The American Revolutionary War: Military Campaigns


Figure 1.--Here at Greenfield village, a Revolutionary War reenactor is showing a boy how to use a muzzle-loading musket. While notoriously inaccurate, it was the principal fire arm used on both sides during the Revolutionary War and would continue to be the principal infantry weapon through the Civil War (1860s).

The American colonists won the Revolutionary War by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The War began with the British effort from Boston to seize military supplies at Lexington and Concord (1775). It was there the shot heard round the world was fired. Cannon seized by backwoods Patriots from Fort Ticondaroga bottled the British up in Boston. King George III orders a massive new army dispatched to quickly subdue the Colonists. The untrained American militias were unable to resist the British regulars who quickly smash Washington's Army on Long Island and occupy New York and Philadelphia (1776). Few armies were as close to defeat and survived as George Washington's Continentals in the Winter of 1776. Throughout the War, it was the British who largely controlled the conduct of the fighting, taking advantage of the mobility afforded by the Royal Navy and command of the sea. The British launched most of the offensives and the Colonists were left to defend as best they could. The most significant American victory was at Saratoga (1777) in the American hinterland where the Royal Navy could not offer support and the population most supportive of the Patriot cause. The British defeat was instrumental in finally bringing the French into the War--acritical development. The overwhelming naval and military superiority of the British allowed the British to control the conduct of the War and made it virtually impossible for the Patriots to force the British to surrender--as long as they could fall back on a port for reinforcement and resupply. The one successful American offensive was the siege of Yorktown (1881) in Virginia, a siege made possible by the French defeat of a British naval squadron in the Battle of the Cape--a rare French naval victory.

Overview

The American colonists won the Revolutionary War by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The British seemed to have all the advantages. The had a competently led, superbly trained, and well-armed professional army supported by the world's preminent navy able to transport the army and support it at various positions along the coast, a trenmendous advantages in an era before road connections existed. The colonists had no army and in fact a fear of creating a standing army. The colonists had a poorly-trained, inexpeienced, and poorly armed collection of militia. Their commander George Washington had only limited military experience. The British had many opportunities to achieve victory, especially before the French intervened. One historian writes, "If the wind had not blown foul for British ships to sail into the East River in August 1776, General George Washington and his army almost certainly would have been crushed on Long Island, ending the war less than two months after Congress had declared independence from England. If Brigadier General Benedict Arnold had not fought so tenaciously against Sir Guy Carelton on Lake Champlain through the summer and fall of 1776, Carelton might have taken Fort Ticonderoga that summer and driven south to Albany, linking there with British forces moving up the Hudson River from New York. This would have isolated New England from the colonies to the south, again probably ebnding the war. The list of hairbreath survivals for the American Revolution goes on and on. In hindsight, it seems incredible that the rebels won their independence in the end." [Nelson] It was the inexperienced American commander, General Washington that would prove to be the pivotal leader in the War as he was in the founding of the American republic after the War. The failure to defeat him and the rag-tag Colonial Army at the onset (1776) before the Americans gained experience and then subsequently the French came in (1778), proved to be the key to the American victory.

The Intolerable Acts (1774)

