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American Revolutionary War

History -- Military history -- War

The American Revolutionary War (also known as the American War of Independence has been mistakenly called the American Revolution but the American Revolution began much earlier and was a larger scheme including the war.) was a war fought between the British Crown and its colonies in North America, allied with France, from 1775 to 1783. The eventual outcome was the recognition of independence of the 13 southernmost of the colonies, as well as lightly settled territories west to the Mississippi River.

Before the revolution most people in the British North American Colonies considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown, with the same rights and obligations as people in Britain. However, under the doctrine of mercantilism the British considered the Colonies more as a resource to be utilized for the benefit of their own economy and had little respect for the Colonialists. This difference in perception led to a vicious circle of Colonialists acting against what they saw as unfair policies, harsh British reaction, followed by stronger Colonial reaction, leading to even harsher British reaction -- all of this spiraling into the revolution.

As the Colonialists started rejecting the Crown they also started becoming more radicalized in other ways, paying more attention to the idea of a broad democracy and to people like Thomas Paine, who not long previously would have been condemned as a leveller.

It should be noted however that a large proportion, probably a majority, of the population did stay loyal or neutral during the war. Loyalists, known as Tories, included members of the aristocracy who had a lot to lose as well as recent immigrants who identified more with their birthplace than their new home. Following the war many Tories were forced to flee to Canada or Britain. Many Native Americans also opposed the revolution realizing that they were likely to suffer more at the hands of independent Americans than the British.

The revolution started in April 1775 when British troops quartered in Boston attempted to seize munitions stored by colonial militias at Concord, Massachusetts. Conflict spread and the outnumbered British garrisons in the 13 Southernmost colonies were quickly defeated. Fort Ticonderoga fell in May, Montreal in August. Boston was evacuated by British troops in October. By the end of 1775 Britain's holdings in North America had been reduced to the Canadian Maritimes and a besieged garrison at Quebec City in Canada.

In 1776, the British sent 75,000 troops to North America to quell the rebellion. The colonists met in Philadelphia in June of 1776 and declared independence from England on July 4, 1776. See United States Declaration of Independence. The colonial army proved no match for the well-armed British and suffered an embarrassing series of defeats in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. By the end of 1776, Quebec, New York City and much of New Jersey were in British hands. However, during Christmas week, General George Washington, who had retreated into Pennsylvania, crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey and rolled up outlying British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. This established a pattern that held for the rest of the war. The British controlled the territory they occupied with major forces -- primarily New York City and Philadelphia. The colonists controlled everything else.

In 1777, a force of 10,000 troops started down from Quebec to cut the colonies in half. Simultaneously the much larger army in New Jersey moved across the Delaware River and took Philadelphia -- the colonial capitol and the largest city in North America. However, after retaking Ticonderoga with little trouble, the Northern army suffered a series of serious defeats at Bennington, Fort Stanwix[?] and in two battles near Saratoga. By October the 5,700 survivors found themselves surrounded, outnumbered and short of supplies in the wilderness 130 miles (210 km) south of Montreal with winter approaching.

On October 17th General John Burgoyne surrendered an entire British Army to the colonials. News of the surrender arrived in Paris hard on the heels of news that colonial troops had caused supposedly invincible British regulars to flee in disarray in the early stages of the Battle of Germantown[?]. Convinced by Benjamin Franklin and the news from North America that the Colonials had a reasonable chance of victory, the French agreed to support the colonists. Later on February 6, 1778 the Treaty of Alliance[?] and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce[?] were signed by the United States and France signaling official recognition of the new republic.

With the French in the war, the conflict settled into a war of attrition[?]. The Colonials were too weak to dislodge the British from Philadelphia and New York. The British tried various strategies, but were unable to establish permanent control over the countryside and the vast majority of the population. The economy of the colonies slowly disintegrated and the British economy -- drained by the costs of a War with France and supporting the large occupation forces in America -- also suffered substantially.

In 1781, the British strategy changed to focus on the Southern colonies. General Cornwallis led a force of 7,000 troops whose mission was to support loyalists in the South. He was opposed by Nathaniel Greene who despite losing every battle, was able to demoralize Cornwallis' troops. Running low on supplies, Cornwallis moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia to await supplies and reinforcements.

Accounts of what happened next are remarkably diverse -- possibly due to a desire by some American authors to minimize the French role in the events. All sources agree that French naval forces defeated the British Royal Navy on September 5th at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis' supplies and transport. Washington moved his troops from New York and a combined Colonial-French force of 16,000 or 17,000 troops was assembled and commenced the Battle of Yorktown on October 6, 1781. Cornwallis' position quickly became untenable. On October 19th a substantial British Army once again surrendered to the Colonials; as they marched out and turned their weapons over, the British regimental band was instructed to play a popular song of the day entitled "The World Turned Upside Down".

In April 1782, the British House of Commons voted to end the war with the American colonies and the government of war proponent Lord North was ousted. The British removed their troops from Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia in the Summer of 1782. In November 1782 a peace agreement was reached and on February 4, 1783 Great Britain formally declared that it would cease hostilities in North America. However the formal end of the War did not occur until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 and the United States Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784.

According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, Daniel F. Bakeman, died on April 5, 1869 at the age of 109.

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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