Despite their vocal and defiant protests against Parliamentary law in the 1760s and 70s, colonists went to war against the mother country very reluctantly in 1775. Historians like David Hackett Fischer have carefully noted the reticence with which most colonists approached the war. In New England, where bloody conflicts with the French and Indians had plagued every generation for 140 years, the overwhelming mood on the eve of the first battle with England was somber and fearful.117
Americans had every reason to be tentative and melancholy about the prospect of war with their former countrymen; after all, the odds seemed stacked against them. The British military mustered the greatest military force on earth. General William Howe had 32,000 men under his command, including a powerful naval fleet led by his older brother, Admiral Richard Howe. When the British ships sailed into New York Harbor early in the summer of 1776, they composed the greatest fleet ever seen in American waters.118 British forces were the best trained, most well equipped military in the world.
George Washington, on the other hand, led a combined force of approximately 19,000 Continentals and ragtag militiamen, almost all of whom had little formal military training or experience and who were unaccustomed to being told what to do. The Continental Army was fairly well trained, but it was augmented by the much less organized colonial militia. Militiamen were adult white males from small towns throughout North America; since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, all adult males between fifteen and 60 had to enroll in their local militia company. The militias would go on the occasional drill, but they were by and large farmers, artisans, and merchants...not professional soldiers. Whatever their limitations in formal military discipline, most American militiamen thrived in the guerilla warfare of the backcountry: they ambushed their opponents, wore hunting shirts instead of uniforms, and were fairly undisciplined. After all, the sum total of their experience had been fighting Indians and perhaps some French soldiers, then going home to tend to the farm or other chores. This made for a highly unpredictable and irregular fighting force—much to George Washington's chagrin—when the militiamen came to camp alongside the regular Continental Army. Even the Continental soldiers were mostly poor native-born Americans and immigrants who had been convicts or indentured servants. Unlike Britain's professional soldiers, these citizen-soldiers were often shocked and debilitated by camp life and the horrors of combat, both areas in which they had little or no experience.
In private, Washington confided to friends that the New England troops would, "I daresay...fight very well (if properly officered), although they are an exceedingly dirty and nasty people."119 The officers hardly did much more to impress their commander in chief; only one of them, Major General Charles Lee—an eccentric dog lover—was a professional soldier. The rest held civilian occupations; not atypical was General Artemus Ward, who had been a Massachusetts farmer, storekeeper, and justice of the peace before the war, and who led the American troops into Boston.120 Desertions among enlisted men increased as the war dragged on, and the size of the army fluctuated accordingly. It peaked at 20,000 in the early months of the war, was reduced to half that number, then went as low as 5,000 during the harsh winter of 1776-7 at Valley Forge. Sometimes only 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers were ready for battle.121
Part of the reason for the army's difficulty in sustaining itself was a consistent lack of supplies or other support from the Continental Congress, which overnight had to become the de facto government and was ill prepared for such an awesome responsibility. Continental paper money was printed in such massive amounts that it soon became almost worthless due to skyrocketing inflation (hence the saying, "not worth a Continental"). Disease also plagued the troops, though historian Joseph Ellis has credited George Washington's decision to inoculate the army against smallpox (which was epidemic during the Revolutionary War era) as perhaps the most important of his career.122 In August 1775, Washington received a report that colonial gunpowder stores amounted to less than 10,000 pounds, which provided only enough powder for about nine rounds per man. By one account, Washington "was so stunned by the report he did not utter a word for half an hour."123 All of this begs the question: how did the Americans win?
First, one should never underestimate the power of a people fighting for the right to self-determination (as the United States itself would learn 200 years later, in Vietnam). Second, as Vietnam also demonstrated, the home field advantage is a considerable one, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable firepower and resources commanded by invading armies. Ironically, Americans during the Revolutionary War adopted many of the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Indians whom they had battled on and off for so many years. Europeans and Americans had long maligned the Native Americans for practicing "uncivilized" methods of warfare; traditional protocol among Old World nations had dictated a formal set of rules for battle. (Both sides were to assume tight formations and wage open battles that were clearly planned out beforehand.) But now, knowledge of the terrain and the element of surprise became key tools that colonists and their Indian allies employed to their best advantage.
Anglo-American tensions were so high by the spring of 1775 that both sides knew a single spark might ignite a war. That spark came when British troops (known as the Regulars) received their marching orders and set out from Boston, a move that the Patriots—who had spies all over Boston—had been anticipating. With secret orders to suppress the colonial rebellion, General Gage sent about 300 British Regulars to capture and arrest the leaders of the Provincial Congress and seize the militia supply depot at Concord, Massachusetts. Stable boys and other sympathetic Bostonians caught wind of the plan when they overheard the whispering of British soldiers, and when they notified Paul Revere and Boston's Committee of Safety, Revere and his long-forgotten comrade William Dawes set out on their famed nighttime rides (on separate routes) to warn the surrounding towns that the Regulars were coming. Revere reached Lexington around midnight, warning Sam Adams and John Hancock—who were hiding there—of imminent British attack. He then continued on to Concord. While Revere was captured by the British en route, one of his associates—Dr. Samuel Prescott—got through to rouse the militia.
