Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 April 2019

American independence war

The Oxford Companion to Military History

Toby McLeod,

Richard Holmes

American independence war (1775–83). 

By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, British fortunes in North America had reached their zenith. All threat of French intervention had been removed from the American colonies, which enjoyed considerable wealth and freedom from external interference in local affairs. Yet within fifteen years bloody revolution would shatter the calm of this prosperous land.

The American population grew rapidly, from about 500,000 in 1713 to 4 million in 1775. This new people, many of them of non-Anglo-Saxon origin, felt stronger ties to their local area than to the distant authority of the crown. Increasingly, the restrictions and controls imposed from London were seen as irrelevant and onerous. Furthermore, the Seven Years War had cost huge sums of money, and it was felt by London that the colonists themselves should bear the brunt of the cost of the American garrison of 8,000 British soldiers. In 1764 Chancellor Greville levied a Sugar Tax on molasses brought into the thirteen colonies from outside the British empire, in order to pay for American defence. However, this duty proved inadequate, and in 1764 the additional Stamp Act was passed, which levied a duty on all legal transactions and newspapers. In 1766, nine colonies sent representatives to debate the measure. They resolved not to accept any tax imposed without prior consultation. Riots soon flared up and tax-collectors were attacked. These measures were repealed, but soon financial pressure led to a tax on the import of paper, paint, glass, and tea, all of which was bound to be unacceptable to the colonists, who now found themselves put in the position of rejecting British sovereignty outright. Thus it was that in 1770, the unpopularity of British methods led to violent street disturbances, and troops fired on a rioting mob, killing five—the ‘Boston Massacre’. In 1772, the revenue cutter Gaspée was wrecked by Rhode Islanders, and in 1773 the ‘Boston Tea Party’ saw British-monopolized tea thrown into the harbour in a gesture of contempt for the taxation system. As a result, Boston was closed to shipping, and generous trade concessions were given to the newly integrated French Canadians in Quebec.

In April 1775 the British C-in-C, Gen Thomas Gage, mounted a sortie to seize a stockpile of arms and powder at Concord, promptly became involved in a running fight, and, in retreating to Boston, suffered severe losses at Lexington. The affair quickly escalated and colonial militia began to entrench themselves enthusiastically around Boston Harbour, overlooking the British garrison. In June Gage's newly arrived replacement, Sir William Howe, launched a successful frontal assault against the American earthworks on Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill, which cost the British over 1,000 casualties, 40 per cent of the attacking force, and was a serious blow to their pride, morale, and capability for offensive operations.

In June 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Washington, a wealthy Virginian planter with experience in the colonial militia, as its C-in-C. In autumn 1775, the British found themselves under pressure on all fronts. The Boston garrison was hemmed in, and American patriots had also seized the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga, threatening the Canadian urban centres of Montreal and Quebec. In the southern colonies Sir Henry Clinton attempted a coup de main in May at Charleston, but was bloodily repulsed, losing a ship and many men in an abortive artillery duel with shore batteries at Fort Moultrie. Meanwhile, Howe had brought 9,000 reinforcements from England to Boston, but his supply ships failed to arrive, and by early spring of 1776, his situation began to look desperate. The British had no choice now but to evacuate Boston, and this they did, making for Halifax, Nova Scotia, in March.

British strategy now came to centre on the Hudson river and the Canada–New York axis, in an effort to advance from Canada to capture New York, thus splitting Pennsylvania and the southern colonies from New England and New York. It was hoped that many Loyalists would rally to the crown in upstate New York, and that the riverine transport system would ease supply and communication.

But the British proceeded at a snail's pace and lacked any unifying direction, confused as they were by contradictory instructions, arriving at a time lag of three months from London. Meanwhile Howe's army was rapidly starving in Nova Scotia, where it was delayed until June 1776 waiting for provisions. Once victualled, the fleet set out for Staten Island, where it deposited the army. In August the Brigade of Guards arrived, accompanied by a Hessian force and Clinton's sorry refugees from Charleston. Howe felt ready to launch his offensive. He was ably supported by his brother, Richard, commanding the fleet, and had a force of 25,000 mainly crack troops.

The war of American IndependenceClick to view larger

The war of American Independence.

After a token resistance, American forces abandoned New York, retreating northwards. Howe took the city, but had failed to deal a knockout blow to the rebels. A month later he mounted another amphibious assault against the American positions north of New York, on the Harlem Heights. The patriots were beaten, and Fort Washington captured, but the Americans were not cowed by these setbacks, and scurried back to White Plains. The American cause now seemed to be in serious decline. However, Washington advanced across the Delaware, surprising a Hessian detachment at Trenton on Boxing Day 1776. This developed into a general engagement between the forces of Cornwallis and Washington on New Year's Eve, and the Americans were bundled back to Princeton where the British were checked, and in consequence abandoned New Jersey.

