US History/American Revolution



The British forces might at first glance seem to have every advantage. At the outset of the War they had stocks of cannon and ammunition. The Colonists had single-shot rifles from local forges, guns which took time to load and could easily misfire or explode. When Washington took command of the army in 1775, he learned that there was only enough gunpowder to provide nine rounds of ammunition per man.[1] The British had a large professional army drilled to a pitch like that of Ancient Rome, well-supplied with food, uniforms, and arms. But the American lack of training meant that they did not mass in the European style. Instead they relied on snipers, individuals hidden behind the trees who shot their bullet and then loaded again while their neighbors fired. They had learned this during the French and Indian War. Snipers helped strengthen the American odds.

The Beginning of the War (1775 - 1778)


Lexington and Concord

The skirmish at Lexington.

The British government commanded General Thomas Gage to enforce the Intolerable Acts and limit rights in Massachusetts.[2] Gage decided to confiscate a stockpile of colonial arms located in Concord. On April 19, 1775, Gage's troops marched to Concord. On the way, at the town of Lexington, Americans who had been warned in advance by Paul Revere and others of the British movements made an attempt to stop the troops. No one knows which side fired the first shot, but it sparked battle on Lexington Green between the British and the Minutemen. Faced against an overwhelmingly superior number of British regular troops in an open field, the Minutemen were quickly routed. Nevertheless, alarms sounded through the countryside. The colonial militias poured in and were able to launch guerrilla attacks on the British while they marched on to Concord. The colonials amassed of troops at Concord. They engaged the British in force there, and they were able to repulse them. They then claimed the contents of the armory. The British retreated to Boston under a constant and withering fire from all sides.[3] Only a reinforcing column with artillery support on the outskirts of Boston prevented the British withdrawal from becoming a total rout. The following day the British woke up to find Boston surrounded by 20,000 armed colonists, occupying the neck of land extending to the peninsula the city stood on.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill.
Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.
—Colonel William Prescott, Order prior to the battle[4]

The action changed from a battle to a siege, where one army bottles up another in a town or a city. (Though in traditional terms, the British were not besieged, since the Royal Navy controlled the harbor and supplies came in by ship.) General Artemas Ward, the head of the Massachusetts militia, had the initial oversight of the siege. He set up headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts and positioned his forces at Charlestown Neck, Roxbury, and Dorchester Heights. The 6,000 to 8,000 rebels faced some 4,000 British regulars under General Thomas Gage. Boston and little else was controlled by British troops. General Gage countered the siege on June 17 by attacking the colonists on Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. Although the British suffered tremendous casualties compared to the colonial losses, the British were eventually able to dislodge the American forces from their entrenched positions. The colonists were forced to retreat when many colonial soldiers ran out of ammunition. Soon after, the area surrounding Boston fell to the British. However, because of the losses they suffered, they were unable to break the siege of the city. Despite the early defeat for the colonists, the battle proved that they had the potential to counter British forces, which were at that time considered the best in the world.

The Last Chance For Peace


The Second Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, a petition for peace, on July 5, 1775. The Congress affirmed its allegiance to the Crown. It was received in London at the same time as it heard of the Battle For Bunker Hill. The King refused to read the petition or to meet with its ambassadors.[5] Parliament reacted by passing the Prohibitory Act, which banned trade with the colonies.[6]

Battle For Boston


Despite the British access to the ships, the town and the army were on short rations. Salt pork was the order of the day, and prices escalated rapidly. While the American forces had some information about what was happening in the city, General Gage had no effective intelligence of rebel activities.

On May 25, 1775, 4,500 reinforcements and three new generals arrived in Boston Harbor. The fresh leaders were Major General William Howe and Brigadiers John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton. Gage began planing to break out of the city.

On July 3, 1775, George Washington arrived to take charge of the new Continental Army. Forces and supplies came in from as far away as Maryland. Trenches were built at Dorchester Neck, extending toward Boston. Washington reoccupied Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill without opposition. However, these activities had little effect on the British occupation.

Henry Knox helped bring the Continental Army the artillery used to defeat the British.