Parliament's response to the Boston Tea Party was the Intolerable Acts (1774). The desire to negotiate differences with the Colonists disappeared. They were going to be forced to obey Parliament and the Kings' ministers. Opinions about the Boston Tea Party had varied in the Colonies,. Some Colonists admired the action and resistance to British policies. Others Viewed tghe act as violent and radical, There was no hesitation in Parliament. The British Prliament passed the Coercive Acts (1774). The aim was to punish the Colonistsand to restore firm British control. The Colonists immediately christen the new laws the Intolerable Acts. They were aroup of seprate acts. One of the most important was the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston Harbor to all shipping until Bostonians had paid damnages to the British East India Company. TYhet were damages that would never be repaid. The Acts also restricted public assemblies and suspended many of the civil liberties that Colonits had considered to be basic rights as British subjects. Strict new provisions were also made for `requiring Colonists to house British troops in their homes. This revived the animoity of the earlier Quartering Act, which the British Government to difuse tensions had allowed to expire in 1770. While the initial reaction to the Boston Tea Party was mixed, there was littl division on the Intolerable Acts. A wave of public sympathy for Boston erupted throughout the colonies. Towns and villages in the Boston area sent food and supplies to city which was now blockaded by the Royal Navy. Sir Thomas Gates was also appointed military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He was ordered to stringintly the Intolerable Acts. Gage had proven to be a capable administrator, helping to ease French populted Quebec into the British Empire. This was because the French Candians offered no real resistance and he was not sent to punish them. Exavtly the opposite sitution prevailed in Boston. Gage at first thought that the probelm was rable rousing by asmall group of radicals found mostltin Boston. As he became more familiar with the situar\tion hecame to see democracy itself as the root cause. He wrote that "democracy is too prevalent in America" (1772). [Fischer,REvere, p. 39.] He came to believe that the British Governmen should abolish town meetings should be abolished and recommended that British colonisation should be limited to the coastal areas where they could be more easily controlled a British rule enforced. [Fischer, Revere, p. 39.]

Patriots Seize Control (1775)

Most history books focus on 1776 s the watershed year for American independence. This was certainly when the most dramatic events took place. It was the previos year in less dramatic steps that the Patriots seized control of the Colonies. Patriot forces without ,ilitry action achieved sweeping control of the Colonies. The British lacked the militaryforces to prevent this. Congress issued economic ultimatums to Britain. The Patriot fervor was strongest in New England, but up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, Patriot groups expelled one royal govenor after another, including Benjmin Franklin's son serving as govenor of New Jersey. Provincial legislatures and greassroot committees then reconsituted local goverment in Patriot hands. Boston was virtually the only small pcket left in British hands. When the Brirish struck back in force the found they faced a monumental task task of continental dimensions. And even though they deployed a substantial force, they were never able to win back the control they lost in 1775. One historian writes, "Much of the necessary underpinning of American self governance--provincial congresses, local committees of safety, new seaport regulators, the flight of royal governors to small British warships obliged to provide cramped and humblequarters, a Patriot militia ordered to double as political police--had been put in place, as part of the spirit of 1775. Jefferson himself thought that the United Colonies already had defacto indeependence before the Declaration came along. As 1775 ended, the only place the British still controlled was occupied Boston." [Phillips]

Boston (1775)

Boston bevame the epicenter for the Revolution, in part because it was one of the few places that Britain held on to in the colonies. Thus the Revolutionarty War began in Massachusettes. The British held Boston, but not the countryside around the city. The War began with the British attempt to seize military supplies that were reportedly being stockpiled at Lexington and Concord outside Boston (April 1775). Gen. Gates ordered a strong military force to venture out from the city and seize the military stores of the Patriot militias. It was to be apremptive strike to defuse the situation. Instead it ignited the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the officil beginning of the Revolutionry War. The British reached Lexington where they did not find militry stores. It was there the shot heard round the world was fired and several miklitiamen killed. Militiamen then stoped the British at a stone bridge before reaching Concord. The subsequent withdrawl back to Boston turnd into a bloody route. The Colonial militia then managed to bottle the British trops up in Boston. Gage gained a Pyrrhic victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775). Gage was ten replaced by General William Howe (October 1775). The Continental Congress chose Virginian George Washington who hadserved in the Virginia Militia to take command of the militia force gathering around Boston. In part this was the work of John Adams who saw the need to draw Virginia into the conflict. Washington was agast at what he saw when he reached the militia fotces outdide of Boston. They were disorganized and undisciplined. John Knox seized Fort Ticondaroga to the north and managed to transport the cannon to Washington. The cannon made the British position in Boston untenable and they were eventually forced to evacuate on Royal Navy ships. This left the Patriots in total comtrol of the Colonies.

American Northern Canadian Campign (1775-76)

Further north other battles raged. Major Genneral Benedict Arnold led a small American army north to seize Quebec and with it much of Canada (1775). Individuals who would become important in subsequent American history wer involved, including Timmothy Bigelow, Aron Burr, Cahrles Porterfielld, and others. All were influenced by Burr and his inspired leadership. [Lefkowitz] And none including Arnold himseld could have imzginrd tht he would become the most nototious trtor in merivan history. At the time the British had very limited forces in Quebec. Most Americans assumed the Canadians would welcome them. They did not. Arnold's and his men's bravery and endurance was phenomenal. Arnold himself was wounded. A British relief Army arrived to defeat the American northern effort. The British led by Sir Guy Carelton then moved south from Canada, seeking to split the Colonies in two. While the American effort failed, the Continental forces led by Arnold prevented the British from linking up with British forces to the south and splitting the colonies.

First British Northern Offensive (1776)

King George III backed by Parliament ordered a massive army dispatched to quickly subdue the Colonists. The British offensive was launched to seize the key city of New York and destroy the rebel army (Summer 1776). As so often in the history of warfare, the great opportunity for victory was at the very beginning of a conflict against an unprepared opponent. This would have ended the rebellion in a few months. Having lost control in 1775, the first British offensive would be their best, and as it played out, their only real oportunity to regain control. The patriots were organizing politically, but did not yet have a trained, well-equipped army. It had an enthusiastic, but lightly armed militia led by inexperienced commanders without any foreign support. The British to smash the rebellion amassed a massive professional, well equipped army of 33,000 British troops and German mercinaries soldiers supported by 70 modern warships. And the Royal Navy gave the British the mobility that Washington lacked. The result was predictable. What the British failed to appreciate was the huge task they hd taken on and the physical dimensions of the territory it now needed to reconquer. Not did they fully appreciate that unlike Europe, seizing the main cities did not mean hey had won the War. And they also failed to apprciate the tenacity and capabilities of General George Washington.

Building the Continental Army

Washington saw clearly from the defeats of 1776 that the British could not be defeated with out a professional army. Militia men had their farms and families to support. They were effective in short localized campaigns near home, but could not be relied upon for sustained campaigns. Nor did they have the training and discipline to stand up to the Nritish professionals. Washington demanded whay he referred to as a "respectable" army. Although there was considerable ressistance, Washington convinced Congress to allow him to recruit a professional, the Continental Army. They were offered higher pay than the militia and they were subjected to more severe military discipline. The recruits for Washington's Continentals came disportinately from the poor. [Fischer, Washington]

The West

The major Revolutionary battles were fought east of the Appalachins. There were, however, important engagements in the unsettled land west of the Appalachins. Many but not all of the Native Americas sided with the English. The all-important Scotts-Irish, however proved to be ardentlky anti-British. And British alliance with the Native Americans obly sharpened their opposition o the Brirish. Just before the War, Daniel Boone led settlers into Kentucky. Settlers there fought off Native Americans supported by the British who besieged Boonesville. While the western campaigns were relatively limited in terms of number of combatants, the Western settlers played aey role in the American victory at Saratoga (1777). They would also defeated a British force at Kings Mountain (1780), an important battle in the southern campaign. They also proved to be of emense significance in the peace negotiations. The success of the Amerians enabled them to claim a huge swath of unsettled land west to the Mississippi.

Second British Northern Offensive: Three-pronged Thrust to Divide the Colonies (June-October 1777)

The British objective in their second important American offensive was to split the colonies in two. The goal was to divide the colonies along the lines of the Hudson River Valley, separating New England which was the heart of the rebellion from the rest of the colonies. Once the colonies were separated, they could be defeated in detailvusing the mobility provided by the Royal Navy to concentrate available forces. The colonies would be unable to provide mutual support. Intrense planning went forward. A whole new field army was transported to Canada under Johnny Burgoyne. His orders were to drive south down from Canada while Howe would move up the Hudson. A third smaller force with Indian allies was to move east along the Mohawk. The three prongs were to meet at Albany, effectively spliting the Colonies. British commander Barry St. Leger and Native Americans moving east beseiged Fort Stanwix, but withdrew to Canada when Benedict Arnold relieved the fort. The loyalty of the Native Americans had been weakened because they were unwilling to participate in the set peace battles preferred by the British. Lake Champlain was like a highway headed south. Burgoyne seized Fort Ticondraga and then plunged into the heavily forested western wilderness. Here the struggle for a new nation bgan in the northwest wildreness. Nowhere in America was a worst place to commit a British field Army. They could not be supported by the Royal Navy and many of their inherent advatage were lost in the wildreness. In the forested morass without roads, moving a modern army proved increasingly difficult. One author writes, "No matter how strong an invading force, it wa still very difficult to completly seal off, surround, and decisively defeat an opponent within a huge forestd region. Repeatedly, the British uceeded in driving the patiots into wooded and swampy areas, but they could not destroy them. Another burden the English War Ministry fced was that no matter how well trained and diciplined their troops, they simply could not surpass in fighting skills those who had been born and raised in th wilderness .... In the end, such forest skills helped the patriots to achieve a victory so crucially needed in the opening stages of the Revolutinary War." [Logusz, Musket Vol. I Saratoga] Burgoyne suffered significant casualties as he moved south, especially at Benington. Major General Beneduct Arnold again played a major role in the fighting. Horatio Gates' army defending Albany stopped Burgoyne near Saratoga Springs. There he consolidated his forces, assuming that Howe would move north and releave him. Inexplically, Howe never came. Burgoyne's supplies running low, he attempted to break out at Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights. Again Benedit Arnold played a key role in the fighting. Burgoune was finally forced to surrender (October 17, 1777). Saratoga was the most significant American victory of the War at Saratoga (1777). The problem with the British strategy was it put a British Army in the American hinterland where the Royal Navy could not offer support and the population most supportive of the Patriot cause. The victory was achieved by the new Conitental Army and the militias. The surrender of a British army was almost unconceivable at the time. (The only other time this happened Corwallis' army at Yorktown (1781) and Percival's army at Singapore (1942).) The ramifications were enormous. The Americans not only defeated an entire British army, but the American victory and Franklin's brilliant diplomacy convinced the French to enter the War.

The French Alliance (1778)

Benjamin Franklin's diplomacy layed the ground work for a critically important French alliance. The French were still bitter about their defeat in the French and Indian War and loss of Canada. The French Monarchy was thus sympathetic to the American cause despite its republican nature. The French doubted, however, that America had any chance of defeating the British. French diplomats were willing to wage another costly war with the British if it would mean another defeat. The American victory at Saratoga (October 1777) was instrumental in finally bringing the French into the War--a critical development. France formally recognized the United States and signed a the Treaty of Alliance (February 6, 1778). The Britiash responded by declaring war on France (March 17, 1778). A rebellion by a poorly armed and trained militia force was now a full-scale war with a major European power supporting an increasingly proficient and well armed Continental Army which which had already defeated a British field Army.

Fighting in the North

Having failed to quash the rebellion at the onset, the British faced an increasingly capable Continental Army and spiraling costs of fighting a major war. Bolstered by the French and idealistic European soldiers helping train the Continental Army, the Continental Army emerged as a match for the British regulars. Washington thus oversaw the creation of a Continental Army which could go toe-to-toe with Britain's trained and well-supplied regulars. The result would be stalemate in the North. The British could not defeat the Americans. And the Americans while regaining Philadelphia could not dislodge the British from New York where they were supplied an reinforced by the Royal Navy. Here the cost of the War was the principal limitation on the British war effort. They could not continue the war indefinitely. The Americans even though supported by the French also had significant problems continuing the War as the War and Royal Navy control of the seas was wrecking the American economy. Perhaps the key factor of the Revolution was that most Americans lived on realtively self sufficient farms and thus were largely beyond the ability to the Britosh to compel compliance as long as Washington could keep an army in the field.

Monmouth Court House (June 28, 1778)

The British replaced Howe with Sir Henry Clinton (Spring 1778). The entry of the French into the War and the loss of an entire field army at Saratoga changed the strategic ballance. Clinton received reports of a French fleet and decided to withdraw from Philadelphia to a more defensible position around New York city. Clinto began the evacuation (June 18). He believed the French fleet would seize control of the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River. At the time , rivers were more effective communication and supply lines than roads. Clinton gave fearful loyalists the opportunity to leave by ships that sailed down the Deleware. Most of the British Army began to move northeast toward New York on foot. Soon a long line of British soldiers and supply waggons snaked through New Jersey in a column stretching out 10 miles. This presented an opportunity for Washington to test his Continentals. His intention was to attack the British rear guard and gain a small victory, primarily for public opinion. Gerneral Charles Lee. who had been exchanged for a British general, led the attack. Unknown at the time was the fact that Lee had committed treason while a British captive. Lee was retuned to command even though he believed the War unwinable. He soon found himself engaging the main British force. Accounts vary. Some say he fled from battle, others that a retreat was necessary. Washington ws outraged with Lee's conduct ad seized command. The resulting battle was fought on an extrodnarily hot day. Casualties were high. The legend of Molly Pitcher emerged from the battle. The two armies fought the battle to a standstill. This was, however, a huge victory for Washington. It proved that the Continental Army now could fight a set piece battle and face the British regulars. Historians debate the results of the battle. The lesson was not, however, loss on Clinton. Monmouth Court House was the last major battle fought by the British army in the north. The British instead conceived of a southern strategy to take advantage of what they preceived as greater loyalist sympathies in the south.

Rhode Island: Newport (July-August 1778)

The Colonists controlled most of Rhode Island, but a British garrison occupied the important port of Newport. Newport is a relatively small city today. At the time of the Revolution is was kne of the five principal American cities. The French, after signing the Treaty of Alliance (February 1778), lost no time in coming to the aid of the rebelious American Colonists. A French fleet reached the entrance to Narragansett Bay (July 29, 1778). This launched the first joint American-French campaign of the War. One historian writes, "Major Frederick Mackenzie, talented aide to the commander of the British army occupying Newport ... had known for some months that England's long-time enemy has dispatched a naval squadron to support American forces in the Revolutionary War. Now, here it was--on the cusp of Narragansett Bay .... The thought must have croissed his mind: would a defeat here--less than a year after the British surrender at Saratoga--doomed England's chances to retain her rebellious American colonies?" [McBurney] The objective was to defeat and capture the British garrison at Newport. It was a complex land-sea operation. The effort was undercut when a storm damaged the French fleet. The British were thus able to hold out in Newport. The Americans ultimately withdrew. While the effort ultimately failed, critically important French aid was now flowing in quantity to General Washigton's Continental Army. And as the British launched their southern strategy and the War fought out to a conclusion in the south, the bulk of the British Army was tied down in the north around New York and Newport.

Southern Strategy (1778-81)

After Monmouth Court House, the British knew they faced a now experienced Continental Army and not a poorly disciplined militia. And as a result of Saratoga, the Continentals were now supported by French aid and a French army. There seemed to be no way of winning in the north. Checked in the North, the British decided on a southern campaign where they believed they would find more local support. The British seized Savanah (1778). The southern strategy was put into operation with an assault on Charles Town. After a siege the British took the city. At first the British were sucessful, taking control of much of South Carolina. The British defeated the Colonist's Southern Army commanded by Horatio Gates who once challenged Washington for command. Unlike Washington, after his defeats, Gates abandoned the army and fled, disappearing from American history. Gradually a bruising guerilla campaign organized by Francis Marion weakened the British. Washington dispatched a new southern Coninental Army under Nathanael Greene who moved south into North Carolina. A disastrous engaement at Cownpens destroyed an entire Scottish regiment. Lord Cornwallis takes the army north. He wins a series of engagements, but in the priocess loses much of his army. Finally he headed toward the Chesapeake Bay where he expected to be evacuated by the Royal Navy.

Yorktown (September-October 1781)

The War in the North dragged on without any sign of resolution. Washington was concerned that with no end to the War in sight, he woukd be unable to hold the Continebntal Army togrther for another year of campaigning. Little changed in the Sprung and early Summer. With the support of the Royal Navy, it was impossible to dislodge the British from New York and end the War. Throughout the Revolutionary war, the overwhelming naval and military superiority of the British allowed them to control the conduct of the War and made it virtually impossible for the Patriots to force the British to surrender--as long as they could fall back on a port for reinforcement and resupply. And this was just what General Cornwallis was seeking to do when after his army was battered in a series of engagements in North Carolina and Virginia. He managed to win these battles, but at great cost. The one successful American offensive was the destruction of Lord Cornwallis' southern army in Virginia (1881). At the beginning of the year the focus of the War was in the North where Washington and Lieutenant General de Rochambeau commanding the French forces were focused on New York. This began to change when dispatches from France raised the possibility of French naval support. The French West Indies fleet commanded by Comte de Grasse might be able to make a forray north. Washington was still focused on New York, but Rochambeau raised the opportunity developing in Virginia. General Henry Clinton ordered Cornwallis to establish a defensible position at a deep-water port. Cornwallis headed for the Chesapeake Bay where he expected to be evacuated by the Royal Navy. [Nelson] He arrived at Yorktown with a badly depleted force. The Colonial Army following him was not strong enough to defeat him and had itself suffered substantial losses. The French and American armies north of New York City received word from de Grasse that he was sailing for the Chesapeake Bay. Washington and Degrasse set about the difficult task of moving their armies south to Virginia (August 19). They did their best to convince the British under Howe they were preparing to lay seige to New York. A small force was left to decoy the British. De Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake Bay (late-August). He had a small contingent of troops with him and estanlished a blockade of Cornwallis in Yorktown. The British fleet dispatched a fleet commanded by Sir Thomas Graves to break the French blockade. Whatv he found was a much larger French force than he expected. The resulting Battle of the Capes, also called the Battle of the Chesapeake, was a standoff which left the French blockade in place and Cornwallis at Yorktown (September 5). This was a rare French naval victory. Graves returned to New York to assemble a larger fleet. The Continental Army passed through Philadelphia (Septenmber 2-4). Washington learned of the arrival of DeGrasse's fleet (September 5). DeGrasse landed his infantry force which joined the Continental southern army. The empty transports were sent to ferry the Continentals and French and their heavy equipment down the Chesapeake Bay. Substantial Continental and French forces reached the Yorktown Peninsula (Septenver 26). Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown (September 28). Cut off by the French fleet, Cornwallis' army was then defeated in a classic siege strategy by Washington's Continentals supported by the French Army. The French provided the technical advise in siege warfare. The last redoubt (number 10) defending the British position was taken by a force commanded by Alexander Hamilton. Washington was now able to have his artillery shell the British who fell back into Yorktown from three directions. A desperate British effort to destroy the American abnd French artillery positiions had minimal effect (October 15). The British attempted to escape by crossing the York River, but this also failed. As the Allied artillery bombardment intensified, Cornwallis after a conference with is officers decided to surrender. A lone drummer boy followed by a British officer with a white flag appeared at the British lines (October 17). The Articles of Capitulation were signed (October 19). Two days latter a large British relief fleet sailed from New York (October 21). The British had lost another field army which meant the end of the war, The operations in America had come at enormous cost. Parliament had had enough. The fighting was essentially over. A peace treaty was not signed until 2 years later (1783).

Sources

Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (Knopf: 2002), 185p.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004), 564p.

Green, James A. William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (Garrett and Massie: Richmond, Virginia, 1941), 536p.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. Benedict Arnold in the Compny of Heroes (2013), 312p.

Logusz, Michael. With Musket and Tomahawk Vol. I: 'The Sratoga Camppaign and the Wilderness War of 1777' (2012).

McBurney, Christian M. The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French-American Operation (2011), 400p.

Nelson, James L. George Washington's Great Gamble and the Sea Battle that Won the American Revolution.

Philipps, Kevin. 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (2012), 656p.

Thomas, Evan. John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (Simon & Schuster, 2003), 383p.






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Created: February 16, 2004
Last updated: 4:46 PM 3/19/2014