loyalist activity would require the continued presence of British regulars, which presented them with a major dilemma. The manpower the British had available was insufficient to both protect Loyalist territory, and counter American advances, often leaving the former vulnerable to the latter. The vulnerability of Loyalist militias was repeatedly demonstrated in the South, where they suffered strings of defeats to their Patriot neighbors. The most crucial juncture of this was at Kings Mountain; the victory of the Patriot partisans irreversibly crippled Loyalist military capability in the South.
Upon the entry of France and Spain into the conflict, the British were forced to severely limit the number of troops and warships it sent to North America, in order to defend other key territories, and the British mainland. As a result, King George III abandoned any hope of subduing America militarily, while it had a European war to contend with. The small size of Britain's army left it unable to concentrate its resources primarily in one theater, as it had done in the Seven Years' War, leaving it at a critical disadvantage. Compelled to disperse its troops from the Americas, to Europe, to the East Indies, these forces were thus unable to mutually assist each other, precariously exposing them to defeat in detail. In North America, the immediate strategic focus of the French, Spanish and British shifted to Jamaica, whose sugar exports were more valuable to the British than the economy of the Thirteen colonies combined.
Following the end of the war, Britain had lost some of her most populous colonies. However, the economic effects of the loss were negligible in the long-term; just thirty-two years after the end of the conflict, Britain had risen to become the foremost global superpower.
The Americans began the war with significant disadvantages compared to the British. They had no national government, no national army or navy, no financial system, no banks, no established credit, and no functioning government departments, such as a treasury. The Congress tried to handle administrative affairs through legislative committees, which proved inefficient. The state governments were themselves brand new and officials had no administrative experience. In peacetime the colonies relied heavily on ocean travel and shipping, but that was now shut down by the British blockade and the Americans had to rely on slow overland travel.
However, the Americans had multiple advantages that in the long run outweighed the initial disadvantages they faced. The Americans had a large prosperous population that depended not on imports but on local production for food and most supplies, while the British were mostly shipped in from across the ocean. The British faced a vast territory far larger than Britain or France, located at a far distance from home ports. Most of the Americans lived on farms distant from the seaports—the British could capture any port but that did not give them control over the hinterland. They were on their home ground, had a smoothly functioning, well organized system of local and state governments, newspapers and printers, and internal lines of communications. They had a long-established system of local militia, previously used to combat the French and Native Americans, with companies and an officer corps that could form the basis of local militias, and provide a training ground for the national army created by Congress.
Motivation was a major asset. The Patriots wanted to win; over 200,000 fought in the war; 25,000 died. The British expected the Loyalists to do much of the fighting, but they did much less than expected. The British also hired German mercenaries to do much of their fighting.
At the onset of the war, the Americans had no major international allies. Battles such as the Battle of Bennington, the Battles of Saratoga and even defeats such as the Battle of Germantown proved decisive in gaining the attention and support of powerful European nations such as France and Spain, who moved from covertly supplying the Americans with weapons and supplies, to overtly supporting them militarily, moving the war to a global stage.
The new Continental Army suffered significantly from a lack of an effective training regime, and largely inexperienced officers and sergeants. The inexperience of its officers was compensated for in part by its senior officers; officers such as George Washington, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Richard Montgomery and Francis Marion all had military experience with the British Army during the French and Indian War. The Americans solved their training dilemma during their stint in Winter Quarters at Valley Forge, where they were relentlessly drilled and trained by General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of the famed Prussian General Staff. He taught the Continental Army the essentials of military discipline, drills, tactics and strategy, and wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual. When the Army emerged from Valley Forge, it proved its ability to equally match the British troops in battle when they fought a successful strategic action at the Battle of Monmouth.
When the war began, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army or navy. Each colony sponsored local militia. Militiamen were lightly armed, had little training, and usually did not have uniforms. Their units served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to travel far from home and thus were unavailable for extended operations, and lacked the training and discipline of soldiers with more experience. If properly used, however, their numbers could help the Continental armies overwhelm smaller British forces, as at the battles of Concord, Bennington and Saratoga, and the siege of Boston. Both sides used partisan warfare but the Americans effectively suppressed Loyalist activity when British regulars were not in the area.
Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established a regular army on June 14, 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war.
Three current branches of the United States Military trace their institutional roots to the American Revolutionary War; the United States Army comes from the Continental Army, formed by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775. The United States Navy recognizes October 13, 1775 as the date of its official establishment, the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia that created the Continental Navy. And the United States Marine Corps traces its institutional roots to the Continental Marines of the war, formed by a resolution of the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, a date regarded and celebrated as the birthday of the Marine Corps. At the beginning of 1776, Washington's army had 20,000 men, with two-thirds enlisted in the Continental Army and the other third in the various state militias. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, both the Continental Navy and Continental Marines were disbanded. About 250,000 men served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, but there were never more than 90,000 men under arms at one time. About 55,000 American sailors served aboard privateers during the war. The American privateers had almost 1,700 ships, and they captured 2,283 enemy ships. John Paul Jones became the first great American naval hero, capturing HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters.
Armies were small by European standards of the era, largely attributable to limitations such as lack of powder and other logistical capabilities on the American side. It was also difficult for Great Britain to transport troops across the Atlantic and they depended on local supplies that the Patriots tried to cut off. By comparison, Duffy notes that Frederick the Great usually commanded from 23,000 to 50,000 in battle. Both figures pale in comparison to the armies that were fielded in the early 19th century, where troop formations approached or exceeded 100,000 men.
African Americans—slave and free—served on both sides during the war. The British recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and promised freedom to those who served by act of Lord Dunmore's Proclamation. Because of manpower shortages, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. Small all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many slaves were promised freedom for serving. Some of the men promised freedom were sent back to their masters, after the war was over, out of political convenience. Another all-black unit came from Saint-Domingue with French colonial forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause.
Tens of thousands of slaves escaped during the war and joined British lines; others simply moved off in the chaos. For instance, in South Carolina, nearly 25,000 slaves (30% of the enslaved population) fled, migrated or died during the disruption of the war. This greatly disrupted plantation production during and after the war. When they withdrew their forces from Savannah and Charleston, the British also evacuated 10,000 slaves belonging to Loyalists. Altogether, the British evacuated nearly 20,000 blacks at the end of the war. More than 3,000 of them were freedmen and most of these were resettled in Nova Scotia; other blacks were sold in the West Indies.
Most Native Americans east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, and many communities were divided over the question of how to respond to the conflict. Though a few tribes were on friendly terms with the Americans, most Native Americans opposed the United States as a potential threat to their territory. Approximately 13,000 Native Americans fought on the British side, with the largest group coming from the Iroquois tribes, who fielded around 1,500 men. The powerful Iroquois Confederacy was shattered as a result of the conflict; although the Confederacy did not take sides, the Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga nations sided with the British. Members of the Mohawk fought on both sides. Many Tuscarora and Oneida sided with the colonists. The Continental Army sent the Sullivan Expedition on raids throughout New York to cripple the Iroquois tribes that had sided with the British. Both during and after the war friction between the Mohawk leaders Joseph Louis Cook and Joseph Brant, who had sided with the Americans and the British respectively, further exacerbated the split.
Early in July 1776, a major action in the fledgling conflict occurred when the Cherokee allies of Britain attacked the western frontier areas of North Carolina. Their defeat resulted in a splintering of the Cherokee towns and people, and was directly responsible for the rise of the Chickamauga Cherokee, bitter enemies of the Colonials who carried on a frontier war for decades following the end of hostilities with Britain.
Creek and Seminole allies of Britain fought against Americans in Georgia and South Carolina. In 1778, a force of 800 Creeks destroyed American settlements along the Broad River in Georgia. Creek warriors also joined Thomas Brown's raids into South Carolina and assisted Britain during the Siege of Savannah. Many Native Americans were involved in the fighting between Britain and Spain on the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River—mostly on the British side. Thousands of Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws fought in or near major battles such as the Battle of Fort Charlotte, the Battle of Mobile, and the Siege of Pensacola.
Pybus (2005) estimates that about 20,000 slaves defected to or were captured by the British, of whom about 8,000 died from disease or wounds or were recaptured by the Patriots. The British took along some 12,000 at the end of the war; of these 8000 remained in slavery. Including those who left during the war, a total of about 8000 to 10,000 ex-slaves gained freedom. About 4000 freed slaves went to Nova Scotia along with about 1200 blacks who remained slaves.
Baller (2006) examines family dynamics and mobilization for the Revolution in central Massachusetts. He reports that warfare and the farming culture were sometimes incompatible. Militiamen found that living and working on the family farm had not prepared them for wartime marches and the rigors of camp life. Rugged individualism conflicted with military discipline and regimentation. A man's birth order often influenced his military recruitment, as younger sons went to war and older sons took charge of the farm. A person's family responsibilities and the prevalent patriarchy could impede mobilization. Harvesting duties and family emergencies pulled men home regardless of the sergeant's orders. Some relatives might be Loyalists, creating internal strains. On the whole, historians conclude the Revolution's effect on patriarchy and inheritance patterns favored egalitarianism.
McDonnell (2006) shows a grave complication in Virginia's mobilization of troops was the conflicting interests of distinct social classes, which tended to undercut a unified commitment to the Patriot cause. The Assembly balanced the competing demands of elite slave-owning planters, the middling yeomen (some owning a few slaves), and landless indentured servants, among other groups. The Assembly used deferments, taxes, military service substitute, and conscription to resolve the tensions. Unresolved class conflict, however, made these laws less effective. There were violent protests, many cases of evasion, and large-scale desertion, so that Virginia's contributions came at embarrassingly low levels. With the British invasion of the state in 1781, Virginia was mired in class division as its native son, George Washington, made desperate appeals for troops.
The plan was considered very attractive to most of the members, as it proposed a popularly elected Grand Council which would represent the interests of the colonies as a whole, and would be a continental equivalent to the English Parliament. After a sincere debate, it was rejected by a six to five vote on October 22, 1774. It may have been the arrival of the Suffolk County (Boston) resolutions that killed it.
As late as 1780, following the disastrous British defeat by Tipu Sultan of Mysore at the Battle of Pollilur, 7,000 British men, along with an unknown number of women, were held captive by Tipu in his sophisticated fortress of Seringapatam.
In three hours, Cornwallis’s army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.... Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained, and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals.
There is an overwhelming consensus that Americans' economic standard of living on the eve of the Revolution was among the highest in the world.
These are some of the standard works about the war in general that are not listed above; books about specific campaigns, battles, units, and individuals can be found in those articles.
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