A Capsule History of the Revolutionary War


Yankee Doodle, 1776

Yankee Doodle, 1776

The American Revolution was an event of sweeping worldwide importance. A costly war that lasted from 1775 to 1783, it secured American independence and gave revolutionary reforms of government and society the chance to continue. At its core, the war pitted colonists who wanted independence and the creation of a republic against the power of the British crown, which wanted to keep its empire whole. At certain times and in certain places, Americans fought other Americans in what became a civil war. From the family whose farm was raided, through the merchant who could not trade, to the slave who entered British lines on the promise of freedom, everyone had a stake in the outcome.

1763-1774 – From Protest to Revolt

Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War ended her contest with France over North America but began a new conflict with her colonies. Many colonists questioned Britain’s decision to keep an army in postwar America, and almost all of them opposed Parliament’s effort to finance that army by taxing colonists. They petitioned against the 1764 Sugar Act, which imposed import duties, and the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed direct taxes on the sale of playing cards, dice, newspapers, and various legal documents. Parliament could not tax them, the colonists insisted, because they had no representatives in the House of Commons, and British subjects could only be taxed with the consent of their elected representatives. When Parliament refused to back down, colonial mobs forced stamp distributors to resign. Direct action by interracial urban mobs was a frequent occurrence in the lead-up to the Revolution. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but also passed a Declaratory Act affirming its complete authority over the colonists. The next year, it sought to raise revenue through new duties on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea, known as the “Townshend Duties.” The colonists responded with a coordinated refusal to import British goods. British troops sent to Boston to enforce the duties only added to the tensions, leading to an incident between civilians and British troops on March 5, 1770, where British troops fired on an unruly mob, killing five people. Local radicals called it the “Boston Massacre.”

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

In that same year, Parliament repealed all of the Townshend Cuties except that on tea. In 1773, Parliament reaffirmed the tax on tea and passed a Tea Act designed to help the British East India Company compete with smuggled tea. Colonists in some ports forced tea ships to return to Britain without unloading. That strategy failed in Boston, so a crowd thinly disguised as “Indians” dumped the imported tea into the harbor. Parliament responded to the “Boston Tea Party” with the Coercive Acts (called by the colonists the “Intolerable Acts”), which closed the port of Boston and changed the form of government in Massachusetts to enhance the Crown’s power. It then appointed General Thomas Gage commander of the British Army in America and governor of Massachusetts and placed that colony under military rule. In response, 12 colonies sent delegates to a Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the fall of 1774 to coordinate support for the “oppressed” people of Massachusetts and opposition to the Coercive Acts. The Congress adopted a colonial bill of rights and petitioned Britain for a redress of grievances.

 1775 – The War Begins

In late April 1775, General Gage sent British troops to seize colonial military supplies and arrest opposition leaders in the towns of Lexington and Concord, west of Boston, Massachusetts. The military clashes there and along the British retreat route began what became the Revolutionary War. News of the fighting spread quickly, and volunteer soldiers rushed to a provincial camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Soon this force had the British army bottled up in Boston, at that time a peninsula with just one narrow link to the mainland. Meanwhile, other colonial forces took the British forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York, seizing valuable military supplies. The Second Continental Congress, after assembling on May 10, 1775, took charge of the makeshift Massachusetts force and appointed Virginian George Washington to command this “Continental Army.” In June, British troops frustrated an American attempt to fortify Breed’s Hill overlooking Boston, but suffered heavy losses in the “Battle of Bunker Hill.” Thereafter, General William Howe replaced Gage as commander of the British forces. In July, Washington arrived at Cambridge and began a rigorous program to discipline the American army. Late in August, Congress sent troops to take Canada, an operation that would take the rest of the year and end in disaster. But, as the year closed, American troops under Colonel Henry Knox began dragging 55 cannon from Ticonderoga to the siege at Boston.

1776-1777 – The War’s Early Stages

Leaders of the Continental Congress, John Adams, Morris, Hamilton, Jefferson, A. Tholey

Leaders of the Continental Congress, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson. By Augustus Tholey, 1894

The year 1776 started badly for the colonists, who suffered a bitter defeat at Quebec, which dashed hopes of drawing Canadians into the conflict and opened the northern frontier to British attacks. In February, however, American supporters crushed loyalist forces at Moores Creek Bridge, North Carolina. In late March, the cannon from Ticonderoga allowed the Continental Army to force the British out of Boston, and in June, American forces repulsed a British attack on Charleston, South Carolina. In June and July, the British began assembling one of the largest naval and military forces ever seen in North America at New York. Meanwhile, the Congress at Philadelphia approved the Declaration of Independence, which was read publicly to Washington’s troops in New York. After a costly defeat at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, Washington managed to cross the East River back to Manhattan. He retreated first north, suffering defeats at Harlem Heights and White Plains, then down into New Jersey as the British captured Forts Washington and Lee on opposite sides of the Hudson River and took control of Manhattan Island. Washington finally crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania; then, after even he feared the cause was almost lost, scored critical victories at Trenton, New Jersey, in late December and Princeton, New Jersey, in January, stopping the downward spiral. Soon Washington’s army went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga New York

Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga New York

In 1777, Britain tried to isolate radical New England from the other colonies by sending a force under General John Burgoyne down from Canada to the Hudson River. Troops under General Howe sailed from New York toward Philadelphia, by way of the Chesapeake Bay. They captured Philadelphia, but by then Howe was unable to reinforce Burgoyne, who surrendered his much-diminished army to Continental soldiers and local militiamen at Saratoga, New York, in October. After that victory, the French negotiated an alliance with the Continental Congress, greatly reducing Britain’s chances of victory. Not only would French military and naval forces become available to the Americans, but Britain now faced a worldwide war and could no longer focus only on North America. Meanwhile, after being defeated by Howe’s forces at Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania, Washington’s army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, low on food and other necessities. There, German-born “Baron” Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben drilled the troops, providing a discipline that would prove useful the following year.

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