Lt Gen John Burgoyne was appointed to command the Canadian offensive. He was a flamboyant and charismatic leader, but he was also ambitious and headstrong, and this proved to be his undoing. Howe, meanwhile, was concentrating on a push towards Philadelphia, the congressional capital, and it was unclear how the two commanders would be able to co-ordinate their operations effectively. In the event Howe did not land at the mouth of the Delaware, but sailed instead to the head of Chesapeake Bay, ending up no nearer to Philadelphia than where he had started from. After a month at sea, his army was in bad shape, whereas Washington was ready and waiting. Nevertheless at Brandywine Creek, the Americans proved unable to resist a bayonet charge, combined with a subtle flanking manoeuvre. However, the British were worn out by their march from the sea, and a hard fight, and could only look on as the Americans recoiled in abject panic. By 25 September, Howe had occupied Philadelphia. On 4 October Washington launched another surprise attack, at Germantown, but a confused, running battle proved inconclusive. The year 1777 ended with Howe penned in at Philadelphia, while further away to the north, events of far greater import had taken place.

In late June 1777, Burgoyne, with a force of 9,500, captured Ticonderoga, pressing southwards to Hubbardton and Fort Edward on the Hudson. Lost in the back country and after a string of reverses, the British came under mounting American pressure at Freeman's Farm, on 7 October, losing 700 casualties. They withdrew under punishing American assaults until on 14 October Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates at Saratoga: only 1,500 of his remaining force were to survive a captivity that lasted until 1782. Burgoyne was released on parole, and returned to London to attempt to vindicate himself.

Despite this signal victory, the congressional forces remained in disarray. Gates and Washington feuded constantly with Congress, and the Continental Army endured great hardship during a severe winter at Valley Forge outside British-occupied Philadelphia. But hungry eyes in Europe looked on intently. France now resolved to enter the war on the side of the colonists. The war had changed from civil insurrection to a world war which would engulf the West Indies, Europe, and India. To prevent a separate peace treaty, France recognized the nationhood of the USA in December 1777. Spain joined the war as France's ally in June 1779. The French and Spanish fleets were poorly co-ordinated and much Spanish attention was diverted by the siege of Gibraltar, and even the 1780–1 campaigns in Florida failed to divert any substantial British forces away from the main theatre of operations. As the war dragged on, the Dutch took up arms on behalf of the Americans, although distracted by their own problems, and eventually in 1780 Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Two Sicilies formed the League of Armed Neutrality against British attempts to seize and search shipping suspected of supplying the American war effort. By the spring of 1778, Lord North, the British premier, found himself embroiled in a world war, and had to contend with a domestic opposition which regarded American war aims as eminently reasonable.

In the winter of 1777–8, Howe remained supine in Philadelphia until replaced by Sir Henry Clinton in May. Clinton promptly withdrew from Philadelphia to New York, where he planned to disperse his forces to the West Indies, Florida, and Halifax, retaining New York itself as a base for naval and amphibious operations. In contrast, the French alliance had strengthened patriot morale, and Washington felt confident enough to launch an assault on Clinton's rearguard at Monmouth, as the British retreated overland to New York. The Americans under Charles Lee launched an attack with 4,000 disciplined regulars, but were repulsed, as Clinton executed a masterly withdrawal. Washington himself had to intervene to prevent the flight of his army in the face of determined British counter-attacks.

During the winter of 1778–9, the French fleet regrouped in the West Indies and the war continued in raids and skirmishes. The Americans had entertained high hopes from French intervention, but initially these had proved to be misplaced, as little had been achieved by the alliance in 1778. Furthermore, a force of 3,000 British, aided by the Florida garrison, recaptured Georgia in February. In August 1779, in response to a request from the governor of South Carolina, the French Adm d'Estaing reappeared, having successfully completed his operations in the West Indies. He immediately laid siege to Savannah, and launched an abortive storming, in which he was wounded, and at once departed for France. It was a discouraging move. Washington was still hampered by lack of war finance, and so far the French intervention had proved indecisive. Runaway inflation was crippling the American war effort, and morale among the population had reached a low ebb: there seemed to be no way forward.

In February 1780 Clinton landed 8,000 troops in the southern theatre, with the objective of capturing Charleston as a base of operations. From the outset, the Americans were heavily outnumbered, and surrendered 5,000 men there in May. Opposition in South Carolina crumbled, and the way was open for a strike to the north, where Rochambeau, with a sizeable French force was threatening New York. Clinton duly returned north, nominating Lord Cornwallis as his successor in the south. Cornwallis hoped that many Loyalists would rally to the British cause, but in the event this support proved unreliable. Congress, for its part, renewed the effort against the British in the south. Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, was sent to the army and set about engaging the British without delay. At Camden, on 16 August 1780, the Americans suffered one of the worst defeats of the war: Gates himself fled. As Cornwallis moved into North Carolina in September 1780, his capable subordinate Ferguson, inventor of an early breech-loading rifle which bears his name, was ambushed and killed at King's Mountain, losing 1,000 men. This provided a major boost to American morale, and the British retired to Winnsborough under continuous attack.