At dawn the next day, 19 April, the Regulars marched into town and found themselves facing (at a distance of some 60 or 70 yards) about 70 minutemen—a special sub-set of the militia trained to be ready to march at the shortest notice—lined up on the Lexington Green. (Many men were just getting word of the alarm that morning, and were still mustering to Lexington from surrounding towns). British major John Pitcairn, who was convinced that "burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights," rode onto the Green and ordered the Americans to disperse, calling them "rebels" and "villains."124 The colonists had begun backing away, but then someone—to this day, no one knows who—fired a single shot. Witnesses on both sides later confessed that they simply did not know who fired, and it didn't help matters that the British Regulars were shouting "huzza! huzza! huzza!" the battle cry of the British infantry.125 But that shot—the "shot heard round the world"—began the first battle of the Revolutionary War. British troops then charged the minutemen with bayonets, spilling the first blood of the Revolution on Lexington Green. Eight colonials died and ten more were wounded. As historians George Tindall and David Shi later recounted, "One wounded American patriot, whose wife and son were watching the spectacle, crawled 100 yards to die on his front doorstep."126
British officers got their men under control and marched on to Concord, where they destroyed what was left of the Americans' munitions. In a second skirmish at Concord's North Bridge, the Americans killed fourteen Regulars. By noon, the British were on the march back to Boston, subjected to constant ambushes from farmers from just about every village and town in Middlesex County, who shot their muskets at the Redcoats from the cover of barns, houses, trees, and stone walls. More than 250 British soldiers died along the road.
On 17 June 1775, the same day that George Washington was commissioned general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, British and American forces engaged in the first major pitched battle of the Revolutionary War at Bunker Hill, Massachusetts. (The battle was misnamed; the actual location was not Bunker Hill but neighboring Breed's Hill, which was closer to Boston.) The battle was declared a British victory, but it proved a Pyrrhic one: General Howe's forces suffered over 1,000 casualties before gaining the high ground. The colonials lost about 400 men. People in both London and Boston noted that "a few more such victories would surely spell ruin for the victors."127 The battle proved to the British that the Americans were not to be taken lightly. It also prompted the Continental Congress—which had assembled for only the second time on 10 May 1775 in Philadelphia—to call for the enlistment of all able-bodied men into the militia. Lines had been drawn and colonists now had to declare their allegiance to either the patriot or loyalist cause.
General John Burgoyne embodied many of the traits that proved fatal to the British during the war. As commander of England's northern forces, Burgoyne—or "Gentleman Johnny," as he was known—set out to divide the colonies by advancing southward from Canada to the Hudson River; if was successful, then he could isolate New England from the other colonies. A second British force was to move east through the Mohawk River Valley, and General William Howe would guide a third force up the Hudson from his stronghold at New York City. This three-prong attack was designed to debilitate the colonials by dividing and conquering their forces. Yet Indecision was the first British flaw to emerge, when Howe changed his mind and captured Philadelphia instead of moving north as planned. This separated him even further from Burgoyne's men.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne—as planned—marched toward Lake Champlain from Canada in 1777. His procession included about 30 carts of his own luggage, in addition to his mistress, plenty of champagne, and about 7,000 soldiers. Arrogance and overconfidence were clearly additional afflictions that factored against the British cause. Yet, at first, Burgoyne seemed to succeed: on 5 July 1777 his forces captured Fort Ticonderoga with little effort, the American army having dwindled considerably in size during the harsh winter. But then Burgoyne hung around Ticonderoga instead of advancing again, allowing time for colonial reinforcements to arrive from New England and other points to the south. Those American forces inflicted serious damage on the British at Oriskany, New York on 6 August 1777 and again at Bennington, Vermont on 16 August. It helped that Britain's Indian allies deserted at this time, believing themselves outnumbered by the American militia.
By October, General Burgoyne found himself completely surrounded, and he surrendered to American General Horatio Gates's forces at Saratoga, New York. Most of Burgoyne's 5,700 soldiers were imprisoned in Virginia. Burgoyne himself was allowed to return home to England, where he found a cold reception. Saratoga was a turning point in the war; news of the American victory was jubilantly celebrated in France, which then signed two treaties with the Patriots in early 1778. The Treaty of Alliance provided George Washington's forces with the military support they so desperately needed, and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce granted French recognition of the United States along with important trade concessions. The two countries agreed that if France was to enter the war, both would fight until the Americans won their independence, and that neither party would sign a truce or peace treaty without the consent of the other. They also agreed to guarantee one another's North American possessions against all other powers, forever. France pledged not to try and regain British holdings in North America or to obtain Canada.
France was fully engaged in the war by the summer of 1778. The next year, Spain also entered the war as a French ally (but not, officially, as an American ally), and only after the French had promised to help it regain land holdings previously seized by the British. Because the Dutch persisted in their lucrative trade with both France and the United States, Britain declared war on Holland in 1780. The American Revolution was already beginning to spread worldwide. Within the decade, the French Revolution got under way and changed Europe forever; the revolutionary ideas that the Americans unleashed actually boomeranged back on the royal French government itself.
After Saratoga, Prime Minister Lord North feared that the British were doomed to lose the war, but King George III would not allow a truce and would not permit North to resign.
Meanwhile, immersed in the unceasing conflict, George Washington's army made its winter encampment near Philadelphia at Valley Forge. The brutal winter of 1777-8 brought deprivations far worse than those experienced a year earlier at Morristown. Disease, cold, and hunger plagued the Americans for months. Desertion rates skyrocketed and Washington warned Congress that if it did not send supplies immediately, the army would be forced to "starve, dissolve, or disperse."128 But the army found its own salvation when Washington ordered generals Nathaniel Greene and Henry Lee to lead foraging expeditions into New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The men took livestock, cattle, and horses and in exchange they issued "receipts" that were supposed to be honored by the Continental Congress. News of the French alliance, Congress's new promises of extra pay and bonuses after the war, the newfound food rations, and the warmer change of weather with the onset of spring all helped to revive the troops sufficiently for Washington to initiate a rigorous training program for them. To make up for their lack of formal military training, the Americans sought out Prussian soldier Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, whose frequent use of expletives would have rivaled the "potty mouth" of World War II General George Patton. Speaking through an interpreter, von Steuben drilled the troops, taught them how to properly handle their weapons, and how to march in formation.
By the end of 1778, British military action abruptly shifted southward in an effort to realize King George's hope that there lay a dormant Tory population simply awaiting the arrival of the Regulars to revolt against the Patriots. As it turned out, there weren't many Loyalists, and many of those colonists who had Loyalist sympathies or were still on the fence were turned against the British by the behavior of their troops and officers.
Southern whites had been wary of the British ever since word had spread of Lord Dunmore's 1775 decree, which granted freedom to any slaves who enlisted with British forces. Now plantation houses were destroyed as British General Augustin Prevost's forces marched on Charleston from Savannah. British land forces paired with naval reinforcements to inflict the worst American defeat of the war, the surrender of Charleston on 12 May 1780. In the wake of the fall of Charleston, a panicky Continental Congress ignored George Washington's advice by turning to General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, to take command in the South and hopefully save the day. Before Gates's troops could reach Charleston, British General Charles Cornwallis hit them with a surprise attack at Camden, South Carolina, routing the American army. Gates had to retreat 160 miles north to Hillsborough, North Carolina. Just when it seemed that Cornwallis had solidified British control over South Carolina, his own subordinates undercut the British cause by savagely hanging all conquered forces from the mountains. The "over-mountain men" allied with other backcountry locals in South Carolina and together they defeated British forces on 7 October 1780 at King's Mountain. The Patriots' cause was still alive in the South, it just needed some leadership.
In the wake of Gates's discouraging defeat, Congress appointed the patient and exceptionally intelligent Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island to command the southern theater at the end of 1780. Greene waged a successful war of attrition against the British in which his soldiers inflicted heavy losses on the regulars in skirmishes throughout the first half of 1781. By the fall of that year, Greene had reduced British control in the South to Charleston and Savannah, while savage fighting continued between Whigs and Tories in the backcountry.
While Greene and his Whig allies continued to wage their protracted battles in Carolina country, British General Cornwallis marched his army to Virginia to ensure that it could not serve as a source of reinforcements for the American insurgency to the south. In Virginia, British forces under the traitorous General Benedict Arnold—who had begun the war an American patriot—had been fighting American troops under the command of French Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben. Cornwallis combined his forces with Arnold's, forming a British army of about 7,200 men. Cornwallis ordered his troops to dig in at Yorktown, a port in Virginia's tobacco country, believing that he was invulnerable to a siege since the British navy controlled the seas and George Washington's army seemed to be preoccupied with attacking New York.
But in late September 1781, a French fleet of some 3,000 sailors under Admiral de Grasse sailed up from the West Indies to bolster army forces under the command of Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. The siege that Cornwallis had thought an impossibility was now at hand. Total American and French forces of some 16,000 dwarfed Cornwallis's 7,200-man army. The French and Americans cut off all avenues of British relief for Cornwallis, whose fate became hopeless. Unable to break the siege, Cornwallis sued for peace on 17 October, exactly four years to the day after the American victory at Saratoga.
Two days later, on 19 October 1781, Cornwallis formally surrendered to the combined French and American force at Yorktown. British forces marched out with their colors cased (i.e. no flags flying), their band playing understandably somber songs and one distinctly apropos English nursery rhyme, "The World Turned Upside Down." The war was over and the Americans had achieved the impossible.