In the winter of 1775– 1776, Henry Knox and his engineers under order from George Washington used sledges to retrieve sixty tons of heavy artillery that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga. Knox, who had come up with the idea to use sledges, believed that he would have the artillery there in eighteen days. It took six weeks to bring them across the frozen Connecticut River, and they arrived back at Cambridge on January 24, 1776. Weeks later, in an amazing feat of deception and mobility, Washington moved artillery and several thousand men overnight to take Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. General John Thomas fortified the area. The British fleet had become a liability, anchored in a shallow harbor with limited maneuverability, and under the American guns on Dorchester Heights.

When General Howe saw the cannons, he knew he could not hold the city. He asked that George Washington let them evacuate the city in peace. In return, they would not burn the city to the ground. Washington agreed: he had no choice. He had artillery guns, but did not have the gunpowder. The whole plan had been a masterful bluff. The siege ended when the British set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. The militia went home, and in April Washington took most of the Continental Army forces to fortify New York City.

Ethan Allen and Fort Ticonderoga

Ethan Allen capturing Fort Tinconderoga.

The British had considered Fort Ticonderoga a relatively unimportant outpost in a conflict which had up to then been mostly based in Massachusetts. However, a veteran of the French and Indian War, Ethan Allen, had his eye on the fort. Allen had built up a Vermont territorial militia, the Green Mountain Boys, until it was an effective fighting force. Vermont was claimed by the New York colony, but Allen wanted more independence. In April of 1775, Allen was surprised by a visit by Commander Benedict Arnold of the Connecticut Militia. Arnold announced that he had been commissioned to seize the cannons of Fort Ticonderoga. A heated discussion between the two concluded with the agreement that the two militias would combine to attack the fort. This was for the best, for both forces together were small, well short of brigade strength. On May tenth, the combined American forces captured the fort. They seized the arms, including the cannons, which were then hauled by oxen all the way to Boston.

Strengthening The Cause


Through the media available in that day, the Revolution promoted the idea of honorable men in revolt against tyranny. Newspapers in North and South published incendiary stories and inspiring engravings. The theater contributed dramatic outcries, including those of Mary Otis Warren. Songs were played and sung to rally flagging spirits.

Thomas Paine's 1776


In January of 1776, the Englishman Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense. This anti-monarchical publication encouraged American independence, using examples from the Bible and republican virtues to argue that kings were never good for any free state. In late 1776 he began printing his series of pamphlets, The American Crisis, calling soldiers to mass to the cause of the Revolution. The first of these pamphlets begins with the stirring words, "These are the times that try men's souls."

The Declaration of Independence

Raising the first flag at Independence Hall. Copy of a painting by Clyde O. Deland.

As military hostilities built up, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington as General of the Continental Army. Washington gave up his salary for the position all through the war. (As he was among the richest men in the colonies, he could afford this choice.) In June of 1776, the Second Continental Congress felt it needed a spur for separation from Great Britain. It appointed a Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson became the principal author of this document.

Although the British king was no longer principally responsible for his dominion's policy, the Declaration of Independence called him a tyrant. It justified the rights of the rebellion with words the European Enlightenment would have hailed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal[.]" The Continental Congress signed the document on July 4, 1776. However, the signatures at this point showed that they wished independence: they could not alone achieve it.

Army Bands


One of the attributes of a well-drilled company of soldiers was its military band. The British and Hessian troops drilled to the beat of drums, which carried the rhythm of the march above the noise of musket fire, and provided a way to communicate on the battlefield. "By 1778 soldiers marched at seventy-five 24″ steps per minute in common time and nearly double that (120 steps per minute) when marching in quick time."[7] The music of the fife (a shrill flute) and drum helped build soldier morale.

If the Rebellion could not have good supplies, it would at least have high morale. With the Middle-brook Order, George Washington directed that every officer must provide military music for his troops. This was despite the limited number of instruments.[8] The bands were used to announce the beginning and end of the day, direct troops in battle, and uplift spirits.


One of the two major songs of the Revolution was the hymn Chester, first published in 1770 in "The New England Psalm Singer" and revised in 1778. Its author and composer, William Billings, created a combination of the biblical (Let tyrants shake their iron rod) and the topical (Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,/ With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd).

Another was the song Yankee Doodle, adapted from a tune of the Seven Years War. This was originally used by the British to laugh at the provincial manners of the Colonists, but was turned into a theme of the American upstarts.



In September of 1775, the Colonists, led by General Richard Montgomery, invaded Canada. At first the invasion proved successful, with Montgomery capturing Fort St. Jean and the city of Montreal. On December 30 he made the decision to launch an attack onto the British held city of Quebec. It proved disastrous, and Montgomery was killed in battle. This was the last major action in Canada, although Benidict Arnold and a number of other generals did attack the coasts or Canada, or launch raids across the border.

The Turning Point of the War


Despite the numerous defeats they faced in the early years of the war, the colonists were able to turn the tide around with several major victories.

New York and New Jersey


In July, 1776, General William Howe and thirty-thousand British troops arrived at Staten Island in New York. The large army attacked and defeated General George Washington's American forces in the Battle of Long Island. After nearly having his entire army captured, Washington led a skilled withdrawal out of New York. Eventually the Continental Army was forced to set up camp in Pennsylvania.

Howe could have ended the war by pursuing Washington's forces. But Howe was very cautious and took almost no risks. He feared losing too many men so far from home. Britain hired German mercenaries (Hessians) to guard the British fort at Trenton. Howe took advantage of these replacements and decided to wait until spring to attack the Continental Army again.

Washington also took advantage of the situation, though from a different perspective. He figured that the Hessians would be weakest on Christmas night, after heavy feasting and drinking. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington led his troops 9 miles, and across the Delaware River to ambush the Hessians. Crossing the river was difficult. A hail and sleet storm had broken out early in the crossing, winds were strong and the river was full of ice floes. The crossing took 3 hours longer than expected, but Washington decided to continue the attack anyway. As Washington predicted, the mercenaries were completely caught off guard and had little time to respond. Within just a over an hour, on the morning of December 26, the Continental Army had won the Battle of Trenton. The Americans had just 4 wounded and 0 killed against 25 Hessians Killed, 90 wounded and 920 captured. The victory increased the troops' morale and eventually led to re-enlistments. Some historians even speculate Trenton saved the revolution.

On January 2, the British came to re-take Trenton, and did so with heavy casualties. Washington once again led a clever withdrawal, and advanced on Princeton. At the Battle of Princeton, the Continental Army attacked the rear-guard of the British Army, and forced them to retreat from New Jersey.

During the war, the New World was being devastated by the 1775–1782 North American smallpox epidemic. Having survived the diseased in his youth[9], and having been warned about the effect the disease may have on the Army by Benjamin Franklin[10], George Washington wrote he had more dread of the disease crippling the continental army then the British Troops.[10] On February 5, George Washington ordered the first mass inoculation of troops, following large disruptions caused by smallpox outbreaks.[10] The policy was unpopular among soldiers, but stopped the mass infections from continuing.[10]

The Battle of Saratoga

Burgoyne surrendering to the Continental Army.

In the summer of 1777, British General John Burgoyne and General Howe agreed to attack the colonial Army from two sides and defeat it. Howe marched north, winning the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown and eventually capturing Philadelphia. But Burgoyne was not so fortunate. Delayed by natural traps set up by the Continental Army, his troops slowly marched from Canada to Albany. By September of the year, his forces reached Saratoga, where an enormous American Army attacked the troops. In October, General Burgoyne surrendered all his forces to the Americans. General Howe resigned his post, thwarted despite his victories in Pennsylvania.

The Battle of Saratoga proved to be the major turning point in the war. It persuaded France that America had to overthrow Great Britain, and French aid now was introduced to the colonists. The battle was also the last time the British would advance North. By the summer of 1778, following the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, all fighting would take place in the South.

Defeat of the Iroquois


The Iroquois Confederacy in its zenith had been the equal of the European Powers. But since the French and Indian war it had been in decline. The Tribes of the Confederacy disagreed on who to support in the Revolution. The Onedia and Tuscaroras supported the Americans, while the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and the Seneca supported the British. The Confederacy managed to stay together until 1777, when following the Battle of Saratoga, the 4 Tribes supporting the British began to attack American settlements across New York and Pennslyvenia.

A back and forth battle followed. The Iroquois would attack American Forts and Towns, then the Americans would burn Iroquois villages. In 1779 George Washington sent General Sullivan to destroy the Iroquois Nation. After defeating the Iroquois at the Battle of Newtown, Sullivan's army then carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death. The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. Thus ended the 700-year history of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Conclusion of the War (1778 - 1781)


After the loss at Saratoga, the French, traditional rivals of the British, offered their aid in the Revolution. The United States allied itself with France in 1778. Spain and the Dutch Republic also joined the American side, both lending money to the United States and going to war with Britain.

Valley Forge

A painting of Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge.

Following the capture of Philadelphia by the British, Washington took his followers to Valley Forge on December 17th, 1777, a defensible nearby area, and built camp for 12,000 soldiers and 400 civilians, then the fourth largest settlement in the colonies.[11] Following the introduction of the Prussian protege of Frederick the Great, Baron Von Steuben to Congress by way of Benjamin Franklin, he was directed to Valley Forge, where he arrived on February 23, 1778.[12][13]

On the Seas


War broke out on the seas as well. Americans granted commissions to "privateers" to attack and destroy all British ships, whether they were military or not. One of the most famous privateers, John Paul Jones, scored several victories at sea for the Americans, even attacking the shores of Britain itself.

Benjamin Lincoln accepting the British surrender at Yorktown, with Washington in the background.

The War Heads South


An attempted treachery was defeated when its architect, British Major John Andre, was captured in September of 1780. Benedict Arnold, one of the heroes of Fort Ticonderoga, had been placed in charge of Fort Clinton, New York (now called West Point). In response to a bribe, Arnold neglected maintenance of the fortification, and was then preparing to turn the fort over to the British. After he had learned of Andre's arrest he fled to join the British army.

Britain turned its attention from the North to the South, where more loyalists lived. They were at first very successful, defeating the Americans at Waxhaws, Charleston, and Camden. Lord Cornwallis, commander of the British forces in the south, was faced with the challenge of chasing down the Americans. Nathanael Greene had split his army into two, leaving one under the control of Daniel Morgan. Morgan drew Banastre Tarleton, who was commanding one half of the British Army, to Cowpens where they were they decisively defeated the British. The other half of the British Army, still under control of Cornwallis, defeated the Americans at the Battle of Guilford Court House. However, it was a bloody victory for Cornwallis and he was forced to withdraw to Yorktown Virginia to regroup.

After hearing that the British were in Yorktown, and there was a French Fleet arriving, Washington took the Continental Army, along with French Troops, to Yorktown and surrounded the British. By mid September the town was under siege. Cornwallis was assured by British Commander-in-Chief, Henry Clinton, who was in New York, that he would be relieved shortly. However, the British relief force was defeated by the French fleet. The British continued to hold off for a few more days, but the allied army moved in closer and closer to Yorktown, and their cannons destroyed many of the British defenses. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army, over 7,000 men.

Scattered fighting continued, but back in Britain, the British were crushed by this defeat. Parliament voted to cease all offensive operations in "the colonies." Washington took his army to Newburgh, New York, where he stopped a mutiny in the Army.

At the conclusion of the war in 1783 large numbers of loyalists and their families relocated to the home country of England and in large part to Canada as well as to other British Colonies. They submitted claims for lost property and lands in America. Many of the claims were not accepted by the English government for lack of evidence of the losses or significantly reduced. The property and lands were acquired by the American communities and then resold to the highest bidders.

Due to the climatic effects of a 1782 eruption of an Icelandic volcano, the loyalists also experienced one of the coldest Canadian winters on record which contributed to poor crops in 1783-1784. Starvation, disease and hardship were rampant and many resolved to return to the United States despite the threats of retribution rather than subsist on their meager produce.

Treaty of Paris (1783)


The British lost hope of crushing the rebellion after Yorktown. They decided to negotiate peace with The United States, France, and Spain. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3rd, 1783. In it, the United States was recognized as an independent nation, with boundaries stretching from the Canadian border in the North, to the Mississippi River to the West, and the northern border of Florida in the South. Britain was forced to return Florida to Spain, but could still hold Canada. Congress was told to advise the states to restore property lost or stolen from the Loyalists. (However, many Loyalists had fled during the Revolution, and many of them did not return to claim their property.)

Road to Revolution · Constitution Early Years

Religion & the Revolution


Catholics in the Revolution


The complex situation of Catholicism in Great Britain had results in its Colonies. At the time of the American revolution, Catholics formed approximately 1.6% of the total American population of the original 13 colonies. If Catholics were seen as potential enemies of the British state, Irish Catholics, subject to British rule, were doubly-damned. In Ireland they had been subject to British domination. In America Catholics were still forbidden from settling in some of the colonies. Although the head of their faith dwelt in Rome, they were under the official representation of the Catholic Bishop of the London diocese, one James Talbot. When War began, Bishop Talbot declared his faithfulness to the British Crown. (If he had done otherwise, Catholics in England would have been in trouble. Anti-Catholic sentiment still ran high.) He forbade any Colonial priest to serve Communion. This made practice of the faith impossible. This created sympathy for the Colonial rebels. The Continental Army's alliance with the French increased sympathy for the faith. When the French fleet arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, the colony repealed the Act of 1664 and allowed citizenship to Catholics. (This anticipated the provision of the Constitutional Bill of Rights which would strike anti-Catholic laws from the books.) After the war, the Pope created an American Bishop, John Carroll -- a descendant of the same Carrolls who had helped found Maryland -- and an American Diocese communicating directly with Rome.

From Anglicanism to Episcopalianism


On the one hand the colonial Church of England was an organ of the British government and a collaborator with it. Its clergy swore allegiance to the King. Several colonial governments paid monies to the local Anglican Church. Although other faiths were allowed in those states, the Anglican was considered the Official (Established) Church, putting pressure on other denominations. Still, several Revolutionaries, including Thomas Jefferson, rented their pews in a Church of England building. (Jefferson's own faith was Low Church, and he disagreed with the miracles in Christianity.) Significant meetings of the rebellion were held in Church of England buildings.

But after the war, the Church needed to find a new role. Some of the Loyalist clergy went north to Canada. Others were allowed to remain after swearing an oath to the new government. The formerly Established Church was no more: even before the creation of the Constitution, with its separation of Church and State, Americans did not want to pay any extra fees. The Book of Common Prayer, the form of worship in that Church, was pragmatically revised for the new Episcopal Church so that people prayed for "Civil Rulers," instead of the King. But many Church buildings were closed, and there was now room for other denominations to flourish in Virginia and other states.

The Early Government of the New United States


[Copied from Wikipedia]

The Articles of Confederation, formally the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was an agreement among the 13 founding states that established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and served as its first constitution.[14] Its drafting by the Continental Congress began in mid-1776, and an approved version was sent to the states for ratification in late 1777. The formal ratification by all 13 states was completed in early 1781. Even when not yet ratified, the Articles provided domestic and international legitimacy for the Continental Congress to direct the American Revolutionary War, conduct diplomacy with Europe and deal with territorial issues and Native American relations. Nevertheless, the weakness of the government created by the Articles became a matter of concern for key nationalists. [Whom?]


  1. McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. p. 28
  7. Anon. "Middle-brook Order, June 4, 1777: What It Really Says about the Quality of Revolutionary War Field Music." Paper read at School of the Musician, Brigade of the American Revolution, April 4, 1989. Revised February 12, 2011. Copyright 1989, 2011 HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.
  8. Anon, "Middle-brook Order.
  10. a b c d
  14. Jensen, Merrill (1959). The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. xi, 184. ISBN 978-0-299-00204-6.

Questions for Review


1. Who were these authors/composers, and what were they known for? (Mary Otis Warren, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, William Billings.)

2. How do the battles of Lexington and Concord show the early strengths and weaknesses of the American fighters?

3. Examine a copy of the Declaration of Independence in relation to this and the previous chapters. How does its rhetoric (choice of words) address the concerns of the American rebellion? How does it deviate from actual events to make a point?