Cornwallis was reinforced in January 1781, and he could draw on a force of 4,000 tough and disciplined local supporters—‘Tories’—and regulars. For their part, the Americans were invigorated by the appointment of Nathanael Greene as overall commander in the south, assisted by ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee and the veteran Pennsylvania commander Daniel Morgan. Cornwallis was forced to protect his extended posts from Greene's pinprick attacks. Tarleton's detached corps was caught at Cowpens on 17 January and almost annihilated. Cornwallis swiftly turned on the Americans, but Greene retired into the marshes and waterways of North Carolina, followed by the British who were plagued by sickness, desertion, lack of supplies, and harassing attacks. By the time it had reached Virginia, Cornwallis's army was in such poor condition that he was obliged to withdraw towards Hillsboro, pausing at Guilford Courthouse to regroup. Seeing Greene close at hand with a substantial force, Cornwallis seized the opportunity to attack. Despite a magnificent and hard-fought victory, Cornwallis could not exploit his advantage, and was forced to march down the Cape Fear river to Wilmington for much-needed rest.

In 1781 Clinton prepared an expedition to the Chesapeake in support of Cornwallis, to be commanded by Arnold. The British landed, occupied Portsmouth, and resisted all attempts to dislodge them. The patriot cause seemed all but lost, and the French were horrified by the apparent weakness of their allies. Inflation and profiteering were turning the population against the patriot cause, and continued inaction only served to advance British interests. In May 1781 Cornwallis and Arnold united their forces near Richmond. Clinton wished to establish a safe anchorage, and instructed Cornwallis to fortify Yorktown on Chesapeake Bay to command the sea approaches. Rochambeau appealed to Adm de Grasse to bring his fleet to the Chesapeake, while Washington moved 7,000 French and American regulars to Yorktown, soon to be reinforced by de Grasse with 28 ships of the line and 4,000 more troops. In September Hood attempted to drive off the French fleet with 19 ships of the line, but his force was badly mauled in the battle of Chesapeake Bay and pulled back to New York, leaving 6,000 British facing 16,000 French and continental troops when the siege of Yorktown began on 28 September 1781. The following day Cornwallis withdrew from his outer works, and by 9 October he was under heavy and continuous fire, and attempted an evacuation across the river to Gloucester Point, but this was foiled by bad weather. By then, with only 3,000 men fit for duty and artillery ammunition exhausted, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October, four years after Saratoga.

The British command had failed to prevent Washington's move to Virginia or to intercept the French fleet as it left its base at Rhode Island. De Grasse, Washington, and Rochambeau had co-ordinated their efforts in a way hitherto unimaginable. The campaign was a masterpiece that only served to highlight the weakness of the British command. It was a shattering blow, well described by Jeremy Black as ‘the biggest humiliation of British military power until the surrender of Singapore in 1942’. The British participants were aware that something momentous had taken place. As they marched out with the honours of war, their bands played a popular tune called ‘The World turned Upside Down’. When news reached London of the surrender, Lord North cried out ‘Oh God! It is all over’, and the way was clear for the Treaty of Versailles (1783).

The treaty recognized the independence of the USA, and though it left Britain defeated it sacrificed none of her essential interests, and in the years that followed she was able to extend her global reach. On the other hand, the few gains that France had made, like Tobago, could not compensate for the enormous cost of the war to the French exchequer, and this proved to be a decisive factor in the crisis of 1789. The war had old and new aspects. It was an early and important instance of a successful popular revolt, an example not lost on many Frenchmen. Yet its conduct was anything but revolutionary. Although both sides made wide use of light troops, the Americans, like the British, placed heavy reliance on regular infantry fighting in line, and the contribution of the Continental Army—itself shaped by European drillmasters like Steuben—was at least as important as that of Morgan's riflemen or the ‘over the mountain men’ who beat Ferguson at King's Mountain. Conversely, there were times when the British and their Hessian allies were actually more flexible than the Americans, and Cornwallis's victory at Camden deserves to be better remembered. British commanders wrestled with significant disadvantages. Although they enjoyed some popular support (and like so many wars of independence, this contained elements of civil war) it was rarely strong enough for them to be able to glean supplies within America. They remained dependent on sea transport to bring supplies from Britain, and the strength of their field army was constantly eroded by the need to garrison bases threatened by a hostile population. Only by decisive defeat of the Continental Army, followed by the large-scale occupation of territory, could the British hope to win. Before France's entry into the war such a task was difficult, not least because Washington recognized that he could not afford to risk major defeat. After it, it was all but impossible, and the British lost their colonies as much in the waters off the American coast as in the hamlets or backwoods of the hinterland.

Toby McLeod/Richard Holmes


Black, Jeremy, War for America: The Fight for Independence 1775–1783 (Stroud, 1991).Find this resource:

Conway, Stephen, The War of American Independence 1775–1783 (London, 1995).Find this resource:

Hibbert, Christopher, Redcoats and Rebels (London, 1991).Find this resource: